Big Law Avoided A 'Grisly Fate' By Giving Young Lawyers Huge Salaries

Richard Epstein is a professor at NYU School of Law.

Noted law professor Richard Epstein of New York University wrote a scathing review in today’s Wall Street Journal of a book that claims America’s big corporate law firms are in a state of crisis.

Steven J. Harper’s “Inside the Lawyer Bubble” argues that the entire profession is on the verge of imploding and places much of the blame on law schools and big law firms.

Epstein concedes that several big law firms including Dewey & LeBoeuf have gone bankrupt in recent years. But “Inside the Lawyer Bubble” totally ignores the fact that most of America’s big law firms haven’t collapsed during very tough times for the industry, Epstein says.

These firms “have proved resilient in a competitive climate,” he writes.

Most of Big Law avoided the “grisly fate” of Dewey by “avoiding overstaffing, by cutting bad clients, and by paying premium wages to young associates — many of whom, debts paid, happily bail out for less stressful work,” Epstein writes.

These premium salaries at the nation’s biggest law firms are still $160,000 to start. Epstein doesn’t elaborate on why law firms have avoided destruction by paying young people a lot of money, but it’s obvious that high salaries attract talented people.

Six-figure salaries might also encourage young people to take on potentially soul-crushing work that leaves them with little free time.

Some experts argue that law firms should actually cut associates’ salary so law firms can charge corporate clients less money. Unless law school tuition drops precipitously, though, cutting associate pay would likely discourage bright young people from going to law school. A lot of smart young people count on those six-figure salaries to pay off tuition — even if they bail a few years after lending their talent to Big Law.

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