Downturn in the legal market: temporary blip or end of an era?

An article in last week’s Wall Street Journal Blog featured an interview with legal consultant Peter Zeughauser, who predicted a grim outlook for law firm hiring for the next few years:

It’s not going to be over before the end of the year. I think you’re going to see dramatically reduced offers to summer associates at the end of this summer, and dramatically reduced offers for people to come in as summers in 2010. These cuts could be very dramatic, as much as slashed by 90 percent.

This is just one of many recent blog posts and articles sounding the same note. The Fulton County Daily Report (via Law.com) says “It’s Time to Face It: The Big Law Bubble Has Burst”:

The Big Law bubble seemed like such a safe place. What better job security than working for a giant law firm with a diverse slate of clients, a reputation as a power house and enough billable hours for a willing Cog to propel herself via a series of 18-hour days straight through her youth and into the golden years? How could a firm with such lavish offices, premium pro-sports seating and historic origins be anything but a success through even the roughest of economic times?

Major law firms across the country are laying off staff–including partners, rescinding offers to law graduates, or paying as much as $60,000 to put them on furlough for a year. However, there is still no consensus on what all this means for the future: is this just a temporary downturn, and will the law firm market be “back to normal” in a couple of years, or is this a major structural shift such that the good times will never return?

A few law schools are tentatively responding. Some schools are strengthening their practical skills programs to make their students more competitive in a tight market; a few are experimenting with co-op or internship programs in the third year. In general, though, law schools seem to be tightening their belts for the short term but assuming that things will get all better before long.

On the other hand, some of those legal consultants arguing that the law firm market is undergoing a permanent realignment or paradigm shift, like many consultants, have a financial interest in promoting a crisis mentality–all the better to convince law firms to pay for their insight and guidance.

So what do we do? Plan to ride out a temporary downturn, or begin (if it’s not already too late) intensive self-study and radical restructuring for a radically different law market for the next generation or two?

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1 thought on “Downturn in the legal market: temporary blip or end of an era?”

  1. I believe the supposition that things will revert to where they were is little more than self-deception.

    The very real challenges being presented by the availabilty of much of the information that used to represent the advice sold by lawyers is going to have a massive impact.

    The clients will be expecting new ways of working together with the legal professional and the other resources and providers that they now have available to them.

    There will be opportunities for those who would be lawyers to innovate and operate within the emerging service provision sectors, but the straight, out and out lawyer will be fewer in number.

    Quite how the legal education system deals with that I am not sure.

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