David Hechler at Corporate Counsel reports that 20-25% of current attorneys want out of the business. The other 75-80% are unemployed and want in.
The massive law firm layoffs were not merely a result of decreased work, that’s only half of the story. Law firms hire knowing that they suffer from fairly high attrition rates. In a good year, when there are jobs in finance, consulting, and other lawyer-friendly industries, a firm may see 10-15% of its attorneys jump ship. So, they hire knowing that they’ll lose people along the way. But, then when the economy tanks and no one can leave their law firm, the firm finds itself over staffed. Even if work remained at the same level, you have too many people and layoffs are still necessary.
So, then the axe falls. And, while layoffs are not strictly merit based, there’s no denying that merit has some role. The superstar associates aren’t going to get cut. It’s somewhat merit based, but not entirely, since the whole thing is comparative. Law school grades are also merit based, and someone’s always at the bottom of the curve. But, you’d be wrong in thinking the 10-25th percentile at University of Chicago or Northwestern were idiots. The people who were laid off were not necessarily weak links, simply the weakest links.
But, what many law firms may not have considered is who jumps ship in a good economy. The smartest, hardest working associates, building up the most experience and connections are the ones who have the easiest time leaving the firm. They’re the core of the people who bail out. So, law firms that laid off associates likely laid off the people who would have stayed at the firm their entire career, and kept people who would have left.
Guess what’s going to happen now that the finance market is starting to recover.
I feel sorry for the people who were in the middle of the pack, didn’t get cut but might not be able to find a better job. They’re going to be stuck with workloads that should be handled by twice as many attorneys, and their bosses aren’t going to be quick to bring on extra help. Lawyers are risk adverse, and so they will be slow in hiring. And, laid off attorneys aren’t gaining experience, so there isn’t going to be an abundance of midlevel associates to hire anyways.
Basically, law firms just really screwed themselves, and their remaining associates. So…yeah, na-na na-boo-boo, stick your head in doo-doo.