“The Falling Down Professions”

Many of you probably saw and read the cover of the Sunday Styles section of January 6th’s New York Times  entitled:  “The Falling Down Professions.” The article outlines the decrease in  “happiness” of lawyers and doctors.  Notably, with respect to the legal profession the article stresses that large law firms are losing associates and notes that Sullivan & Cromwell had been “hemorrhaging” associates.  According to the article, attempts are being made to begin “groundbreaking” programs such as having partners say “thank you” and “good work.” WOW  – what progress!

 Reading this article on the way back from the AALS conference confirmed for me that Best Practices has gotten many things right.

First, Best Practices notes that law schools seem to be designed to simply “sort” students for big firms.  Recent  articles in the Wall Street Journal and in the NYT report that the big firm model is itself coming under attack.  Thus,  how silly it is to model large law firm behavior and that competitive approach in law schools. 

I also found myself smiling about  Best Practices inclusion of  the work done by the Humanizing Legal Education movement, Larry Krieger and others on balance.   Law firms’ failure to retain associates reveal a  broader shift in the definition of success among younger people “inextricably linked to ideas of flexibility and creativity” according to the NYT.     This demographic culture shift needs to be watched by law schools since the LSAC is reporting increasing declines in law school applications.

 Finally, the  article points out that the one place in which lawyers feel a sense of reward and success is in “helping people” but that the current business context deters associates from adding  pro bono work (which formerly gave a sense of a “higher calling”) to their already weary days.  Again,  Best Practices and Carnegie emphasize the need to teach the “higher calling” approach which emphasizes justice, ethics and pro bono work, which emphasizes the public nature of our profession and its potential to do such good for the community.  

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One Response

  1. As a new academic and long-time (almost 15 years) veteran of large firm law practice, I read this post with interest. Without a doubt, large law firm practice can be a grim affair, with its long hours and the intense pressure to build a book of business. And regrettably, the press of business puts particular strain on lawyers who want to combine practice with family, civic engagement and/or pro bono work. Certainly, large firm lawyers are well paid for their troubles, so their unhappiness should be put in perspective. But, the profession as a whole is dimished, I think, by the pressure on large firm lawyers to put aside everything but fee-generating work.

    One of the points that I take from Best Practices is that lawyers (like normal people (:-)) are happiest when their work is based on an underlying passion and a commitment to excellence. And I wonder whether part of law school — the transformative part , even — might just be helping students identify their passions. Over the past semester, I’ve used actual case work (in a clinical setting), reflection exercises, and a speaker’s series designed to expose my students to leading local lawyers in my field (among other tools) to help students determine whether they want to pursue a career in securities law (the substantive area in which I teach). Since I am a “newbie,” I would love insights/ comments/ suggestions from others!

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