According to recent surveys, lateral hiring of associates is picking up and is expected to grow through 2011.  

This is excellent news for law school graduates of the years 2005 through 2007 or so.  These associates began working during while real estate, mergers and acquisitions, and litigation practices were still going strong, and thus far they have survived the post-2007 layoffs, deferrals and general malaise of legal practice circa 1998 through 2010.  While most associates will never make partner at AmLaw100 firms, with those credentials and a healthy dollop of experience they will be poised to move to boutiques or in house or to strike out on their own within the next ten years and can probably expect actual legal careers for themselves.  Good for them.

More troublesome is the outlook for associates who graduated after 2007.  In 2008 practically an entire class year went unhired or deferred, meaning that firms pushed back their start dates by a year or more.   Some associates deferred in 2008 have never made it back.  A lot of recent grads are doing document review, which means they sit for hours and hours staring at pdf pages of documents checking for privilege issues and coding them for later use.  It’s horrible work, boring, unappreciated, poorly paid with no benefits, and a reference to it on a resume often taints the lawyers who do it so that they can never go on to full-time employment.  Honestly, it’s a bit like sweat-shop work, with no likelihood of a Triangle Shirtwaist fire to improve working conditions going forward. 

I wonder what will become of this generation of lawyers.  Many of them are burdened with enormous student loan debt ($ 150,000 and more), and since student loans aren’t generally dischargeable in bankruptcy they’ll be stuck paying these loans for the rest if their lives.  A higher percentage of recent grads than usual has gone into solo practice right out of law school.  I cheer the entrepreneurial spirit of these lawyers but I also worry about whether they’ll be able to cut it.  I haven’t exactly been practicing for a century but even I can see that the nature of practicing has changed drastically over the past few years.  People are STRESSED.  Lawyers who might have been willing to take the less experienced under their wings a few years ago are too worried about the bottom line right now to do that.  Judges are overloaded with foreclosures and bankruptcy filings, and let’s face it: a judge who just oversaw a tearful foreclosure proceeding five minutes ago is not going to have patience for the pleading you mistitled. 

I’ve been reading a lot of articles on this topic, and I suppose understandably there’s a general rah-rah spirit to most of them.  Solos are doin’ it for themselves! the captions cry, and stories are passed along about the lucky lawyer who practices out of his mom’s house who somehow landed a Supreme Court case and so on.  That’s all very uplifting, rather like watching It’s a Wonderful Life, but in reality the townspeople don’t show up with baskets of cash and lawyers don’t land career-making cases in their pajamas.  I like Carolyn Elefant’s blog My Shingle, for instance,  but Ms. Elefant got her start at a large, national firm, built client relationships there, and then moved to solo practice, which she’s quite upfront about.  Opening up right out of law school is hard, which is why historically it wasn’t done much. 

Not only that, but it’s difficult to turn away work when you’re getting up and running, and some work should be turned away, absolutely.  Lord knows I did really dumb things during my first few years, but I was lucky to have more experienced associates and bosses to keep me from doing anything worse than blushing from time to time. 

Here in Maryland, where I practice, a move is afoot to make CLE mandatory.  We are one of the few states remaining who haven’t already done so.  There is support for the change in some quarters, but strenuous opposition from bar associations, small firms, the plaintiff’s bar, and so on, all of whom argue that mandatory CLE will impose an unfair burden on them while generating income only for for-profit entities.  There is some merit to this, certainly.  But I do wonder if requiring CLE wouldn’t help a whole class of legal orphans get integrated.  Help them make contacts, get some much-needed mentoring and support.  I think we owe it to them.  We created the business model that rejected them.