Sometimes I think Steven Harper and I are in a neck-to-neck race to see who's more cynical about the legal profession. His post in The Am Law Daily about the proliferation of non-partnership tracks in big firms strikes an ominous note. The new positions popping up at big firms (from off-track associates to contract lawyers) are creating an ever-enlarging pool of dead-end, low-paying jobs--what Harper calls "a vast underbelly of lawyers."
But what Harper doesn't say is that this new underclass will likely be populated by a disproportionate share of women. Think about it: Law firms want cheap, reliable talent, while women are only too eager to forsake advancement for a reduced schedule.
In fact, women are already swelling some of those lowly positions ranks. "Women represent 60 percent of staff attorneys, the highest percentage of women lawyers in any category of practice," says the newly released report by The National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL).
Some might applaud these alternative tracks, but they are also ripe for exploitation. For law firms, it's a fantastic, economic way to leverage lawyers. "For as long as they get paid less than their billing rates, they contribute to equity partner wealth," writes Harper. "Rather than up-or-out, it's becoming 'stick around and make the equity partners some money.'"
Law firms and their consultants make the new models sound benevolent, as if they're simply being sensitive to the needs of employees. They talk about how folks don't really want the pressure of being partner these days, and the need for firms to develop alternative career tracks. Firms often steer away from terms like "permanent associate" or "staff lawyer." Instead, terms like "designer" and "individualized" tracks are thrown about.
How wonderful. A dead-end job packaged like some type of holistic spa treatment.
Related post: Recession Tough on Women Lawyers.
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