Stepping up to the bar – law as a profession

Stepping up to the bar – law as a profession – includes profiles of attorneys

Michael Stanton

In 1987, 15 percent more people applied to America’s law schools than did so the year before. This increase baffled law school admissions officers. Applications had been rising steadily since the beginning of the decade, but only by about 6 percent a year. What caused the sharp jump? No one knows for sure, but some fingers pointed to a popular TV show about a glamorous group of Los Angeles lawyers who wear $800 suits, drive $30,000 cars, and occasionally practice law.

Shows about lawyers frequently fill a few slots on television’s prime time schedule. Today, along with the Los Angeles glitz of MacKenzie, Brackman, Kuzak, and Becker, there’s the down-home country charm of Matlock. And before them, Perry Mason battled wits with his adversaries in his TV courtroom every week, never failing to expose the real murderer in the last minutes of the show. Truth and justice always triumphed.

But how closely do the reel lives resemble the real thing? About as much as Hogan’s Heroes resembled a POW camp. Here’s a look beyond these TV caricatures.

Law in American Life

“American society has been dominated by the law as no other society in history has been,” writes Bernard Swartz, a legal historian. We celebrated this fact recently with our commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the Constitution, which codified our individual rights and liberties and established a government to assure that these rights and liberties would endure. Upon this foundation, we have continued to build. And build. And build.

In the United States today, hundreds of thousands of laws are on the books. Every year, Congress passes hundreds of new laws and amends old ones. The 50 State governments pass thousands more. Lawmaking doesn’t stop there, however. The laws that legislators pass sketch the broad outlines of policies and programs. The executive agencies fill in the details with rules and regulations that have the force of law. And the courts, through their interpretation of laws, in effect make new ones.

In the last several decades, the growth in the number of laws and regulations has prompted increases in corporate spending for legal services. In Lawyers in Transition, Mark Byers, Don Samuelson, and Gordon Williamson write that from 1970 to 1980, these expenses increased fourfold, from $7 billion to $28 billion. As spending grew, so did the number of lawyer.s

The American Bar Association estimates that more than 700,000 people are licensed to practice law in this country. That’s more than twice the number of licensed lawyers in 1970. Today, about 1 U.S. citizen in every 360 is a lawyer. By contrast, Eve Spangler writes in Lawyers For Hire that “our Nation has about 20 times more lawyers per 1,000 people than Japan . . . 10 times as many as Sweden, and 3 times as many as Germany.”

Studies show the profession continues to grow. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that employment of lawyers, or attorneys, will increase 30 percent from 1988 to the year 2000.

Practicing Law

This year about 36,000 students will graduate from America’s law schools. They will have reached a milestone–the end of 3 years of reading, writing, and thinking about the law. Now they must practice it.

Every year, the National Association for Law Placement (NALP) surveys the 175 law schools accredited by the American Bar Association to find out what kinds of jobs graduates have taken. In its survey of the class of 1988, NALP found the following percentages:

Total 100.0

Private practice 64.3

Clerkship 12.7

Government 12.0

Business and industry 6.9

Public interest law 3.1

Academia 1.0

In each sector, a lawyer will likely use the same skills but serve different clients. And there will be significant differences between them in salaries, resources, personal and professional demands, and philosophic orientation.

Private Practice

The majority of lawyers are in private practice. In 1986, for example, about two-thirds of the active lawyers (420,000), that is, those actually practicing law, were in private practice. A little less than half of these were sole practitioners–lawyers who practiced alone with only secretarial or legal assistants in the office; the remainder worked in firms ranging in size from two layers to hundreds.

Since 1979, the percent of new law graduates entering private practice has grown steadily. The proportion of 1988 graduates who chose this option exceeded that of the class of 1979 by 10 percent. This increase has occurred at the expense of all the other categories in the NALP survey. One reason for this rise is given by Abbie Thorner, Director of Placement at the Georgetown University Law School. She says, “The cost of a legal education is definitely a motivating factor. Many students graduate with debts in the tens of thousand of dollars. Private practice pays more.”

Descriptions of law firms frequently begin with the firm’s size. The 1988 NALP survey, for example, groups law firms into five categories, the smallest ranging from 2 to 10 lawyers and the largest with over 100 lawyers on the staff. Of the graduates entering private practice, an equal proportion (18 percent) began work with very small firms and with very large ones. Average starting salaries for new lawyers ranged from $28,475 for those in the smallest firms to $58,936 in the largest.

In Lawyers in Transition, the authors link size with the markets or clients that the firms serve. Four different categories are discussed: Firms with a national practice; firms with a regional practice; specialty, or “boutique” firms; and local practices.

National firms tend to serve the country’s largest corporations, such as those on the Fortune 500 list. These businesses operate not only across the country but around the world, and they need legal counsel of matching scope. The legal work in these law firms is complex and demanding.

Keen competition characterizes recruitment at these firms, among both the firms themselves and the students who wish to work for them. These firms recruit principally the students with the highest grades from the country’s top law schools. When news stories highlight the astronomical salaries paid to people fresh from law school, these firms are the focus. In NALP’s 1988 survey, for example, salaries for new lawyers at major New York City firms averaged $71,361.

Regional firms resemble national firms, but on a smaller scale. These practices “serve regional corporations and some of the needs of larger corporations, plus private families and individuals accustomed to a high level of professional service,” according to Lawyers in Transition. Although the smaller in size than the national firms, they often have offices in several cities.

Specialty firms focus on particular areas of law, such as labor or bankruptcy, or work for specific industries, such as insurance or communications. If an industry dominates a city, some firms will specialize in that industry. In Washington, for example, an array of firms specialize in areas regulated by the Federal Government’s executive agencies, such as the Federal Communications Commission or the Environmental Protection Agency.

Local law practices are usually small firms or sole practitioners. The services they provide vary greatly. In general, according to Byers and his coauthors, “The smaller the firm, the more local its practice, and the more likely it is to be providing general legal advice.” This might include estate planning, real estate, and simple litigation, or trial work.

Sole practitioners have declined as a proportion of all lawyers in private practice since the 1950’s. According to the Statistical Abstract of the United States 1990, 67 percent of lawyers in private practice in 1954 practiced alone. By 1986, only about 47 percent did. It is a path that few lawyers fresh from school follow. In 1986, the NALP survey found that only about 2 percent of new graduates hung out their own shingle.

Several reasons may explain this decline. One is the increasing complexity of the law. This encourages specialization. By banding together, attorneys are able to serve more of their clients’ needs. If a client has a problem beyond one attorney’s expertise, the lawyer can refer the client to an associate knowing that the associate will return the favor. This avoids the risk of having the client move to a new attorney for all future business. Another reason may be economic. The cost of establishing and maintaining a law practice can be high. Sharing the expense is a practical alternative.

Life in the Law Firm

Though each firm reflects the lawyers who compose it and the specialties they practice, some generalizations can be made about what these new lawyers in private practice will face–long hours and hard work.

Law firms take different approaches to training. In some, a new attorney rotates through several departments, such as litigation and tax, for a couple of years before deciding on a specialty. In others, associates may be considered as a pool of talent to be assigned where work is needed.

Whatever training methods firms employ, new associates need close supervision and varied assignments to develop their talents. Eve Spangler writes that at the center of this training is “the loosely structured supervision of an associate by a senior partner–a strategy that firms describe as mentoring.”

Typically, new associates focus on research, which resembles the well-practices routines of law school. The partner or senior associate who supervises the training may want some information on a particular point of law or the relation of the facts in a case to a preceding one; then the associate writes a memorandum detailing the findings. As attorneys develop competence, they take on more complex tasks and work more independently.

The pace in private practice, particularly for associates at large law firms, can be grueling. Law is a profession, but it is also a service business where time equals money. Generally, firm ask attorneys to keep track of their time in 15-minute intervals. Ideally, every minute attorneys spend working on the firm’s business should be billed to an account–either to the client’s account or to an office account.

The minutes spent on the clients’ business add up to “billable hours,” those hours that can be billed directly to clients. Most new associates at large firms must produce 2,000 billable hours per year. That’s the equivalent of 40 hours a week for 50 weeks. And in order to have that many billable hours, the associate must put in a lot of additional time at the office. At some firms the number of billable hours required is even greater. The associate’s position is not a 9-to-5 job. Night and weekend work is expected.

The aim for attorneys in private practice is partnership. Partnership means ownership. Achieving that goal takes 6 to 10 years. It means lots of billable hours and, increasingly, it means specialization.

Every law firm distinguishes litigation from business law, and within these categories are a whole range of specialties. Law firms reward the specialist. Increasingly, law firms are urging associates to specialize early.

Most associates with large firms do not become partners. A 1983 report from Columbia University Law School states that almost 90 percent of the approximately 240 graduates who took jobs with Wall Street firms did not become partners.

In most firms, an “up or out” policy is the norm. Attorneys who don’t make partner generally leave for other opportunities. Some firms are reexamining this policy. Time and money are expended to train these attorneys; it makes little sense to have them leave after such an investment.

Corporate/Business Lawyers

Corporate legal staffs have increased dramatically over the last three decades. In Lawyers in Transition, the authors estimate that 90,000 lawyers are employed by businesses and corporations. Skyrocketing costs of outside legal help have prompted this growth. Many businesses have decided that it’s better to keep this cost in house.

In spite of this growth, only 7 percent of the class of 1988 surveyed by NALP were hired by corporations. Experience is the explanation. Most corporations prefer to hire seasoned legal talent rather than spend time and money training a lawyer for their staff.

As in private law firms, a great variety exists among corporate legal opportunities. According to Lawyers in Transition, “The average corporate legal department is reported to have 17 attorneys, 2 paralegals, 2 nonattorney professionals, and 14 legal support personnel.” But Exxon, for example, employs over 400 attorneys coast to coast. These lawyers specialize in different aspects of the company’s business. By contrast, the legal staff at Sea Pines Plantation Co., a resort management company in South Carolina, consists of an attorney, a paralegal, and a legal secretary.

Corporate law departments are structured like a pyramid. New staff attorneys form the base. As in private law firms, newcomers typically spend 6 months or a year learning the corporation’s particular way of doing business, frequently under the direction of a more senior attorney. Then, writes Eve Spangler, “They can expect to be promoted through the ranks in 4- or 5-year intervals until they reach the highest staff positions.” This process may take 12 to 15 years. At the pinnacle is the general counsel, who also frequently holds a position as an officer in the company.

Before the boom in corporate legal offices, the general counsel traditionally served as the liaison for outside legal advice. Company lawyers still perform this role. Increasingly, however, these attorneys handle all the routine legal business of the company and as much of the specialized work as circumstances permit.

These changes are presenting new challenges for corporate legal departments, particularly for more junior members of the staff. They encounter a greater variety of law and assume responsibilities at a quicker pace than some of their colleagues in private practice.

On a day-to-day basis, the work of company lawyers resembles that of attorneys in private practice. They research points of law, write memoranda, and offer legal advice. These are significant differences, however.

While a private attorney serves as an independent adviser, the corporate lawyer is part of the company team, and legal considerations are balanced by business decisions. This means that the job demands a broader awareness of general business conditions than a private attorney might have.

Company lawyers and the attorneys in private practice also differ in earnings. While compensation varies with the size of the company, in general a corporate lawyer earn less than the lawyer in private practice. However, bonuses, stock options, and other benefits can make the discrepancies more apprarent than real for some senior company lawyers.

The productivity of company lawyers and private ones is also assessed differently. Billable hours are not a factor for company lawyers, although they are expected to work overtime when necessary. Consequently, the company lawyer’s schedule is generally less hectic than that of a private attorney.

Promotion potential is limited in a corporate legal office. Unlike law firms with many partners, companies only have one general counsel. Nevertheless, upward mobility for lawyers in a company is not confined to the law department. Corporate legal experience can be a building block for advancement because the legal department providers service and advice to nearly all other areas of the company. This access and the insights it provides can open doors to new careers. Advancement is also possible by leaving the company. A senior attorney’s knowledge and experience offer a close look at the industry in which the company is located. Some of them take this experience into private practice.

Government: In the Public’s Service

About 15 percent of the licensed lawyers in the United States hold a government job, about equal to the number employed by business and industry. In NALP’s 1988 survey of law school graduates, 12 percent had joined the public sector.

The national, regional, and local categories used in Lawyers in Transition to describe the nature of private practice have their parallels in Federal, State, and local government. The same legal functions are found at each level. These include “prosecution, regulation, and enforcement; house counsel; public advocacy; and policy analysis and consultation,” according to Lawyers in Transition.

Every Federal department and agency has a legal branch similar to the general counsel’s office of a company or corporation. Each of the armed services has a corps of lawyers to handle the legal tasks that large organizations require.

With the exception of positions in the armed services and those relating to foreign affairs, many legal positions are duplicated at the State level. For example, all States have administrative and regulatory agencies staffed with lawyers and administrative law judges. At the county and municipal levels, lawyers work as district attorneys and judges.

Just as with practice in private firms or corporations, government law practice had advantages and disadvantages. Responsibility often comes early to young government attorneys. For example, while aspiring litigators in private practice sit, watch, and learn at the elbow of senior attorneys for several years, new assistant U.S. attorneys often find themselves trying cases soon after they take the job. Early responsibilities provides opportunities to develop expertise in particular branches of law, which some government attorneys translate into lucrative positions with private firms.

While government attorneys carry heavy workloads, they are free from the constraints of billable-hour goals that rule the lives of their colleagues in private practice. Particular cases might demand night and weekend work, but government attorney’s schedules generally are more manageable than those of new associates in large firms.

Opportunities to exercise responsibility and gain experience offer a strong attraction to government service; on the issue of compensation, the balance tilts towards private practice. At the Federal level, new lawyers enter government service at the GS-11 level, which pays about $30,000 a year. Routine promotions carry the attorney to GS-13, where the maximum salary ia bout $57,000. For the average citizen, that’s a handsome salary. But new associates at big city law firms start at higher salaries. Critics also contend that government attorneys are not adequately prepared for the responsibilities thrust upon them, arguing that responsibility is no substitute for training.

Public Interest Law

About 3 percent of the law graduates covered in NALP’s 1988 survey took a public interest law job. In general, public interest lawyers act for individuals and groups underrepresented in our legal system, such as the poor and the handicapped, or are advocates for certain policies or programs, such as housing rights and environmental cleanup. Among the employers of public interest lawyers are the Legal Services Corporation and Legal Aid Societies, the offices of public defenders, public interest law centers, and public interest law firms.

The Legal Services Corporation is a federally funded agency that provides free legal services to the poor. Lawyers and paralegals work in about 300 neighborhood law offices around the country. The corporation focuses on civil law, handling problems in such areas as housing, consumer law, and government benefits. Legal Aid Societies are private, nonprofit organizations funded by both public revenues and private donations. They provide services similar to those of the Legal Services Corporation. These organizations hire both experienced lawyers and new law school graduates.

Public defender offices, which are funded by State and local governments, provide criminal defense services to the poor. These offices hire attorneys directly from law school. Typically, lawyers start out handling misdemeanor cases and progress to felony cases within a few years. The responsibilities are heavy and so is the workload.

Public interest law centers focus on cases in which the decision will have significant consequences for public policy or set important legal precedents. As a group, these organizations address a wide range of issues.

Competition for jobs with these centers is stiff. Generally, centers prefer attorneys with litigation experience and a commitment to the issues the center concentrates on. Many of these centers offer 1- or 2-year fellowship to attorneys. As with regular staff positions, competition for fellowship is rigorous.

Public interest law firms are small, private firms that focus a large part of their practice on such areas as constitutional law, civil rights, environmental law, and consumer law. Partners and associates generally come from the public interest community and have extensive experience.

The motivations that drive public interest attorneys are as different as the attorneys themselves. Some generalizations can be made, nonetheless. Probably the strongest and most common motivator is a desire to serve those who cannot afford private legal counsel. A second is the autonomy that these lawyers enjoy. With this autonomy goes greater control over caseloads and more freedom to determine schedules.

In opting for these advantages, lawyers in the public sector do make tradeoffs. Perhaps the greatest is reflected in their paycheck. A succession of NALP surveys over the years show that public interest lawyers are the lowest paid. Salaries vary significantly with geography–jobs in larger cities offer the highest salaries. Salaries are lowest for public defenders and highest in public interest law firms, which offer starting salaries in the midthirties.

Michael Stanton is the OOQ’s staff writer.

COPYRIGHT 1991 U.S. Government Printing Office

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