Lawyer Layoffs

It’s getting ugly out there for lawyers. A profession that has been fairly well insulated from economic downturns in the past is now being roiled with unprecedented numbers of layoffs. Each day brings more bad news. I check sites like “Above the Law” or “AmLaw Daily” and read headline after headline of white shoe and top tier firms laying off their associates and staff. And the numbers are staggering – 400 people from this firm, 300 people for that one and so on. Firms that laid people off in the fall are now conducting round two or three of letting people go. No one is safe. The law firm I was at until last August performed cuts in November of last year, and I could have easily been one of them. But I left just in time. After years of trying to get into a top law firm in New York, I eventually took a position at an investment firm, forever altering the path my career will take. I have left the law firm world for good, and I don’t miss it. The billable hour does not exist for me, and neither do demanding law firm partners. I have become the client and my timing could not have been better. I graduated from law school in 2006 and entered a legal market that was still strong. I was busy for most of my time at the law firm I worked. In 2008, as things started taking a turn for the worst, I was in the middle of looking for a new job at law firms in New York. I tried and tried to find that right position for me with no luck. Firms weren’t hiring, I was told, but no one had started laying people off. Finally, when an opportunity arose to jump ship and try something different, I took it, fed up with where I had been working and ready for a new challenge. There was a time I was even serious about becoming a legal recruiter, as I was interested in the legal industry as a business and felt I was good at creating and maintaining relationships. But now recruiters are being laid off or leaving the industry in droves. No one is hiring or needs their services. And for the few available legal positions out there, firms see recruiters as a cost too difficult to justify in this environment.

But above all, the law school class of 2009 is stuck with the short end of the stick. Entering law school in 2006, they studied (and borrowed money) hard, lured by the dream of rising associate salaries and constant deal flow. Even in a good market, most graduating law students do not have jobs by the time they are out of school, forced to pass the bar exam to become more marketable. Where will this year’s class find work? Coming out of college, they could have perhaps found a job in a field that interested them for a modest salary. And if so, their debt load, if any, would have been manageable and they could have started their career three years earlier. But now what do they do? Where do they turn? Bitter and upset, this will forever change the lure of law as a profession. Now, more than ever before, it is abundantly clear that being a lawyer is definitely not what it used to be. 

What makes all of this a bitter pill to swallow is that law students finish school with a sense of entitlement and a hope that their income will be a bit higher than the average. It’s the reason why many of them attended law school in the first place. This year’s graduating class will be seen as “too overqualified” to take the job they could have gotten out of college, while, paradoxically, no legal opportunities exist out there. It’s a catch 22. Of the tens of thousands of graduating law students in 2009, I would dare say that about 60% will not have a job when they graduate and will have no idea where to turn, having exhausted most of their options already in their job search. It’s one thing to be a graduate from a top tier law school. But the vast majority of law students and law schools fall outside that realm. Their first job will set their career down a path many had not anticipated or even desired a short time ago, but forced to make ends meet and pay the student loan debt most of them have incurred, they will conform. The legal industry is quick to pigeonhole its people, and no one wants to retrain and retool lawyers in this market. Wow, it is ugly out there and I am afraid the bleeding is not yet over.

Unprecedented Times

These are unprecedented times, at least for my lifetime. From where I sit at work, I can hear the hedge fund guys speak with our clients/investors and with other hedge funds. Things are bad across the board out there. Sure, the DJIA falls quite a bit each day, but there are so many other gauges of how we’re doing than that, and all of them are scary. I don’t pretend to understand everything going on in the markets, but I know enough to know that there could be a lot more pain to come. If the credit default swap market comes undone, watch out. It will make the drops of the last few weeks look small in comparison. The scary thing is that I personally know people whose jobs are on the line. They fully expect to be laid off each Friday and rejoice if they’re spared another week. The sad thing is that they have no idea where else they would look for work. It’s not like other banks, funds or financial services companies are hiring. The way things are going, further consolidation will be coming, probably leading to even more job cuts. Bonuses will be smaller, if at all, additionally hurting the consumer spending and real estate markets. In my lifetime I have not seen anything like this. Yes I was around in 1987, 1998 and 2002, but maybe I just notice or care about business and finance more than I did before. But the reality is that we are in unprecedented times and no one knows what is around the corner.

Complying with Compliance

During my last year of law school I interviewed with one of the bulge-bracket investment banks in New York for a position in the regulatory compliance / anti-money laundering department. While I was hoping to get a job with a law firm, I was at least interested enough in exploring other opportunities. At the time, compliance had become an increasingly critical part of internal operations (especially for a financial or banking company), and as such, lawyers were being tapped to fill many of the jobs. Technically, licensed lawyers are not required to do the compliance work, but compliance positions at large companies have come to be known as law-degree preferred jobs instead of a law degree required. Going into the interview I knew I was interested in the company, but I was less interested in the position. Compliance isn’t interesting enough to me; in fact, it’s a bit boring, however necessary it may be to any well-functioning company.

Which is why I find my current position a bit ironic. I left law firm life to be at the New York office of a private equity firm as part of the legal team. When I accepted the offer, I was told that I would spend most of my time on transactional work, with maybe up to thirty percent spent on compliance given the changes the firm is currently going through. As I sit here and do the compliance work (which I am learning as I go), I can tell that I will be slated to be the compliance person for the New York office. The “up to thirty-percent” of my time spent on compliance work that I agreed to will be substantially more and more often, and there may be no end in sight. I am trying to not worry about what may lie ahead.

However, in the end, I like the company and I like the people. And someone has to be involved in the compliance work, understanding it and making sure that the company is legit with the SEC and other regulators. In the meantime, I hope I can actually fit some transactional work in there as well.

Markets to Meetings

With all of the despair and uncertainty in the U.S. financial markets, it’s kind of nice to be here out of the country, unaffected. I hear from friends that New York is depressing right now. From this morning’s headlines, more carnage and consolidation is to come and no one’s job is safe. Thankfully I am now in a company where I hopefully don’t have to worry about losing my job anytime soon – or at least that’s what I’m told.

Which brings me to my new job. I like the people and the environment so far. It’s only been a few weeks since I started, but my overall impression is good. This is a company that cares about its people, is led by leaders with a vision, expects all employees to contribute to the business and to bringing in new deals and has big plans for growth. What I find interesting is that unlike a law firm where I often worked directly with the clients and the other lawyers, I am only one part of a well-oiled machine here at my new job, often not even on the front lines. There are many moving parts for each transaction that meetings are required to coordinate across departments and keep everyone on the same page and moving forward. Meetings were rare at my last job, somewhat to my frustration. But now much of my day is filled up with attending meetings. My Outlook inbox is full of meeting requests waiting for me to accept or decline. When someone here wants to do lunch with you, they send you a meeting request that is automatically added to your calendar so that a reminder pops up a few minutes prior to the meeting. Looking at other people’s calendars to try to find a time that works to schedule a meeting is common practice. But I don’t mind. I enjoy face time and working with other people. I just hope that I can learn enough in the meetings to know what I am supposed to do once I am out of the meetings.

Dead to Them

I’m sitting in my almost-bare office with little work to do. It’s as if I am dead to my firm. Last week I gave my two-week notice and little by little the law firm has passed me by. I thought I was a part of a team and that by announcing unexpectedly that I was leaving for a new job I might be able to stir things up. In retrospect, I don’t know what I expected. Were the partners going to come by one-by-one to my office to ask why I was leaving or what was it about the firm that made me start looking for another job in the first place? Am I sure I was making the right move or what could we have done better? If I led the group those questions would have crossed my mine should a valued employee announce his or her departure. Instead, it appeared that my notice of departure created a feeling of relief for those at the top of the firm (yes, now we don’t have to fire one of the associates given that work has slowed down). This week I could probably roll into my office at 11:00 am and leave at 3:30 pm and no one would be the wiser. When I announced that I was leaving for another opportunity and a chance to take my career to the next level the history and work I had put in up to this point did not matter. I had died to them and life at the firm would go on.

Of course, I received the usual “congratulations” and proclamations of “good for you” and so on, but it would be nice to know that I will be missed. So far, I have yet to receive that feeling. When I walk out of here on Friday afternoon, I will walk away for good, likely to never see the office or the people again. In the past two years, there have been good times and frustrating times, but like with so much else in life, I have put in my time and am ready to move on. In going forward, however, I will keep my eye on this law firm (abbreviated as EMM) for I doubt it will look the same as it does now in five years. The way I see it, the firm will be forced to merge, cash out or collapse. Since giving notice the firm may have left me behind, but in a few years, time will pass this place by. I’m glad I saw the writing on the wall and left when I could.

No Risk, No Reward

No risk, no reward. That’s the idea behind many of life’s decisions at home and in the boardroom. But how much risk is prudent? Should a steady job and paycheck be given up in the pursuit of one’s own interests and desires? Should a family be asked to sacrifice because of a potential opportunity that may or may not work out? These thoughts are on my mind as I look down the road at what may be. Unsatisfied with my current position in the business world and where it will inevitably lead should I choose to stay on track, I am thinking of making a radical change. But I have second thoughts. Would it be the best move, the best timing? Potentially, it could be an exciting and intelligent move into a field that is largely untapped and has tremendous room to grow. Yet, timing is critical. Whatever potential exists, it will take some time to cultivate the fruits of our labors. As such, I am in no rush to quit my day job. But the internal nagging remains each day as I sit in my workplace and know that there must be more to how we approach the business of our business. Why can’t anyone else here recognize this? The status quo is a one way road to nowhere. To me, the writing is one the wall and has caused me to think differently. The next several weeks will be the testing ground to determine if I am ready and willing to leave what is steady and accepted and commit to, just perhaps, one of the smartest moves I’ll ever make.

Chasing Japan

For three years in law school I toyed with the idea of spending one semester in Tokyo at the Temple Japan Law Program, a specialized study abroad program through Temple University in Philadelphia. I requested the application more than once. I personally reached out to the director of the program and made sure I met him when he was in New York promoting the program. I spoke with others who had spent a semester in Tokyo at the program. I wanted to do it, but it never worked out. I never even sent in the application. There were other matters to considers, such as my family. As such, I couldn’t just pick up and move to Tokyo for a semester.

But what if I could have? What would I be doing now? Would I be any happier as an attorney? Would I be happy with my law firm, whether it is in the U.S. or Japan? How much better would I speak Japanese, if at all? I can’t help but ask these questions since moving to Japan to pursue a career has been in the back of my mind for the last eight years. And for eight years, I have made decisions that I have benefited from, notwithstanding the fact that I am not any closer to fulfilling an aspiration than I was a few years ago. Did the decision to not wholeheartedly pursue the Temple Japan Program lead me down a road in which finding my way back would be extremely difficult. Time will tell what is in store for me, but I can’t often help but wonder where Temple Japan would have taken me.