Lessons of Recession Could be Forgotten after Turn-around

Taking into account all of the trends and statistics of the new economy, there will be several imminent changes that will appreciably affect new legal careers.  Most likely, firms will keep the billable hour, will move to merit-based compensation, and will likely continue to have minimal minority representation.  Eventually the economy will improve and demand for legal services will increase as well.  Firms will have more power to determine market prices for their service and will likely be able to resist efforts to move towards the fixed fee regime. 

In response to these trends, associate hiring will improve, but not to the levels enjoyed in the 2000s.   The great recession has made firms aware that the over leveraging of the past was unsustainable.  Also, since some firms have adopted merit-based pay, this will become a popular method to reduce costs and to improve profits per partner.  Due to the shift to merit-based pay, minorities will be winnowed out of firms at a higher rate than before, and they will make up a decreasing number of big firm attorneys. 

Overall the golden age of law is over; however, one could accurately describe the next phase as the silver age.  Profits will be large but less, associate pay will be generous yet diminished, and firm market power will be robust but more limited than before. 

As the current state of the legal field indicates, law is not recession proof, and hopefully the firms will be mindful of this for a long time to come.  Otherwise, as the wise philosopher George Santayana said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." (George Santayana, Life of Reason, Reason in Common Sense, Scribner's, 1905.)

Building a Better Legal Profession (BBLP) is an organization based at Stanford Law School.   BBLP is a national grassroots movement that seeks market-based workplace reforms in large private law firms. For more information, visit BBLP's Web site at www.betterlegalprofession.org.