Power in Numbers? Top Law School Students Talk Unions

In the midst of a recession that has graduates from top law schools scrambling, there are still a large number of current students from elite programs who are looking forward, trying to shift the balance of power in the legal workforce. Anyone with a working knowledge of the world of law firms knows that once a law student graduates, that person is suddenly and totally at the mercy of the machine that is BigLaw. A group of elite law students belonging to an organization called Building a Better Legal Profession (BBLP) are trying to change that. And at their National Conference of Student Leaders, they started talking unions.

The details of the conference can be found in the link above and there are some interesting and nuanced thoughts presented on hot topics such as billable hours and workplace diversity. It is also exciting to see future lawyers trying to take control over their destinies, rather than just waiting to get there and then complaining about things. However, what I found most fascinating and inspiring about the conference is the way these top law students are focusing on the future of the legal industry, rather than the present.

In a legal climate that is completely overrun with panic over the recession and the resulting actions – elimination of bonuses, salary freezes, deferred jobs – there are too few people thinking about the big picture. There is no doubt that in some indeterminate amount of time, the legal market will regain its footing. Litigation and bankruptcy practices are currently thriving, new practice areas will emerge in regulation and corporate governance, and once lending starts to kick back in, most transactional practices will be overflowing with work. Other than perhaps commercial real estate (which might never fully recover to its 2007 heights) and investments (such as hedge funds and private equity firms, where new securities regulation may limit the flow of capital through those financial vehicles), the legal work will return to corporate practice groups in all the major markets. And when that happens, what will law firms do? Will they immediately hire back all of the associates that were previously on the payroll to make sure no one becomes overworked? Will they reward those who stuck around with bonuses and salary increases? Will they nurture their incoming attorneys and mold them into the future of the firm?

The chances of any of that happening are somewhere between slim and none. Instead, what law firms will almost certainly do is take full advantage of what the recession has done to hiring practices and the expectations of incoming associates. Consider the following shifts over the past 12 months:

– Entire industries that used to steal away young corporate associates, such as investment banking, have either vanished or been stripped down to almost nothing, meaning that the panic-fueled retention efforts of big law firms (including salary hikes, special bonuses, training, mentorship, and other attempts to keep attorneys happy) are almost completely unnecessary now. After all, where are these associates going to go now to make more money?

– Salaries and bonuses were frozen or slashed, which created an entirely new level of expectation for both current and future attorneys.

– A large number of incoming associates had their start dates pushed back or were paid stipends to stay away for an entire year, radically changing the relationship between graduate and firm. A 2007 graduate from an elite law school felt entitled to her job at a big firm. A 2009 elite grad is going feel desperate just to keep hers.

All of these changes were driven by the economy, rather than by the firms themselves, which puts the law firms in the enviable situation of being both blameless and sitting on top of a work force that will now toil for less pay and with lower expectations regarding job satisfaction. That