Elite schools, unhappy lawyers?

The American Lawyer recently reported the results of a study titled After the JD, conducted on behalf of the American Bar Foundation.  The study, which tracked 5000 lawyers who began practicing in 2000, found that “new lawyers working for firms of more than 250 lawyers are less satisfied with their jobs than their counterparts in smaller firms,” and that  “[g]raduates of the most selective schools are the least satisfied with their jobs at large firms, while graduates of less selective schools are relatively more satisfied.”  The authors explain the disparate levels of satisfaction on the basis that graduates of elite schools are “groomed to expect success” whereas lower-tier graduates are more likely to view a job at a large firm as “a coveted reward for hard work . . . not to be squandered.”

Of course, large firms tend to recruit primarily from top law schools, and the authors address the implications of their findings on future hiring opportunities, suggesting that large firms hire more graduates of non-elite schools, improve working conditions, and cut associate pay.  The authors’ conclusion:

[I]f large firms respond to the economic crisis by substantially reducing starting salaries, they will be able to more quickly right themselves financially, hire graduates willing to work for less pay, and perhaps even take a little pressure off partners who face the constant pressure of finding work for associates. If firms lower pay but keep the same misery and engineered attrition for associates, they will get a short-term profit boost. But if lower pay also means a better lifestyle, more instruction and responsibility, and better evaluation, firms can lay the groundwork for success well beyond the end of the current recession.

The full article is worth reading.  Personally, I’m skeptical about seeing sweeping changes along the lines proposed… But I’ll be curious to see whether some aspects (such as further cuts in associate pay in exchange for an “improved” lifestyle for associates) may be implemented.  While the authors have a point that “[t]he general restructuring that takes place in a changing economic landscape creates room for organizational innovation,” large firms’ response to the recent economic challenges (and the fracture lines that culminated in the business crash) suggests that organizational innovation is not necessarily the strong point for the bulk of firms in this category.

Bad news in the legal job market…

Anyone who hasn’t been living underneath a rock for the last few months is aware that the legal market is down for new hires and that law firms are cutting lawyers.  Proof?  The lateral market is “officially flooded,” and legal recruiters and law students are being hit hard.  Where’s the good news?  Some IP firms are hiring, and lawyers are hoping that new regulations (and billable work) will spring from the Obama administration.  Oh, and helpful articles suggest signs that perhaps you’re about to be laid off, so perhaps you can avoid the shock and get a head start on updating your resume.

Aspirin, anyone?  Or antacid?

What’s a bright lawyer to do under these circumstances?  Here are my top 3 suggestions.

1.  Focus on building relationships.  Building relationships both inside and outside your firm will help in several directions.  You’ll be known and you’ll build a reputation, and you may put yourself in a position to receive assignments you might not otherwise.  Because relationships are the key to rainmaking, you’ll be laying groundwork there.  And you’ll develop your network, which you’ll almost certainly need at some point.

2.  Build your skills, especially in business development.  If you’re slow now at work, take the opportunity to invest in yourself.  Attend CLE programs or read up on your area of practice, your clients’ industries, and business generally.  Write articles.  Seek out opportunities for business development training.  Get a mentor and get personalized advice on what you should be doing, given your level of seniority, your area of practice, your goals, etc.  While brief slowdowns are great for taking vacation, this slowdown is a different animal and should be taken as an opportunity to develop yourself.

3.  Keep your resume up-to-date.  We should all do this at all times, because there’s no telling when that “perfect opportunity” will arise.  Realistically, we’re usually caught up in other pursuits and have to scramble when it’s time to submit a resume.  In this environment, although many more lawyers will keep their jobs than be laid off, it’s wise to have a resume ready to go.

For most lawyers, I’d put rainmaking training and activities at the top of the list right now.  Relationship-building and reputation enhancement takes time, and regardless of whether you’re a first-year who’s never even thought about how to bring in business or you’re a sixth-year wondering if your skills will be adequate to permit you to make partner, rainmaking is a key skill you should begin working on NOW.