THE first-year corporate lawyers of “The Deep End,” a series that has its premiere on ABC this week, inhabit an alternative legal universe, where advancement on the partner track seems measured by their perfect grooming and ability to model designer suits and trade flirtatious banter.
Elizabeth Tillinghast, a former lawyer who is now a practicing psychiatrist in Manhattan, said: “Lawyers are famous for having high levels of depression and anxiety, but it has increased. Everybody’s morale is down.”
A recent survey by the New York City bar association found that 50 percent of lawyers seeking counseling from its lawyer-outreach program list mental health as their primary concern, up from 40 percent in 2005.
The life of a law associate may always have been a grind, in which associates got used to exchanging familiar nods with the late-night cleaning crew. But it was not an existential crisis, as many say it is today. People complained — but they did not howl.
A midlevel associate in the New York office of a white-shoe firm, who writes provocatively about law-firm life under the name Legal Tease on her blog, Sweet Hot Justice, described a big law firm as “an absolute torture shack.”
The worst thing about the field’s contraction, she said in an interview, is that it has walled off the traditional escape route — suffering at a law firm for a few years until you pay off your education loans, then moving onto a lower-paying but comfortable gig as in-house lawyer for a company.
“I’m happy to take a huge pay cut, I’d love to get out, but there are no jobs,” she said. “There’s nowhere to go. The revolving door is jammed and everybody is suffering.”
The pain of 26-year-olds earning six figures may not seem great in a country where unemployment hovers around 10 percent. But, Legal Tease argued, that six-figure salary looks a lot smaller when you divide it by the number of hours worked. “If you do the math, you’re making less than a baby sitter — not a nanny even, but an actual baby sitter in high school,” she insisted.
She is one of the lucky ones — definition: employed.
Plenty of recent law school graduates are not finding work at all, said Eileen C. Travis, the director of the New York City bar association’s lawyer assistance program. “There is pretty much a freeze on hiring,” she said.
Some partners say that the next generation may have to expect less from a legal career. “What has come to pass is that a law degree is not a ticket to a six-figure salary and a six-figure bonus,” said Matthew A. Feldman, a partner at Willkie Farr & Gallagher in New York.
Smart, talented people will still find advancement within firms, he said. But “speaking candidly,” he added, “in the past, associates were a little oblivious” in presuming that if they “simply showed up every day and didn’t offend anyone, they were there indefinitely. They have had a wake-up call.”
It is more than dips in income that are reshaping the law firm culture. The prestige and self-identity of being a lawyer are in play. Pre-shakeout, lawyers could tell themselves that they were, if not exactly Masters of the Universe like investment bankers, perhaps Major-Domos of a Mid-Size Galaxy.
In the sleek offices of the fictional firm Sterling Huddle Oppenheim & Craft, high above the Los Angeles smog canopy, life is a colorful, quip-filled adventure. “This is your lucky chance, your break in the clouds, your four-leaf clover,” a senior lawyer informs Dylan, a fresh Columbia Law School graduate, during his interview.
Associates may grumble that the firm is a pit of back-stabbing, a machine that grinds young lawyers down. But they still find time for laughs over beers, games of basketball on a rooftop court and, of course, sex.
Adventure? Laughter? Among law associates? This must be a period drama.
In fact, “The Deep End” was conceived in 2007, that halcyon era of $160,000 starting salaries and full employment even for law grads who had scored in the 150s on their LSAT’s.
Those days are over. As the profession lurches through its worst slump in decades, with jobs and bonuses cut and internal pressures to perform rising, associates do not just feel as if they are diving into the deep end, but rather, drowning.
Lawyers who entered the field as recently as a few years ago could reasonably expect a life of comfort, security and social esteem. Many are now faced with a different landscape. Firms shed more than 4,600 lawyers last year, according to a blog that tracks the legal industry, Law Shucks. Bonuses for those who survive are shriveling, and an increasing number of firms now compensate associates based on grades for performance — shades of law school — rather than automatically advancing them on the salary scale.
For those just starting out, it’s easy to think that the rules have changed six minutes into the first period.
“I thought, ‘Great, I can afford to buy a house at 23,’ ” said Jacqueline Muna Musiitwa, recalling her first year as an associate in 2006 at Pillsbury in San Francisco. “If I start this way at 23, goodness knows what it will be like when I’m 40.”
She accepted the notoriously grueling workload for the prospect of Caribbean vacations, a convertible and a big loft apartment. But young lawyers now entering the field can feel no such assurance, said Ms. Musiitwa, 27, who left Pillsbury after a year to start a boutique firm. If she were an associate now, she would “have to work a million times harder,” she said, “just to make sure that next time there’s a cut, I’m not on that list.”
One 2008 graduate of a top-10 law school, who worked at a large Chicago firm for a year, said she spent days trying to look busy as business dried up while not billing a single hour, before being laid off last fall along with a quarter of the other first-year hires.
“We used to gather in someone’s office, close the door, and say, ‘I hate my life, why are we doing this?’ ” she said. Like most other young associates interviewed for this article, she asked that her name not be used for fear of jeopardizing her climb up the already rickety ladder of a law career.
The main reason for the squeeze is the Great Recession, which has cut deeply into the kinds of companies — in financial services, real estate, high tech — that are the wellsprings of fees for corporate lawyers. The client companies that survived are doing fewer deals, and driving harder bargains with their lawyers: many negotiate a flat fee for the job, meaning firms can no longer bill by the hour for every legal eagle on the case.
Even associates who find plenty to do worry that outstanding performance is no longer enough to protect them, said Daniel Lukasik, a Buffalo lawyer who runs an information and outreach Web site called Lawyers With Depression, adding that his traffic is up 25 percent since June, to about 25,000 visitors a month.
Mr. Lukasik recently received a call from a man who said he was a fifth-year associate in Manhattan who complained that he felt expendable even though he was a top performer.
“He said to me, ‘What more do I have to do?’ ” Mr. Lukasik recalled. “ ‘I’m billing a large amount of hours, I’m a team player,’ but he said it’s very possible he might lose his job. And he was a Yale graduate, at a top-20 firm.”
As a young lawyer, you could get through 1 a.m. due-diligence sessions by reminding yourself that you were following in the tradition of Louis Brandeis, Clarence Darrow or, at least, Ally McBeal.
It is harder to maintain that sense of esteem now that your contract work is being farmed out to low-cost lawyers in Bangalore, and your client who is splitting up with her spouse can handle it herself with a $31.99 do-it-yourself divorce kit from Office Depot, said David Lat, the managing editor of Above the Law, a widely read blog about the legal industry.
“There’s a different feeling in the air,” said Mr. Lat, a Yale Law-educated former associate at a major firm. And in some quarters, the sense of outrage is giving way to simple fatigue and resignation.
In 2008 when firms announced cuts in bonuses and office perks, “there was an outcry, a certain sense of entitlement,” he said. Lawyers, being lawyers, had fight. Now, less so.
“That sense of entitlement is so 2007,” he said. With 14,000 lawyer and legal staff jobs lost since the beginning of 2008, “to whine about how your firm no longer has chair massages on Friday seems a little petty.”