Wednesday, January 6, 2010

$80k...for WHAT?!?!?!

This Wall Street Journal column deals with the issue of associate deferrals at the prestigious law firm of Cravath, Swaine, and Moore.

The big idea here is that the firm doesn't have the work or the money lying around to pay their first-year associates the $160k that they were offered coming through the door. The idea, then, is that the firm can cut costs by offering this deal -- We'll pay you $80k just to show us the back of your head and not come back 'til next fall.

It's an interesting proposition, especially at a time when so many talented people are unemployed or, more likely, underemployed. Where the columnist was stunned was in the lack of takers.

When you peel it back a little, however, there are very good and very rational reasons for people to NOT take the deferral offer. For one, they've just gone through 7 or more years of school, and are looking forward to beginning their careers; for another, they may have significant overhead and find that they actually need the full $160k to support some aspect of their lifestyle, which may include expensive Manhattan real estate, a nice car, private school tuition for a very young one...and that's all on top of what might be six figures' worth of student loans.

Still, I had to see the article through my own lens -- what I found most interesting about the article and all the comments on was the built-in assumptions about what it must mean for a person not to work a 9-to-5.

From the initial reference to "sleeping and loafing around Park Slope" to the comments that talk about "Well, wouldn't you get bored just sleeping on the couch and going to the gym all day?" it surprises me that people can be so myopic. I would think a properly diligent and properly motivated person could do some pretty goshdarned amazing things with that opportunity -- travel the world, read all the classics that he or she missed during undergrad, write a novel, learn a new language, do pro bono work for a legal charity, etc. To me, just thinking about the different ways you could carve out an amazing year with $80k in your pocket seems exciting.

And of course the "hits close to home" aspect to this for me is that right now I have two part-time jobs, each of which is ramping closer to full-time (even to the degree that one may have to give way for the other), in addition to exploring a range of possible grad school opportunities, which means taking an alphabet soup bowl's worth of tests, which means, which means, you get the idea -- busier than a one-legged man in a butt-kicking competition.

Yet even still, that can be incredibly difficult to explain in a concise way to someone who asks, "What is it that you do?" with all the tiptoeing politeness but true curiosity of a person who wonders why you're still unshaven in jeans and a t-shirt at an unusual hour. And that's the better side to it -- there's also the smarmy "must be nice" from someone implying a willful life of leisure, or the blunter, "So...don't you just get bored with daytime TV all day?" which I actually heard more than once over the holidays.

So, to anyone out there in legal land who has the chutzpah to take $80k just to walk away for a year and dedicate himself or herself to whatever great things are possible for someone with ample time and motivation, from the bottom of my heart, I salute you. I have full faith and confidence that you will do great things. I hope you never watch a single Jerry Springer episode, but if you do, I promise not to judge.


mariannika said...

I am going to begin my comment with a disclaimer - I haven't read the WSJ article. However, I saw a good friend this past weekend and we talked at length about this very subject.

We met when we were working at a non-profit legal services agency in San Francisco. She's now a "fancy lawyer" (as I call her, I think the proper term is biglaw) and I am still in the non-profit sector.

She told me that some firms are asking first-years not to come to work, collect a fat, but not as fat as it would be if they were working at the firm on firm business, salary and do pro-bono-ish type work - at non-profits and social service agencies - basically they'd become biglaw lawyers with all of the education and achievements that comes with that, making biglaw-ish salaries all while working for the "common good."

It was a really interesting discussion and we never came to the conclusion as to whether this was a great thing or a disaster in the making but we did both agree that it is an interesting idea.

On another note, I just came of a stint as one of the many unemployed in this country and I have to say, I was busier when I wasn't working than I am now.

I obviously spent time looking for work, but I also made the very conscious decision to look at my time away from working as a sort of sabbatical. I volunteered, worked on becoming a better cook, and built skills and developed relationships that ultimately led me to the job I have now.

The New Englander said...

I've heard about firms in Boston doing that too -- where you get a reduced but still sizable salary for that first year, and instead of the Cravath deal (just do whatever you want) you go and do pro bono type stuff on behalf of the firm.

So the firm gets a way better deal out of it than if they just let you run free -- they get to say "We supported such-and-such legal aid work this year" and whatever good publicity comes with it.

It sounds like a better deal overall -- the non-profits get the help, the first year lawyers get to probably get their hands on more interesting legal stuff than they might as run-of-the-mill associates, etc. But then again the devil is always in the details, isn't it?

Good to hear about your year off (and I saw the slide show on the site!) I like the term you use for it...a 'sabbatical' should be all about exploration and discovery.. to think about your experience and about mine this year, it just makes me wonder why so many people (these were the online WSJ commenters) can't imagine a right-minded human might do something OTHER than the all-day Full House reruns on Channel 24.

C R Krieger said...

This should not be a shock.  Think of all those ROTC graduates in decades gone by who didn't get a chance to be on active duty, or who graduated in June and ended up with a pilot training (or whatever) slot in May of the next yet.  My wife's late husband, a graduate of Purdue and their AFROTC program, worked as a brick layer until he was called to active duty and sent to Webb AFB for Pilot Training.  Didn't hurt him a bit and put food on the table.

I am with Greg on this. With $70K in your pocket you should travel to Europe to round out your education.  Wasn't it about 175 years ago that the Grand Tour was still the in thing to do?  Or take a couple of courses at Tufts or CCNY in the spring.  How about the course on Environmental law and cleanup offered by UMass Lowell in the spring.  A month in Paris, living at the Hotel Daunou, across the street from Harry's New York Bar (Bar at 5, Rue Daunou) would be JUST THE PLACE from which to fan out and see Paris and then travel down the Loire Valley looking at Chateaus and then skipping up to Normandy to see the Battlefields.  "Why yes, I have been to Normandy and seen where the Greatest Generation had to scale the cliffs.  I really respect what they did for us."  That would be something worth being able to say if you were a 25 year old whipper snapper in some law firm with serious older partners.  "Props" from the elders, whatever "props" means.  And, a train trip to Auschwitz, since we should NEVER forget.  And a side trip to Berlin and spending a couple of days there reading The Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood.  And thinking about the contrast between West and East Berlin back in the day.

And on to London and getting the Embassy to spring for a ticket to sit in the House of Commons during Prime Minister's Question Time.

The more I write the more disgusted I am with these people.  I have no sympathy for their whinging.  If they can't figure out what to do, their law firms should not want them back in the fall.  Period!

Regards  —  Cliff

The New Englander said...

Cliff -- that's like extra-credit work -- links inside a comment..good stuff. And content-wise, I'm with you -- the MORE I think about what I'd do with $80k and zero work responsibility, the MORE angry I get at people who don't see it as anything other than a chance to drool all over your couch pillows while watching daytime soap operas..