When I began law school at Georgetown, it was the golden era for well-paid corporate legal work. If you put in your three years at a halfway-decent law school and made modest grades, a law firm would hire you at an outrageous salary. It was the norm for lawyers to be making $160,000 their first year out of law school — and that’s before a bonus (which often topped six figures).
During this time, there was cutthroat competition among law firms for talent. Law students would strut from interview to interview with the arrogance that comes with being fought over. Rarely was the focus of the interview on the applicant’s skills; instead, the point was to sell the law firm to the applicant.
When the financial market crashed, so did all the legal work. Law firms were suddenly no longer looking for warm bodies to staff the mountain of deals they had coming in. But they had already committed to hiring a massive workforce. Laying off these people, as many firms did, was a bad move for public relations. So firms began to offer a “public interest option.” In exchange for doing public interest work for a year, with an organization of the new lawyer’s choosing, the firms would pay future associates $60,000-$80,000.
Firms, of course, had to define what they meant by “public interest work.” New associates were told they could do anything they want that would be considered “good” (i.e., short of going to another law firm). They were encouraged to work in the government and in a range of private non-profit groups — from the Heritage Foundation to labor unions — usually working for free because they were getting paid by their law firm.
For many, this wasn’t all that attractive — after all, they were giving up $100,000 and a bonus. Dreams — and expectations — of buying a penthouse and a Mercedes weren’t going to be reachable quite so soon.
But as newly barred lawyers have taken this public interest option, many have found jobs they like and enjoy. They picked up some ethical sense in school and enjoy doing work that connects with their values. They sympathize with their classmates who ended up at firms and are working long hours doing work they dislike, but they don’t want their jobs. They calculate how much they are making per hour, and find that they are better paid — at least at first — than those at firms.
Law firms wanted a reserve workforce committed to them to be on call and ready to go should the market pick back up. What they may be getting, however, is quite different. A lot of these associates are trying to find a way to stay in their public interests jobs, or at least a related field, and may have given up on law firm work forever.
These new lawyers have found that their new jobs are more fulfilling and more interesting, and — more importantly — they’ve seen that they can live on a smaller salary. As one of my classmates put it, “Add up the hours I worked this week and add up the hours my friends at law firms worked. Divide our salaries by the amount of hours and you’ll see — I’m rich.”
Moreover, often “public interest” is widely defined. Some of these lawyers find themselves in jobs with for-profit organizations in areas of the law they really enjoy. There, they are doing substantive legal work, not poring over documents late into the night like their friends at law firms.
These firms may have given associates a sweet deal in order to retain top talent; but that deal may be backfiring as more and more of those associates leave the firm for good.
There is a sense among this class of lawyers that their law firms don’t care if they come back or not. Suddenly, without law firms competing with one another to shower new associates with perks, they have lost their appeal.
In the end, to some a Lamborghini will always be worth what it truly costs. And the more people that choose not to go to law firms, the more law firms will some day have to compete over the same pool of people. But for now, a light is dawning in the eyes of lawyers — the law is not about “how much.” It is also about “how.”