December 13, 2007

Building A Better Legal Profession (really?)

by Dave

Of course, we all know that while a good number of the people who are admitted to Stanford Law are really, really smart, some of them are going to end up being fairly useless. For example, take the Stanford students behind Building A Better Legal Profession, a supposedly "national grassroots organization" dedicated to "reforming the legal profession" (which seems to mean not making corporate lawyers work so hard, and increasing diversity among associates and partners at BigLaw firms).

My main critiques:

1) You are not "grassroots." You are enrolled at Stanford Law.

2) BigLaw is not "the legal profession." Less than 10% of lawyers work in the AmLaw 100. Only a Stanford student would think that their rarified air was "the legal profession."

3) Poor, poor corporate lawyers. I am amazed by some law students' passion. Even during their first year, many students are active in organizations that advocate on behalf of the poor, or work for political candidates, or lobby on behalf of equality under the law. That is why I am completely unimpressed by people who are dedicated to making life easier for corporate lawyers from elite schools. You're gonna get paid almost 200K (with bonuses) your first year.... quit yer whining. Nobody cares.

4) Cross-register for a statistics class: The group posts "rankings" of law firms based on their supposed performance on a number of indicators. At the moment, they seem to only focus on diversity rankings, and made a big splash in the media when they released these rankings over the summer. I'll admit, increasing diversity in corporate law firms is somewhat more worthwhile than the general "better legal profession" schtick, but if you are going to rank firms, make sure you know what you are talking about.

For example, one of their main statistical analyses is measuring the "female opportunity gap" between associates and partners. Presumably, this ranking is offered to show how poorly a firm performs at promoting women. But the statistical method is flawed. I doubt the percentage of female partners vs. the percentage of female associates is in any reliable way correlated to a firm's willingness to promote women (there are many other factors intervening, not least of which is what percentage of associates that are promoted to partner regardless of gender). For example, look at Baker and McKenzie in Northern California. They have far and away the highest percentage of female partners (32.7%) and are a close second in highest number of female associates (60.7%, behind Morgan Lewis' 61.6%). But, they rank 6th, right behind Skadden, which has 28.6% female associates and 16.7% female partners!

Since these clowns decided that weighing the amount of female partners against the amount of female associates somehow would serve as a proxy for whether a firm was doing a good job of promoting women, if anyone actually gave a hoot about these rankings, the best way to improve your ranking would be clear: decrease the amount of women you hire as associates!

Of course, not much should be expected when you describe your ranking methodology as cut, paste and rank. But, you guys go to Stanford: even if you are in law school and thus innumerate, you are embarrassing Sergei and Larry. If you spent half the time on your analysis than you apparently did on taking artistic photos of yourselves and making a ruckus in the press (in my opinion, seems more about self-promotion than anything else), maybe your rankings would have some degree of relevancy. If you are going to make a public claim that your rankings should mean anything whatsoever, then you must rank responsibly.

5) Capitalization. You are law students. Learn to use capital letters. Yes, I know you don't have to and law firms will still slobber all over you in hopes that someday one of your classmates will give you work, but try to pretend that you are serious people.

UPDATE: And look at that curve! BABLP ranks firms by quintiles and applies the standard A through F rating, with A's going to the top quintile and F's to the bottom quintile. Coming from students at the law school with perhaps the most grade inflation of them all (a whopping 3.4 median), isn't that a bit harsh?

cross-posted at Traditional Notions

December 13, 2007 04:05 AM | TrackBack

Totally agreed on the capitalization. As for the rest...

Re: the grade inflation, Wikipedia disagrees with you, and even its chart is questionable because Stanford's peers (Boalt, Columbia, Harvard, Chicago, Yale, NYU) either don't release the data or don't have it in a comparable form.

Re: the female opportunity gap. They already have a chart that ranks firms for percentage of female associates and percentage of female partners. With the gap chart, they're trying to show which firms may hire women as associates but are less likely to promote them to partner. This is useful for a female student holding offers from both Baker and Skadden. She no longer cares what percentage of associates are female; she cares what her chances of making partner are. Obviously, much of that chance will depend on her individual ability, but the firm's desire to advance women also may play a role.

The critique I thought you were going to make is that it's more useful to look at a firm's trend, due to the massive jump in women's participation in law firms over the last 20 years. If a firm has made just as many women partner in the last decade as it has men, then even if the total number of partners is still heavily male, the trend is a promising one. The charts don't seem to address one of the biggest problems among women and minorities: dropout from law firms while still associates. I'm less worried about whether a law firm promotes its 9th year female associates to partner at the same rate they promote male associates, and more interested in whether the law firm is an environment in which female associates want to stay that long. Is there good mentoring, family-friendly policies, etc.? This could be measured by looking, not at the total percentage of associates who are female, but doing a listing by year. Is there a huge dropoff between the percentage of 1st and 2nd year associates who are female, and the percentage of 5th and 6th year associates who are female?

Re: grassroots, BigLaw and whether anyone should care about corporate associates: I think you're missing some of the audience for this project. This is a database of information that law students who do want to work in large law firms may find valuable if matters like billable hours, diversity and opportunities for advancement are important to them. In particular, students who may not be familiar with the world of BigLaw (as I certainly wasn't when I started interviewing with firms) need something to help them differentiate among firms. This is such a tool.

It therefore also works as a pressure instrument on firms (like Above the Law's shaming of firms that don't raise salaries/bonuses), because the law firms don't want to lose good candidates.

There's nothing about going to Stanford Law that precludes being part of a grassroots movement to change the legal profession. Law students are pretty far down the totem pole: they can't even litigate disputes because they aren't lawyers yet. Compared to the bar associations and partners at law firms, even Stanford Law students are "grassroots."

I agree that their concept of the "legal profession" is somewhat insular, but so are statistics on the diversity of Ivy League schools when the vast majority of Americans won't even apply to those colleges, much less attend them. We are capitalists, therefore we care about our elite institutions that grant access to opportunity; we are democratic, therefore even our elite institutions worry about their public appearance. You rather contradict your claim that "Nobody cares" by saying the students are "making a ruckus in the press."

Posted by: PG at December 13, 2007 03:47 PM

Opportunity gap: I understand that their intention was to offer a way to see what possibilities a woman who joins as an associate has to make partner. My dispute is with the methodology, in that raw data of percentages of female associate and partners says little about the firm's propensity to promote women (though it may say quite a bit about their propensity to hire women), and even less about their retention programs. Of course, you point this out yourself.... it is the trend that is really important. But even beyond that there are too many intervening factors. How many associates does the firm promote, regardless of gender? Whether a firm's partnership is highly leveraged or not isn't taken into account. While you could argue that a firm's propensity to make anyone a partner should have some bearing on whether a female law student wants to work for them, that is not what their ranking purports to measure. A firm shouldn't have to increase its partnership across the board so as to not be perceived as unfair to women, when that firm may in fact be promoting women to partnership at a significantly faster rate than men. Other questions: Are firms bringing in lateral female partners? Do firms retain associates at all? If a firm's business model involves bringing on large numbers of associates that it attracts because of excellent training, but then happily loses those associates to smaller firms years down the line, is that so wrong? What does that have to do with the firm's treatment of women?

A simple metric would be worlds apart from what they currently have: compare the percentages of women hired, retained and promoted to partner vs. those for men. While still not perfect, it would be a vast improvement over the metric they are currently using.

It would also be another thing if they were just making the raw data available. But they aren't; they are ranking based on the raw data. When the raw data does not serve as an adequate proxy for what they are purporting to rank, I think there is a problem. Their ranking is a representation that something is true: i.e. that Skadden offers more opporunities to women than Baker. That contention is not only unsupported by this data, but the data seems to suggest that the exact opposite is true. I may be alone here, but I think that's a problem.

My objections to their image, media savvy and educational pedigree are exacerbated by the fact that they seem to be all style and no substance. If they seemed to me to be taking the job of ranking seriously, I would be less inclined to criticize them. But it is the juxtaposition of their admittedly excellent PR and web design skills combined with their poor methodological approach that earns them my scorn.

As far as my claims relating to classism: there is a simple solution to the problem of the working conditions in BigLaw: don't work for them. Law students obviously like the situation as it is: when we become associates, we like the pay, when we become partners, we like the profits. If we didn't, we wouldn't do it.

The media obsession with the issue has less to do with a general concern for the wellbeing of corporate lawyers, but a fascination with the lives of the elite. When I point out that nobody cares, I mean that no one (figuratively speaking) is losing any sleep at night over the plight of the nation's corporate lawyers. Any attention paid is really out of fascination with the fact that there are people out there who have the option to make ungodly sums of money and yet still manage to complain about it.

Posted by: Dave at December 13, 2007 05:13 PM

As far as my claims relating to classism: there is a simple solution to the problem of the working conditions in BigLaw: don't work for them.

Well, sure, and there's a simple solution to being opposed to the level of religious interference in rural public schools: move out of those areas. Of course, that assumes that there aren't economic and other reasons to want to stay in the area. Maybe you can't afford to live in a less religiously-dominated area; maybe you like everything about it EXCEPT for prayers at the National Honor Society initiation. The alternative to leaving is to reform the place where you are, trying to keep what you like and changing what you don't. I'm a liberal and therefore have a knee-jerk inclination toward reform. I think the Stanford project is similar.

people out there who have the option to make ungodly sums of money and yet still manage to complain about it.

Again, I think you're missing part of the point. Almost every other BigLaw attentive outlet (Above the Law, Vault) obsesses about the "ungodly sums of money." This site doesn't mention the money at all. They're rather clearly NOT complaining about the money; they're complaining about quality of life embracing multiple metrics (billables, diversity, opportunity for advancement). There are lots of surveys showing that many BigLaw associates would be happy to trade some of the money for less stress. Unfortunately, it's mostly an either-or proposition: either you're on the gunning-for-partner track, complete with lockstep salaries and bonuses and hours; or you're not eligible to work for those firms at all.

They're trying to put together a grassroots movement for some of the pressure on BigLaw to be not for bigger salaries and bonuses, but for better treatment and more options. I totally agree that they are not picking the best ways to measure these things, and that's going to affect how well their pressure works. But I don't think it's as pointless, self-indulgent and whiny as you do. You're not just critiquing how the project is carried out; you're critiquing its existence and visibility.

As someone who is interested in working for a large law firm partly for the kind of work, and not just for the money, I like to see a counter voice to the mo' money obsession of ATL, et al.

Posted by: PG at December 13, 2007 05:35 PM

Of course, two big differences with your comparison to advocating against religious interference with rural schools: one, public vs. private action, and two, the vast difference in the degree of choice between choosing where to live and choosing whether to accept a BigLaw job over a very handsomely paid job at a boutique firm (not to mention well-paid government work, and, if a grad at an elite school, well-paid opportunities in academia, business, public interest, etc. etc.).

Agreed, I am critiquing both how the project is carried out and it's very nature. It's true that I think that an organized effort to reform corporate law practice to make it more amenable to new associates is, on the scale of noble to self-serving endeavors, tending fairly far towards the latter. But, I think that if it were carried out in a better manner, I would be more inclined to reserve my criticism. The fact is that in my opinion it is both a frivilous cause and a poor attempt at remedying the perceived wrong, and my criticism rests on the basis of both.

Posted by: Dave at December 13, 2007 06:19 PM


Just to nitpick, but is there really no way for an endeavor to be both noble and self-serving? Most of the great causes of our time have been at least partially self-serving: women's suffrage was fought mostly by those who were without the franchise; developing nations' independence by the people who lived under imperialism; U.S. racial civil rights by African Americans; Lambda Legal staffed rather heavily by LGBT folks; etc. An organized effort by gay people to get themselves the right to marry -- how self-serving! The question is whether one devotes more to the cause than one benefits on an individual level. Women who were arrested, MLK and Gandhi's assassinations, even the difference in pay between Lambda and for-profit organization are larger costs than the benefits these individuals received from the success of their work, which is why we consider it noble. If we measured only by whether one's cause would not redound to one's own foreseen benefit, Oscar Schindler would be seen as greater than MLK or Gandhi (and even Schindler's generosity worked out to his own benefit, as after the war he ended up living on money given by the Jews he saved).

In any case, I think improving BigLaw is not as frivolous as you do. As pointed out on the bblp site, the large number of hours demanded of a relatively small number of associates often goes against the interest of clients, who have someone who has been up for the past 48 hours working on billion dollar cases. Even the medical profession is starting to figure out that this isn't beneficial. And doctors don't have the billable hour requirement incentive to lie about how much they've worked.

Posted by: PG at December 13, 2007 07:42 PM

As noted, I see things on a scale. Call me crazy, but on my scale, improving the lives of corporate lawyers is very far from fighting for equality under the law for women, African Americans and homosexuals, or freedom from colonial oppression (to say nothing of preventing the murder of Jews!).

But you are putting words into my mouth. I have not said that no one can do anything self-serving, or that self-serving things are not worthy of our respect. My point was that whatever degree of "nobility" their cause may entail, it is certainly not enough, in my mind, to free them from criticism, either for poor methods or, indeed, for the pettiness of their perceived wrong.

Of course, you are welcome to disagree. But you seem to be going beyond that, and suggesting that for some reason their cause should be beyond criticism. I don't really have an answer for you: I see their cause as silly and self-serving, and that that is a valid basis for criticizing them, beyond their poor methodology. And I see that despite being one of the group they are purporting to protect: a current law student and future BigLaw associate who actually cares about the degree of diversity and and working conditions at my firm, and made my choice accordingly.

Posted by: Dave at December 13, 2007 08:44 PM

I don't think any cause is beyond criticism for its execution, no matter how noble its intention. But your main adjective against it seems to be "self-serving," not "incompetent." I'm not quite clear as to why you think trying to change BigLaw to make it more diverse, more responsible toward associates, clients and community, and oriented is an inherently silly effort -- especially if "the degree of diversity and working conditions at [your] firm" are important to you. Why not make the information about those things more accessible and more comparable?

Posted by: PG at December 13, 2007 10:43 PM

No cause is beyond criticism in our nation - or shouldn't be. But that this site is trying to backtrack and act as if it was simply trying to critique the cause and their methodology is in itself "silly" and "self-serving."

Although the criticism is warranted, particularly the gaps in the methodology, the purpose of the site and organization is a response to the outcry currently being heard by young associates and upcoming lawyers and reported everywhere. This is not an organization of spoiled law students living a sheltered life pining for attention by creating an issue.

It is certainly not surprising that lawyers currently in the business and law students who have already taken a job are protective and defensive of their choices. And I am a huge proponent of taking responsibility for your own actions.

However, there is little doubt about the need for a different view, a different perspective for law students to evaluate their upcoming career choices. More importantly, there is nothing wrong, in my opinion, whatsoever with attempting to better your future profession.

You are correct - this organization is not perfect. It has flaws, which you so easily point out. But while you, and others, may be confident in your career choice and satisfied with your omniscent knowledge of what you are about to enter, many are not and need help.

There are many, many students desiring to go into the legal profession without sacrificing their morals, values and lives outside the office. The fact today, as reported by no less than the "silly" rag the "ABA Journal", is that the profession is nearing a crisis. The salary race between firms, the ever-increasing billable hours and demands, the dubious promises made to young associates to entice them to come or stay - all are products of a profession that has lost its way. If you care about the profession - you should support overall efforts at reform - not bash it, no matter your disagreement with specific methods of achieving it.

If I understand correctly, you are a law student about to enter the profession. I welcome you, but advise you that you may be a bit more naive that you believe. I hope you have a wonderful career, but fear that you and many like you have gulped the Kool-Aid and will find out the worst too late.

Posted by: Ken at December 14, 2007 02:03 AM

Actually, I only used the adjective "self serving" once, before you questioned me as to whether or not something something that is self-serving can also be noble (since I made a reference to a "noble to self-serving" scale). And I have been more than emphatic in criticizing their methodology, which took up the vast majority of my original post. And, I even explicitly pointed out that had they executed better, I would have been inclined to hold my criticism. So, I am at a loss as to why you have come to the conclusion that my "main adjective against it seems to be 'self-serving,' not 'incompetent.'"

You ask what is so wrong with having data on diversity and working conditions available. To which I say: nothing at all. But as I have tried repeatedly to point out (and have apparently failed at convincing you of) I don't think BABLP does that very effectively (I think they are irresponsibly erroneous in their raankings), and I think they are a bit over the top in presenting their mission as some sort of epic struggle. My disdain for that aspect comes down to a matter of taste. I find it unappealing, you don't. Life goes on.

Posted by: Dave at December 14, 2007 02:22 AM


Thanks for the comment. A couple of points:

You wrote: "that this site is trying to backtrack and act as if it was simply trying to critique the cause and their methodology is in itself 'silly' and 'self-serving.'"

Uh, I'm not trying to backtrack on anything. Read my original post. I criticized their cause and their methodology. I even made fun of them. I think their whole schtick is over the top and worthy of being mocked. I hope that I didn't confuse you into thinking that I am trying to "backtrack" from that.

You wrote: "There are many, many students desiring to go into the legal profession without sacrificing their morals, values and lives outside the office."

To which I say: great. I think we need more of those students. Find a job that fits your morals, jobs and lives outside the office. There are plenty of them. As noted, I believe that less than 10% of lawyers work in the AmLaw 100. There are mid-tier firms, government agencies, small firms, public interest organizations, academia, etc etc etc.

The fact of the matter is that students right out of law school really just want to get paid, and after that they want to work at the most prestigious firm possible. Because you can easily forego long hours and high paychecks... the fact remains that the vast majority of lawyers do.

Big firms don't raise salaries (and billable hours requirements) because they want to. They raise them because if they didn't, law students wouldn't want to work for them! Believe me, they would be happy to pay less and require less billables, but the fact of the matter is that attorneys would walk away. Don't think so? Ask Nixon Peabody, which was having trouble filling it's class this year, despite very low billables, until they raised to 160K on 9/1.

You suggest that I am naive about the practice of law. Perhaps, but I doubt it. I spent 8 years before law school in high responsibility, high pressure, high paid jobs in the corporate world. I anticipate that law will probably require more dedication, but it also offers more financial rewards.

I think the naive ones are law graduates with little real-world experience that think that their degree entitles them to a job that is highly paid, highly prestigious, interesting work, and reasonable hours. In the corporate world generally, those that move up understand the choices and sacrifices that have to be made along the way, and those that don't want to make those choices find employment (sometimes very well paid) that suits them as a result. Since law students at elite schools pretty much just need to sign up in order to get a 160K salary, they are blown away when it turns out that that amount of money involves tradeoffs.

There are plenty of mid-tier regional firms that pay very good starting salaries (around 100K) and have reasonable billing requirements (around 1600 hours). I know, because they are the firms that come to my school's OCI. For anyone at Stanford or another elite institution that wants less pay for less hours, I suggect that they call them. I am sure they will be well received.

Posted by: Dave at December 14, 2007 03:03 AM


Thanks for your response - sorry, but I haven't gotten back to this in a while. You make some good points, but please allow me to point out a few bits that I disagree with:

(1) You state that before law school you "spent 8 years before law school in high responsibility, high pressure, high paid jobs in the corporate world". Good. That will help. However, I, too, came from a business world prior to law school. But the corporate world is not the legal world. In my experience, the corporate world has a different set of limitations - just as hard, but different. For one - often times, in the corporate world, you must do the job well - quality is important. Get the job done - is a standard mantra. In the BigLaw (and not-so-BigLaw, btw) world, it is not the main criteria. Billable hours continuously make a young associate decide between doing the quality job and doing the job that will allow them the maximum billable hours. Think this is incorrect or just a bitter view? Wait and see. This is a terrible ethical dilemma that occurs with much too much frequency.

(2) One of the biggest problems I have with your analysis is that you seem to think that this problem is simply one for the AmLaw 100. Wrong. I have interviewed as a lateral and worked in "mid-size" firms, and even some small ones. There is definitely a "trickle-down" effect. My original firm was only just in the AmLaw 250 and my stated billable "goal" (got to love the euphemism) was for 1950 but the yearly bonus only took effect if you reached 2050. Hmmm. Which did most young associates see as their "goal"? And if you didn't make it, you were not given the benefit of "hey, great work, don't worry". The fact is that many students are going into the profession to make a living, of course. But these men and women are not being told the truth about their firms. They swamp the students with promises of life outside of the firm, of "support" in the firm for pro bono work, of a desire to "cultivate" the associate. Horsesh*t. Sure, law students should be smarter, you say. Be more diligent in their research, etc. But where will they get objective information? Not from OCI. Not from the firms. Not from AmLaw. That is one of the main objectives (as I understand it) of the students at BBLP.

(3) Another issue is that you also forget that the desire to reform the profession is a much larger concern than is expressed in the specific methods of the BBLP. How about young associates? When I was a 3rd year associate, I was told one day that our salaries would be rising - again - by $15,000. No one asked us. But an informal poll by me showed that NO one in my "class" wanted it because we all knew what that raise would mean on the backend. And, sure enough, our "goals" went up, our benefits were "adjusted" and pro bono was ignored. While you are correct that a free market society dictates that the raises occur because students are taking the money. But frequently the firms at the very top are making these initial choices and the firms below are forced to "keep up with the Joneses." If you believe that this is a natural event that only affects the top 100 or so, you are sadly mistaken. And this ridiculous race to pay the most and suck the most out of your expendable associates is already moving up and having disastrous consequences (I just saw that WC raised their salaries get ready for it again this winter). Firms simply cannot continue on this pace and students are rebelling as are young associates.

Again - I understand your complaints and criticism. However, I believe that your feeling that this is over-the-top and silly is completely misplaced and naysaying. I hope you are aware of what you are getting yourself into, and, God help you if you have a spouse or significant other. I wish you all the best and I hope you conquer the beast and not have it eat you.

Posted by: Ken Harris at December 17, 2007 09:51 PM

The ABA Journal has an article on some success that the BBLP has had in its contact with law firms and in encouraging student applicants to ask questions about the issues spotlighted by the website.

Posted by: PG at December 18, 2007 03:46 PM

it's "rarefied".

and "learn to capitalize?" that's for capitalists.

reform of the legal industry ("profession"? don't make me laugh.) will require far more than making biglaw more accessible. the critique in doug litowitz's book gets to the real issues better than the betterlaw people, in my opinion. any decent kind of society would not allow biglaw to exist at all, since its purpose is fundamentally anti-social.

Posted by: disgruntled goat at December 22, 2007 10:13 PM
Post a comment

Remember personal info?

Sitting in Review
Armen (e-mail) #
PG (e-mail) #
Dave (e-mail) #
Craig (e-mail) #
About Us
Senior Status
Chris Geidner #
Jeremy Blachman #
Nick Morgan #
Wings & Vodka #
Recent Opinions
Persuasive Authority
De Novo Reporter

Powered by
Movable Type 3.21