Of all the occupational golden ages to come and go in the twentieth century—for doctors, journalists, ad-men, autoworkers—none lasted
longer, felt cushier, and was all in all more golden than the reign of the law partner.
There was the generous salary, the esteem of one’s neighbors, work that was more intellectual than purely commercial. Since clients of white-shoe firms typically knocked on their doors and stayed put for decades—one lawyer told me his ex-firm had a committee to decide which clients to accept—the partner rarely had to hustle for business. He could focus his energy on the legal pursuits that excited his analytical mind.
Above all, there was stability. The firms practiced a benevolent paternalism. They paid for partners to join lunch and dinner clubs and
loaned them money to buy houses. When a lawyer had a drinking problem, the firm sent him off for treatment at its own expense. Layoffs were unheard of.
Perhaps more importantly, the security of the legal
profession lodged itself inside our cultural imagination. For generations, the law functioned as a kind of psychological safety net for the ambitious and upwardly mobile. If you wanted to be a writer or an actor or a businessman, you could rest assured that law school would be there if your plans fell through. However much you’d maxed out your credit card, however late you were on your rent, you were never more than an admissions test and six semesters away from upper-middle-class
“Stable” is not the way anyone would describe a legal career today. In the past decade, twelve major firms with more than 1,000
partners between them have collapsed entirely. The surviving lawyers live in fear of suffering a similar fate, driving them to ever-more humiliating lengths to edge out rivals for business. “They were cold-calling,” says the lawyer whose firm once turned down no-name clients. And the
competition isn’t just external. Partners routinely make pitches behind the backs of colleagues with ties to a client. They hoard work for themselves even when it requires the expertise of a fellow partner. They seize credit for business that younger colleagues bring in.
And then there are the indignities inflicted on new lawyers, known as associates. The odds are increasingly long that a recent law-school grad will find a job. Five years ago, during a recession, American law
schools produced 43,600 graduates and 75 percent had positions as lawyers within nine months. Last year, the numbers were 46,500 and 64 percent. In addition to the emotional toll unemployment exacts, it is often financially ruinous. The average law student graduates $100,000 in debt. ...
There are currently between 150 and 250 firms in the United States that can claim membership in the club known as Big Law, the group of historically profitable firms that cater to the country’s largest corporations. The overwhelming majority of these still operate according to a business model that assumes, at least implicitly, that clients will insist upon the best legal talent instead of the best bargain for legal talent. That assumption has become rickety. Within the next decade or so, according to one common hypothesis, there will be at most 20 to 25 firms that can operate this way—the firms whose clients have so many billions of dollars riding on their legal work that they can truly spend without limit. The other 200 firms will have to reinvent themselves or disappear.
So far, the transition has not been smooth. In fact, the more you talk to partners and associates at major law firms these days, the more it feels like some grand psychological experiment involving rats in a cage
with too few crumbs.