Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Not a great day to be a BigLaw associate in Chicago

Above the Law is reporting that Katten Muchin Rosenman and Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal are letting go more staff, including associates. While these firms are national now, they are best known as Chicago law firms. This is not the first round at Sonnenschein either, if I recall correctly.

I have worked with both of these firms in the past (and interviewed many years ago at SNR). I don't know how many dirt lawyers were impacted, but both shops are well known for having first-rate real estate practices.

If you are a young lawyer reading this (and I know a good number of you do), take heed. Without portable business, you are a fungible billing unit at BigLaw. And I don't mean that as a slam on Katten or Sonnenschein, either. That's the business model of law firms in 2008. It is much more that way than it was in 1993. And at least firms are not calling these layoffs "performance-based" like they did in the early 1990s.

What is the lesson? Well, you can do a few things. One is to make sure you get that book of business. You can say "I'll go in-house," but that's not guaranteed employment either. (An in-house acquaintance of mine got whacked today.)

I'm not saying the route I took is ideal. It isn't for everyone. I'm blessed to have a two-income family where my spouse is recession-proof. But having a small stable of clients (if I can add a few more, great -- I can work harder but only if there is a fit), a good knowledge of PCs and Quickbooks, a first-rate accountant and ridiculously low overhead allow me to make a decent living. Maybe you could too. And then you are the captain of your fate.

The point I am getting at is this. There is more to life than billing 2400 hours a year. Do you know anyone who died saying, "Gee, I wish I'd worked more?" And if you are your own boss you cannot be fired, except by your clients. BigLaw can be great. I liked my time there. And even if you are there now and you hate it, think of yourself as a scholarship athlete, being paid top dollar to learn how to be a great lawyer while enhancing your firm. You can choose to try to grab that BigLaw brass ring of partnership (and what that brings; see Chicago firms de-equitizing partners, too!) or you can choose to use your knowledge to your own account, and maybe even have a little time for a life (gasp!)

All right -- I'm off the soapbox for now. Good luck to you associates looking for work. And keep the advice above in mind, even if it is only worth what you paid for it.