High law school prices, astronomical debt levels, a nasty recession, fewer Big Firm jobs — things were bad enough. But now American law students face a new enemy: the fearless lawyers of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The EEOC, as you probably know, has recently been championing the rights of one of the great marginalized and often-overlooked groups of workers in the U.S.: wealthy old partners at elite law firms who want to cling to their shares of the partnership pie all the way to the grave.
News comes this week this week that Kelly Drye & Warren has settled its discrimination lawsuit with a former partner who objected to stepping aside at the firm’s mandatory retirement age to make way for the younger lawyers who had been dutifully waiting their turn. The settlement itself is an anticlimax, since Kelly Drye (and many other firms) have already changed their policies to make sure that old partners can keep siphoning their share of the profits until they’re peacefully laid to rest. The younger lawyers will just have to wait a little longer.
The important thing about this for law students is that the economics of law firms are now less attractive. Law firms have been a pyramid, with a few old guys at the top, tapering down to a broad stratum of associates at the bottom. Progress up the pyramid has been driven by the idea that people leave, either by attrition or (at the top) through retirement. As fewer lawyers leave at the top, and fewer lawyers come in at the bottom (that’s the “shrinking jobs” thing) the pyramid is going to look — well, less pyramidal.
This doesn’t mean that going to a big firm is necessarily a bad idea. There will still be plenty of opportunities, lots of great work, and even the possibility of great material rewards. It’s s still a great choice for a lot of students. But just know that more of the money is going to be sucked up by the old partners, and take that into consideration. If you go, assuming that part of your job is to keep the supporting the old guys in their lavish lifestyles into their 90s.