At one firm it is going to happen. Will it catch on elsewhere?
The Legal Intelligencer reported on Monday on Philadelphia-based Drinker Biddle's new plan for its new associates (registration required), and it looks very different from what other large firms have been doing in response to the decline in their profits.
According to the Intelligencer, new associates are going to start as planned this fall, rather than being deferred for up to a year, as is happening at other firms. Their first six months will be spent in a program of both formal training and shadowing of more senior lawyers. They will not be required to bill, and the pay will be at a reduced annualized rate of $105,000. Salaries, and billing expectations, will increase after the six months of training.
Drinker Biddle clients should be excited about these developments, since it will likely mean the end of being billed for the unproductive hours put in by the most junior associates. Many clients, at Drinker and elsewhere, already demand that first-years spend little or no billable time on their matters.
Law schools are also likely to respond positively. An ABA Journal follow-up piece quoted a Villanova dean praising the progam
as "novel" and "positive," terms which might also describe the idea
that legal training of this sort should happen during law school. But
let's not ask for too much.
And how will Drinker Biddle associates respond?
For the 2009 class, obviously, there's no choice in this matter, unless
they feel like turning down their offers and starting up a new job
search. Undoubtedly, many of their law-school classmates who are
facing deferrals or even rescissions would gladly trade places right
But even looking ahead to a time when the job market has recovered
somewhat, the Drinker Biddle plan might be a positive for new
associates. Here is a chance to start work without immediate billing
pressure, to learn how to do substantive work in a structured
environment, and presumably to emerge six months later with an array of
useful legal skills. In short, Drinker Biddle first-years may be
better attorneys than their counterparts at other firms, at a cost to
them of a few thousand dollars in the short term.
Is this a tradeoff that future associates would make, if they had other
options to choose from? Would they rather have a job under the current
model at $160,000? Maybe, but we all know that that number is starting
to fall. How low must it go before graduating students would choose
the training program and the lower salary?