BY RAFFI MELKONIAN
Part of going to law school today consists of reading earnest articles about how hard the job of being a young lawyer in a large law firm has become. Professional behavior is down, hours are up, and novice attorneys are slowly but inexorably ground in the teeth of the law firm machine. Last week, though, law firm partners speaking in the National Law Journal mixed it up on us. Far from being dutiful and productive cogs, we’re told, “Generation-Y” associates have a flabby work ethic, lack loyalty, don’t want to be lawyers, and don’t even serve on internal firm committees when they’re asked to do so. Most surprising of all, the work-obsessed heroes of law school horror stories are apparently not “work-centric” enough for their seniors. Believe it or not, they even react badly when their colleagues are mistreated. The nerve!
Speaking seriously, though, I don’t doubt that both sides of the above dichotomy contain some truth. Law firm life must be hard sometimes, and the hours demanded of associates in return for their admittedly high pay have clearly escalated in the last few decades. I’m equally sure that most associates know they haven’t a prayer of making partner, and this knowledge has spurred some rational apathy in a lot of them. Similarly, our generally high levels of formal education probably make us loathe to accept jobs that are clearly mechanical or unstimulating. But the fact that both the above stories are told with straight faces makes me think that the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
In fact, young lawyers today are probably exactly like young lawyers have always been – stressed, and unsure, and eager to do a decent job without entirely sacrificing their lives. Whenever I notice anyone complaining in either of the two ways above about law, my mind always turns to a series of letters on the subject I read in the biography of a lawyer working in the early 20th century. After graduating from HLS, taking many of the same courses we take, he started work at a private law firm in Albany and soon fell into a mild sort of depression. The cases were “very dull,” he thought, and he wasn’t learning very much – “I am really getting to feel that something must be done or all my years will be gone with nothing to show for it.” He eventually was convinced to move to New York City, and again began feeling underappreciated at the Manhattan firm he had chosen. Confused, and holding offers from two rival firms, he wrote his father-in-law for advice, and was told to think of nothing but the money – whichever firm he chose, the partners didn’t particularly care about him. “The action of both [firms] is governed by purely selfish business considerations…. [Therefore], there is just one person you should think about and whose interests you should seek… to promote, and that person is [you].” Though the lawyer chose his new firm on exactly those business considerations, he still felt out of place. Finally, after a few failed efforts to find a better job, he took the lucrative training the firms had given him and decamped to the federal bench. The rest, as the saying goes, was history – the man who couldn’t find a home in a law firm, who behaved like precisely those mercenaries our contemporary firm partners so excoriate, happens to have been called Learned Hand.
In the end, I’m not too bothered by the NLJ article. After all, I can’t imagine any worse recruiting ploy for the firms named in the piece than to grouse publicly about their future employees. Part of having an “off-putting sense of entitlement,” it seems to me, is being touchy when people recruiting you insist on making public comments like the ones we read. But even more, I’m not bothered by the comments because identical thoughts have probably been formed by every generation of lawyers, and parents, and doctors, and everyone else from the beginning of time. That kind of false nostalgia is part of becoming more experienced, and I’m looking forward to the day when I too can tell my stories of slogging back and forth from the firm through ten feet of snow. I’ll make do until then.
Raffi Melkonian is a 3L who reacts badly when his colleagues are mistreated.