Rude Discovery: End of an Era for Recession-Racked Big Law

When Mr. Greenfield graduated from New York Law School in 1982, he said the job market wasn’t great, but he apprenticed himself to a senior attorney. In his field, criminal defense, he said there’s still plenty of demand for young lawyers in small firms and solo practices. But: “They want the big-buck practice,” he said. “They don’t want to do what they call ‘shit law.'”

For those who flee the city in search of better career prospects and maybe a few hours a week of free time, the path is hardly easier. “Typically, you got recruited; you were taken
care of,” said a 27-year-old second-year associate at a firm in Stamford, Conn., who’s already been sent out to networking events to pass around his business card to potential clients. “They wouldn’t start pressuring you to get clients until your sixth or seventh year down the road. Now they’re saying, ‘Why aren’t you getting clients?'”

Or as a 2008 N.Y.U. grad, who moved back to Alabama after he lost his job at a New York firm, said of the alternatives: “It’s like telling someone to go be on an Arena Football League practice squad. You get beat up like a football player, but it’s not the same job.”

Experts, including the bar association in some cases, have called on firms to reevaluate hourly billing and reduce the number of first-year associates; meanwhile, law schools need to let in fewer students and give them a more honest picture of the job market.

But getting born winners to take stock of the losses isn’t easy.

“I don’t know that if we were to flick a switch and the economy were to pick up whether we would see any lessons applied there,” said Mr. Molo, the former partner at a huge Wall Street firm. “People would still be hiring 140 associates.”

He recently formed a boutique litigation firm, MoloLamken, which has grown to 13 lawyers and in 2010 argued three cases before the Supreme Court-and won each of them. With its model of flexible billing and significant mentoring, his firm could be a model, but he’s not convinced others will follow.

“Many people would view what we did in the short term as an economically irrational act,” he said. With partners at major law firms making in the seven figures, he said, “what holds a lot of people back is just inertia.”

The army of young cannibals, raised on whole wheat bread and pop psychology, has other plans. “If I could work 60 hours a week and get weekends off, I never would have left,” said a 28-year-old who spent a few years at one of the city’s top handful of firms but recently left to work for a hedge fund. “I know people who have had three kids and have never been at the birthday of any of their kids.” 

lkusisto@observer.com