How to Feed a Lawyer (and Other Irreverent Observations from the Legal Underground)

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David Giacalone

Evan, I have never seen any indication that small firms, or any other type of employer, who hire a person straight out of law school, expect the total legal neophyte to already have practical legal skills. I also would be reluctant to go to any brand new solo who has only be out of law school a very short time -- or to a small firm that only has such newbies.

I agree that law schools should be helping the students acquire far more practical skills, as well as to taste what different kinds of law practices entail, but I'm of the opinion that most law graduates go to the biggest firm they can get into because they are looking for the most money. Of course there are exceptions, but surveys suggest its the geld for most graduates.


David: You say that small firms don't expect new graduates to have experience, and that's true, but my point was that most small firms won't hire new graduates in the first place. Since the new graduates don't have any practical legal training, they need to be trained, and only the big firms can afford to do the training. It means that the many new graduates who don't get a job with a big firm are left without a job. That's a real tragedy.

Absent practical skills, new graduates are dependent on the big firms to employ them. It's the poor state of legal education that has created this dependency. If more practical skills were taught to law students, they wouldn't be so dependent on law firms. They'd have other options. They'd be wanted and needed by a much wider array of firms and legal employers. Isn't that how doctors are educated?

Maybe I can say it another way. Law students certainly follow the money, as you say. But only the large firms are offering the money. Law students would follow the money to places other than large firms if the money was available to them somewhere else. But it's not. Why? Again, only the large firms are willing to pay large salaries and train young lawyers. If new graduates came out of law school with more practical experience, however, I guarantee that a much wider variety of firms--not just the big firms, but firms of every shape and size--would offer comparable amounts.

Another point is that law firms shouldn't be the only option for those who want to practice civil law. At least in the litigation area (the one I know best), there are lots of ways for new lawyers to make money without joining a large firm, or any firm--and perhaps make even more than they would have made otherwise. I know it now, but I didn't know it then--so like everyone else, I went with a big firm. (Maybe I should write a book detailing my secrets.)

David Giacalone

Evan, If you have stats or sources showing that "boutique" law firms that handle the high-end part of the legal trade (antitrust, intellectual property, etc.) are not hiring newbies or are not hiring at income levels comparable to large firms doing the same kind of work, please let us know.

If you're saying that small firms where the partners make far less than at BigLaw offer smaller salaries to newbies than BigLaw does, I'd say that's practically a tautology. If you're saying such lower-end small firms aren't doing any hiring, I'm a bit skeptical -- except for the ones that are small because they are not successful and can't afford to grow. I believe that quality law students willing to take less than the highend firms are offering can find such jobs.

Finally, with so many sources at the schools, online, and in libraries about career choices for lawyers, I can't blame anyone but the law student for not knowing the options available.


David: You end your comment by mentioning "the options that are available." One of my points is that more and different options would be available if law students had more practical legal skills when they graduated.

I think that it's too bad that many people end up in legal careers unsuitable for their personalities because (a) they're not given an education that provides as many career options to them as it could, and (b) they're not properly exposed to the career options that presently exist. You have a bit of "it's their own damn fault" attitude. You also seem hostile (in an earlier comment) to the idea of recent graduates striking out on their own, but that makes my point: you don't like the idea because you think new graduates aren't experienced enough to call themselves lawyers. So give them more experience in law school. (Practicing law isn't usuallly rocket science, by the way. For a few, it is; the rest just pretend it is.)

And more on lack of options: if you're a new graduate who doesn't know how to be a lawyer, it's hard for you to say no to a firm that's offering you a job. They've got you hook, line and sinker. Who put you in that position of dependence on law firms? Your own law school that you just paid $50k to "educate" you. And what if no one offers you a job, or no one offers you a job that suits your personality? You don't have too many other options, since all you have is a degree and only a vague idea as to how to use it.


If law schools would simply include more practical training, as a few of the participants in Matt's Five-by-Five suggested.

Please allow me to assume David's role and be a grouch. Everyone knows, going into law school, that law schools do not teach how to practice law. That means a person has three years to learn it on his or her own - or, assuming 1L is too daunting to focus on anything else, the student has two years. Two or three years is a very long time and enables someone to learn a lot.

I've had over 100 hours of CLEs. Lawyers die to have law students around, and they even let me freeload. Many of these CLEs touch on law office management, accounting, malpractice, trial and deposition skills, etc. I've also worked for 5 or 6 different firms, working on every aspect of civil and complex criminal litigation.

Most law schools offer courses in trial practice, trial prep and settlement, and even law office management.

The information is there, but too many students are interested in hanging out, reading blogs, and goofing off. Which is cool. But it's not cool to then complain because, after three freaking years, we did not learn anything about the practice of law.


Evan, If you have stats or sources showing that "boutique" law firms that handle the high-end part of the legal trade ... are not hiring newbies ... please let us know.

Evan is correct. Botique firms generally only hire "newbies" who come with a federal appellate clerkship. The botique criminal defense firms won't even talk to a recent grad with even a signifiant amount of work experience and excellent grades and refs. I suppose a CA clerk is still a "newbie," though I think Evan was referring to a brand new J.D.


David - Let me give a brief summary of the "market." It's based on my conversations with many of my friends from law school and many friends and acquitances from top 10 schools.

The legal job market is dismal, unless you are from a Top 5 law school. Even then, no one has a guaranteed job. My friend at the University of Chicago (good grades, journal, CPA) found his job at the last minute. I've spoken with many of his friends (one of whom who worked for a certain famous judge as his research assistant) also had a hard time. For folks at Harvard and Yale, they're going to still get really good jobs, even with a mediocre class rank. But they don't have the options they used to: Recent data shows that fewer students are decling offers; and that they're accepting offers much faster. IOW, students at the best schools are still making 125K a year, but they making that money are less prestigious law firms.

In Los Angeles and San Francisco, many students from UCLA, USC, Boalt, etc. are taking jobs for 40K a year. (Once the student passes the bar, he or she might get bumped up to 48-52K). That's not much money here. I've even met a few people from the top 10% of those fine institutions who are struggling. An anecdote.

I worked for a firm that needed one last law clerk for the summer. They posted an ad at Boalt in the middle of May. Within 24 hours, they had 50 resumes. It's pretty daunting knowing that 50 students from one of America's highest-ranked law schools are that quick on the draw when they should already have jobs lined up.

All but the highest ranked students are getting stuck doing one of three things:
1. Working for or as a solo doing "door law" (i.e., whateve walks in the door)
2. Construction defect litigation (Cal. has a ten year latent defect statute, so HOA go around at 9 yrs., 9 mons. looking for cracks or mold)
3. Insurance defense.

I don't think that students went into law school wanting to do 1-3.

PI jobs where a recent grade can eat what he kills are very rare. They are out there, but it takes a lot of strategizing to get one of them.

So, it's tough out there all over.


Mike: As for your comments about your own self-education, I commend you. I know you personally to be someone who is highly competent and who can and will make it on his own.

Does it prove anything? Yes. Since you're the exception that proves the rule, you prove my point.

When I was in school, I didn't know that I could call a lawyer on the phone and ask to work for him as a freeloader. Besides, I was too busy killing myself as the managing editor of the law review so that I could make myself more attractive to a big firm (even though I already had a job offer from one) because I was taught that that was the logical end goal of my education. I was so completely clueless about how lawyers really make money and how the legal system actually works that I laugh about it now. But despite my complete and utter ignorance, I was at the top or near the top of my class (the lead switched from time to time), one of the school's shining stars. Ironic?


I was taught that that was the logical end goal of my education.

Yes - that is The Big Problem: Law schools only teach students the "establishment" route. I knew when I decided to be a lawyer (when I was 19, after reading With Justice for None) that I did not want to take the establishment route.

Unfortunately, NONE of my professors could give advice outside the usual get in the top 10%, do law review, summer at BigLaw, then clerk, then go back to BigLaw. Excepting that they would (sometimes) know about DOJ or a prosecutor's office.

I think that most students probably have to make a very tough choice: Devote your time to taking the establishment route, or learn how to be a lawyer. For example, I did not do law review, moot court, trial team or any other extracurricular activity because I was too busy representing real clients and solving legal problems. (OTOH, I did focus on getting the higest grade in m con law and crim law classs, but mainly as a marketing tool, i.e., "Mr. Client, I got the best grade in X...).

But it is quite a gamble, and my route has its costs. Thus far the benefits outweigh the costs, but it would be nice to hear from someone who took a middle route, re: Evan took the "establishment" route (though he now belongs to the anti-establishment club) and I took the anti-establishment route.

What's the middle approach? Is a student stuck with Evan's or my approach? Which approach is best for most people?


I can't speak directly about the job market since I am not looking for a permanent job - I am just looking for a place to clerk this summer. (I loathe the idea of working at a big firm, so I have not even bothered with their interview process). But I think Evan makes a good point. If I was a small business man, and small firms are exactly that, I would be reluctant to hire someone inexperienced. Businesses exist in order to make a profit. Someone at the law firm I worked at last summer told me that it takes several years for a new attorney to become profitable. (I am not sure if they meant any attorney new to the firm or young attorneys).

Personally, I dream about running my own firm, but I plan on working for others for quite a while due to the whole experience thing. I know I will be able to represent clients well right out of the box, but I also know it will be nice to have more experienced attorneys around when I have a question. The small firm I worked at last summer seemed like the sort of place that attorneys would help each other - not all like the big law firm stereotype. Small firms seem like they would be a great place for young attorneys to learn if the young attorneys could only land a job there.

I also think Mike makes a good point - one that I am going to take very seriously during my last year and a half in law school. The point I am referring is that law students should take advantage of the many opportunities for practical experience while in school.


David: I think the experience for young associates at high-end boutique antitrust or IP firms isn't a lot different than that of a big law firm. A young associate friend (Harvard Law, good academic credentials, etc.) of mine at such a firm is billing well over 2000/year there, probably closer to 2500.

I'd consider a CA clerk a newbie. Maybe even worse than a fresh-out-of-law-school newbie, because the latter is less likely to have attitude, though I've noticed young associate attitudes improving as the economy has declined.

The Pepperdine graduate is going to face a different experience than the Chicago or Harvard graduate, for sure. And the experience for someone at the top of their class is going to be different than for someone in the middle or bottom of the class. Law professors are therefore usually poorly positioned to give career advice to the vast majority of their students.

Were the 50 resumes from Boalt 1L resumes? It's hard to imagine that there are 50 2Ls from Boalt that couldn't find summer jobs, though I suppose it's not inconceivable with the class sizes they have.


Were the 50 resumes from Boalt 1L resumes?

There were a lot of 2L resumes in that pile (and it grew to around 100 over the week). That's what shocked me. I worked with a 2L from Boalt with good stats and wonderful personality who knew several classmates without jobs. I worked with another person from USC - she noted a similar problem. Very good students are top law schools were afraid that they would be jobless.

And the experience for someone at the top of their class is going to be different than for someone in the middle or bottom of the class.

Well - the problem I see is that the experience for someone at the top of his or her class is different that in years past. Some of the top firms (like yours) aren't hiring the way they did 5 years ago. Of course, the EIC of HYS will never have a problem. But the trends I'm noting show that people who would have had an easy walk 5 years ago are not walking/scratching and clawing uphill. Thus, the recent grad is facing a lot of difficulties unheard of years ago.

Law professors are therefore usually poorly positioned to give career advice to the vast majority of their students.

The problem is that they don't see that they are poorly positioned to give carrer advice. Instead, they dole out their advice (based on their experience) as if it's the One True Way. I've never heard a prof say, "Well, this is what I did, but it might not work for you. Maybe someone at the DA/PD's office can help you." Then again, profs aren't very good at admitting that they don't know something.

Lord Python

1. In a nutshell, law school education is worthless. You don't learn a damn about practicing law. You take a property class, but don't learn a single thing about how to handle a real estate transaction. You take contracts, but don't ever learn to write one. You take an estate planning class, but never actually learn to write a will. By the time you graduate, your head is fully of lots of legal theory, but you don't know the first thing about how to file the most basic case.

2. Law school should be 2 years, not 3. As far as I can tell, it is 3 years just because an MBA is 2 years.

3. The Socratic method is a joke. Even the professors hardly bother trying it with 2L's and 3L's.

4. The reality of law practice is that paralegals and legal secretaries know the nuts and bolts. Most senior attorneys I know couldn't button thier shirt without their secretary. They do all the work because the attorney can bill out the time at a higher rate.
A good example is writing a will... how many attorneys just gather info and then have their secretary do it? Heck, I bet a lot of attorneys couldn't put one together from scratch if the tried.

David Giacalone

Yes, there are many more law graduates than there are really good, well-paying jobs, with good work conditions, in attractive locations. That is not the fault of big law firms. And, there will not suddenly be lots more of those excellent jobs if law schools drastically changed what they do and turned out graduates who can hit the ground running.

Indeed, if law school got too specific and practical, we would soon hear complaints that law graduates don't know how to think like lawyers, reason through an argument, spots issues and trouble spots for clients, tell a difference from a distinction, etc.

Just what job should a school prepare you to perform immediately? If it's preparing you to do house-closings and custody disputes, you better not expect to make income levels received at BigLaw firms.

For most lawyers, the profession is indeed not rocket science. That goes to my constant refrain that lawyers often get paid more than they "deserve" considering the skill needed to perform their jobs. By definition, the "elite" are relatively few in number. The legal hoi polloi are not going to be treated like princes straight out of law school, nor should they count on living like kings in the near future.

If law students could become law apprentices before getting their license to practice, there would be more new young lawyers able to perform their first "real" job; more of them having a realist idea of what they want to do; more deciding not to take the Bar. To have this kind of drastic change, though, the Law School Cartel and the Law Professor Cartel would have to agree to reduce the demand for their product. Good luck.

p.s. Evan, I disagree that small firms and/or corporate counsel offices, or other potential employers, don't in genereal want people straight out of law school. It depends on their hiring budget and on their internal ability to mentor or train new employees.
Carolyn Elefant

The thread about law professors not being able to advise students on how to find a job reminded me of my own days at Cornell. I had several friends who'd been unable to find employment and the prevalent advise was that they should speak with Professor X who had worked for a prominent NY law firm for several years prior to teaching at Cornell. Professor X was in his 70s so he likely had worked at the firm four decades before, but his 4-5 years there gave him more employment experience than most others on the faculty who'd come to Cornell directly from judicial clerkships.

In any event, one of my more desperate friends met with Professor X (who to his credit, was very eager to help). Apparently, Professor X advised that the best way to find a job in the competitive market (this was 1988, a time of economic downturn) was to put on a suit, take a stack of resumes and walk into every law firm on Wall Street (and he meant large firms!), ask to see the senior partner and hand over the resume and announce that you were ready to work. Perhaps this strategy worked back in Professor X's time but there was no way it was going to work in 1988!

I'm not sure what else law schools can do to exposure students to job options. Having gone to Cornell, in isolated Ithaca, I will say that one has wider career options in a metropolitan area rather than a remote location. Cornell is a pretty good school but when I moved to DC, I saw that graduates from local schools or equal or lesser caliber had far better positions than many of my classmates simply because during the school year, they had the opportunity to intern for places like the SEC or DOJ, for appellate and district courts and large firms and get their foot in the door. By contrast, many at Cornell were limited to whatever jobs came on campus plus our legal aid clinic and a couple of solo practices. In short, while David's comment that law students can access plenty of career information may be true for schools in some locations, I don't think that it holds true for all.


"You take an estate planning class, but never actually learn to write a will."

Well, I know that you were being hyperbolic for rhetorical effect, but we had to draft a will and a trust in my trusts and estates class. They were worth half of our grade.

Erik Newton

For myself, I can say plainly that money constantly lurks behind the scenes of the large-firm decision. Nevertheless, I can't now count the innumerable times over the past 6 months that I've heard or given the rationale that a new lawyer does not know how to practice law or run a legal business, and it is far better to learn from and make mistakes on the dime (or hundred dollar bill) of another. I think this is, fairly stated, the reason why the author says we go to big law firms. Frankly, he's right, albeit I would put it positively: we go to learn how to be a lawyer.

Stated negatively, we go to big firms because we don't know how to practice law. And in this negative formulation it's clearly a commentary on legal education. Unfortunately, as a law student in my final year I do not now have the luxury of tinkering with the machinery and methodology of the schools of law. What my legal education has not brought me, I will now have to pick up elsewhere.

From my perspective a further inquiry is thus much more pressing. Can I learn the practice of law at a big firm? Will I learn how to BE a lawyer? Does it matter whether I intend to do trial or transactional work? If one thinks I cannot really learn to be a trial lawyer at a large firm, for instance, is there a better option short of hanging a shingle against a backdrop of chapter 11 protection?

Erik Newton

RE Mike's Comments on Self-Education

It is simply no response to the state of legal education that (1) every bright, new law student knows of its deficiency; (2) CLEs and some other venues of practical experience exist (e.g., externing or "volunteering" for local lawyers); and (3) it is simply a matter of choosing between traditional law school extracurriculars and actually learning to practice law. These retorts either "prove too much" or they "proof the rule". Whether one wishes to say it's "out of synCH" or "out of synC, but touche," one still says legal education is out of synchronization.

In answer to the question what is the middle ground between Evan and Mike, I demurr that it's not a middle ground but simply to FIX law schools. Make them like most schools: any ivory tower where one can equally seek refuge in the stacks with Blackstone, Coke and Holmes, or pound the pavement with the likes of Brandeis and Schaeffer.

Prof Yabut

Just in case you're a law student who stumbled onto this posting, but still doesn't know how to find information about legal career options and how to prepare for and find them, the curmudgeonly Prof. Yabut, suggests:

The Career Options Center at Indiana Univ. Law School

The National Association for Law Placement

Careers in Law by Gary Munneke

What Can You Do With a Law Degree?: A Lawyer's Guide to Career Alternatives Inside, Outside & Around the Law by Deborah Arron

What Law School Doesn't Teach You: But You Really Need to Know by Kimm Alayne Walton

America's Greatest Places to Work with a Law Degree & How to Make the Most of Any Job, No Matter Where It Is by Kimm Alayne Walton

The Lawyer's Career Change Handbook: More Than 300 Things You Can Do With a Law Degree, Updated and Revised by Hindi Greenberg

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