Legal Professionals as Commodities

Good news has gone the way of job security in the legal market these days, there isn't enough to spread around.  Instead, this post contains the results of legal consulting firm Altman Weil's recent survey  of practices and trends at 787 major law firms accompanied by analysis from Marion Crain professor of law at the University of Northern California-consultants and academics, united at last to tell you the bad news about the legal profession.

Altman Weil's survey revealed that instability in the legal profession now runs the gamut from law students all the way up to equity partners. As Above The Law irreverently put it, "these days it seems that 'everyone's a loser' in the world of Big Law." Law students will continue to feel pinched as 54 percent of firms plan to reduce summer hiring in 2010, and that's on top of the reductions that 64 percent of firms made in 2009. On top of the 39 percent of firms that lowered their number of partnership offers in 2009, 23 percent of firms plan to reduce partnership offers in 2010. In 2009, 25 percent of firms reduced their numbers of non-equity partners and the same percentage cut equity partners; this trend is also expected to continue throughout 2010.

It may be cold comfort, but is it possible that these statistics could be slightly distorted since Altman Weil has a business interest in making law firms worry about their financial prospects?  Between encouraging firms to keep junior associates' salaries at recession-levels and advocating contract-based fee schedules as opposed to the more expensive hourly alternative, Altman Weil has the commodification of the legal profession down to a science.

That commodification process, Crain argues, is a cause for concern in itself. Crain draws a distinction between the commodified worker, as exemplified by poultry processors and sweatshop workers, and the professional worker, whose "work is not commodified, but constitutive; not something to escape, but something in which to invest." You know this person: it's the judge who describes the joy of learning something different with each case heard, or the tenured professor who becomes animated while describing a new project; it is no longer the associates or even the partners of most law firms. What could be responsible for this demise? Crain blames "the increasing pressure for profitability and related management strategies...particularly the use of scientific management and the restructuring of work through bureaucratization" for the decline of her romantic professional. In other words, Altman Weil is responsible. She colorfully describes their management suggestions as "ideological proletarianization and technical de-skilling"-billable hours and document review, anyone?

As Altman Weil and Marion Crain would have it, the legal profession is between a rock and a hard place. On one side is a loss of profitability that firms cannot afford in the midst of a recession. At the other is the de-professionalization of legal careers and the commodification of your labor. What is a young lawyer to do? Some are breaking the mold and exploring novel formats for engaging in profitable professional labor.

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.