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

“I nanny in the afternoons. Yes, that is how I use my J.D.!” a 28-year-old woman wrote in an email

“I nanny in the afternoons. Yes, that is how I use my J.D.!” a 28-year-old woman wrote in an email to The Observer.

We met her last Friday at a West Village coffee shop filled with well-heeled bohemians sipping mid-morning lattes. The wistful Southern brunette rested one elbow on the table, a delicate engagement ring catching the sunlight. “I thought that at least if I was going to be changing diapers at the age of 28, it would be my own kids’.”

She graduated with a degree in history from a Virginia college and thought about becoming a teacher, but her dad pushed both of his daughters to get law degrees, advising them that a J.D. is always good to have.

Two generations of liberal arts majors have followed the same advice, pouring themselves by the thousands into the corporate-law grinder that began with admission to a three-year program, hopefully top-tier, and ended seven or eight years later with a partnership at a top New York firm or a soft landing as an in-house counsel.

Never mind the gargantuan law-school debt and the gruesome hours, the deadening due diligence and shameless rainmaking. You were in six-figure land from the word go, assured by your late 30s of a two-bedroom co-op, a summer share in the Hamptons and good private schools for the children. Pay your dues. Collect the hours. Wait your turn. It would come. It had for so many others for decades in New York.

Not so for the babies of the ’80s, coming of legal age during the greatest upheaval of the profession in memory. The last predictable path to prosperity in New York City is gone, as dead as traditional investment banking.

When our young J.D. arrived here from the University of South Carolina law school during the brutal economic freeze, she found a job at “the sketchiest firm ever,” made up of lawyers fired or left unemployed when their firms went under during the recession. She knew the end was coming because one week they told her: “We can’t pay you anymore.”

Her experience isn’t typical, she noted, because she wasn’t especially passionate about being a lawyer. Now she nannies part-time in Tribeca. Her fiancé, who went to a more highly regarded law school, found a job at a prestigious midtown firm and survived the most recent round of layoffs.

Like other bright young New Yorkers with two sets of letters after their names, they’re getting by, just not in the ways they thought they would be. Our young J.D. sometimes walks by the cluster of downtown Manhattan courthouses on her nannying rounds. “I see the lawyers with their binders and I think, ‘I could be doing that.'”

Lawyers in New York City are handmaidens to the masters of the universe. “We’re just the minions who paper up the deals for the millionaire hedge fund people,” said David Lat, a Yale Law School grad and founding editor of the Above the Law blog, describing the mentality. “You can be a partner at Skadden, and still be a piker in this town.” 

But in the past 25 years, as investment banking became high-stakes gambling, law remained a civilized pursuit. By unspoken agreement, grads from good schools would make partner within seven or eight years, or the firm would make sure they landed a job at a midsize shop or as an in-house counsel for a respectable corporation.

“That social contract has changed,” said Steven Molo, a former litigation partner at Wall Street firm Shearman & Sterling, who left to start a litigation boutique. Now, he said, the thinking of a young associate is to stay for a few years and “make as much money as you can in the short term.”

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