It’s as Bad as You Think

PhilaLawyer Columns, Lawyer 10 Comments

When we asked in a recent poll whether you would stay in your job if forced to take a 20% pay cut, nearly 80% of you said yes. That’s hardly a bona fide economic indicator, but lawyers are typically more prone to bitching about being underpaid than overpaid, and when the bitching stops, that’s cause for alarm.  (Continued below.)

Right now, lawyers would not only accept a pay cut, they’d be happy to do so if it meant saving their job because the notion of guaranteed employment for those with JDs no longer exists.

“It is that bad out there,” one anonymous New York BigLaw associate told Bitter Lawyer. “You’d be crazy to just walk away.”

Another anonymous associate at a prominent D.C. firm told Bitter Lawyer that he “continues to knock on wood [that he has a job] every time he sees an article about layoffs,” adding that he’d gladly accept a pay cut, but would (politely) ask if he could work fewer hours.

Another pragmatic associate in New York put it this way: “A twenty percent pay cut is far better than a 100 percent pay cut.”

A half-dozen other lawyers we emailed, many of whom expressed fear that the job market would get worse before it gets better, seconded that sentiment.

“Generally, it’s awful,” a partner told Bitter Lawyer. “Firms are shedding lawyers, some en masse.”

Only those associates trained in high-demand specialties are weathering the storm, and according to the partner we spoke with, young lawyers with backgrounds in labor, health and environmental law are still getting job offers, provided that they come with turn-key skill sets that will be cost-effective for the clients.

But those who make their money putting resumes in front of hiring partners don’t (want to) agree that the market is that bad.

Headhunter Stacy Miller Azcarate of San Francisco-based attorney search firm Miller, Sabino & Lee concedes that the market is bad. But she says the pendulum is expected to swing into positive territory soon.

“Frankly, I’m excited to see what it all looks like in a year,” Azcarate says.

ESQ Recruiting, which focuses solely on the in-house market, reports that virtually all of its clients—from Fortune 50 companies to startups—have reduced their in-house legal budgets. But Vanessa Vidal, the recruiting firm’s president, says layoffs aren’t hitting the legal departments of most of the companies she works with. Instead, those companies are opting to explore such options as pay freezes and reducing benefits and bonuses.

So does that mean lawyers faced with the option of a 20 percent pay cut or the door should choose the former in this market?

Anecdotal evidence says yes.

BigLaw alone has laid off enough lawyers to start a handful of new major firms, and by the time you read this, our favorite layoff tracker on Law Shucks will be woefully out of date because the pace of firings is almost too fast to keep up with.

Some firms are trying to be tactical.  Epitomizing a new trend, Chicago’s McGuireWoods LLP said it’s reducing starting salaries for first-year associates from $160,000 to $144,000. Other firms have deferred start dates for 3Ls and even shortened or cancelled summer associate programs.

Across the pond, Harrowells, a UK firm, put more than 100 lawyers and staff on a four-day week rather than instituting layoffs. In fact, it’s so bad out there that The New York Times ran a story about how a corporate lawyer now dines at restaurants that accept coupons. Ouch.

So, with all the misery out there, it’s little wonder that 78% of those polled said they would “suck it up and work” in the face of a 20% pay cut. Which begs the question: How low just might the salary limbo go?

Share this Post

  • Bill Dugan

    Tell us something we don’t already know, dickweed!  Of course the job market sucks–and even then you guys screw up with the salaries–there’s supposed to be 3 zeros after the 160 and 144, not 2.  What are you, British or something?  The only ones that will make out in this job market are top shelf babes, who have an “in” with the managing partners.  Even if all other things were equal (which they’re not), these babes will retain their jobs, because it’s always good business to have top shelf babes parading around the halls, so that the clients can drool as they come in for conferences.

  • BL1Y

    I doubt this is at all unique to law.  Most people when faced with the options of making 20% less or being unemployed would take the pay cut (and then start looking for a new job).  And, I bet if you asked lawyers 2 years ago what they would do, a lot still would have taken the pay cut.  Either way, you’re looking for a new job, why not earn 80% of your original salary while doing it?

  • Anonymous

    As usual. Dugan is a moron.

  • BL4Y

    Since you weren’t around in the glory days, I’ll clue you in. If my firm had pulled that crap two years ago (even a year ago), I would have been out the door faster than you could say headhunter. It wouldn’t have been about making 80% while I was looking because I would have found a new job right away in that market. What I wouldn’t have done was take crap from my employer. At least, not in 2007. These days? It’s ,”Thank you, sir, may I have another?”

  • Ann

    BL4Y is on the money.  That’s the point of the article.  Missed it again Dugan.

  • Alex Hump

    Dugan is A/OK in my book.  Don’t know whether you guys need something to bash, but it shouldn’t be him.  I suppose with Alma Federer on vacation (hopefully not laid off), you have to have someone to pick on, but I stand in his corner.

  • Anonymous

    HUGE surprise that the Humpster would take Dugan’s side.

  • Wilbur Moore

    BL1Y was around, he was just crapping his pants in high school in the “glory days”.  For what it’s worth, I also think you’re being unfair to Dugan.  He at least speaks his mind.

  • BL1Y

    Alex: While I don’t mind Dugan, I’d like to see a little more creativity from him.  It’s getting less funny and more trolly.  Wilbur: Learn to subtract.  Two years ago I was crapping my pants in law school, not high school.

  • Anon

    I think Hump and Dugan are the same dude.