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by Vault Law Editors | February 13, 2009

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This week, The American Lawyer’s Aric Press offers a portrait of “the coming law firm hiring crisis,” and the picture ain’t pretty. In the background lies “the current Conventional Wisdom”:

 

At law firms work (and profits) are down, attrition is far below average, law school graduates hired in an optimistic time are about to join firms awash in anxiety, and the conveyor belt that will bring still more eager and talented young lawyers aboard is about to start up again.

This does not seem to be a sustainable situation. If it's not it will, at a minimum, force law firms to make a harsh choice between the lawyers they already have on staff and the ones they're about to welcome.

 

In the foreground, Press’s predictions include:

  • Lower starting salaries. People have been saying for years that first-year associates are overpaid, but law firms have felt locked into a competitive pricing structure; now, some firms might opt to change that paradigm. As Press observes, “If the market—and not weird lemming-style management—drove the salaries up, then presumably the market should drive them down.”
  • Reduced salaries across the board. We’ve just seen the first major law firm take this step; the likelihood is WolfBlock will not be the last.
  • Elimination of the lock-step system. Reduced revenues might prompt more firms to move away from the traditional lock-step system to a performance-based scheme that rewards achievement rather than seniority.
  • Delayed start dates for new associates. If there’s no work come September, rather than bringing in more lawyers who will have little to do, offer incoming associates alternatives—e.g., “stipends for extended vacations, pro bono service and advanced course work, anything to build loyalty—and keep them out of the office.”
  • Reduced summer classes. Smaller summer classes means fewer offers means fewer incoming associates means fewer underemployed lawyers. And just perhaps, Press suggests, the new economic climate “will gently move firms toward the revolutionary idea of hiring new associates out of graduating classes when they might actually know how many they need.
  • More layoffs—with partners next in line for the axe.

In Press’s vision of the future, the silver lining on the looming storm cloud is that “maybe the crisis will encourage some candid conversation about past practices and the shedding of habits that no longer make much sense.”

- posted by vera

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