“One of the biggest myths in legal education is that there is more than enough well-paying work for anyone who has a law license.”

About ten years ago, through a connection made by Bill Henderson, I was invited to a gathering of law-school professors in Northern California.  I was still a manager of a global law firm at the time, and Bill thought that it would be useful to add a practitioner to the group, which otherwise comprised solely academics from around the US.  I remembered this conference recently as I read about the focused efforts of the Debevoise & Plimpton law firm starting in 2012 to bolster demand for its services after years of no growth or decline. See Dylan Jackson, “Debevoise Faced a Demand Crisis. Its Solution Required Change From the Ground Up,” Law.com, July 1, 2021.

The reason for the flashback was my laughed-at suggestion that law schools should add a course in sales and marketing to their curricula.  After an hours-long discussion of how legal education could be improved, the moderator directed a question at me: “Tom, you are the only person here from practice; how would you change legal education?”  I responded immediately that law schools should add a course in sales and marketing.  The academics in attendance all laughed at my suggestion.  After noting that I was not laughing, I explained that one of the biggest myths in legal education is that there is more than enough well-paying work for anyone who has a law license.

One of the reasons for the “demand myth” is lawyers’ egos.  It is obviously better for a lawyer’s public and self-image to pretend that you are so busy that you are turning work away, as opposed to offering discounts in order to keep busy.  (Have you ever heard a lawyer admit that he or she was not “swamped?”)  The cold reality, however, is that there is not enough well-paying work to go around.

When I was a law firm manager, I frequently had to meet with partners to explain that they all needed to share responsibility for “growing the practice.”  Many partners would respond that they did not see themselves as “business generators,” but rather as very competent professionals who were content to “work on the firm’s clients.”  I would usually answer by saying that the firm does not have a trunk in the basement with clients that are waiting to be chosen by lawyers who might find their projects interesting.

One of my other responsibilities was to meet with new non-equity (or “income”) partners and ask them to prepare detailed personal business plans.  While a few of the new partners saw this coming (usually after being forewarned by others), there were many more new partners who wanted to pursue the “firm clients in the trunk” route.

There is a lot of discussion about the need for more experiential education in law schools.  I support that view but I submit that law schools should go further and consider the extent to which their curricula match up over a period of years with where their graduates go to work.  For a law school that falls below the “T-14” in the USNews sweepstakes, it would be more important than with a premier law school, for example, to have a course in basic real estate transactions, such as commercial leases and mortgage financing, because a graduate of that school is likely to encounter those transactions.  Likewise, and more importantly, a graduate of that school would very likely need to depend on his or her own individual promotional efforts to generate clients in private practice.

There are few law firms in the United States with primarily “institutional clients” that stick with the firms for long periods of time.  Over the last several decades, however, the client relationships for most firms have generally become more transactional, where a client interviews at least several firms for each new major matter.  There will always be a few recognized experts who will have plenty of work based on their reputations for handling very important “strategic” matters. But cf Debevoise & Plimpton article, supra.  Yet, there is a far greater supply of “operational” work, and lawyers will not get those assignments based primarily on their legal expertise. See, e.g., Post 241 (discussing growing segmentation of legal work).

As I told many junior partners, “Being an excellent lawyer is the easy part.”  Among other practice-building skills, partners need to be able to build relationships, market the talents of themselves and their firms (without appearing to be slick), inspire confidence, show empathy, and understand their clients’ businesses.

Except for a few very well-respected boutiques, the elite firms that do not need to “sing for their supper” tend to be the very large firms (over 500 lawyers).  However, even a very large, well-respected firm like Debevoise & Plimpton, which has been around for 90 years, decided that it had to bolster its marketing and start selling.

Although law schools seem to spend a lot of time reviewing the ABA’s annual “509 Required Disclosures” for individual law schools (no doubt because they contain the all-important GPA and LSAT data that are used for the US News rankings), I always spend more time reviewing the ABA’s annual “Employment Outcomes” reports.  Among other interesting data, the Employment Outcomes show on an annual basis the types of employers where the most recent graduates have gone to work for each law school.  The employment categories include law firms, public interest, government, business, and others.  The law-firms category includes subcategories based on size, ranging from solo to “500+.”

Based on a review of the data, most law schools—particularly those below the top tier—should begin to sensitize their students to the fact that a successful career in private practice would likely require sales-and-marketing efforts because relatively few of their students will be working at very large firms.

A review of the Employment Outcomes reports for a broad cross-section of law schools that fall below the “T-14” in the USNews sweepstakes shows that for the non-T-14 schools, more graduates go initially to law firms in the “250-and-under” collective category than in any other category of employer (private or public).  Here are a number of examples of percentages in the 250-and-under category from the reports for the class of 2020:

  • Georgia State—56%
  • San Diego—55%
  • Texas A & M—55%
  • Kansas—52%
  • Nebraska—51%
  • LSU—49%
  • Loyola Chicago—44%
  • Florida State—41%
  • Syracuse—41%
  • Wisconsin–40%
  • Hastings—36%
  • Penn State Law—35%.

This sampling obviously excludes law schools located in or close to New York City or Washington, DC.

The foregoing percentages understate the portion of graduates going to firms in the 250-and-under category because the non-T-14 schools often have numerous new graduates who go on to state and local clerkships.  These are typically one-year positions, and many of these clerks will eventually join law firms that tend to be smaller than the firms where federal clerks land.

The suggestion to teach sales and marketing probably crosses every law school’s red line—appearing to be a “trade school.”  Having spent decades practicing a trade, I would prefer to hire a new graduate who is familiar with the business necessities of the trade.