Lawyer, Up!

America needs more lawyers like New Orleans needs more water and yet, year after year, law schools good and bad churn out more baby attorneys than the legal industry can digest. There is far more supply than demand and so a great many young lawyers find themselves struggling after spending, say $100,000 or so, on a law school education. By the way, nothing you learn in law school prepares you to take the bar exam and nothing you have to learn for the bar exam prepares you to practice law-- but that's another story.

Anyway, if you open up today's New York Times you'll read this. The going rate for first-year attorneys in New York City has risen to $145,000/year excluding bonuses. The firms say they need to offer that kind of lettuce to attract the best law school candidates but I am here to tell you that coming out of law school a student who earns $150,000/year is not necessarily twice as smart or creative or honorable as the law school student who can earn $75,000. It's madness and it impacts the attorneys' fees and costs and clients have to pay for the services. And, by the way, take a close look at that picture the Times offers to accompany the story. Don't you just want to throttle those smarmy kids?

By Andrew Cohen |  September 1, 2006; 9:00 AM ET
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Here in the Boston area back in 1954, the two biggest law firms each had less than 15 lawyers and few associates. So a new attorney did not have any of the pickings available today and would work for another attorney for short money and/or experience or strike out (in the entrepreneurial sense) on his own, with small pickings here and there. Your comparison of abilities of the $150,000 new lawyer with the $75,000 lawyer is not quite complete: neither may be worth anywhere near the salary as she learns on the job at the firm's clients' expense, which may include the time of seasoned attorneys in the firm in supervising (duplicating?) the novice. Back in 1954 most of us scratched around establishing a practice, some of us successfully, and with great satisfaction as we actually dealt directly with clients. These novices earning big bucks may think they are actually worth their salaries because they may work long (but not necessarily productive) hours. God save the clients!

Posted by: Shag from Brookline | September 1, 2006 09:55 AM

"And, by the way, take a close look at that picture the Times offers to accompany the story. Don't you just want to throttle those smarmy kids?"

What a weird sentiment. What do you think you know about those 4 individuals based solely on a picture staged by a NY Times photographer? They're not likely the ones who came up with the camera angle, the framing, the idea that one of them should be looking at a blackberry, or frankly even the idea of a picture in the first place -- most likely it was some marketing person at the firm who asked them to do a photo op requested by the Times.

What foundation do you have for being so snarky and judgmental about 4 people you don't know on the basis of a photo alone?

Posted by: Eh? | September 1, 2006 09:57 AM

Andrew is absolutely correct. Child-lawyers know absolutely nothing, and it is not fun dealing with child-lawyers who know nothing and yet have no humility. In all the years I have been practicing, I had one law clerk who was actually helpful. At this stage in my practice, I need an apprentice lawyer at my side like I need a hole in the head. I've seen those ginned-up bills from big firms, where they've billed thousands of dollars for a baby lawyer to research what was otherwise a well-known and obvious proposition of law. And big-firm civil lawyers are, generally, not at all civil, so that's a great training ground for kids. Even my civil lawyer friends think civil lawyers are creeps. I stay in the criminal postconviction arena as much as I can. Many, many civil lawyers seem to think that they are being productive if they are attacking or insulting me, my client, or whatever the target du jour is . . . tick tick tick . . . at least in criminal law there is something called a speedy trial . . . civil lawyers seem to drag things out like they are going to live for another thousand years . . . tick tick tick . . . as long as the meter is running, they don't care. It is a disgrace. Andrew is absolutely correct. People coming out of law school know nothing about practicing law. Nothing. Unless they have been working in clinical programs that give baby lawyers hands-on experience. Then they know at least a little something.

Posted by: attorneyofrecord | September 1, 2006 07:07 PM

As one of those "smarmy kids," i.e. someone in law school, I have to say that reading attorneys (presumably) characterizing a large group of people from what appears to be thin experience is unsettling.
Of course I'm not going to know as much about law as someone who's practiced 20 years. That's why the firms won't pay me partner money. I didn't ask to be paid that rate. But if that's what firms pay young associates, than that's what they pay; and if they want me to research some issue thoroughly, I'm going to do it, because that's what they pay me for.
I'm not sure why it's so onerous for all of you that companies like to hire large law firms which have a dozen associates to throw at any issue. Is it costing you business? Perhaps you should direct your contempt at the executives who start all this by being willing to pay.
And if you're still alive in 20 years, watch your tail in court; "baby lawyers" grow up.

Posted by: fls2L | September 2, 2006 01:57 PM

See what I mean about kids (or even older people) without humility? That comment about "thin experience" is exactly what I am talking about . . . that and, "if you're still alive in 20 years . . . ." Oy. Yes, experienced lawyers are actually doddering old fools with only a decade or two of experience, hundreds if not thousands of cases under their belts, with at least one foot in the grave. If our 2L poster is any indication, tail watching will be totally unnecessary, now or at any time in the future.

No, 2L, it isn't costing us business that a firm might throw a dozen associates at a problem, especially if it is an obvious problem that any ten-year lawyer should know the answer to right off the top of his/her head. It is a problem for the consumer. They're getting ripped off. Either that, or the costs to the companies hiring these giant firms is being passed along to the consumer. Plus there is that ethical bugaboo about billing clients, even big clients, for totally unnecessary work. Plus big firms waste other lawyers' time with stall tactics, avalanches of discovery that will go nowhere, and other shameless practices.

And then sometimes these dozens of associates, in their zeal to come up with an answer, come up with a totally stupid answer. I saw a pleading cooked up by about ten civil lawyers in a death penalty case they insisted on taking recently, where the client already had competent counsel who they muscled out of the way, where our civil lawyers refer to the gateway issues of exhaustion and procedural default as "ancillary." Even our 2L would have to admit that something that clueless probably deserves an "F."

Finally, to the extent that Cohen is right and firms are hiring smarmy kids, maybe that is the problem - they never grow up. If smarminess gets you a giant paycheck right out of the gate, why change? What incentive is there to change? Which leaves us with oblivious but self-assured lawyers filing clueless pleadings in which personal insults (i.e. schoolyard tactics) replace legal arguments.

Our 2L says he never asked for for such a huge paycheck for whatever it is he/she will have to contribute when he/she graduates next year - I'm sure in at least nine out of ten cases Cohen is right and those paychecks are undeserved.

Posted by: attorneyofrecord | September 2, 2006 04:55 PM

Absolutely spot-on analysis. My depression upon reading the NYT article has lightened a tad knowing that others share my perspective. Now that the real estate industry's commission structure is caving in the face of increased arwareness, one can only hope that the last bastion of "old market' economic absurdity--bloated attorney fees--will soon be subject to similar pressures. However, as every poliician has a law degree, let's not count on it in the foreseeable future.

Posted by: John | September 2, 2006 09:52 PM

Andrew must be suffering from Karr/Ramsey withdrawal or something because he doesn't see the contradiction in arguing in his first paragraph that the supply of lawyers exceeds the demand while pointing out in the second paragraph the high salaries law graduates are commanding.

No, a law school graduate who earns $150k is not necessarily twice as smart as a law school graduate who earns $75k. While we are revealing the mysteries of the universe, we should note that there is no direct correlation between actors' salaries and their acting ability.

And, finally, while the photograph is annoying, to be sure, no experienced lawyer would call the kids "smarmy" unless he or she had no idea what the word means and was just casting about randomly for an epithet to throw-out.

Apart from the above, Andrew is absolutely correct.

Posted by: MC | September 3, 2006 06:20 PM

In one of the examples I gave, the potential harm of smug civil lawyers, young and old, stepping into the criminal arena at a very late postconviction stage, where many wiser angels fear to tread, is potentially the death of the client. While this client has already been sentenced to death and may die even with competent counsel, a giant civil firm stepping into the federal circuit court of appeals and filing something completely stupid, while foregoing the exhausted claims that are still left to pursue, is unconscionable. Smugly ignoring lawyers who actually know the law in that area, including one who participated in oral argument in the Supreme Court in the pivotal case the firm is relying on, is hubris at its very worst. While it may be impressive to put on the pro bono page on the website, or a valuable learning tool for the overpaid baby lawyers, it is such a stunning perversion of a pro bono mission. Ego uber alles.

Posted by: attorneyofrecord | September 4, 2006 01:09 PM

I want to add one more comment - there is a disturbing new trend in the death penalty arena. Years ago, a movement started to secure counsel for death-sentenced defendants with incompetent counsel or no counsel. However, since these cases attract so much media attention and are now, in a sense, glamorous, it is sometimes the case that big firms are pushing competent counsel out of the way, at stages in the case when their mighty resources will do the client no particular good. Even worse, the big firms are casting aspersions on the counsel they are pushing out of the case, to justify their actions. It is a very nasty situation that is detrimental to the client and to the lawyers who actually do know what they are doing. But, hey, if it increases the chances that some chunky big-firm lawyer (who will never get closer to attaining a "six-pack" than the Bud light in his fridge), will be played by hunky Brad Pitt in the movie version, what the hell.

Posted by: attorneyofrecord | September 4, 2006 01:40 PM

Legal reform groups are sprouting up around the country in an effort to restore the rule of law. Our group is at www.redressinc.org, but suggest you see also victimsofthesystem.net. Kids in law school don't learn right or wrong, they learn winning and losing, which is why lawyers are at the head of a list of 150 prefessions for suicide. They are not a healthy group of citizens, but they are everywhere to be found in socity. Read "The Litigation Explosion, What Happened When America Unleashed the Lawsuit". Scary.

Posted by: JuliTStarAlexander | September 6, 2006 08:34 PM

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