Three Generations of U.S. Lawyers: Generalists, Specialists, Project Managers

As this Essay is being written, the legal services industry is in the midst of a significant economic recession. In response to harsh economic conditions, the nation’s corporate clients have tightened their legal budgets and altered their spending habits. As a result, large law firms, who in recent years hired roughly twenty-five percent of all law school graduates, have dramatically cut the sizes of their incoming associate classes. In turn, highly qualified law school graduates have expanded their job searches to markets and to employers that are normally reserved for the broad middle tier of law school graduates. As the downturn cascades through the entire entry-level market, a disturbingly large number of recent law school graduates are either unemployed or underemployed. Although many of us who are middle aged or older can remember prior economic recessions (for example, the early 1980s, the early 1990s, and right after September 11th), there is a palpable sense among legal employers and legal educators that this particular recession feels different.

Does the “Great Legal Recession” that commenced in the fall of 2008 mark the beginning of a true sea change for traditional corporate law firms and, by extension, U.S. law schools? The answer to this question is yes. This short Essay will walk interested readers through some of the essential supporting data. The story follows a relatively simple narrative in which successive generations of U.S. corporate lawyers have evolved from generalists, to specialists, to someday, in the not too distant future, project managers. Further, the story’s analytical lens is primarily one of supply and demand gradually shifting over time.