The money machine(ry)

A recent comment to a NYTimes article about the a possible change in the legal profession, due to automating the work now given to junior employees, as the ones in the images, made me think the following describes the fate of many of the newly minted graduates, regardless of their choosing Goldman Sachs, McKinsey, Accenture, or some law firm. It's the way character starts being tested/built, for there are not typically that many prior opportunities. And, by the way, it's also how the big houses generate a sizable chunk of their profits.

Alberta Romeo

I am an attorney, and think that this is a great idea. I know that law students are worrying, "What about my job as a first-year at Cravath, Davis Polk, or S&C?" Will I have that job? The answer is that, in a few years, those firms will need to recruit fewer "bodies" to do low-level work such as discovery. And that will be better, not worse, for the legal profession, and for you.

Big firms are slave camps. The large firms hire 50 or 60 new associates each year, usually top students from elite law schools. The firms then proceed to work those young lawyers virtually to death -- 60 to 80 hours a week, 2000 to 2800 hours per year (I know someone who billed that many hours). After three or four years, most of these young attorneys have quit, and of the 20 or so who are left, all but a few are fired ("asked to leave"). The big firms, in other words, are blood-suckers who exploit young attorneys, albeit at high salaries, to do their worst, most boring, lest productive work. A young lawyer will finish his stint at a big firm exhausted, sick, disillusioned and -- this is the point -- with virtually none of the skills that he or she actually needs to practice law. Oh, he or she will have written memos and parts of briefs, reviewed a few hundred thousand documents and maybe carried the litigation bag to court a few times. As a corporate associate, he or she will have drafted a few credit agreements and spent upteen nights rereading the same documents. The real practice, however, occurs at higher feeding levels -- senior associates and partners. The lower ranks are worse than soldiers; they are pack horses.

The big firm plantation culture is a disgrace to the profession and survives chiefly because big deals and big cases need grunt labor. Someone who comes of Columbia, Harvard, NYU, Stanford or U of Chicago -- the big schools -- should not start his or her career as a slave. Many people who go through this mill are scarred for life by the experience, and many leave the profession entirely. This is not a system for "training" young lawyers, but rather one for protecting corporate America, using young lawyers as commodities.

So great that we now can do the work via computer. Corporate America will still be fed, but not with young brains and flesh. The recruiters who swarm campuses will make speeches about seeking "only the best," but that most of the best -- one would hope -- would have incentives to go elsewhere. What those incentives will be, and how the profession will grow, no one knows. When I graduated from law school however, the admission's director of my top-4 school described what was going on at the big firms as "immoral." Money knows no value other than money, but now that the business value appears to be in technology, maybe human values will step in to rescue the legal profession from itself. 

Commencement 2009

1 comment:

Unemployed Attorney Boston, MA said...

The effects are already well known to underemployed attorneys. Document review in major cities, which ran $35-$40/hour plus overtime just a few years ago and would hire anyone who passed the bar, now offer $18-$22/hour flat rate and either require applicants be former associates of large law firms or to have had 3-5 years' practice under their belts.

Another piece of the puzzle - unmentioned by the article - is that the ABA allowed the outsourcing of discovery work in 2008. It is now a $5 billion industry in India, and is expected to displace 39,000 attorney jobs in this country by 2015.

The anti-attorney demographic may whoop and holler at this wonderful news, but attorneys are, in large part, folk who paid their way through seven years of very competitive college only to find that their American dream is to apply to the local WalMart with $200,000 in student loan debt and very little chance of keeping their heads above water for the foreseeable future. God help them if they have dependents.

The bottom line is this: very few white collar jobs are not in danger of automation or outsourcing. How we deal with these issues in the future will be very determinative in how well Gen Y turns out, particularly in our cynical and crass where kids mindlessly walk into $55,000/year colleges because they have been inculcated from the cradle that education solves everything. Not anymore. I daresay that the plumber, the electrician, and the car mechanic have more secure futures than the lawyer, the radiologist, and the MBA. American students already owe $829 billion in student loans, and relatively few hold jobs that make their investment/gamble worthwhile. This is the pivotal issue of the next ten-fifteen years, as we suddenly discover that a shocking number of college grads won't be able to afford a home, family, or major consumer spending until middle age, if ever.