January 11, 2010 16:55 Age: 4 yrs

A step back. A step forward

By: Ginger Pyron

Emory alumni consider the state of the legal profession

The losses

“A lot of these people have done everything right. They did well in undergrad, went to great law schools, followed all the protocols—and, in return, expected a secure career. Now they find that the playbook has been thrown out.”

So says Carey Bertolet 96L, managing director of bcg Attorney Search, New York, who, along with most people in the profession, has read the shocking stats of the past year’s layoffs and deferrals. She also has heard plenty of stories firsthand. Like some of the lawyers Bertolet advises, many partners and associates seeking jobs—and even those still working—are stunned: Hey, the plan we subscribed to didn’t say anything about major upheavals. How could this happen to us?

But it has happened and, though the layoffs have slowed, it’s still happening. From new associates to managing partners, from debt-laden law students to attorneys who’ve totted up decades of successful practice, insiders of the legal profession are anxiously following the news while scrambling to stay busy and solvent.

On the corporate side, too, “we’ve seen a lot of belt-tightening,” says David Peters 01L, in-house counsel for IBM in Raleigh-Durham, N.C. “The business is seeking new revenue streams, and in the legal department we’re scaling down on budget, trying to be as efficient as we can.” And many companies’ cost-saving strategies include demanding from their outside attorneys better value for cost. In other words: Train your new people on your own dollar, not ours.

The crux

While emergency measures can provide some respite for the immediate crisis, they raise as many problems as they resolve. If the firms curb their billable hours—especially the hours of young associates—how will they pay the associates’ salaries? And how will these young lawyers receive training? If firms must accept fewer associates in the future, how can the profession absorb the new JDs emerging yearly from 200 law schools?

One big change that’s needed, according to Mark Wasserman 86L, is “a completely different mind-set” that starts when law firms take a step back and look closely at how they’re providing services, pricing them and partnering with their clients. As the firm-wide managing partner at Sutherland Asbill & Brennan, based in Atlanta and Washington, D.C., Wasserman has begun to take his own advice, meeting with his firm’s many clients and listening to their perspectives.

“In the past decade,” he says, “law firms built a business that was very dependent upon ever-increasing billable hour rates. The legal profession gradually became too focused on dollar generation. Now the focus is squarely on the issue of providing value to clients. This has changed the entire game on a go-forward basis. Over time, it can be a very good thing.”

David M. Grimes 87L, formerly the managing partner of Reed Smith’s New York office, concurs: “I don’t think we’ll lose the hourly billing model entirely, but some firms need to hear the wake-up call and become more attentive to clients’ needs. It’s not a one-way street anymore.”  

Today’s two-way street through the industry gives clients and firms a chance to share the road — and the risks. Wasserman continues, “For firms that have the right conversations with their clients and with in-house counsel, there’s a lot to be gained. I think this can be a win-win for everybody.”

The gains   

And the wins aren’t likely to stop there.

“For a long time,” Grimes notes, “the quality of management in private law firms has been very uneven. These new conditions emphasize the need for top-quality managers who can import classic corporate management ideas and concepts to help strengthen the law firm partnership model.”

Some firms, in fact, will fare relatively well in today’s economy—and not just the ones that focus on bankruptcy and restructuring. Virtual law firms such as FSB Legal Counsel, where Gardner Courson 74L is a partner, are built, so to speak, to survive downturns and still provide quality lawyering.

“FSB is a law firm without walls,” Courson says. “We have no associates, no one with fewer than seven years of experience. And a fourth of our attorneys have corporate experience as in-house lawyers, so we have a high appreciation for what corporate law departments want—and how they want it done. We’re one of the few firms that are expanding.”

Some lawyers are finding that being laid off may not prove as dire as it sounds. Not only can you branch out and gain experience in another facet of law that you’ve always found intriguing, but as Jonathan Strauss 08L knows from his experience, “It can give you the guts, forcibly, to try something new.”

Grimes points out, too, that deferred associates—and the associates for years to come— stand to receive more thorough training as the profession begins to shift from its long-established methods of instructing young attorneys. He and Courson both mention the British system, which is more like medical training in the United States: three years of studying law, then five or six years of apprenticeship with a mentor in a law firm, and finally, license to practice.

Legal recruiters, consultants and coaches, who likely have practiced law for years before opting for a different way to serve the profession, find that lawyers at all stages need their help, regardless of economic conditions.

Attorney development coach Julie A. Fleming 93L with Life at the Bar in Atlanta explains, “If people in practice can’t figure out how to handle a difficult challenge, they either become one of the huge numbers of unhappy lawyers or leave practice altogether. Right now, people feel lucky just to have a job, so they’re reluctant to bring up any problems at work. I’m here to listen and to help them create solutions.”

After being laid off or deferred, many lawyers find their way into pro bono work, which benefits the public in ever-expanding ripples of service. “It will be interesting to see what changes take place in the larger community as a result of this enhanced talent pool,” Bertolet says.

Jonathan K. Layne 79L 79B, a partner at the Century City office of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher llp in Los Angeles, adds, “Some deferred associates going into pro bono work may find their niche — and find their career forever altered.”

As law schools respond to changing conditions, they serve several masters: their home universities, the steady flow of new and current students and the firms and organizations that will offer interviews, summer programs and jobs to each rising class. In recent years, Emory and many other law schools have begun to provide courses in practical legal skills—and they may need to develop additional ones.

Layne suggests, “Give the students as much practical experience as possible. Prepare students in areas likely to increase in demand, such as intellectual property. Make sure that that students know their responsibility to do good in the community and in the world.”

Peters adds to that list “workshops on drafting contracts and negotiating them, as well as accounting, marketing and basic business management.” For Wasserman, key teaching areas are client service and partnering methodology.

The up-and-coming

Without question, the near future looks rocky for today’s second-year students and associates looking for jobs. If that’s you, don’t despair; options remain.

Janet Hutchinson, Emory Law’s assistant dean for career services, suggests several strategies for students and recent graduates: “First, broaden your search geographically. Think beyond the big firms of Atlanta and New York and instead consider working in your college town or the town where you grew up—places where you have connections. And be sure to look at smaller and midsize firms; unlike some of the larger firms, many are still stable.”

Hutchinson emphasizes, “Above all, find ways to gain hands-on experience. Consider government work and ­public service.”

Emory’s career counselors encourage students to leverage prior work experience and to revisit subjects they enjoyed as undergraduates. “A new career path could emerge,” Hutchinson says.

And it’s not too soon to heed the advice that counselors and consultants alike are offering out-of-work attorneys. While you’re networking, expanding your search and pursuing new experience, do one more thing: Think about what makes you happy.

“If you seriously do that,” says Regina Lipovsky Bodi 98L, president and co-founder of Triumph Search Consultants in New York and Washington, D.C., “the legal profession may gain—at the very least—one more person who is really interested in practicing law.”

The prospect

What does the future hold for the legal profession, and for those who want to pursue it? The fact is, we just don’t know. Emory lawyers voice a spectrum of opinions: “The economy will swing back.” “I don’t think it’s likely to snap back anytime soon.” “Eventually, everything will return to normal.” “Some things will never again be the same.”

But there’s substantial agreement about two things:

1) The profession of law offers an ongoing opportunity to provide service in better and better ways.

2) Each person’s greatest resource — the one that will never change — is quite simple: other people.

“Stop marinating in the bad news!” Fleming tells her audiences. “Go back to the first basic rule: Talk to other people. Every conversation can open new avenues for change.”

Ginger Pyron is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.

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