Law Students and Young Lawyers

The View From the Bottom of the Pyramid

Throughout my years as a partner, managing partner, practice group leader and supervising lawyer, I used to speak to young lawyers who told me what they thought that I wanted to hear. Things like how much they loved their jobs, how supportive the firm was, and how they loved working evenings and weekends. They were quite right. That is exactly what I wanted to hear.

Now that I am retired, I still speak to young lawyers, but now they tell me the truth. It turns out that many of them are confused about what they want out of their professional lives. That is likely because they have not yet figured out what they want out of their personal lives.

Their confusion is understandable, and frankly should be expected because their view of what being a lawyer is all about has been shaped by television, movies, law school professors who often have not practiced law, and Big Law marketing.

Young lawyers frequently do not have any real understanding of law firm macroeconomics. They do not know that for the Partners to make $600,000 or more, there have to be many Associates working long hours. I have heard it said that law firms are a giant pyramid scheme, and there is certainly some truth to that.

They also do not grasp law firm microeconomics. Take your salary (assume $125,000). Multiply by 3 ($375,000). Divide by your hourly rate (assume $300.00). That is how many billed and collected hours you have to generate. In this case 1,250.  Lower the hourly rate to $250.00.  Now you have to work 1,500 billable hours. Assume the $300 hourly rate, but you want to earn $200,000. Now you have to bill and collect 2,000 hours.  You actually have to work more than those hours to account for: (i) non-billable time such as administration and marketing; (ii) the inefficiency of being a beginner; and (iii) uncollected accounts receivable. (Of course, the “multiply by 3” rule will vary from firm to firm, but it is a useful guideline to start thinking about things.)

Add in your commuting time if you are not working from home.

It can be a busy life.

There are some young lawyers who quite love the idea of working hard and clawing their way to the top of the pyramid. Others get disillusioned and look for different options.

What I have observed is that what most young lawyers have in common is that prior to starting practice they have very little idea of what is involved. It really should be more unusual than it is for young lawyers to go through the whole licensing process only to find out what practicing law is about at the end.

There is a huge gap in the education process if all of these intelligent people can get so far down the road without even knowing what road they are on. The best analogy that I can come up with is that it is like they started driving in a foreign country without turning on their GPS. Little wonder that they get lost.

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