“Astronomical” Bonuses, Marble Lobbies and Other Legal Fictions

The headline with the biggest font on the front page of this morning’s WSJ is captioned: "A Stingier Job Market Awaits New Attorneys."  The piece is pretty significant and well researched, attributing the glut in lawyers to a variety of factors. The critical component is demand: more young Americans want to become attorneys in the U.S., and in response more universities opening new law schools, which are big money-makers.  After giving us a couple of colorful examples (including a recent Seton Law grad earning $50K in Manhattan who calls his law degree "a waste"), the article then moves on to discuss the economic climate in the big law firms, concluding that "the prospects for big-firm lawyers are growing richer".  My favorite line in the article:

"While offering robust minimum salaries, those forms are paying astronomical amounts to their stars."

And therein, precisely, lies a key problem afflicting the U.S. legal sector.  I recently wrote the "$1000/hr." attorneys who made ANOTHER cover of the WSJ not too long ago.  In that article, one senior in-house counsel didn’t think it unreasonable to pay that kind of money for a true expert.  Perhaps not, but the question for corporate decision-makers responsible for legal budgets is quite simple: "Do I need a megafirm attorney with a megafirm hourly rate to deal with routine legal processes?"  I venture to guess that 95% of the legal work outsourced by the Fortune 500 is neither esoteric nor sufficiently complex to warrant that kind of pricing.  And right there is both the waste and the smug entitlement plaguing our distinguised profession.

The truth is that our culture has taken the vile reality of the Gordon Geckos of law and deified them.  We joke about them, but we sure we like to be in on that joke.  We listen to a pompous Donald Trump as if he actually has something to contribute to our knowledge and his seminars are packed with wannabe billionaires.  We read the articles about the PI attorney with his three jets and think "man, just ONE jet…"

But the truth is obvious to all of us, smacking with resonance of your grandfathers’ pragmatic response to this phenomenon:  It’s all bullfeathers.

Gordon Gecko was a bad person.  He was a caricature of unethical, ruthless greed gone wild in our culture, the same greed plaguing the legal profession every bit as much as it has Wall Street.   

Ironically, young legal grads like the $50k-per-year Manhattan attorney — I’m still trying to imagine how he can survive on that in the city — are the ones graduating with hefty six figure student loans…loans which will increasingly end in default.  For reasons which continue to escape me, we have turned a generation of Mr. Rogers-driven "I am special"/"I can be anything" and somehow left them with the notion that all that adds up to the right to great financial success irrespective of the realities of the economy in which they intend to exist within.  They believe they are immune from market forces.  Moreover, for those of us who became attorneys for reasons beyond our potential income, hearing a new grad call his law degree a "waste" saddens us; the article goes on to mention a Texas law grad oozing with compassion in his criminal practice, saying that it’s sad to find himself "thinking it’s a great day when a crackhead brings me $500."

Honestly, it just makes me feel old.


We who practice law — old timers or new grads — are no more entitled to a fat paycheck than anyone else.  With increased globalization — hate it or love it — it is the responsibility of every player in a free market economy to A) Identify his/her part in the marketplace, B) Reconcile their skill set with their areas of personal interest and C) Undertake the training/education/personal growth needed to harmonize A and B and create for themselves a marketable position in the economy which will meet their personal and financial goals, subject to their limitations and strengths.

To paraphrase Jay Foonberg, author of "How to Start and Build a Law Practice": set out to become a rich lawyer, you’ll get nowhere fast; set out to become a great lawyer…and you can’t help but make a lot of money.  It is innovation, not entitlement, which shall drive the success of tomorrow’s "player" attorneys, and the times are indeed "a-changin".

As the Fortune 1000 awaken from their dogmatic slumber and realize that the best interests of their companies are not being met by their current outside counsel, the trend will shift toward more cost-effective legal solutions better integrated into existing internal processes.  Shareholders will applaud, the delivery of legal services will change…

…and that jet you wanted will be available at a very attractive price…