The Wall Street Journal recently published an article about young lawyers settling for temp jobs as document reviewers, and many of the commentators replied that the students should have chosen engineering over law. I wrote earlier, Is Engineering a Better Career Than Law? about the merits and demerits of each. In this guest post, Elaine Chen discusses her experience as a temp lawyer. – Mark
As a recently laid-off first year associate, I spent a month doing document review some years ago. It was by far the worst job I ever had, not because it was difficult (which it wasn’t) or even because it was low-paid (which it was), but because of the pervading atmosphere of desperation and shame. Although we were still reading paper documents and handwriting information on forms, the setup was the same – a bunch of lawyers sitting on folding tables staring straight ahead, working in total silence with one hour off for lunch and two fifteen minute breaks per day. Layoffs weren’t as commonplace then and many of the lawyers who were sitting there were deeply embarrassed and had come to document review only after many months of looking for other jobs, often out of fear of having to pull their kids out of college, lose their homes, etc.
That was the last job I ever worked in law, and I still can’t believe how poorly set up the entire profession is. The idea of selecting associates based solely on academic success with the expectation that they will all become partners one day makes no sense (I realize this has changed somewhat with non partner-track positions, but that just scratches the surface).
Anyone who has worked in business knows that the people who are best at school aren’t by any means always the best in life, but competing to get the top 2% of graduates has locked law firms into paying outrageous salaries, then working young attorneys nearly to death to get their money’s worth. This bargain used to be worth it when the hours weren’t quite as bad and partnership was nearly guaranteed; now that it’s no longer the case, law has gone from being a country club profession to The Hunger Games!
Why not hire two promising, if not brilliant, attorneys for the same $160K salary combined, then have them work more regular hours, with no promise of making partner except for those who truly excel? Expanding the number of positions and providing more flexibility could make things more humane for everyone – and provide more hope for the thousands of young attorneys graduating every year. However, as things stand today law school is a terrible investment.