Thursday, October 6, 2016

The Toxic Jobs Factor

Often we discuss full-time jobs requiring bar passage in two dimensions: whether they exist and how much they pay. More granular sources may try to obliquely describe quality by looking at the type of job setting (i.e., government, large firm, small firm) or maybe subject area (corporate v. ID, for example).  But mostly, we and the law school sycophants alike have kept the numbers portion elementary, which is good from a simplicity standpoint, although simplicity can aid and abet fraud by ignoring crucial nuance. But for most schools, the basic employment and salary numbers are bad enough as it is to warrant caution.

But here's a research question for the entrepreneurial law profs snooping around the page:  what percentage of full-time jobs requiring bar passage, even when they exist, are toxic?

Definitions vary - this isn't a category used by the BLS, although it probably should be.

By toxic job, I don't mean one with low pay, per se, or where you work 50-60 hours a week or even where there's an asshole partner or two.  What might be toxic in the advertising industry already might be ho-hum routine in law.  By toxic, I mean roughly the following:
  1. Frequent turnover, like the average associate tenure of less than two years, with many departing after a few months;
  2. Culture of unethical or immoral conduct;
  3. Incredibly poor organization with respect to files, billing, and scheduling;
  4. Objectively abusive superiors (or clients, for that matter) who often have legitimate personality disorders or substance abuse problems;
  5. The salary is so low and/or the overtime is so high that the practical hourly wage is under a level that makes the investment of law school worthwhile, say $15-20/hr.
  6. Instability to the point where one's job could constantly vanish in the next month.
You know, shit that makes colleagues say "you need to get out of there." The prime example would be the small law practitioner(s) whose competence, ethical compass, and emotional well-being are shaky, but they have enough business to need additional help, or enough fluke past success to have a book of business or a war chest.  But it is by no means limited to those scenarios.  Large law firms can develop a toxic culture despite the classy environs, and for mill-style law firms, toxic might be the default setting.  Firms once well-run like a vintage Cadillac can quickly become a sputtering jalopy, particularly in a field where investors are virtually limited to skilled practitioners who give a shit.  Even government can become toxic in the age of budget cuts and convoluted rationalizations about case-load size.

It's not quantifiable, but it's arguably more important than a salary number.  If you start at a toxic job, you will almost certainly be looking to lateral within two to three years (if not months).  And aside from certain tells, it's not like toxic jobs always advertise themselves as such; Lord knows the career services office isn't going to red flag them.

I suspect a large portion of lawyer unhappiness comes from the fact that a relatively high percentage of law jobs are toxic in ways that would make most non-lawyer business and government employees recoil with horror.  Of course, there are also few industries where the overwhelming majority of workers have to run their own shop eventually one way or another, or where financial success can be so perversely disconnected from genuine skills of production.

A lot of older lawyers may brush off toxicness as some sort whiny millennial-inspired complaint about standard-issue work conditions, particularly when it comes to wet-behind-the-ears lawyers "cutting their teeth," which seems to be a perpetually en vogue justification for pissing on the Golden Rule.  But it's a serious issue that should not be easily dismissed.  Toxic labor conditions distort the labor market by creating a lot of entry-or low-level positions that simply re-open every two years with no prospect for advancement, which is generally an assumption for "good" jobs - at least for 0Ls.

Crucially, clients (and opposing counsel and judges) benefit from having healthy, ethical, experienced lawyers. Very few clients are truly served by retaining a toxic law firm, whether they realize it or not; after all, if a principal lawyer is willing to exploit the labor force, what's to stop him or her from cutting corners with clients?

When prospective students look at employment statistics, it's hard to imagine them assuming that their first job may only last a year or two before getting thrown back in the chasm. 

It would be nice if there was some way to quantify and express that concept in a simple table.  Unfortunately, I fear optimism bias isn't limited to assuming that everyone winds up on the right side of the curve, and those with the resources to perhaps work on correcting the information distortion seem to oddly have priorities that don't involve negatively categorizing potential organizational donors at the expense of truth, fairness, or transparency.


  1. "Very few clients are truly served by retaining a toxic law firm, whether they realize it or not..."

    Amen to that. It's amazing how many clients think their positions are served by bellowing charlatans, who think being a lawyer is more about putting on a show at mediation than discussing actual facts or law. Once these clients see what is left in the settlement after said loud-mouth takes their cut, they wonder why they resorted to a law suit in the first place. Seen it time and again.

    I want to tell the other side "look, this guy is taking you for a ride," but then that would be me trying to unethically trying to influence them and shake them down so as to take less, as it were. A lot of people think lawyering is about who can yell the loudest. Winning!

  2. I can speak directly to two scummy places where entry-level patent attorneys often get hired:

    (1) Oliff PLC. Check out their website via the wayback machine and you'll see almost complete associate turnover within a year! And check out the reviews on Glassdoor. I am lucky they didn't offer me a job (Well, I got a verbal offer but then they wrote me a week later to say they changed their minds. Classy!)

    (2) Cardinal Intellectual Property. This place takes advantage of unemployed law school grads and pays them fast food wages to do patent examiner work. I worked there and know people who worked there, and people often made an average of about $10/hour doing patent searching. This place also has high turnover.

  3. Totally agree that government jobs can be very toxic. I worked as an Assistant District Attorney prosecuting drug cases in a big city. I would normally leave the office at 5 after a nine hour day. While no one was complaining about my work, the deputy to the chief called me aside and warned me,"Never, ever let the boss see you leaving at 5. She will know you are not working hard enough." I continued to go home at 5 and incurred the wrath of the entire supervisory chain. I lasted 3 months and took a job with the Department of the Army as a GS-13.

    1. "Never, ever let the boss see you leaving at 5. She will know you are not working hard enough."

      Typical power-trip, face-time, boomer mentality. It's all about form, never substance.

    2. The boss at my old firm would sneak out at 5PM, but not before he got himself a warm cup of coffee and took off his jacket to put on his chair. He actually believed we didn't realize what he was doing.

      Even the cleaning people (who didn't speak English) would laugh at him.

    3. We had a public defender boss who wanted us at the office at exactly 8:00 am. Two hours before court and one hour prior to any POs, clerks---in other words we just sat around. We tried to explain that many of us stayed past 7:00 pm seeing clients etc and working with POs and Social Services. So, we just clocked out en masse at 4:30 pm every night. Form over substance. That boss was the "Greatest Generation."

    4. @3:02:

      Typical. It's "do as I say, not as I do" with these people.

      Hypocrisy - it's not a bug, it's a feature!

  4. It also appears as though the level of toxicity across the profession is increasing. A contributing factor to toxicity is the increasing billable hour requirement which contributes to stress and ethical issues. What were the partners of today, starting in the 1970s to 1990s, expected to bill as associates. Today, 2100 appears to be standard in insurance defense and 1900-2300 in Biglaw (with the understanding that some percentage of hours are cut to keep clients happy). This affects the entire legal sector, regardless of the salaries or quality of supervision.

    1. Take 10 well-trained dogs. Lock them in a barn and every day give them enough food to fully satisfy 5 dogs. What do you think is going to happen?

  5. This is such an important post. One's legal career is often spent hopping from one of these dead end positions or another, always seeking greener pastures. When hopping, partnership opportunities are not the primary motivating factor so much as escaping the hell that is the current position. Aside from lack of advancement, the real problem with this career track is you have a relatively short shelf life to do this sort of job hopping, maybe 10 years if you're lucky. Fact is, no one wants to hire a middle aged attorney with 10+ years experience for a dead end job paying 50-60k. So then you're unemployable at 40ish, with enough experience to know what you're , but probably little in the way of start up capital and probably still with a sizable loan balance. Not to mention, hopefully, a family to feed. Very grim prospects. Scamsters, that ball keeps on bouncing.

  6. All of the above is a part of every job in America, law included. There are bad days and good. The only reason the profession sucks now is because of the huge glut of attorneys 1.8 million and growing. The problem is that there is no where for advancement or ability to switch jobs. Options are limited because there are 100s of applicants for every legal position. A buddy of mine attended a jobs networking event in an upscale suburb. Twenty people attended, 6 were attorneys. A public defender earning around 50K with pension, health care and paid vacation would be crazy for leaving to enter private practice. Those jobs are now reserved for the connected and T-1 graduates. You can't just "get a job" now. Solos and small firm lawyers are STUCK. To quote James Carville, "it's lack of work and jobs, stupid."

  7. It's not the working conditions of the legal profession or the clients. I signed up for that when I entered the profession. The problem is for every attorney job, there are 10,000 schmucks in line who could fill your place. It is a cage fight for every job, client, fee, work---and law schools like Marshall, Valpo, Cooley, Indiana Tech keep pumping out lawyers with abandon.

    1. Fill my place how? As a warm body? Maybe. As a great lawyer? No way.

      Unfortunately, the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong.

    2. Unfortunately, there are hoards and hoards of bright, ambitious, skilled, experienced attorneys who are underemployed and unemployed, My buddy is a PI wiz and he is unemployed. We are all easily replaced and fungible. I don't have a "book" of business and the area of law I concentrated in is unique to the government. The government has decided I am expendable at the moment until there is either a public outcry or a "political" backlash or emergency for my area of the law. Good and specialized skills does not insulate one from this glutted attorney market.

    3. I don't know about hordes and hordes, but indeed many good lawyers are underemployed or unemployed.

      Good lawyers are greatly outnumbered by the hordes and hordes of lousy lawyers, who may or may not be employed.

    4. Maybe I need therapy here, but it seems like the good, decent attorneys like me are unemployed or underemployed. We are the ones driving the '03 Accords through the courthouse parking lots with the squealing serpentine belts. The scamsters, shysters, hallway hustlers, ambulance chasers, fixers, pettifoggers have too much work, clients, fees and new Audis. There are tons of us "good guys" who entered the legal profession to have a nice career and were bushwacked by the Great Recession, government sequester and the unranked law schools.

    5. I hate to tell you man but I think the current state of the law has been coming for a long time and is only slightly due to the Great Recession. This profession has come to this by individuals (lawyers, judges, law school deans) looking out for number one. Generations looking to law school as a way to escape the military draft not to improve the practice of law. Years of courts and regulatory officials not using strict quality standards and enforcing rules and instead seeming to go after easier but stupider infractions against easy targets like financial mistakes. Years of lawyers pretending all was well and feeding the great propaganda machine for their financial betterment. They are retiring now with their massive pensions and 401ks and they will tell people until their dying day how great being a lawyer is. Meanwhile there are 10 lawyers for each job, the worst of the profession feels free to lie or cheat or steal and charge whatever they want, judgeships are sold to the highest bidder to political campaigns and every day... good lawyers will become unemployable and seek positions at Starbucks.

  8. I agree this is a really important post. The general public and students looking at law schools just don't seem to understand that not every legal job is a "good job," or even close.

    And of course it is absolutely the glut of lawyers that fosters more, and more toxic, legal workplaces. Loyalty--the calling card of an ethical lawyer--goes out the window when a brand new crop of "hungry" lawyers can be burned through at will. Likewise, the beatings will continue until morale improves, and what are you going to do about it, quit? The beatings are worse down the street, assuming they'll even take you in.

    Toxic environments make for toxic lawyers, something no society can let happen on a grand scale and expect the rule of law to survive.

  9. I had two toxic law jobs and turned down a third. This article is a little too on the nose, if that makes sense. Being told by a boss "Maybe we should file a....." meaning that you need to file it or else, but if it goes wrong you will be blamed because the boss just wanted to "consider it." Eventually, you get fired.

  10. Captain Hruska Carswell, Continuance KingOctober 9, 2016 at 8:58 PM

    All of these problems look, feel, smell and taste like issues found in lower level, dead end jobs, not in a profession dedicated to the Rule of Law and public trust. Shame. Why is that?

  11. As long as the American Bar Association is not making a serious attempt to correlate law graduate production with the number of lawyer jobs, lawyers will suffer in the job market.

    A company can hire a T8 law graduate who worked in a V10 firm for years at a paralegal salary or for less than a teacher of that vintage earns in total compensation. It is quasi legal job, where they want a lawyer but know they do not have to pay for a lawyer because of the lawyer glut.

    Toxic up or out policies in law firms leave hordes of top lawyers unemployed and underemployed. When the lawyer is approaching age 50, that Harvard Law degree may as well be in basket weaving, because it can be and often is worthless - years of unemployment to work at all as a lawyer, and maybe no job at all as a lawyer after big law, notwithstanding hundreds of applications.

    Thank the American Bar Association. Leaving almost a million or so lawyers structurally unemployed is something they could not care less about. The ABA will keep opening new schools to provide "opportunities" to bright young lawyers, even if it leaves more than half of law graduates unable to work as lawyers and many of the rest temping or working in marginal positions, including up or out positions with not nearly enough follow on jobs.

    The lawyer jobs will continue to get more toxic -with lawyers treated like cattle headed to the slaughter. There is no reason to pay lawyers well or treat them well with the huge lawyer glut. There will always be an oversupply of lawyers, including many good lawyers, for any job.

  12. Dybbuk123,

    Did you see this?

    Vermont Law School, a leader in graduate law and policy education, seeks a bold and dynamic new President and Dean who shares our commitment to academic excellence, innovation, and community.

    Please re-write the full add (it's hilarious), spelling out the "subliminal" messages in it.

  13. Okay, all of these middle aged unemployed lawyers. . . where are they? What are they doing these days? I've said this before and I will again . . almost all lawyers in private practice eventually end up working for themselves or in smallis partnerships. By their middle ages, most successful lawyers have built up enough of a practice that they can make a reasonable living, or that is how it appears to me anyway. What am I missing?

  14. Remember that speech of Kellye Teste at some toilet law school about nonJD law degrees and how great an investment law school is? It's been put under restriction on Youtube, you have to get permission of the owner to watch it now.

  15. Problem is the huge supply/ demand imbalance - 1.8 million law graduates vs 780,000 lawyer jobs in the U.S. There are about 1.3 million licensed lawyers for those 780,000 lawyer jobs.

    There are over 26,000 full-time permanent JD-required lawyer jobs for first year law graduates - not enough jobs for every law graduate that gets a first year job to continue working for a 40-year career.

    The numbers of jobs include solo practitioners.

    There are not enough jobs for all licensed lawyers to work as lawyers. There are not enough experienced jobs for all first year lawyers to work for a career.

    You cannot squeeze blood out of a stone. The work isn't there for all first year lawyers to have a career as successful experienced lawyers . The law of supply and demand is putting a lot of lawyers out of work, or out of full-time permanent work and into unemployment - years of unemployment - and underemployment - years of underemployment with no relief in sight.

    The ABA is committed to creating a huge and increasing oversupply of lawyers to create opportunities for bright young lawyers. Furthermore, the ABA says it violates the antitrust laws to prevent dozens of further new law schools from opening or to limit the supply of lawyers based on the demand for lawyers.

    So going to law school today is like playing Russian roulette with your career.

  16. Outside appearances - The law firm of Smith, Jones and Ray has a dozen lawyers and offices in a nice building. Mr. Jones lives in a nice house and drives a good car. The law firm has added one or two lawyers every year for the past 6 years. The law firm has a good website and prepares some interesting client alerts.

    What success!

    Reality- Nine of the 12 lawyers are independent contractor counsel or as needed associates. They like being on the website and the firm likes having them on the website because it makes them look "bigger" than they actually are. Most lawyers affiliated with the firm do not have regular offices at the firm because the practice does not pay enough to provide offices for all dozen lawyers. Most are place holders on the website.

    Mr, Jones earns $115,000 from the firm, the average lawyer salary in the U.S., but the cost of living in this city is 25% above the U.S. average. Mr. Jones' father-in-law passed away and left a nice inheritance to the Jones family, and they are spending it on their living expenses, until it runs out. Then they will sell the house and live off the proceeds of that and Mr. and Mrs. Jones' earnings.

    Watch out! Law is a lot like a video game. What you see is not necessarily the reality of the situation. Everyone wants to look successful, no matter what the reality is.

  17. Captain Hruska Carswell, Continuance KingOctober 15, 2016 at 5:48 PM

    That salary average you cite is BLS data for EMPLOYED pay check attorneys and does NOT include SOLOS or small firm lawyers which are 50% of the market. Most gub'mint lawyers earn no where near that 115K. The more accurate raw data is from the IRS which is about 37K.

  18. Just intended to make the point that even for lawyers coming from big law or highly rated schools, there are a lot of law firms that are bad landing places. The employment outcomes, salaries and the like even in a firm that looks like it has a substantial number of lawyers are often terrible.

    This is in response to the person who asked aren't most middle aged lawyers doing okay. The answer is maybe not, if they are a placeholder on a website without full-time permanent work. You wouldn't know that they are not doing great from that law firm website.

    The $115,000 figure is for a hypothetical senior partner, who in reality does not make enough to pay his law degree.

  19. You can bet the lawyers working for the hypothetical firm and those like it earn at a similar rate to solos, or maybe $50,000 or $70,000 in a high cost area. They mostly practice in fields that they learned in big law.

    I have actually known people who are just like this -Yale Law, Columbia Law, University of Pennsylvania Law, Virginia Law, all with honors and marginally attached to a smaller law firm as described, or earning a very middling amount as a main partner in the smaller law firm. It goes up to firms with as many as 25 lawyers - alternate work arrangements with little income attached and of course no health insurance.

    Not your real full-time, permanent lawyer job, but no one is the wiser.

    1. That 50K is the golden ring. My Solo buddies and I out almost 30 years would wet our pants for that sort of salary and benefits. For a dink bag PD job paying around 32K there were many applicants. It is brutal.