Lawyers . . . With a Conscience?
By JOSHUA KAPLAN
|Wednesday, Apr. 26, 2006|
When was the last time you heard of a lawyer refusing to be paid? With the launch of the Give a Little 2006 Campaign, I hope to create a wedge between the words "greedy" and "lawyer." I hope to prove that lawyers are not entirely bottom-line driven. And, at the very least, I hope to rid the world of bad lawyer jokes forever.
Recently, the typical associate salary at top law firms increased an average of $10,000 a year, with first-year associate salaries generally starting at $135,000. So a first-year associate, fresh out of law school with little legal experience - beyond a grueling three years of studies - who makes the cut at a top law firm will suddenly start earning six figures.
The salary increase was not merit-based, but resulted from a domino effect: It began when one Los Angeles law firm raised associate salaries, and then, one after another, the old salary structure at every major law firm across the United States toppled.
Increased Demand for Top Talent, and Limited Supply From Top Schools Drives Raises
Why this sudden surge of generosity among so many law firms? Simple: Supply and demand. Law firms keep growing, but the pool of law students from "top tier" law schools has remained fairly constant. So if one firm increases associate salaries, they must all follow suit to compete at the top of the legal salary market for the best talent, or risk being labeled a"cheap" firm that doesn't value its lawyers.
Sure, I was happy to receive the extra $10,000 this year. It's hard to argue with that many zeros, especially with law school loans to pay back. But the raise also made me consider a question that's been nagging me since I started working as a lawyer -- do I really want to define myself by the size of my paycheck?
Absolutely not. What's more, I think many, if not most, law firm associates do not want to either. In my short time as a lawyer, I've noticed that the people who want more money always feel comfortable speaking up, while those who want other things -- more dedication to pro bono, more diversity, better work-life balance -- are far less vocal. It's not that they don't feel these endeavors aren't important; it's mostly that they feel like their opinions are less valued in the legal community. Painted as bottom-line driven by society, this image of lawyers has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Changing Perceptions of Lawyers as Greedy, To A Diverse Group of Charitable People
No wonder law firms think that increasing associate salaries is necessary - keeping up with competing firms, and talented new law school graduates with massive student loan debt don't give them a reason to think otherwise. And unless we tell them and the world that, contrary to popular belief, the typical lawyer is not a money-hungry monster, this perception is never going to change. The typical lawyer has friends, family, causes he or she cares about, and yes, even a heart. If you prick us, we bleed. Some of us might sue you, but we still bleed.
My goal is to give lawyers a chance to show their true colors. Last month, with the support of several other associates and partners at my law firm, I created the Give a Little 2006 Campaign. The national campaign was born out of the desire to use our positions as law firm associates to benefit charitable organizations. The Campaign asks associates to donate a portion of their raise or salary to one of the following selected organizations involved in national and international humanitarian relief: the American Red Cross, CARE, Doctors Without Borders, and the Clinton Foundation HIV/AIDS Initiative. Our goal is to raise at least $250,000. Donations can be made at http://www.givealittle2006.org.
I believe that the Campaign will prove that law firm associates are just as diverse, just as giving, just as charitable as the general population. What does that mean? It means that some law firm associates, like some people, won't give one red cent, while others will give half of their raise to charity.
Not a Challenge, But an Invitation
This isn't a challenge to law firm associates. It's an invitation to show the world what I already know -- that lawyers are not caricatures, but an assortment of many different types of people, some of whom may be defined more by greed, but many of whom choose to define themselves by other virtues, like compassion. Lawyers don't turn evil the day they receive their law degrees. Look in a mirror, and one day you may see a lawyer looking back at you.
In the past two years, I have worked with some amazing people who dedicate their time -- often, their free time, what little they have of it -- to representing clients who couldn't afford to pay for even one hour of our time. And even though every hour I spend working on the Campaign is an hour I could be billing, my law firm has been amazingly supportive of this endeavor.
But what makes headlines? The salary increases, or the four billion dollar judgment we got for our clients last week. Money talks.
So let's let it talk. Let's show them who we really are. And I hope that, instead of hanging our heads at a party when someone asks what we do for a living, we can look them straight in the eye and say, I'm a lawyer.
Here's my version of a lawyer joke: How many lawyers does it take to raise $250,000? Hopefully, fewer than you'd think.