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With reference to one estimate only 0.2 percent fail to become admitted to the bar after passing the exam, I would suggest that, of our original sample of 1,000 applicants to law school, we are now dealing with a round pool of about 370 survivors (i.e., 84 percent of the 441 graduating from law school) who were admitted to the practice of law.
So what happened next? Using the class of 1988 as a representative group, the NALP Survey found that 2.3 percent (9) of our survivors peeled off into part-time legal work, leaving 361 full-time lawyers. Of these, 7 percent (25) went to the legal staffs of corporations. About 3 percent (11) went into public interest law, never to be seen again; 12 percent (43) went into government, never to be paid again; and 1 percent (4) went into law teaching, never to be understood again.
Not quite 13 percent (46) went into judicial clerkships. But that lasts for only a year, and then they're out and looking for a job again. And most ex-clerks want to work on the cutting edge of the law, which almost guarantees that they'll be going into private practice, along with more than 64 percent (232) who did that directly out of law school.365
Anyway, on with the story. Allowing for a couple of the judicial clerks to do other things, I'd say we're looking at a group of about 270 young lawyers who more or less start their permanent careers in private practice.
But what does that mean? It means, based on the NALP Survey, that a half-dozen of our survivors started their own practice; groups of about 12 to 14 percent (33 to 39 each) went into the several different NALP categories of firms in the range of 11 to 100 lawyers; and the remainder, consisting of two large groups of identical size (77 lawyers each, or about 29 percent of the survivors), went in totally opposite directions. One group went to firms of 10 or fewer lawyers (which I'll call "very small"), and the other to firms of more than 100 ("very large").
Not that those two groups are identical in all ways. According to the Georgetown study, people in the top half of the class supply about three-fourths of all graduates who go to very large firms, while those in the bottom half provide about two-thirds of all lawyers who begin their careers in very small firms. And new lawyers of ages 25 to 29 constitute three-fourths of those who go to very large firms, while new lawyers aged 34 and over supply only 2 percent.367
I thought you might appreciate a closer look at what happened to those survivors who went on to the big law firms. To that end, I have studied the data for Debevoise & Plimpton, one of America's premier law firms.368
For simplicity, let's divide the group of very large firms into two groups ("very large" and "truly huge"), with half (39) of our 77 survivors going into truly huge firms. Debevoise, with its 300 lawyers, would probably fall into the truly huge category. And let there be no doubt about which survivors get into that kind of firm: We're talking, now, about the Harvard-Yale-Columbia crowd for sure.
So what happened to the 39 people, out of every 1,000 LSAT-takers, who wound up at truly huge firms like Debevoise sometime during the past decade?
Briefly, I find that Debevoise made four to seven new partners each year during that 10-year period. That contrasts against 28 to 65 new associates hired each year; not surprisingly, more than 200 associates left during the decade.
If you'd like to track a specific example, consider the fates of the 60 associates who started at Debevoise in the two years of 1981 and 1982.Nine of them (15 percent) made partner. Three others took on some other status (e.g., "senior attorney"), and seven others were still there as associates after eight or more years, for 19 (32 percent) who, in some sense, had survived that long.
Thus, 41 out of those 60 (i.e., two-thirds) did not stay at Debevoise for eight years (by their choosing and/or by the firm's). The average stay, for those who left, was 3.1 years. Almost 40 percent of the departures left after only one or two years, and another one-third left after three years. Only one-sixth of the departures stayed more than four years.
If you'll recall, I was tracing what happened to 1,000 typical LSAT-takers. I got as far as saying that 39 of them ultimately went to work at truly huge firms. So now, using the Debevoise example, you might speculate like this: In the 1980s, 10 of the 39 left their truly huge firms within their first two years there, another nine left in their third year, and eight more left in the next several years after that. The 12 who stayed for eight years or more divided evenly, with half-becoming partners and the other half hanging around - for a while, anyway - as associates or as "senior attorneys."
It's important to point out that life does not end for those who do not make partner at truly huge firms. Debevoise is an excellent name to have on your resume, even if you stay for only a year or two. And I doubt Debevoise is much different from any of the other top-name firms: The odds are tough, but the credential looks good.
The real point is this: If you're even vaguely thinking about partnership in a big-name firm, you might want to look at my rough estimate - that only five or 10 out of every 1,000 LSAT-takers will actually make it to partnership in that kind of firm - and decide to develop a backup plan. The legal profession operates by a tough logic nowadays, and a lot of grand career plans do change along the way.