May 9, 2011 | last updated June 1, 2012 10:07 am

Profession in Turmoil | Law field shrinking as firms shift focus to sharpen business results

PHOTO/PABLO ROBLES
PHOTO/PABLO ROBLES
Sarah Shapiro and her cousin, Jonathan Shapiro, at their firm, Shapiro Law Offices LLC, in Middletown.
PHOTO/LISA WILDER
Attorney Daniel Lindenberg talks with associate Katherine Hagmann outside their New Haven law firm Bernstein, Volpe & McKeon.

The message from Connecticut's attorneys is clear: Unless you love the law, you'll hate being a lawyer.

That's the message more lawyers are telling their children.

And that's a concern for an industry that finds itself in turmoil. The price of admission is up and interest in being a lawyer is down. The passion that once marked the profession is fading in the face of business pressures as law firms race to be the biggest and most comprehensive, judging lawyers' value on the revenue they generate.

"Lawyering used to be a profession. Now, over the course of time, it has become just a business," said Bill Crowe, partner at Hartford law firm Mayo Crowe. "A lot of people are disillusioned because they go to law school thinking they are getting into this dynamic, lucrative career; and they've come to realize that often they are just pushing papers around."

The large role money plays in today's legal market undermines the profession's higher goals, said Lee Hoffman, a member of Hartford law firm Pullman & Comley LLC. The first job of a lawyer is to make someone's legal problem their own. The second job is to be an adviser. Once the profession becomes about the paycheck, those tasks are hard to fulfill.

"When you do all these things, you reduce everything down to business decisions instead of personal decisions and professional decisions," Hoffman said.

Although the pay is high compared to other professions — the median starting salary for a 2010 University of Connecticut School of Law graduate was $75,000 — a law degree does not lead to a cushy lifestyle. Other professions such as entrepreneur or investment banker are more lucrative with a lower demand on time.

The legal profession has been squeezed in Connecticut. Over the past four years, the number of people working in the legal profession dropped 10.4 percent to 12,900, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The squeeze impacts young lawyers the most, particularly those straight out of law school. They are graduating with more debt than any other generation. Firms have less money to train first-year lawyers, and clients increasingly demand their cases be handled by experienced attorneys.

As a result, the number of people applying to be lawyers is plummeting. After a significant jump in law school applications in 2009 and 2010, law school applications dropped 11.1 percent nationwide this year. Connecticut's three law schools — at Yale University, University of Connecticut and Quinnipiac University — saw a 17 percent drop in applications in 2011.

"Those people who thought earning a law degree would lead to riches are taking a much broader scope and thinking about if it is going to pay off," said Karen Lynn DeMeola, UConn School of Law assistant dean for admissions and student finance.

Avon native Daniel Lindenberg graduated in 2009 from Albany Law School in New York. After spending three months studying for and passing the New York and Connecticut bar exams, he started his job search.

Over the next 15 months, Lindenberg interviewed for 80 jobs. With $200,000 in deferred law school debt looming, the riches weren't flowing. He moved back into his parents' house.

"At the age of 30, going back to live with my parents was not my plan," Lindenberg said.

While he searched, Lindenberg did anything to make himself a more attractive hire: taking a temporary assistant clerk job at the criminal court in Hartford, working for the Connecticut Department of Public Health, developing a 14-point plan on networking. He was not only competing against other law school graduates, but also against experienced lawyers who had been laid off.

"You have to be willing to accept failure," Lindenberg said. "There will be a lot of failure, but you have to learn from it."

Law firms used to pride themselves on mentoring and training young attorneys, but the profession is moving away from that, said Ralph Monaco, president of the Connecticut Bar Association. Mentoring is important to the future of the profession, and the CBA tries to fill the void; but law firm's loyalty to former interns and use of summer programs to attract young talent is waning.

"Unfortunately, a lot of firms have to make financial decisions, and the finances are playing an increasing role," Monaco said. "We have struggled with this as a profession."

Hartford law firm Robinson & Cole will discontinue its summer program this year. Although the firm is proud of growing young lawyers in its culture, there are other, less expensive ways to attract new attorneys than through the summer program, said John Lynch, managing partner.

Firms have to be more money-oriented, Lynch said. Today's law firms are much larger and more complex, offering a variety of specialties, the direct result of major corporations expanded and needing more legal work. When Lynch started with Robinson & Cole in 1984, the firm had 72 lawyers in two offices; now the firm employs 225 lawyers in eight offices.

"I don't think we've lost the idea that it is a profession, but it has become more of a business, a larger and more complex business," Lynch said. "Day-to-day, when you are doing work for your client, it is the same profession, but now there is a business piece to it that is larger than it used to be."

Because of its business-orientation, Robinson & Cole hires fewer first-year attorneys. This year, the firm hired seven lawyers out of law school and will hire another six or seven in 2012, Lynch said. In previous year, the firm hired 10-12 first-year lawyers.

That's a direct result of client demand, Lynch said. More clients want their cases handled by experienced lawyers, feeling that paying top dollar for what amounted to on-the-job training for first-year attorneys isn't worth the cost.

Clients are taking greater control over all aspects of their dealings with lawyers, especially compensation. Tired of high legal costs — and watching their dollars closely during the recession — clients analyze their bills, winnowing out any expense they feel is unjust.

"If you want to reduce costs and increase your bottom line, figuring out how to pay lawyers less is a good way to do that," Crowe said.

One of the issues under the microscope is the industry's long-time commitment to the billable hour as the only measure of assessing work done on a case. For clients, the billable hour may be an excellent metric of effort, but that's not what the client wants measured.

Clients don't care about effort, Hoffman said; they care about results. Clients would rather have an attorney work 10 hours on a winning brief than 100 hours on a losing brief; but the lawyer gets paid more to work more, regardless of results.

Law firms are experimenting with alternative forms of payment, such as flat fees or outcome-determined litigation, but both sides won't agree unless they see a potential upside, Hoffman said.

That's the time when the profession has to be about more than money.

"If it was the case where everybody was chasing the almighty dollar, then nobody would work in Hartford County," Hoffman said. "There's more money to be made in Boston or New York or Fairfield County, if you want to stay in Connecticut."

Fortunately, there's enough passion left in the profession where lawyers see past the long hours, the focus on revenue, and the less-than-lucrative pay, Hoffman said.

Passion is what keeps lawyers in the profession, said Jeff White, associate at Robinson & Cole and chairman of the Connecticut Bar Association Young Lawyers Section.

After five years, most young lawyers not dedicated to the profession have been weeded out, White said. Those that remain know the demands of the job. After that, the hardest part is figuring out how to balance the career with the rest of their lives.

"The thing I struggle with the most is trying to meet all the various demands on my time," White said. "Sometimes the choices are easy; sometimes they are hard."

White said there is a light at the end of the tunnel, although it is hard to see through mountains of debt and a poor job market.

They just have to stick with it, White said.

Lindenberg decided to stick with it through his 15 month job search. He admits he would have scored a job quicker if he'd been less discriminating about the type of law he would practice, but his goal was to be a health care attorney.

In November, Lindenberg started part-time with New Haven firm Bershtein, Volpe & McKeon; and in January, the job became full-time. At the 11-attorney firm, he spends 90 percent of his time working on health care law.

"I love where I am, and I feel very fortunate to be here," Lindenberg said. "They are opening my eyes as to everything involved in being a lawyer."

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