Gather round, little children, I want to tell you a tale. You want to know what has happened in the last 10 years in the legal industry? By far the biggest story over that time is the layoffs that nearly shattered the industry, and irrevocably changed it.
An employee of Lehman Brothers carries a box out of the companys headquarters building September 15, 2008 in New York City. (Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images)
The 2009 layoffs that rocked the legal industry were brutal. There is little other way to describe it. Of course, there were other industries and jobs that were lost during the Great Recession. But when the shit first started to hit the fan, and the newly jobless masses from Lehman Brothers streamed wide-eyed into the streets in Midtown, many in Biglaw took solace in the relatively staid and conservative nature of the legal industry, hoping that its business model would provide stability.
That turned out to be a false hope. I know I lived through it. By the time the bloodshed was over, about 6,000 lawyers would be looking for work. Some were lied to and told they were losing their job for performance issues issues that magically appeared once the financial institutions that had happily paid for billable hours during boom times hit their own hard times. Others were told a more straightforward story, but the result was the same. There we were in unprecedented numbers waiting on the breadline.
Its bizarre to see so many high-achieving people desperate for the few jobs that were actually available. Midsized firms in major markets saw a deluge of rsums for any lateral position they posted. And whenlucky enough to get an interview, you spent half of the time trying to convince the powers-that-bethat you really were committed to this sudden change in your career path, and no, you would not bolt for Biglaw the second a job there came up.
That part at least was true there would be little bolting for Biglaw, since most of those jobs werent coming back. Firms learned they could live by staffing matters more leanly, and some of the more junior tasks like the hours of discovery work that used to pad a litigation departments bottom line were being outsourced (often at the clients demand) to third-party vendors.
So, we waited. Though that simple sounding task proved challenging, as Above the Laws Roxana St. Thomas documented in real time:
How quickly things change. This morning I had to stop for a moment to ask myself what month it is. January? No. February? I think so. In fact, Im pretty sure that it is February-something, although its hard to say when tumbleweeds blow through the Outlook calendar that remains on your BlackBerry, prepared to accept the appointments you do not have and the meetings you will not schedule. Is it Thursday? Friday? Tuesday? Thats even tougher. Those are all days on which one might have a conference call, or a motion due, or a litigation department dinner to sit through while rolling your eyes and emailing a friend across the room (like sixth graders disguised in business attire and outfitted with less crinkly note-writing tools).
But none of those things happened yesterday, or will happen today, and I am wearing the same thing I slept in and, for that matter, wore to the gym. And I havent washed my hair since whatever day was three days ago, which I couldnt tell you the name of.
The days slipped into weeks and then into months.
Even with an entire industry seemingly on the verge of disaster, there were intense feelings of failure and self-recrimination as if there were something you should have done differently that would save you from this fate. Maybe if youd stayed a little later, not taken any vacation days, or volunteered to add one more assignment to your 12-hour days, you could have done something that could have proven your loyalty and worth to the Biglaw firm that just cast you aside. But the reality is, even when couched in the bullshit of performance-related termination (that remarkably only became an issue as the economy was collapsing), there wasnt.
The legal industry was bloated, and the financial transactions that had become the bedrock of many firms were based on a lie. Something had to give, and now youre screwed.
And when the long days of rsum revisions and cover letters turned up no new opportunities, cheap alcohol could always keep the specter of doom at bay. Of course, that strategy doesnt really work, but who said lawyers have good coping skills?
But survive it you must. Leaving New York, plaintiff firms, small firms, and document review are all on the table as you struggle to end the unemployed life. This shark-like, ever-forward mantra, plus the prayer that once again youll work as a lawyer, is all thats keeping you together. Then halfway through cooking ramen for the fifth dinner in a row in some poorly remembered pantomime of frugality the overwhelming futility of your life hits. Youll remember the dinners with friends you canceled on, the occasions you missed, and the family you disappointed all because you had a high-powered job, and now you have nothing but unemployment checks to show for it. The elitist in you screams this wasnt supposed to happen to me! Not the kid who always got good grades, busted ass in college, and graduated from a T14 law school. But here you are, and you arent alone.
Fast forward seven years, and you have indeed survived. Now the Biglaw dreams you once pinned everything on seem like an unrealistic childish fantasy, like a nine-year-old declaring they are going to marry Tom Cruise (with the obvious exception of Katie Holmes, and even that didnt turn out the way shed planned). Those that stayed or managed to return to Biglaw see that it has changed. It once seemed a safe career choice, where hard work could guarantee you a decent life. But no more. We now know it is as volatile as any market even as it struggles to stay above the fray. The collapse sucked, but it was a defining experience for those that lived it, especially for those still kicking around in Biglaw.
When I ask senior associates their number one complaint about junior associates, it isnt (just) that they are millennials its that they all say, I dont remember 2009. That experience left an indelible mark. When my grandmother died, we found boxes of cookies and candy hidden around her house; shed lived through the Depression, and some small part of her was always worried there would come a time when she wouldnt have anymore sweet treats. Similarly, these attorneys work in constant fear that one day the assignments will all dry up. Anyone who survived 09 knows: the only thing worse than too much work is not enough.
Kathryn Rubino is an editor at Above the Law. Feel free to email herwith any tips, questions, or comments and follow her on Twitter (@Kathryn1).