Living The Dream (Law School, Part 4)

Note: This post is part of our League Symposium on Higher Education in the 21st Century. You can read the introductory post for the Symposium here. To see a list of all posts in the Symposium so far, click here. This is the fourth of five posts I offer about law school.

Congratulations. Notwithstanding everything said by naysayers like me, you got into and then completed law school, passed the exam, obtained a bar number, sworn the oath, and paid your annual bar dues. You’ve become a member of the Guild. Welcome. Be sure to learn the secret gesture of our regard for one another.

If you don’t have a line on a Biglaw job, you may have to face the very uncomfortable truth that your law school has probably been lying to you about your employment prospects. I offer no opinion on whether it’s valid to sue your law school for this or not, although I am outraged about the deception. I do promise that after I’m done painting a rather unhappy picture in this fourth post, I’ll have some constructive ideas and reason for hope in the last.
According to the Fish Wrapper article I linked above the jump, the ABA-accredited law schools which previously were reporting functionally full employment numbers for their graduates right out of law school were counting things like slinging coffee at Starbuck’s as “full-time employment.” For the record: there’s nothing wrong with working at Starbuck’s. Chances are, though, you didn’t go to law school so that you could wear a name badge and make all those pretty patterns in the cappuccino foam.

But if you want a full-time job where actually using your license to practice law and the legal education you’ve received as an integral part of your work (and presumably receive commensurate compensation), and you went to an ABA-accredited school in California, your actual chances of achieving that goal within nine months of graduation vary widely depending on what school you went to:

Boalt Hall (UC Berkeley)80.0
UC Davis (King School of Law)56.4
University of San Diego46.9
Hastings (University of California)46.5
McGeorge (University of the Pacific)43.6
Santa Clara42.9
Loyola Law School (LMU)42.7
California Western University39.3
University of San Francisco34.2
La Verne University32.8
Western State32.2
Thomas Jefferson26.7
Golden Gate22.0
Whittier College17.1

Now, that’s all legal jobs. Biglaw, smallaw, D.A.’s, public defenders, judicial clerkships, in-house, public entity. I’m going to focus almost exclusively from here on out in this post about Biglaw jobs or Biglaw-like jobs. I can’t speak much about what it’s like to be a prosecutor or a public defender because I’ve got little knowledge either of my own or of colleagues to tap into. I can’t tell you much about public employment of any sort, for the same reason. I’ve had good relationships with a couple of Assistant U.S. Attorneys, for instance, but not good enough to get a sense of what their jobs are really like. Do they go home at 5:00 every day? I’ve no idea.

What I do know about are (from friends’ experiences) Biglaw, (from experience) insurance defense, and (also from experience) other similar sorts firms that do civil litigation and typically bill either by the hour or (for plaintiff’s firms) on contingency. This is the steadiest and most plentiful kind of employment out there for recent law graduates and what I believe to be the most well-populated aggregation of career tracks.

And on that collection of career tracks, it’s all about the billing, baby.

If you go into this well-populated field, you will work at least sixty hours a week for the next several years. It will be a moderately uncomfortable experience as you adjust to the sudden change in your accustomed environment, periodically blinking like a cave lizard as you stare in confusion at a distant, bright object suspended in the sky of which you have vague and inexact memories.

Your job is to complete a billing sheet every day. For your first few years of practice, there is really no other criterion upon which your performance will be judged in any substantial way. The quality of your work does not matter (much, and initially). The billing sheet may be generated physically as you write things down on a sheet of paper, or it may be generated electronically on your computer, or some combination thereof.

The line items on your billing sheet are your self-reporting of what you have done with your day. Over time you will learn the special version of English that is used in line items on attorney bills:

R4M114 Cointelpro: Cointelpro, LLC v. PKGM Greer Peatwick. 3.22 hours. BJL. Review and research client file including assessment and analysis of profit and loss report and trial balance sheet prepatory to drafting special interrogatories concerning disputed line items thereon predicated upon Cointelpro’s asserted affirmative defenses to counterclaim filed by PKGM Greer Peatwick.

The first number is the code identifying what bill the matter appears on. Next is the name of the client and case you’re working on. After that, we see that you, the junior associate assigned to the matter (identified by initials), spent three hours and thirteen minutes spent puzzling over the number soup that your client’s incompetent bookkeeper calls “the accounting reports,” and verifying that the drill-down documents which said bookkeeper insists support them actually do so, because there’s no reasonable explanation for where the money is going unless the debits from “ownership equity draws” were coming from the credits for “goodwill” and something told you that’s kind of a problem so maybe you’d better investigate some more to compare what you see in the documents your client gave you to the description of GAAP from the Skousen treatise that no one in law school ever told you would become your new Bible because they were all too busy proofreading the two hundred and forty-two footnotes in an article written by the recently-tenured professor holding the Lucius Q. Philodendron Chair of International Justice Studies about the application of the Privileges and Immunities Clause to preoperative transgender prison inmates, of which your state actually has exactly zero.

This is your life, Biglaw associate. It might be several years until you do anything of substance in court.

Lower-tier firms doing things like construction law or insurance defense will get you out of the library and into court faster in your career. For most people, this is generally thought to be more fun than writing and reading stuff all the time. In my experience working insurance defense, the billable hours accumulate relatively fast in court, because “2.5 prepare for and attend motion for summary judgment” was to me much more enjoyable than “2.5 draft objections to and research substantive responses to special interrogatories, set two, propounded by co-defendant Flybynight Reinsurance Company testing client’s assertions re: section D coverage theories.” Getting to court faster was worth giving up the difference in pay between me and my former classmates who were doing Biglaw.

If you were to accuse me of adopting an attitude of trying to make wine out of sour grapes because I wasn’t making as much money as I had hoped I would be, I would confess that you were probably at least partially right.[1] If you were to say, “I’m different than you, Burt,” I’d concede that may well be the case.

For instance, I’ve done plaintiff’s work before and while the drudgery of hourly billing is not as prominent a feature of that work, the top-notch plaintiff’s firms do typically want their associates to track their time in similar ways, for a variety of reasons. As an added bonus, you get either irregular income flow, or massive debt on lines of credit that takes the joy out of actually winning a big case and getting paid. I really didn’t enjoy that part of it and in between earned fees, my personal credit took a beating. But maybe the irregularity of income flow and access to the kind of credit needed to do that job right are things you don’t have as big a problem with as I do. I can’t tell you what’s going to work out best for you and once you have your ticket punched, it’s a wide world of options — until you get stovepiped, but stovepiping is a danger in a lot of professional careers.

What I can tell you is that the amount of money you make in the first few years of your career is the single biggest influence on the amount of money you will make over the course of your entire career. Lawyers who start out making a lot of money tend to continue to do so whether they break away from big firms or not; so too with lawyers who make moderate amounts of money. If you’re in it for the money, then you need to get on the high end of the curve as soon as you can and stay there as long as you can.

Biglaw firms pay junior associates $100,000 to $200,000 per year, with the variance based on all sorts of different things. Insurance defense or similarly-statused second-tier firms in big cities pay junior associates, oh, let’s call it between $60,000 to $100,000 per year. Public employers’ pay rates are set by law, but are generally similar to or slightly less than second-tier firms. Small firms pay what they can, competitive with this regime.

Availability of benefits like health insurance varies widely. To this day, my wife is astonished to learn that I have never had employee-provided health insurance in my career, but it’s also the truth. I’m told Biglaw firms actually offer benefits. Sometimes. I wouldn’t know.

As a theoretical matter, many firms offer vacations. It is to laugh. They don’t want you to actually take them. These are businesses that think it’s appropriate to charge their clients a quarter a page for sending faxes because each and every unit within that business, including the fax machine, must be monetized and made to generate profit.

Biglaw says it expects 1,600 to 2,000 billable hours per year from its associates. Biglaw lies. The real number is about a third again that much. The numbers for second-tier firms like insurance defense are lower, but again they lie about what they really want from you, again by a factor of about a third.

If you turn in the ostensible required number, that will be greeted with equanimity and you will be rewarded with the structured bonus and you will not advance along the track towards even nonequity partnership and after a few years, you’ll be quietly advised that partnership is not in your future based on your track record, so maybe you want to consider other alternatives.

If you want to get ahead, which is what you must do in order to stay ahead of the income power curve, there are two routes to go: you can be a trapper, or you can be a skinner.

In law school, they kind of trained you in how to be a skinner. You take the work, you apply the law, you use the skills and techniques you’ve acquired in practice, and thus fulfill the objective of practicing law, which is the generation of billable hours. Those billable hours will be multiplied by the hourly rate charged for your services, assembled into a bill, and presented to the client for payment.

To be a trapper, you have to generate business. You must be able to reach out to the sort of person or entity who needs the legal services you offer, sell your firm’s services, and ensure that the critical people pay the bills described above.

A successful several-years long run as an associate along the “skinner track” will eventually produce what is called a “nonequity partnership.” This is basically the same sort of work with minor degrees of ability to express a preference about how the firm is managed and run, coupled with profit-sharing as part of your compensation. A successful run of time as a “trapper” will be rewarded with “equity partnership.” Equity partnership means you are an actual owner of the law firm, entitled to meaningfully participate in its management, and nearly all of your compensation will come in the form of profit-sharing, with the amount of your compensation varying primarily based on the size of the book of business under your command.

I have it on good authority that the magic number is $1,500,000. When you have “trapped” a “book of business” generating one and a half million dollars of billable work per year, you have gone over the top and are a lawyer worth having in the firm. That is the threshold at which equity partnership will be a worthwhile thing for functionally any firm to offer, and the threshold at which you will be attractive to lateral to another firm that may offer you a bigger piece of your own pie. Again, if your book is lower and you’re looking at a second-tier firm the threshold will decline accordingly. (Note that this volume of work is more than any one lawyer can actually do in one year.)

Now, you may think that a million and a half dollars’ worth of billable work every year seems like a lot. Depending on the kind of billing rates your firm charges and the kind of rates your client negotiates, that number could fall anywhere between three to seven thousand hours of attorney time per year. You may be thinking, “Burt, there are not a whole lot of clients out there who can afford to consume that much by way of legal services and who have the need for them.” And that would be right. The kinds of clients that do consume law at that rate are big companies. And while there are a lot of companies that size out there, the population of such companies is finite. The population of individual people meeting those descriptions is finite also.

You can get such a company as a client. All you need to do is have been roommates, fraternity brothers, lovers, or co-worshippers at the same sacrificial altar with that company’s director of risk management back in college. So if you’re in college, pick the right friends now.[2]

But it may turn out that you aren’t quite so fortunate as that. The next best thing to do, and in some ways it may be a better thing to do anyway, is to get multiple clients who have smaller needs and budgets for legal services. If it takes 5,000 attorney hours to get you over the top, then maybe you find five clients who use 1,000 hours of legal services a year. Or ten at 500. Or, even more realistically, twenty at 250. That’s if you charge what is about the prevailing market rate in my area, of three hundred dollars an hour.[3]

Note, though, that staying on top of one client’s affairs and mollifying the ego and the white-hot outrage of one client when the other side makes a trivial modification to a settlement proposal is not all that hard, but juggling twenty clients’ affairs, problems, insurance policies, personnel changes, and of course those periodic outbursts of volcanic fury gets pretty stressful pretty quickly, because no client cares about any of your other clients and they all want you to respond to their concerns at the drop of a hat, while you don’t miss any of the deadlines associated with any of their pending cases or transactions. Meanwhile, you just have to hope that the associate attorneys fresh out of law school you have handling the scut work don’t screw up because you don’t have time to adequately oversee them and the paralegals all seem to have forgotten when to use “court days” or “calendar days” when putting those deadlines into the computers but Client C is on line 4 fuming with yet more frustration, blazing with the intense heat of the fusion reactions occurring at the heart of the sun — huh, there’s that thing again, “the sun,” something which you haven’t seen that all much more than your associates in the past twenty years.

…That’s what you’re going to be doing, Equity Partner. For the rest. Of. Your. Life.

To wrap up in my next post, I’m going to offer some ideas floating around there in the world of practice and academia that this dreary-to-miserable picture I’ve painted in this and the preceding law school posts might somehow be improved.

[1] As I indicate in the next footnote, this may well have never been in the cards for me anyway.

[2] Which means that as a younger person, you were circulating in the sort of social environment where a substantial segment of the population would become executives in large corporations, viz., a population of tangible wealth and privilege. Once again, socioeconomic class becomes caste.

[3] Oh, would that when I charge my client $300 for an hour of my time, that $300 actually wound up in my pocket! You’d be astonished at the overhead that goes in to running a law firm.

Burt LikkoBurt Likko is the pseudonym of an attorney in Southern California. His interests include Constitutional law with a special interest in law relating to the concept of separation of church and state, cooking, good wine, and bad science fiction movies. Follow his sporadic Tweets at @burtlikko, and his Flipboard at Burt Likko.

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26 thoughts on “Living The Dream (Law School, Part 4)

  1. You laid out some of the many reasons that I decided against a career in corporate/big law.

    I already had some experience as a freelance/temp legal proofreader in my mid-20s with Big Law. I saw how generally miserable the associates were and decided against it.

    Still there might be something about the personalities of people who thrive in this environment. Or they simply just really like working all the time. Law does attract a lot of highly-competitive and Type A types.

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    • True. And it may be that someone will read my description, and the myriad of similar ones out there, and say, “Well, what’s wrong with any of that? It sounds great! That’s exactly what I want to do!” And if they are right about themselves then those people should pursue those sorts of careers.

      I suspect that most people for whom Biglaw is a reasonable aspiration would be more likely to say something like, “I’m willing to tolerate that in exchange for the financial and status rewards.” Experience indicates that those sorts wind up either being unhappy with that choice later in life, or changing direction and bailing out of Biglaw after a few years of the ratrace.

      Again, my purpose is to inform decisions with the knowledge and experience of others. If you go down this road, do it with your eyes open to what’s ahead because the price paid for the trip, for some (“most”?) people, can be very high.

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      • It seems to me that the most desired law jobs for law school students were biglaw, being a prosecutor, or a non-profit type job. Very few people in my law school really wanted to go into small law or as I call it “real person” law. I was one of the few people in law school that wanted to practice real person law. I really liked torts and wanted to go to court and do hearings rather than sit around and do transactional work. I love working but I also wanted a bit of an actual life.

        I think most people go for biglaw, being a prosecutor, or non-profit type job because those are seen as conferring more status than real person law. Big law is also seen as more profitiable. It usually is but real person law can be financially advantageous to if you do it right. Plus you don’t have to worry about billable hours in many cases. No immigration lawyer that I know of charges clients in terms of billable hours. Plus having to work all the time saves you from having to have a life.

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  2. I practice immigraiton law for a living. I started working at my job in August 2007. My boss sent me to court on the third week of August. It would have been earlier but there was a judge’s conference after I was hired so there were no hearings for a week.

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    • Good question! Here are some significant differences I’ve noticed:

      1. Preparing for a jury trial in TN involved going to court a week beforehand and getting a list of the names, addresses, and telephone numbers of the jurors who would be called up in the panel. We were trusted to not tamper with these jurors, but we could conduct background investigations on them all before the trial started if we chose. A juror having a personal friendship with a party or an attorney is not necessarily a reason to exclude them. In Cal, it’s a complete shot in the dark and if a juror knows anyone involved even peripherally, it’s generally a challenge for cause (a juror in one case here was excused for cause because his daughter used to be my law clerk five years ago).

      2. In Cal., I want a paper trail of when and where depositions are going to be. Even when the other lawyer and I agree as to where a deposition will take place, we send one another notices to confirm who should be doing what and when. In TN, attorneys went out of their way to indicate that if I sent a deposition notice, it was an insult to them, an indication that I did not trust them to honor their agreement to produce their client at an agreed time.

      3. Both states’ bars had a degree of xenophobia. However, TN’s bar was culturally okay with other attorneys “visiting” from neighboring states but suspicious of non-Southern states. Cal.’s bar does not discriminate against any particular state or region of “visiting” attorneys that I have noted, although none are particularly welcomed.

      4. Where you come from and who is vouching for you mattered more in TN, particularly from a “trapping” perspective.

      5. Missing a deadline in TN was relatively harder to fix and carried more serious consequences than is missing a deadline in Cal.

      6. Cal. has a unified court system: the Superior Court is the only trial-level court, and it is a court of general jurisdiction. TN has a veritable salad of trial-level courts, and not all counties and districts offer the same combination of courts. With that said, a filing in the wrong TN court was not impossible to fix, although it earned patronizing clucks from the clerks.

      7. Opposing counsel in TN breathed a lot less fire at disagreements than did opposing counsel in Cal. That’s not to say that opposing counsel here are all cutthroat assholes and that everyone in TN was polite and genteel. But when sparks flew in Knoxville or Nashville or Johnson City, they were nothing like what happens in LA or SF or SD.

      8. An amusing similarity: A filing clerk’s office window in Bakersfield carries the sign “We don’t care how they do it in Los Angeles.” A filing clerk’s office window in Knoxville carries the sign “We don’t care how they do it in Nashville.”

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  3. Wow.

    I once dated a junior associate at a NYC Biglaw firm. (I have not entirely wonderful things to say about him.) He did not seem happy in his career. Now I have a better idea why. And why he was so often drunk. If I were the sort to have Googled him since (perish the thought), it might even be why he seems to have gone from one firm to another to another in the time since.

    It has amazed me what my various attorneys charge for that I do for free for my patients. (Mainly taking phone calls, answering e-mails and reviewing/completing forms.) And it’s very interesting to see how differently partnership is offered between law and medicine.

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      • LeeEsq speaks truth. In many if not most states, continuing education requirements must include at least an hour during each reporting period of education concerning substance abuse avoidance. Here in California, we have a resource called “The Other Bar” which is aimed specifically at lawyers falling into the death spiral of substance addiction and to which I would point any professional in any state with concerns about the matter. Substance abuse for professionals is no joke — it’s destructive for the addict and the addict’s family no matter what one’s station in life, but a professional can seriously hurt his or her clients on the journey to rock bottom too.

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        • There is a lot of attention paid to substance abuse in medicine, too. One of the things I actually admire about my profession is that it seems to take seriously the obligation to help rather than punish the “impaired” physician, and to try to find both short-term rehab and long-term career restoration as a goal.

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        • The substance abuse is mainly because I think that a lot of lawyers are unhappy with their jobs even if they make the big bucks. You have the un-Godly hours. In real person law, you have clients who could be extraordinarily emotionally draining. Once after a hearing that did not go well, I literally held my clients hand back to the office because I was afraid he was going to hurt himself. In real person law, you are going to do something that resembles psychology and social work at times. You are going to offer comfort and advocacy and talk clients out of making some very bad decisions. Corporations could also drain a lawyer emotionally but they tend not to need the same level of psychological comfort from their attorneys.

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          • My friend “in da know” says… never hire a lawyer who does cocaine. They tend to be assholes, who are deliberately wiring themselves up -constantly-.
            The lawyers on marijuana are /downcycling/ (and, fwiw, appear to be just decent folks).

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    • Your former friend (“boyfriend”? not important) may have switched firms not so much from dislike of the work as to leverage competition for associates for greater compensation. There’s companies that maneuver individual attorneys and sometimes whole blocs of them from firm to firm, negotiating better compensation packages for the transferred attorneys and taking typically a quarter of one year’s salary for each attorney as their fee. You may recall a prominent former contributor to this blog whose day job is exactly this. This sort of “talent scout” has become a feature of the ratrace in the past fifteen years or so on par with, say, that of a casting director in the entertainment industry.

      By way of comparison, what sorts of achievements and personal attributes are medical practices looking for to extend offers of equity?

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      • I actually suspect (given some of his gripes at the time) that his moving from firm to firm may not have been entirely his own decision. And though I’m no expert in the field, it did seem that they were of declining prestige.

        But that’s all hypothetical, if I were the kind of person who would have Googled him. Which clearly I am not.

        It’s probably not all that different in medicine, when you get to the underlying principles. Really, who seems to be an asset to the practice in terms of having patients who like her, want to see her, tell their friends what a great provider she is, etc. But it, at least in my limited experience, is less cut and dried than the calculations you lay out. Obviously, we wouldn’t offer a partnership to someone whose days went unbooked because nobody wanted to see him, but since a busy practice will keep most providers relatively busy at equivalent levels, it’s more a “this person is personable and has a patient panel comprising patients who like him, and has a good track record of sound clinical decision-making.”

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  4. Burt, this is simply great. It has the added benefit of being absolutely true.

    I too did the baby insurance defense lawyer, baby plaintiff lawyer thing before finding my calling… in house insurance coverage lawyer at Big Insurance. 2 big drawbacks: 1.) Associate money your whole career; and 2.) Another drone in the corporate hive.
    2 big benefits though: 1.) Sane working hours (I knocked off today at 3:35pm); and 2.) clients (staff) that think you’re the smartest person at the company.

    One thing I’ve noticed over the years however, is the perverse need by some of my colleagues to berate/humiliate/score a cheap shot off the Biglaw partner or associate just to justify their existence. Fortunately, this seems to be confined to the VP types who are frequently human vermin anyway.

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  5. This was a fascinating read right up to the part where you lamented trying to manage 20 clients, and their egos at the same time.

    In *Some* jobs we find ourselves manageing 120 “Clients” and their volatile egos, their demands that you know and recall every aspect of their lives, that you have their entire “case” memorized so that when they call you can rattle off any number of relevant facts, that you modify your other work to accomondate them, and that you respond promptly (ie within hours) to any communication sent to you. All for the bargain basement price of a mid 5 figure salary.

    Quite frankly I’d commit some sort of felony for the right to charge them $300/hr for this….

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    • A follow up, with considerably less snark, is that I would be fascinated what would happen if I were to send you an “itemized” list of things I did on a given day at work, and then let you figure out the billable hours/ fees that I “charge” for that time were education treated more as a Free Market profession, ie Law.

      I imagine the resulting post would go viral in education circles….

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      • How frequently do sub optimal outcomes with your clients result in threats of lawsuits against you personally or attacks on your licensure? Conceded that I suspect the number is greater than zero and conceded that I have tasted of the fragile egos of students and parents myself and it is indeed tedious and tiresome.

        My comment to which caused you to look askance is aimed at young people who think representing big corporation s is “clean” or “easy” because the corporation is motivated solely by money and therefore will make rational decisions. Ain’t so.

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