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January 07, 2008

The "Falling-Down" Profession?

The New York Times (excerpts)
January 6, 2008
The Falling-Down Professions
By ALEX WILLIAMS

YOU can’t say law firms aren’t trying.

At the Chicago office of Perkins Coie, partners recently unveiled a “happiness committee,” offering candy apples and milkshakes to brighten the long and wearying days of its lawyers. Perhaps this will serve as an example to other firms, which studies show lose, on average, nearly a fifth of their associates in any given year, in an industry in which about 20 percent of lawyers over all will suffer depression at some point in their careers.

Last year, Cravath, Swaine & Moore tried a more direct approach, offering associates an added bonus of as much as $50,000, on top of regular annual bonuses that range from $35,000 to $60,000.

At the august Sullivan & Cromwell, partners in 2006 began a program, groundbreaking in white-shoe firms, encouraging the uttering of “thank you” and “good work” to harried underlings, as reported in The Wall Street Journal.

Probably not a bad move at a firm that had been hemorrhaging associates at a rate of about 30 percent a year. (The rate dipped below 25 percent in the year after the program was started, although Fred Rich, a partner, said better etiquette was simply an element in a “very broad agenda” focused on more open communication.)

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“The older professions are great, they’re wonderful,” said Richard Florida, the author of “The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life” (Basic Books, 2003). “But they’ve lost their allure, their status. And it isn’t about money.”

OR at least, it is not all about money. The pay is still good (sometimes very good), and the in-laws aren’t exactly complaining. Still, something is missing, say many doctors, lawyers and career experts: the old sense of purpose, of respect, of living at the center of American society and embodying its definition of “success.”

In a culture that prizes risk and outsize reward — where professional heroes are college dropouts with billion-dollar Web sites — some doctors and lawyers feel they have slipped a notch in social status, drifting toward the safe-and-staid realm of dentists and accountants. It’s not just because the professions have changed, but also because the standards of what makes a prestigious career have changed.

This decline, Mr. Florida argued, is rooted in a broader shift in definitions of success, essentially, a realignment of the pillars. Especially among young people, professional status is now inextricably linked to ideas of flexibility and creativity, concepts alien to seemingly everyone but art students even a generation ago.

“There used to be this idea of having a separate work self and home self,” he said. “Now they just want to be themselves. It’s almost as if they’re interviewing places to see if they fit them.”

Indeed, applications to law schools and medical schools have declined from recent highs. Nationally, the number of law school applicants dropped to 83,500 in 2006 from 98,700 in 2004—representing a 6.7 percent drop between 2006 and 2005, on top of the 5.2 percent slip the previous year, according to the Law School Admission Council.

(Maybe they’ve been talking to actual lawyers. Forty-four percent of lawyers recently surveyed by the American Bar Association said they would not recommend the profession to a young person.)

The number of applicants to medical school, meanwhile, has dipped to 42,000 from 46,000 in 1997, although it has recovered from a low of 33,000 in 2003.

Students are focusing now on starring in their own creations, their own start-up businesses, said Trudy Steinfeld, the executive director of the Wasserman Center for Career Development at New York University.

“There’s a sexiness to starting something cool,” she said. “Now we have people trying to start a Facebook or a MySpace. You might be working like a maniac, but it’s going to pay off in status. You’re going to be famous, providing something people are going to know and use all over the world.”

Unquestionably, many doctors and lawyers still find the higher calling of their profession — helping people — as well as the prestige and money, worth the hard work. And the stars in either field are still that: commanding the handsome compensation and social cachet. But to others, the daily trudge serves as a constant reminder that the entrepreneur’s autonomy simply can’t be found in law or medicine.

“We’d all seen the visions, watching ‘L.A. Law,’ or ‘Ally McBeal,’” said Catherine Kersh, 32, a former litigator at a large firm in Los Angeles. “It did seem glamorous.”

Reality, she quickly learned, was different. Ms. Kersh recalled a two-week stretch in which she and a team of associates were holed up in a conference room with 50 boxes of documents. Every day, for 12 hours, they fastened Post-it notes to legal briefs.

“You look around at the other associates, trying to remind ourselves, why did we go to law school?” said Ms. Kersh, who now works for a nonprofit group that administers scholarships.

Many young associates, she added, spent their lunch hours making lavish purchases on NeimanMarcus.com, just to remind themselves that what they did counted for something.

Life, in fact, was less like “Ally” and more like “The Practice,” where lawyers work like dogs in a thoroughly unglamorous setting.

Nor does hard work guarantee success. “With law firms merging, fewer people are making partner,” said Carolyn Elefant, a lawyer in Washington who writes for Law.com, a legal news and information Web site.

In 2005, the number of equity partners at law firms grew by 2.5 percent, compared with 4.5 percent five years earlier, according to a study by Citi Private Bank. And even if you make partner, the work doesn’t lessen.

“Partners now are often billing as many hours as the associates, because of the enormous growth of law firms,” Ms. Elefant said. “There’s a huge overhead. The demand for global practice means many partners having to be available to clients around the clock.”

As firms demand ever more billable hours, said Lawrence J. Fox, a partner in the Philadelphia office of Drinker Biddle & Reath, lawyers find less time for pro bono work — the very thing that once gave them a sense of higher calling. Increased competitive pressures also mean that young associates are often locked into arcane sub-specialties, like pharmaceutical product liability.

*************.

“If the topic comes up in cocktail party talk, you’ll hear nightmare stories from people as they’ve gone through the system — ‘they gave me the wrong pill,’ et cetera,” said Dr. Gregg Broffman, 57, a former pediatrician who is now a medical director of a primary care group in Buffalo. “In terms of my own self-esteem, it feels like a personal attack.”

EVEN the language of contemporary medicine has eroded the physician’s sense of majesty.

“What irritates me the most is the use of the term ‘provider,’” said Dr. Brian A. Meltzer, an internist in Pennington, N.J., who now practices pro bono on the side, but works full time for Johnson & Johnson’s venture capital division. “We didn’t go to provider school.”

Making the erosion of cachet more acute is the fact that unlike law schools or medical schools, flashier industries recruit heavily on top college campuses, said Lauren A. Rivera, a sociology graduate student and an instructor at Harvard who studies career choice among students.

“Investment banking and consulting firms have a huge presence; they’re barging in from before first day of classes,” Ms. Rivera said. “The messages they convey appeals to every undergraduate fantasy: this is a continuation of prestige education, this is the only valuable way to finish your education. You’ll work with the smartest people and the most exciting, high-profile clients.”

And then there is, yes, the money issue. Or rather, money envy. Associates at major New York firms often start at $150,000 to $180,000, said Bill Coleman, the chief compensation officer at Salary.com, a company that tracks income statistics. Partners at the country’s biggest 100 firms took home an average of $1.2 million in 2006, according to American Lawyer.

Hardly small sums, but for many senior investment bankers, bonuses and salaries this year will average $2.25 million to $2.75 million, according to Options Group, an executive search and consulting firm.

************
The professions still largely award income in the traditional sense — a set, orderly progression, over the course of decades. Careers in more entrepreneurial industries like hedge funds and private equity firms follow the sky-is-the-limit model of the entertainment industry, the Web or professional sports.

Kevin J. Delaney, a sociology professor at Temple University who has studied the culture of hedge funds and private equity firms, said executives there “love the idea of being responsible for their own fate.”

They’re going to make a million or lose a million based on the trades they make,” he said.

Many firms are so small, he added, that “you go there, it’s one floor, and 10 people sitting around the room, six of them making millions of dollars.”

This star-system mentality is particularly attractive to college students, many of whom were reared with the ’80s philosophy that every child was a potential superstar, Mr. Coleman said. And they want immediate rewards — not exactly the mentality that will fuel a student through years of medical school, a residency and additional training for a specialty.

“Their attention span, everything, is instant feedback: quick, quick, quick,” Mr. Coleman said. “Apprenticeship, these kids don’t want to do it.”

First,  if you read closely the work dissatisfaction discussed is the BigLaw component.  The quote which discusses the need to mesh personal and professional life, the idea of making sure the environment fits the personality of the individual....these are sought after and achieved for the most part by solos. Entrepreneurship, creativity, flexibility are prized.  Starring in their own creation is coveted.  This is the number on perk of becoming a solo.

So, Is it the profession or BigLaw?  There is still the seeming loss of prestige being experienced by lawyers associated with BigLaw, the push towards commoditization of the services, loss of cache and regard and the pittance they earn (1.2 million) which is just half the bonus received by hedge fund superstars.

If money is the objective and the yard stick is hedge fund managers and garage entrepreneurs, chalk one up in the loss column for BigLaw partners.  I have no sympathy, though.  BigLaw is a business model which broke itself but unfortunately it broke the spirit of those in the trenches, too.  Many lawyers railed against the students from the top law schools who wrote a letter to BigLaw saying they want a better quality of work life and living.  They were criticized for being ungrateful.  Weren't they just saying they don't deem the old ideals and traditional career paths important?  Were lawyers offended because these new lawyers didn't honor the old guard and what they suffered to achieve partner?  I don't know.  But it seems to me BigLaw has done a great job of stripping itself of dignity, cache and status by their own actions.  They projected a certain ugliness themselves. Let's not blame those who just point it out and refuse to participate. (And let's not broad brush, either. There are some very happy BigLaw partners and associates who do not project a distressing image and are quite happy with their financial and social lot in life.)

Solos, well, they don't have these issues.  They decide their work life, income and definition of success and I know some damn fine solos/small firms who could take down those hedge fund managers!  I really do.

Links of Interest:

Move over Gen X - The New Wave of Lawyer(s) Has Arrived?

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Comments

Marvin Schuldiner

My sister and several cousins are attorneys. When my sister first started out with BigLaw, she worked 80 hour weeks -- much of which was fighting with the other Associates to send faxes (for billable hours) and other less than meaningful work. She kept wondering exactly why she went to law school.

One of my cousins was working 100 hour weeks for BigLaw for 7 years. While the money was nice for both of them, they had no life outside of work.

My sister retired for motherhood and wants to be a solo on her terms to maintain that life balance. My cousin left BigLaw about 5 years ago to be an inhouse counsel at BigInvestCorp for less money and far less hours. Both are far happier.

I love my solo mediation and arbitration practice. I answer to myself, my clients and my wife. :-)

PerGynt

I am a law student and I will be 49 years old when I graduate from law school. I don't have any intention of wasting what promises to be the best decade of my life working 80 hour weeks and fighting for recognition and advancement. No way.
Here's the sequence:
1. Graduation
2. Bar exam
3. Sign maker

Get it?

Good post. Good blog.

P

Cynic

BigLaw, White-Shoe law firms, whatever you want to call them - they only have themselves to blame. The Gordon Gekko mentality controls law firm practice - the so-called "rainmakers" expect everyone to mimic their slavish devotion to billable hours quotas and business development - the devil take client service, public service, etc. The egregious starting salaries offered to a handful of new law grads is just part of the same picture - a smarmy prestige contest for unknown quantities. Fortunately, a lot of clients - including the big clients - are starting to rebel - they won't pay for associates' $190,000 starting salaries, they insist on partners doing their work, they are even looking at less prestigious law firms. All of this is LONG overdue.

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