[Dave Heal's] Observations & Reports

9 to 5? What a Way to Make a Livin’

Sometime in the spring of 2007, just before I decided to enroll at Michigan, I read about “Building a Better Legal Profession,” a new group composed of Stanford Law students devoted to, well, doing that thing in their name.  What a great idea, I thought; who doesn’t want better things?  Similar bursts of creative thinking did wonders for the mousetrap!  So these folks proceeded to put together a much-ballyhooed report cataloguing the mostly self-evident evils of BigLaw and otherwise communicating their earnest desire for more work/life balance and co-workers with varied skin color.  And while many of their goals are laudable, if you read the manifestos they’ve sprinkled around the web it becomes quite clear that these students are engaged in what has to be called, only slightly uncharitably, a T-20 circle jerk.  Essentially, they want the option of doing less work for less money and they want this opportunity at the country’s most prestigious firms (manifesto #1 was sent to the AmLaw 100) even though they claim that “[i]t’s not about finding the most prestigious place with the highest salary.”  It would be a stretch of only the physical sciences to say that the sense of entitlement oozes out of these papers.

Of course, now that we’re all cattle-class passengers on the silver gleaming death machine known as the Law School Graduating Classes of 2010-2012 (aka Those Students Considerably Less Idiotic but More Hopelessly Screwed Than the Class of 2013), it’s tough to say precisely what the intrepid students of BBLP hath wrought.  They barely had any chance at all to work their magic before the bottom of the legal market fell out and the door of opportunity flew out the window.  That’s right, the door flew out the window; that’s how bad things are out there.  Continue to imagine, if you will indulge the onslaught of metaphors, the atmosphere on this plane.  The engines have stalled, the nose is pitched sharply downward, and an unrepentant Kevin Smith is hurtling past the bulkhead as a human projectile, endangering the lives of countless passengers.  Which is to say, the current environment is such that it doesn’t seem likely that law students are going to be particularly receptive to the idea that they have any market power at all, let alone the ability to wield it for the benefit of the rest of the profession.

And yet, just last spring, students at such “premier law schools” as Yale, Harvard, Stanford and Columbia (quoting a National Lawyer piece on the group) gathered en masse (50 people total, actually) at the BBLP’s hilariously named  “National Conference of Student Leaders” to talk about the so-called movement.  While the group’s goals ostensibly include increased diversity and the desire for a positively robust pro bono program, the main rallying cry is about work/life balance.  In late 2007, the BBLP blog published the results of a survey claiming that summer associates were willing to take less money for fewer hours.  “Firms, take note,” they said, with no small measure of confidence that somebody was listening.  And sure, this was a few months before the start of the massive BigLaw layoffs in early 2008, so a certain small amount of the solipsism here is forgivable.  Sometimes it can be difficult to realize how good you have things.

But this idea that law students and new associates are going to drive any of the much-needed change in BigLaw culture is absurd.  This complete detachment from the realities of the working world is a symptom of the total lack of work experience among law students.  One of the many reasons you don’t see a comparable group of Business School students threatening to march on Goldman Sachs is that they found out from time spent working that you usually can’t have your cake and eat it too.  If you want to do interesting work and leave at 5pm, you’re going to have to poke around a bit to find that job, and it’s not going to be with an AmLaw 100 firm as a first-year associate.

Happily, these magical bastions of work/life balance and lower starting salary already exist.  They’re the smaller firms in smaller cities with less demanding clients.  Or they’re in any number of other industries that don’t involve having clients at all.  Newsflash, folks: you’re in the service industry! If Goldman Sachs wants that prospectus combed over for the 15th time, you (or some other overpaid associate) are going to do it, because Goldman is paying a lot of money for the privilege of telling you what to do.

Now, the billable hour is undoubtedly a hideous way to do business.  But its death is going to be brought about by clients that demand an end to astronomical bills for the half-awake efforts of an army of entitled know-nothings.  Or maybe firms are going to realize that the billable hour creates terrible incentives for their own employees.  But the billable hour is not going to go away on the strength of arguments about the inhumane treatment of associates.  And until firms are no longer constrained by the huge per-employee overhead costs, they’re going to be completely unwilling to even countenance the idea of hiring 1.5 times as many people to do the same amount of work.  Your fantasies of working from home and shoveling fistfuls of Count Chocula into your mouth while you complete exactly 8 hours of due diligence are going to have to wait a while longer.

I applaud the efforts of the BBLP to collect and provide information that was previously hidden away on NALP’s byzantine website.  And I think that students should certainly consider diversity and a firm’s demonstrated commitment to pro bono service when deciding where to go work after law school.  But let’s not kid ourselves about the differences between most of the top firms.  There are certainly exceptions, but most of the firms are functionally indistinguishable, and they’re only going to change in the ways the BBLP wants when both parties’ interests align.  And so long as big firms continue to want to make large amounts of money by doing large amounts of work, a lot of that work is going to get done by recent graduates.  If law students want to love their job and love it exclusively between 9am and 5pm, they need to look outside BigLaw for that experience.