The Caste System of the Legal Profession (Nuggets, Vol. XVIII)

by PhilaLawyer
February 21st, 2010

Philalawyer’s Note: I’m still getting emails from college students asking me whether they should go to law school, and from law students asking me what practice areas they should go into. I don’t know what to offer to the college kids that I haven’t previously said here, here, here or here.

As to the law students, in this market, you’re going to face substantial pressure to take any job you can get. A lot of people are going to offer that tired “beggars can’t be choosers” adage, advise you to grab whatever’s being given. I’m not going to outright disagree. I will, however, offer this caution: The first job out of law school can brand you, set the trajectory for the rest of your career. Don’t take a shit position doing something you know you’ll hate. Law’s a brutal caste system, and if you wind up an Untouchable early, it’s damn hard to climb up the ladder.

Knowledge being half the battle, here’s an outtake from an early draft of the book describing the legal industry hierarchy. The setting was my last practice shift in Philadelphia, when I was offered a job in a field totally unrelated to my previous experience.

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“Let me ask you another question.” The managing partner ran his fingers over his chin. “Who do you think has more at risk here, you or us?” He was implying that if I didn’t succeed as a plaintiff’s lawyer at his firm, the business litigation bar would never have me back. I’d be a victim of the “once you leave, you’re out for good” childishness that permeated that practice area.

Law’s a world of endless hierarchies, more so than any other field. And almost all of them are superfluous, created more to stroke the eggshell egos of the lawyers involved than anything else. Most of the industry is in a constant game of keeping up with the Joneses. Everything – everything – is a dick size comparison. But it isn’t like Wall Street or your golf club. People aren’t fixated solely on money. For the lawyers who work in the billable hour side of the business, “Prestige” is the big measuring stick.

The “Big Firms” representing Fortune 100 behemoths are pathologically fixated on finding lawyers with Ivy League law school credentials, or barring that, top ten placement in their class. Of course, Philadelphia having little to draw those candidates, and firms in desperate need of clients, the rules are broken more and more for anyone with business connections. You can have just north of a Down’s Syndrome IQ and get into a good Philadelphia firm these days if your father’s the CEO of anything paying mid-six to seven figures a year in legal bills. But for the average kid tumbling out of law school, you need those sterling academic accolades, which are very rare.

Everyone in law school tries for those Big Firm jobs, but few get them. The overwhelming majority of graduates are left to scurry into various firms of different sizes and practice areas. The first level below the Big Firms are “Boutiques,” smaller groups of lawyers who’ve jettisoned Big Firms with stables of clients, opening specialized practices that handle one or two types of cases. You’ll see Employment, Bankruptcy and, lately, “Health Care Law” boutiques, to name a few varieties. These are respectable outfits, on par with Big Firms as to skill, only not quite paid as well due to their limited market.

There are myriad categories of firms below Boutiques, but the two biggest by far are “Insurance Defense” and “Personal Injury,” a/k/a “Plaintiff’s” firms. Insurance Defense firms look a lot like the Big Firms if you don’t know anything about the industry. Blurring this distinction further, some firms are both at the same time. Many of the big regional firms in Philadelphia have departments doing the same work Insurance Defense firms do at discount rates but don’t admit it in the professional community.

The real distinction between a Big Firm and an Insurance Defense firm is the amount of complex work the firms do and what they pay. Where a big firm will pay between $120k and $160k to first year associates, and a Boutique pay $10-20k less, Insurance Defense shops in Philadelphia will pay between $60k and $90k. The reason for the difference is simple – where a big firm gets $250 per hour for its associates’ work on an average case, an Insurance Defense shop gets anywhere between $90 and $150. The perception, fair or not, is that Insurance Defense lawyers defend cookie cutter personal injury cases, and aren’t as skilled or committed as the lawyers at the Big Firms. It’s a generalization, but the legal industry’s a patchwork of bullshit hierarchies, so it might as well be ironclad truth.

Alongside the Insurance Defense lawyer is his counterpart, or nemesis, the Plaintiff’s Lawyer. The classic old school Plaintiff’s Lawyer didn’t go to an Ivy, wouldn’t get past the resume screening process at a Big Firm and in many cases lacked the polish or network to even score a job in an Insurance Defense shop. Or was shrewd enough to avoid it. In fairness, this is changing. As a result of worsening margins in billable work, increasingly unbearable demands at Big Firms, and the perception one can get obscenely rich quickly as a personal injury lawyer, the Plaintiff’s Bars everywhere are flooding with well credentialed candidates. But again, fairly or not, it’s considered a bottom feeders market.

Evan was wild, and his firm was just a boutique, but he was considered one of the scarier business litigators in the city, and one of the few who actually knew how to try and win complex commercial cases.** Not too many of the Big Firm eggheads Evan went up against could bring the heat in a courtroom, and working under him had provided me with a unique, enviable skill set. Leaving that air, that guaranteed money, for a job as a plaintiff’s lawyer – an industry characterized by its lack of barrier to entry – was technically a huge goddamned risk.

“Technically” only, of course, as risk assumes there’s something to lose.
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* If you’ve read Happy Hour, this might sound like odd advice coming from someone who switched practice areas four times and leapfrogged in salary. It is, but I’m an outlier, not the rule, and I had the luck of working in a climate of growth and rapid pay increases.
** My boss at the time.

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