Judge John Kane And The Broken Social Contract Between Young Lawyers And Their Firms

Last week, Stephanie West Allen at Idealawg posted a speech given by United States District Court Judge John Kane at his law school’s 50th reunion.

Some folks jumped all over one paragraph near the beginning as a vindication of their personal grudges against young lawyers:

I wish I had a better grasp of the issues, but this newest generation seems to possess an entirely different set of values. They are more concerned with lifestyle than clients or causes. We thought hard work and perseverance would eventually lead to a partnership in a firm and it was an unusual event when a partner left one firm and joined another. That kind of dogged loyalty is a thing of the past.

I wonder about Judge Kane’s use of the word "we." Judge Kane had a distinguished career, most of it in public service as a district attorney, public defender, Peace Corps officer, or judge. I don’t think he’s representative of his generation; I think he’s a cut above, more dedicated to professionalism and service than most. I thus question his remarks about lifestyle, clients and causes — is he comparing himself to the most lazy and cynical of the young lawyers, or to the comparable public servants and public interest young lawyers?

But let’s move on to the meat of the speech: loyalty. Whose loyalty was Judge Kane questioning?

Later on:

Ten days ago the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the American "legal industry," as it is now called, lost another 1,100 positions in April marking the second month in a row of quadruple digit job losses. In the last year the legal industry has lost more than 28,000 jobs. The White House Council of Economic Advisers says the labor market is healing and that’s a sure sign that the economy is recovering from the recession, but it will be years before the recovery visits the legal sector.

Think of these young people who graduated here today. At least half of them don’t have jobs to go to — and many of them are saddled with student loan debts exceeding $100,000. The law schools have become profit centers for the universities and they are churning out law graduates at the rate of 40,000 per year without regard to the economy’s ability to absorb them.

Many law firms are no longer hiring first, second or third year associates because clients are refusing to pay for them. What general counsels are looking to hire, both in-house and out, are lawyers not trained to think like lawyers, but like businessmen. As one such general counsel said recently, "The greatest asset we look for is the ability to read a spreadsheet." One look at the Wall Street fiasco should tell him that is the last thing he should be looking for. He should be looking for wise counsel from someone who understands the value of history and the caution that should accompany every opportunity. We need to ask, however, if that is what the law schools now are purporting to teach.

Even if new graduates can find employment in the private sector, the social contract with law firms has completely eroded. What rewarded the Baby Boomers is no longer available to the Millenials: they have almost no chance of making partner, with the attendant financial security and status that was the quid pro quo for the client-service centered work ethic. What do they have to fall back on?

If you are part of the hiring process at a firm, you need to read that paragraph over and over again until you really understand it.

It was nearly three years ago, at the very beginning of the Big Law meltdown, that I posted Associates Beware: Big Law Feels No Loyalty To You, pointing out the hypocrisy of Thacher Proffitt’s decision to fire only the new associates in their imploding real estate and structured finance departments. A year ago, in The One Fact Law Students Should Know About Big Corporate Law Firms, I pointed out how large corporate firms were risky, transient businesses that will slough off the associates at the first sign of trouble.

None of this information was new. I certainly wasn’t the first to point it out. Open up any post on Above The Law and you’ll see more of the same.

Judge Kane gets it: the social contract between young lawyers and their firms has been broken. Firms show no loyalty to their young lawyers and so receive none in return. Even chimpanzees know the value of fair play; only corporate law firms don’t.

It’s not broken everywhere, of course. I believe in what I do and I like where I do it. Many of my peers, including some at big corporate firms, are the same. But viewed as a whole, young lawyers no longer relate to big firms the way the prior generations used to.

Judge Kane’s advice to young lawyers is sound:

I want to tell this next generation that the philosophers were right; that St. Francis, Buddha, Muhammad, Maimonides — all spoke the truth when they said the way to serve yourself is to serve others. And that Aristotle was right, before them, when he said the only way to assure yourself happiness is to give happiness. And while I’m at it, I want to tell them to read books instead of the computer screen. As the CEO of The Onion, that incomparable organ of informed satire, said to the New York Times when asked his advice for prospective employees: "They should start with Plato. He was a very practical man."

This is the part that’s often left out of rants about how lazy and selfish young lawyers are: when young lawyers speak of "balance," they speak not only of the time they put into their work, but in the meaning of their work. Judge Kane’s advice to lawyers — find meaning in your work and your life by serving others — is often exactly what young lawyers want, but can’t get, because they’re too desperate clinging on to whatever job they can find in this bleak market and too worried that the first sign of trouble at the firm they’ll see is a text from a friend saying "sorry to hear about your firm."

Finally, Judge Kane’s words to the generations above the young lawyers bear repeating:

We can leave our legacy by participating in mentoring programs, by becoming active in volunteer programs and the Inns of Court, and by having simple one-on-one conversations. The next time a friend or relative tells you that his or her grandchild is thinking of going to law school, what message will you impart? How have you lived your profession? Wasn’t the service you gave to others the source of your satisfaction? Our obligation is tell them just that.

Some of the most important developments in my career have come through simple conversations with lawyers, judges and professors.

If you’re fretting about how young lawyers don’t feel the way you do about the law, why not sit down with one and talk to them about how you find meaning in serving others through the law?

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  • http://blog.simplejustice.us shg

    I’m saddened that you see my position as a “grudge” rather than what it is, an exhortation to take responsibility for one’s life, work hard and be a better lawyer. I hope that you will eventually come to understand better, and that the “angry young man” in you will mature so that you need not feel so entitled and defensive.

  • http://www.litigationandtrial.com Max Kennerly

    That rings hollow coming from the fellow who coined two whole generations the “slackoisie.” I fail to see how that or any of your rants will encourage anyone.
    I also don’t think anyone who reviews both our blogs will wonder which one of us feels angry and entitled. If you feel compelled to get some anger and resentment off your chest, that’s your right, but don’t pretend it’s meant for the target’s benefit.