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Crystal Ball, Oh Crystal Ball

Vivia Chen

December 30, 2010

IStock_000002862948XSmall Hey, wasn't 2010 supposed to be the year of reckoning for the legal industry? Chastened by the economic downturn, big-firm partners were practically on their knees just a year ago, swearing to clients--and anyone else who'd listen--that they'd change their antiquated, prodigal ways. Weren't they all chanting that mantra of efficiency and rationality?

The penance was real--for a while. Fact is, the fundamentals of the legal biz are pretty much the same--and will likely remain so for the foreseeable future. Why? Because the economy, while still shaky, has stabilized for big-firm lawyers--at least for those lucky enough to hold on to their partnership seats during the turbulence--and those old ways are hard to shake.

But can anyone really return to those innocent prerecession days? Though firms are hiring and throwing out bonuses again (and associates are griping again that the bonuses are only $35,000 tops), the legal market has shrunk--and not expected to rebound to its old levels anytime soon.

So what to make of this confusing state of affairs? Well, let's see what The Careerist's crystal ball has to say:

First, what won't happen in 2011:

1. Billable hours won't die. "Alternative billing" might be the buzz term du jour, but billable hours still reign supreme--certainly at the top firms. (Remember when Cravath, Swaine & Moore's presiding partner Evan Chesler made front-page news in  The New York Times  by declaring, “This is the time to get rid of the billable hour.” And how much do you want to bet that Cravath lawyers are still filling out time sheets?)

2. Efficiency and competency won't determine compensation. Yes, firms will pressure lawyers to be more productive, but they also want lots of hours. So here's the new drill: Bill those 2,500 hours, but do it more efficiently.

3. The pay gap between women and men partners won't close. Women equity partners earned only 85 percent of what their male counterparts took home, reports the National Association of Women Lawyers in 2010. It'll take a while to bridge that 15 percent gap, so what's the hurry?

4. Law school graduates won't thumb their noses at high-paying, prestigious  jobs just because their quality of life will be dismal. (Sorry work/life balance advocates, but I don't think Wachtell Lipton is hurting for candidates.)

5. Male lawyers won't put work/life balance on top of their priority list. (Look around you at the next work/life balance meeting. How many men do you see there who aren't working the event or related to one of the presenters?)

6. There won't be a shortage of suckers who aspire to be lawyers. (According to a study by DiscoverReady in the NLJ, people will go into debt for law school because they "sincerely believe they will graduate in the top 10 percent of the class" and are just "naive consumers of debt.")

7. Law schools won't be releasing employment statistics about their graduates. It doesn't matter how hard a group like the Law School Transparency Project pushes, it's not in the self-interest of law schools to release this kind of information.

8. Lawyers won't be happy. Law schools like Duke can offer a smogasbord of courses on lawyer happiness, but lawyers will always be a miserable, hard-working lot. And that's the way we like them.

Second, what will certainly happen in 2011:

1. There will be more chest-beating about the changing legal profession. Expect leaders of the profession to hold powwows, conferences, and seances about the future of alternative billing, competency models, career tracks, etc.

2. Partnership structures will become more byzantine. Law firms will introduce more layers in the firm structure. One-tier partnerships will quietly go to a two-tier system; two-tier firms will create more tiers. Soon, equity partner positions will become as rare as black diamonds.

3. Firms will continue to talk about work/life balance issues and lawyer morale. There will be committees devoted to exploring "best practices" and the business case for family-friendly policies--but few firms will take them seriously.

4. Big corporate clients will demand that firms staff more women and minorities on their deals and cases. But few will actually reprimand outside counsel for their bad statistics. And none will fire them for bet-the-company type of litigation or deals.

5. Consultants will have a busy year advising law firms on all of the above and make a mint.

6. New law schools will continue to proliferate like puppy mills. Some recent additions: University of Massachusetts Law School, University of California at Irvine Law School, Phoenix Law School, and UNT at Dallas College of Law. Could a Church of Scientology law school be far behind?

7. Attractive people will always have an edge in the legal profession--and everywhere else in life. Need evidence? See Deborah Rhode's book, The Beauty Bias.

8. White men will continue to rule. But you knew that one already.

What predictions would you add to the list?

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Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? E-mail The Careerist's chief blogger, Vivia Chen, at VChen@alm.com.

 Photo: Fotolia


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Here's one more, the quality of work will suffer more than it does now because one important factor to every thing running smoothly is staff. The people that are never mentioned in these articles. The same people who if lucky have received a 1 or 2% raise over the past couple of years,

Here's one more, the quality of work will suffer more than it does now because one important factor to every thing running smoothly is staff. The people that are never mentioned in these articles. The same people who if lucky have received a 1 or 2% raise over the past couple of years, bonuses as low as a $100 and more work with no pay. My last job in my 20 year career as a secretary was in a "Top" Labor & Employment firm in Los Angeles where I worked a minimum of 2 hours of overtime each day without pay just to keep that job. I was at the top in my field so I made a "good" salary but not enough to take the abuse the law firms expect you to take for it now. I'm out. Fortunately the salary law firms consider good isn't good enough and I can do many other things and make the same and more while keeping my dignity. So to all the law firms go ahead and outsource, get a temp, or hire someone with 2-5 years experience, you think lawyers are miserable now, just wait.

More states will sign on to the Uniform Bar Exam (UBE). Lawyers who can qualify for reciprocity or transfer scores from one UBE state to another will become more mobile. Meanwhile, although some academics will continue attacking the existence or the form of the analytic bar exam, the exam will still be with us when we reconvene on December 31, 2011.

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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