The National Law Journal recently released its annual study ranking law schools by the percentage of their last graduating class placed in BigLaw. As usual, an array of more prestigious schools led the list. The rankings are not strictly correlated with prestige (measured by whatever more general ranking system you prefer): Yale, for example, which is widely regarded as one of the three “best” law schools in the nation, ranked 15th in BigLaw placements as a percentage of graduating class (sending about 31% of its class of 2011, compared with first-ranked Penn, which sent 57% of its last class).
One striking thing about the NLJ’s numbers is the significantly smaller portion of the class of 2011 headed to BigLaw across the board compared with the year before the Great Recession. As the NLJ observed, the 20 law schools comprising the most fecund breeding-ground for BigLaw hires in 2007 sent a combined 55% of their graduating classes there. For the class of 2011, that number was 36%. For those of us who have been watching, this is no surprise. The principal reason for the precipitous fall undoubtedly is the obvious one—that BigLaw has drastically constricted its entry-level hiring, with the typical BigLaw firm now hiring entering classes 20-50% smaller than it did in 2007. (For reasons explained at length in our article published last year in the Columbia Business Law Review, Dave McGowan and I believe that this reflects structural changes in the staffing and pricing of high-end legal services, and is unlikely to return to pre-recession levels as the economy improves as previously occurred after the recessions of the early 2000s, the early 1990s and the early 1980s.)
But there may be a second factor also contributing to the change. A growing number of anecdotal and impressionistic reports suggests that the currently graduating Millenial generation (now age 18-29) is less willing to bear the burdens, and less interested in pursuing the benefits, of a BigLaw career. As a result, it may be that more of the law graduates with the most career choices (accomplished graduates of more prestigious schools) are currently opting for paths that neither begin nor end in BigLaw.
I want to suggest that this latter trend (assuming it exists) is a good thing. Not, I hasten to add, because I have any antipathy toward BigLaw. I spent a career at a superb firm that operated on a BigLaw model and performed BigLaw work. I got great joy out of the fascinating problems I was privileged to address, the extraordinary people I was privileged to work with, and the generous rewards I was privileged to receive. But I would be the first to concede that I am an unusual fellow, and BigLaw is not for everyone who has compiled the resume to get there.
The NLJ is predominantly a publication for practitioners, of course, and judging by its perennial reporting one focused disproportionately on the large-firm sector of the Bar. (That is, to hijack Willie Sutton’s famous observation, where the money is.) To the NLJ and its readership, it inherently makes sense to use law schools’ relative success in placing their graduates in BigLaw as one criterion for ranking.
But what about those of us in legal education? Perhaps unfairly, I perceive at some institutions (not only some of those that regularly place substantial numbers of graduates in BigLaw, but those that wish they could) a quiet acquiescence in the unspoken assumption of the NLJ placement rankings that a BigLaw job is the ne plus ultra of a legal education.
But any acquiescence on our part, tacit or otherwise, that these are the "best" jobs to which a lawyer could aspire is a grave disservice to our students. Again, I want to be clear that a career in BigLaw is, for some law graduates, a wonderful adventure, and it is an option to be seriously considered by anyone who has the opportunity. But only as one of many options that will be available as a matter of course to any student who can attract a BigLaw offer.
Am I suggesting that the financial rewards of different career paths should be ignored as students choose their way? Of course not. And it should be equally obvious that rising tuition and the growing student debt being incurred to meet it are serious problems in need of immediate attention, and that they will naturally and necessarily affect some students’ career choices. But to suggest that any student who can get a lucrative BigLaw job “has” to take it because of rising tuition costs and student loan burdens (or because it is in some abstract sense the “best” job) is nonsense. At the height of BigLaw voraciousness in the mid-2000s, between a quarter and a third of recent law graduates were working at firms with over 100 lawyers (as compared with less than 10% of the bar overall, to give you some sense of the turnover rates). Thus there have always been lots of other options, and the students accomplished enough to earn offers from BigLaw have historically had the most options as they graduate. Financial concerns are important, but so are others with which they need to be balanced, including enough time for other pursuits (not least among them family), and satisfaction and fulfillment on the job, which are highly individualized criteria available for some in BigLaw but not for others.
As I’ve found myself saying again and again to the exceptionally accomplished and talented students here at UNC, “You have choices. Make them. You have a much better chance of finding what you’re looking for if you’ve given some thought to what it is.”