I don’t normally write with a law student audience in mind. The recent spate of terminations (I hate the word “layoff”), my encounters with great law students here at Valorem and at FutureFirm 1.0 and a recent post on Legal On Ramp by Ed Reeser asking whether being a BigLaw associate was worth it anymore all got me thinking about how hard it must be to be a law student these days. While I am more than 25 years past that very fun time in my life, I do have a piece of advice I want to pass on.

Here it is: plastics. No, not really, but Boomers will get it. Seriously, this is it: don’t believe a thing “they” tell you. In this case, the “they” is law firms. Any law firm, any size, my own included. The reason is a variation on the old “follow the money” theme. Understand that there are exceptions to every rule, so this criticism is not meant to apply to all, just most. But even if its “just a lot,” it’s enough that you need to protect yourself and not believe anyone.

Firms get paid for things, and they, in turn, pay people for things. Most firms get paid for hours, and so they provide lots and lots of hours. The firms, in turn, pay people for hours. More hours equals more pay. This is Econ 101 stuff. But you’re coming in at the entry level and you need lots of things that are not what the firm is selling or rewarding. You need training. You need mentoring. Why will anyone invest in you to provide those services? They won’t. No one gets paid to do so (this is true no matter how much the firm talks about its mentoring initiatives). No one gets paid to train you (not the go sit in a conference room and listen to some partner babble about something, but the I’ll sit through your deposition with you and critique your questioning kind of training). So, if these things happen, they are purely random acts of kindness. 

Lawyer behavior has become the product (and maybe it always was) of the law firm’s business model. If a firm is based on a highly leveraged, billable hour model, most new associates will be gone inside of four years. Why would any sane person invest time in the associates who are likely to be gone? The don’t. So look for a different model. 

Models drive behavior. Figure out what behaviors are important to you. And then work like hell to understand what models exist that promote those behaviors. You then have the list of firms you should consider asking for a job. The real problem you face is that so far as I can tell, most law schools don’t teach their students about the business of law and about business models. There are exceptions that I know of—Professors Bill Henderson of Indiana and Gillian Hadfield of US come to mind—and those I don’t know. But insist and getting this kind of information. And if you find yourself sitting across the table from some Stepford partner from BigLaw, ask him or her to explain (and defend) his/her law firm’s model and identify the behaviors that the model promotes. It should be an entertaining discussion.