Hit 'em where they ain't

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Published on 10/19/09

Turn-of-the-20th-century baseball star Wee Willie Keeler once described his uncanny ability to hit a ball very simply: "I hit 'em where they ain't."

That phrase comes to mind when considering students at some of the nation's most prestigious law schools as they have learned that the big law firms they hoped to join are no longer hiring, or even interviewing. It's a new world order and a shock for those who didn't see it coming, which was most of us.

Having run up many thousands, even several hundred thousands, of dollars in debt to get their JDs, many recent and soon-to-be graduates share the same dilemma, summed up by one student who declared to The New York Times: "Had I seen where the market was going, I would've gone to a lower-ranked but less expensive public school."

These students are in the position of "hitting 'em where they ain't" — looking for ideal positions that suddenly are much scarcer. Big law has, in effect, shut down their recruiting efforts, and the lush $160,000 starting salaries seem to have evaporated. Lockstep compensation models have been transformed to merit-based models. And more than a few law firm recruiting programs have been either postponed or canceled entirely.

How can these recent graduates survive or even thrive?

Rather than looking for high-paying jobs where they no longer exist, young lawyers should consider going where the competition ain't, namely, the smaller communities and the "second-tier" firms. Where is it written that big-firm lawyers are entitled to earn a predetermined, high figure?

The partnership interest in large firms has no independent value, cannot be sold and gives the holder only a small say in directing the path of the firm. It can enable the holder to receive a much higher level of income, but it also subjects the employee to potential liability if the firm fails. In today's environment, the risk is very real that the associate could be laid off or asked to leave long before becoming a partner.

Many smaller communities and second-tier firms have been ignored by law school students chasing the lure of six-figure starting salaries. But they can still be large enough to offer prospective clients with sophisticated challenges.

Until there is a new balancing of economics, quality law school graduates and lawyers who have left larger law firms might have to adjust their sights and join smaller law firms. Even in the large cities, smaller law firms have a unique opportunity to engage outstanding talent at a substantially lower cost and to expand the services they provide to their existing clients while expanding their client base.

What would be the impact of such a migration on law schools? With recruiting postponed or canceled, there will be assurance, a guarantee, if you will, of gainful employment on graduation from a glut of talented graduates looking for a diminishing number of positions.

Will law schools continue to be able to charge the high tuitions that they have in the recent past? Will students still be willing to take on huge student loans when employment is no longer assured? Such questions suggest that the schools themselves will have to reassess how long they can go on hitting 'em where "they" — that is, their potential students — "ain't."

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