Law in Contemporary Society
Got any leads on how to be a good lawyer? Put them here.

Boutique Firms

- I think boutique firms might be the way to go. I spoke with an associate at a boutique firm the other day who much preferred his current situation to his previous employment at a big firm. He said that there was a palpable culture of fear in his previous office; the lawyers lived at the mercy of their clients and everyone was sort of afraid to move for fear of angering them. In contrast, he his current firm was one which encouraged him to take responsibility for his cases, and he said he was doing things now that he would have been made to feel was beyond him at the big firm because the firm didn't want the clients getting mad at them for giving work to an associate.

Michael, I think providing practical opportunities is a great idea for a thread. However, our examples are predicated on a definition of good lawyering that may not be agreed upon. For instance, the boutique firm surely promotes less fear than at a big firm. But is a good atmosphere necessary to being a good lawyer? If the big firm's clients are parties with justice consistently on their side, does the culture of fear make that work any less "good"?

I do think that working without a fear of clients correlates with having (or being able to choose) worthy clients. Still, I believe being a "good lawyer" is slightly different. A proper atmosphere certainly facilitates a happier lifestyle. But this might be a different goal. (This thread discusses the distinction between a "meaningful" and "happy" life, analogous to my distinction of being a "good lawyer" and working in a "positive atmosphere.")

-- KeithEdelman - 25 Feb 2009

I would say that a culture of fear makes the work less good. Because what are the lawyers afraid of? Lack of promotion? Lack of job security? Being yelled at by the boss, or the client? If you have a lawyer who's primarily focused on avoiding that, I think s/he'd do a bad job. I would want a lawyer who isn't too scared to exercise independent judgment, if I needed a lawyer. I appreciate the distinction between "good lawyer" and "positive atmosphere," but I would guess there's a correlation.

Something else we might want to consider is the ability to choose your clients, which people are discussing in the "Is Being a Corporate Lawyer Immoral?" thread. Robinson prides himself on choosing his clients. How important is that? Is there any organization you can really trust to choose your clients for you, and be willing to surrender your autonomy to? Is a boutique law firm more trustworthy than a big one? (Maybe. I don't know.)

-- AnjaliBhat - 26 Feb 2009

If by "good" you mean "effective", then I agree a culture of fear would cause him/her to do a "bad" (ineffective) job. The "good" I used above refers to the object of a lawyer's work, not his/her skill. In other words, I was referring to doing "good" in the world, not doing "well" at your job. With your definition, I agree that a poor atmosphere likely causes ineffective work. With mine, I'm not sure a harsh and overly-critical boss at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund would diminish the value of achieving racial equality.

Perhaps the distinction I made does not produce many new ideas, but we should at least keep the difference in mind when posting career options.

-- KeithEdelman - 05 Mar 2009

I wanted to revive this thread in light of the EIP Orientation yesterday. One of the themes was to "cast a wide net" and focus on firms other than the "Top 27" or whatever it was. I remembered an intriguing new law firm called Axiom that might be interesting for those who want to do firm work. The firm claims that it allows attorneys to choose clients, have 40 hour work weeks, and engage in high-end work. Maybe this is just glorified "temp" work, or maybe its a new business model that can survive these times. Nonetheless, it's an alternative to your standard big firm for those committed to private practice. Whether or not you should want to work for a firm at all is, of course, an entirely different issue. -- KeithEdelman - 08 Apr 2009


- M&A doesn't seem particularly stimulating. I recently spoke with a former associate in M&A who said that it was just drudge work. She said that any enjoyment to be derived from it came purely from the mystique of being part of a big deal, which didn't do it for her and I don't think would do it for me. My suspicions grew when I went to a talk by the head of Cravath's Environmental practice last week. I really liked the guy because he was very animated and obviously cared about his work, but when he described the actual work that he does it didn't sound like much more than giving the green light (no pun intended) to clients' big deals.

Pro Bono and biglaw

- If I was going to work for a big firm right now, I'd probably want it to be Simpson Thacher. In ThoughtsOnCommunity, Gavin suggested that big firms can be their own community. If this is the case, I think it probably looks like this. What a creative program! Also, they are helping to pay for my spring break trip to do legal work down in New Orleans, so I'm grateful for that. What do you guys think about this, though—is sponsoring a service trip for law students just a ruse, or the sign of a legitimate commitment to pro bono?

-- MichaelDreibelbis - 24 Feb 2009

I think pro bono is just a safety valve for biglaw so the associated don't feel that their whole law school studying is a total waste.

-- XinpingZhu - 24 Feb 2009

If a corporation (or LLP) is a person, and people are rational actors, and rational actors won't do a "deal" unless they believe they are getting a "bargain", then Simpson Thatcher must believe that enough law students will believe that they have a legitimate commitment to pro bono to enhance their recruiting ability and pay for itself in the long run.

Of course, if you don't believe that an LLP is a person, I still think this holds true.

-- WalkerNewell - 24 Feb 2009

Thanks for organizing this thread, Michael. I think it is useful in allowing us to formulate concrete ideas concerning what we can all do with our degrees upon graduation.

The Simpson Thacher approach seems like a genuine commitment to community development and pro bono work, but I guess what's troubling we can never really know for sure. While it may just be a recruiting tool that survived a cost-benefit analysis, I would suggest that it is a good one at that. The firm, just as easily, could have spent its money on another reception with free food and drink.

I'm wondering what you all think about the firms that designate associates to do pro bono work or that, alternatively speaking, bill the pro bono work of a general associate in the same way it would be billed for a paying client? I went to a panel the other day where a woman from a top New York firm (designated a 'Pro Bono' Associate) mentioned that the economic downturn and subsequent lack of work has caused a lot of firms to push their associates to keep busy by doing pro bono work. I'm sure we would all prefer that the firms were pushed to this level on their own, but in the case where they treat the work of the needy in the same energized and precise manner as they treat the work of the corporate client, are they doing enough?

-- UchechiAmadi - 25 Feb 2009

I agree with Walker. Law firms support programs like the spring break service trip because it makes their firm more visible. Similar to the reasoning behind the numerous invites we receive to fancy firm luncheons, dinners, and cocktail events, the firms’ incentive is simply to persuade us to select their firm over their competitors. Whether they genuinely have a commitment to public service is possible, however the underlying motive is to attract us to their firm.

-- UchennaIbekwe - 25 Feb 2009

For what it's worth, a while back I contacted a number of associates about their firms' commitment to pro bono activity. The general consensus seemed to be that pro bono is encouraged so long as it is conducted on your own time. How feasible of a significant commitment to public interest work is after an 70+ hour work-week is certainly questionable.

Associate at McKee? Nelson: "As an associate at a private firm, I have been able to participate in some pro bono international human rights work. However, pro bono work at large law firms is something that is intended to be ancillary to the money-making cases. That's why typically only 50 hours of pro bono work may be dedicated to an associate's annual billable hours requirement, which ranges from 2000 - 2200 minimum billable hours. So, even with a good amount of pro bono work, large firm practice really isn't regarded as a legal career in public service."

It seemed there were a few outliers, though: "Crowell & Moring has an amazing pro bono program under which I was able to spend incredible amount of time representing an indigent criminal defendant, being a part of a fair election awareness campaign and filing taxes for indigent DC residents. Crowell & Moring also enabled me to tutor a middle school student every Tuesday for an hour who otherwise will not have resources to afford such tutoring"

I just wanted to point out that Simpson Thacher's public service fellowship program for its associates impresses me as much for creativity in dealing with problems as for their commitment to public service. They have taken a problem--what to do with all of these associates during a downturn--and turned it into a way to cut costs while providing a great opportunity for their associates. Their motivation is certainly just as selfish as other firms, but I'd rather go work for a firm that has a track record of dealing with their problems by finding a way to give me meaningful work rather than just firing me.

-- MichaelDreibelbis - 03 Mar 2009


Also, who else went to that "Life After Law School" talk a few weeks back? The one where the professor from UVA presented a longitudinal study on the satisfaction of lawyers 20 years after graduating. The study had all the standard problems of getting people to self-report on their own happiness, but otherwise I thought it was well done and well explained. One of the more interesting results was the government lawyers were the most satisfied. Public interest was second and small law firms a close third (with large firms a distant last).

Anyone know any government lawyers who have good things to say about their jobs?

-- AnjaliBhat - 26 Feb 2009

I know a number of 'happy' government lawyers, most of whom work for the City of New York, some of whom work for the federal government. However, I again think we have to distinguish between 'most satisfied' and 'good things to say about their jobs.' Government work can be very frustrating, because results come slowly, and you have very little control over your own work (I have close friend who has a high-ranking city government lawyer job and is nevertheless planning a move back to his small New England hometown to hang a shingle). Most of them are 'happy' not because of the work that they do, but because the geometrically smaller burden government work puts on them -- they can still see their spouses, their children, and their friends from time to time.

-- AndrewCase - 27 Feb 2009

I found my experience as a government lawyer to be very positive. While the lack of resources were occasionally frustrating, this was more than outweighed by the satisfaction derived from believing in the value of my work and the opportunities to take significant responsibility at a junior level. Fortunately the State of Western Australia also pays its top recruits starting salaries that approximate those of top corporate firms, so at least in the first couple of years there is little reason not to take a government job.

-- PetefromOz - 01 Mar 2009

Anjali, I went to that "Life After Law School" talk. I'm not sure which standard problems of self-report you are referring to; Dr. Monahan received over 80% return on his surveys and used a standard survey that has been normalized over millions of individuals. In terms of government lawyers being the most satisfied, I think that the differences in satisfaction scores were so close that they were probably not statistically significant. Also, since these surveys were taken 20 years after law school, it's hard to extrapolate whether a government job right out of law school would also achieve very high satisfaction scores.

I think that there are certainly pros and cons of government work which have been touched on by Andrew and Pete. The bureaucracy and the inability to select your cases would be quite frustrating. Better hours and quality of life are certainly important benefits, especially a few years out of school when a majority of people have families. I think that the most important question is whether the type of work you are actually given is personally stimulating, and that seems to be an idiosyncratic question.

-- LaurenRosenberg - 01 Mar 2009

I'd thought for a while that government lawyering was the way to go, since I want to be a litigator for a while before getting into reform activities. The idea of prosecutorial discretion appealed to me most; while I may not agree with criminal sentencing in this country, at least I could add and drop charges as the evidence and the individual criminal warranted. The more I learn, however, the more I suspect that "big law" work and DA/USA work might not be that different. I have never worked in a prosecutorial capacity, but it seems like government bureaucracy and political pressures (to get convictions, to over-charge, to be "tough on fill-in-the-blank") might combine to create a similar culture of fear as we see in big firms, as others have mentioned. If not fear, then it would at least create the sense that, unlike Robinson, you have little to no control over your workload or your clientele.

-- MolissaFarber - 05 Mar 2009

Lauren, the standard problems are what Dr. Monahan himself referred to: there's just no way of knowing how many people answering the survey are lying to themselves or making rationalizations to convince themselves they're happier than they really are. Or, conversely, how many are self-dramatizing and describing themselves as less happy than they really are. I believe Dr. Monahan also said that the differences were statistically significant--perhaps not between government and public interest, but certainly between those two and firm work.

Molissa, that's probably true. I've heard things about the culture of prosecutor's offices, at least in big cities, that are not unlike large law firms. However, there's a sense of righteousness that prosecutors seem to have, of being on a mission, that may contribute to their job satisfaction. But that can create a different problem if the righteousness becomes self-righteousness.

-- AnjaliBhat - 05 Mar 2009

About John Monahan's forthcoming study ("Lawyers at Mid-Career: A 20-Year Longitudinal Study of Job and Life Satisfaction"):

I think what Anjali referred to as "all the standard problems of getting people to self-report on their own happiness" may be that expressions of overall happiness are not quite the same as overall happiness. [Oops! I see Anjali also replied while I was writing this.] As Prof. Monahan said, ideally he would have done something like the classic Csikszentmihalyi studies, where participants wore beepers and were asked at random moments throughout the day to record their momentary state of mind. This lessens reporting bias ("Look at my life! I ought to be happy overall. So I guess I am."): people are more willing to say "I'm frustrated right now" on many occasions than to say "I'm usually not satisfied."

As Lauren points out, the forthcoming study has an extremely high response rate compared to earlier studies. Among these earlier studies was one that found that 11% of North Carolina attorneys considered suicide at least once a month every month for the last year. (This and other studies were summarized in a famous 1999 meta-study, Schiltz, P., On Being A Happy, Healthy, and Ethical Member Of an Unhappy, Unhealthy, and Unethical Profession, 52 Vand. L. Rev. 871.)

The new study strongly suggests that lawyers do not report less happiness than others (earlier studies had suggested that lawyers do report much less happiness), that government lawyers report the most happiness, and that big-firm lawyers (even after 15 years, when most people who discover that big firms are not for them have long left) report a statistically-significant lower happiness (but are still quite happy).

-- GregJohnson - 05 Mar 2009

On the topic of having autonomy as a junior government lawyer: An anecdote in yesterday's Times describes a prosecutor who tried to lose a case he didn't believe had merit (rather than, say, resign or openly abandon the government's position). He argued that his client was the people and that they "would have been ill served had two innocent men remained in jail for a crime they did not commit." He's been notified that he won't be disbarred.

-- GregJohnson - 05 Mar 2009

I agree that the survey used by Dr. Monahan definitely allows for the possibility of rationalizing behavior, but the use of this standard survey over lots of individuals allows comparisons of the data between lawyers and everyone else as well as comparisons between groups of lawyers. I really wish that Dr. Monahan had measured job satisfaction over time (as opposed to a one-time survey at 20 years after law school). If these satisfaction surveys were administered longitudinally, then we could compare the results of this study with the previous studies showing high dissatisfaction in lawyers. My understanding of prior studies, including most of those included in the meta-study, is that they were generally administered with much younger lawyers, so it is conceivable that lawyers are very unhappy as new lawyers and then they become happier later in life. In addition, the fact that Dr. Monahan studied individuals in their 40s may be a reflection of a different type of work culture than the one our generation will experience. This is consistent with the finding in the meta-study that job satisfaction in lawyers has declined over time. Since these lawyers were considerably older, then they may reflect a much higher job satisfaction than we will experience.

What do we do with this job satisfaction research? I don't think the answer is that we all become government lawyers. The goal is to determine what it is about these types of careers that provide higher satisfaction and try to figure out how to get those features into our own careers. I think the hours requirement is one factor that relates to job satisfaction. In addition, a concern over ethics most likely plays a role. If government lawyers don't need to worry about being disbarred for purposely losing their cases (as that NYTimes article suggests), then maybe there is an explanation for why they are happier than everyone else.

State Attorneys General

I’ve been interning along with Alex Uballez and a few other CLS 1Ls with Jim Tierney at Columbia’s National State Attorneys General Program. We’ve hosted a number of former state AGs including Peter Harvey (NJ), Steve Merrill (MT), and Grant Woods (AZ). Each referenced the satisfaction he derived from wearing the “white hat” and advocating on behalf of the public.

Some of the accomplishments they achieved while in office include: (1) dedicating settlement funds to the establishment of forensics labs which allowed rape cases to be successfully prosecuted without victim testimony; (2) terminating racial profiling and redlining practices; (3) multi-state tobacco litigation; (4) enjoining misuse of charitable assets in higher education, (5) convincing federal officials to utilize local law enforcement in illegal immigration matters (since to do so would deter illegal aliens from contacting police regarding criminal victimizations). These achievements stand as concrete examples of the meaningful change one can effect as a state agent.

Unlike the DA or USAO office, the Office of the Attorney General affords a considerable amount of discretion to its AAGs both in cases and practice area. The Chief Deputy, the highest appointed attorney within the office, may be the ultimate generalist. Though the quality of state AG offices vary, I would strongly consider this option and contact Jim Tierney if interested.

-- JasonLissy - 09 Jul 2009

Non-Profit Organizations

After doing some research for my first paper, I realized that the Innocence Project does amazing work. Working to free the falsely-accused has tremendous meaning. I can't imagine many other uses of a law license that so directly achieve justice. For me, traditional criminal defense work raises a few moral concerns (Robinson is, after all, never far from crime). But the Innocence Project, by definition, avoids some of these issues.

With respect to happiness, I would imagine workers are far more content than at many other places. There is likely little competition against your fellow employees. Instead, workers are joined by a common, justice-driven goal. This is just one non-profit organization that surely needs young attorneys to help better the world. Any other ideas?

-- KeithEdelman - 09 Mar 2009


I came across a link today through Above the Law and thought it was relevant to this discussion. It's to a blog article called Create A New Career Outside The Law. While I think this was meant for those who don't want to practice law, it also could apply to those of us trying to figure out how to make an impact and pursue happiness as lawyers.

My big fear for my future is taking a big law job to pay off my loans and getting shackled by golden handcuffs. The author addresses the financial issue, which resonated with me:

How Do I Leave Behind My Big Paycheck?

Financial considerations always arise when transitioning out of the law. Remember, though, that it may not be the case that moving into another career will mean a pay cut. A substantial number of non-legal positions pay very acceptable salaries.[5] And if a position you decide to seek does pay less initially, it may offer the potential for you to earn more as you progress. Sometimes changing careers does entail reduced earnings, prestige and control while you take the time to develop new expertise. On the other hand, your new work may build on your previous experience, and pay more than you expect. You may also be able to supplement your income with contract legal work while you are learning a new trade or building a new business, which is what I did.

Consider, too, that you may not need to make as much money as you earned as an attorney. There’s always a trade-off: your income may diminish, but your satisfaction may increase. Because you’re doing what you want to do, you’ll feel as if your life is richer and more fulfilled in ways that can more than compensate for a lower salary. Don’t let your assumptions and fears stop you from investigating what may be open to you.

-- MolissaFarber - 13 Mar 2009

I think that's an excellent excerpt, Molissa. It's important for us to realize that an advantage to having a law degree is flexibility -- it is not terribly difficult for lawyers to change firms, fields, even professions (doctors, nurses, etc. don't have such flexibility). Even though it may seem like we need to need nail down our career paths right now, that is certainly not the case.

-- JosephAvery - 24 Mar 2009

I agree that lawyers have generally had considerable ease in switching positions as their legal interests and family goals change over time. However, I think that this has created a few drawbacks in the way that law students select their careers. First, students often choose to work for large law firms believing that they will do so for a few years to pay back loans and then switch paths later. Often this means sacrificing their temporary happiness for the salaries. Other times it entails entering into a market that one does not actually leave because the individuals grow accustomed to the lavish lifestyle. Second, this prevents individuals from truly thinking about their career goals since they believe that they can always switch paths later if they are unsatisfied. Third, this assumption depends on a market where high-paid, well-educated laywers are in high demand. Recent months indicate that this may no longer be the case.

-- LaurenRosenberg - 24 Mar 2009



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