Except when you get in trouble and need one, a favorite American pastime is to condemn and ridicule lawyers. Not only have we witnessed a cancerous proliferation of lawyers in our nation, now over 1.1 million, but for a long time all we have heard is how much incredible money most lawyers make. Setting aside public interest lawyers working for the public good, before the economic downturn lawyers fresh out of law school could easily get $150,000 annual starting salaries as associates. Partners in big name firms could make millions a year.
When we also feel anger about government, politicians and lobbyists we know that most of the corrupt, power hungry and largely incompetent elites are lawyers. So now, as so many millions of ordinary Americans are suffering extreme pain and anxiety because of the economic meltdown, we may feel a little joy because many lawyers are losing their jobs, assuming none are family members or friends.
Stories are appearing on almost a daily basis about financial difficulties and layoffs at top law firms nationwide. At K&L Gates; Morgan Lewis & Bockius; and White & Case a total of 731 attorneys and staff have lost their jobs. Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld cut 47 associates and 57 staff, and King & Spalding dropped 37 attorneys and 85 staff. Latham & Watkins trimmed its headcount by 190 attorneys and 250 staffers, and Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe laid off 100 attorneys and 200 staff. O'Melveny & Myers let go of 90 attorneys and 110 staffers. Over a 10-day period from February 27 through March 9, 2009 the total number of layoffs at well-known partnerships was close to 2,500. Sure, that's hardly anything compared to the tens of thousands losing their jobs from well known companies. But for the legal sector it is big, bad news, a virtual wipe-out tsunami that besides hitting attorneys is also devastating lower paid staff. And it will likely get worse.
From boom to bleak times is the theme of a Boston Globe an article that wrote about Paul Semenza, a lawyer for 25 years that cannot find a job in his chosen profession. He now sells sofas and mattresses in a furniture outlet. But, unlike untold number of other Americans, at least he has a job. The story noted: "The downturn marks an entrance into uncharted territory for one of
The point for the rest of us is that high costs for lawyers drove up the costs for all kinds of products and services. Indeed, much of the public negativity about lawyers connects to our perception that we have all paid a high price for high priced lawyers. We know in our hearts that lawyers wrote the laws and regulations at every level of government that created mountains of work for other lawyers. Lawyers like litigation and confrontation because it makes money for them. Lawyers are shysters. Lawyers make their parents proud and the rest of us angry, and maybe a little envious, at least until now.
Law firms are also pursing other actions to adjust to the new, terrible economic times, including outsourcing some of their work overseas, hiring more temporary or contract lawyers, and shifting from billable hours to fixed fees. Using lawyers in places like
An even more interesting action is what Geoff Willard, a
Another class of law firms doing well are those specializing in bankruptcies. A small bankruptcy law practice in a cramped and cluttered downtown
It seems more than a little ironic that at this time when law schools are still graduating large numbers of lawyers and many are losing their jobs a new hit book is Life Without Lawyers: Liberating America from Too Much Law, by Phillip K. Howard. But the book is not so much an indictment against lawyers as it is criticism about the whole emphasis on the legal system in the
Howard makes the point that since the 1960s, we've created legal structures that have reduced people's choices and killed common sense. The result is that people no longer have freedom in their daily choices. What he calls a "legal self-consciousness" has hit American society like a "heavy lead blanket," poisoning even simple choices that people make in their day to day life. In other words, so many of us are compelled to live life thinking about self protection from litigation. "To restore our freedom, we have to purge law from most daily activities," writes Howard. It seems logical that accomplishing this would be helped by reducing the army of lawyers who have invaded our country. And so the good news from this economic meltdown is that, just maybe, we might have a less lawyer-plagued society.