Big Law’s Nightmare: Ethics Issues Scare Away New Recruits

Welcome back to the Big Law Business column on the changing legal marketplace written by me, Roy Strom. Today, we look at how mounting criticisms of Big Law are impacting recruiting. Sign up to receive this column in your inbox on Thursday mornings.

Big Law has never been the first career choice for the most altruistic law students. But large law firms are facing more robust criticisms than any time in recent memory, and partners should be concerned.

A New York Times Magazine headline last week asked, “Is It OK to Take a Law-Firm Job Defending Climate Villains?”

Plenty of law students say the answer is no.

A book published this week, “Servants of the Damned,” chronicles Jones Day’s work for former President Donald Trump and corporate actors, including Big Tobacco and Purdue Pharma.

The book tells the story of a law firm losing its conscience.

It starts with Jones Day convincing a client in the 1940s to quickly compensate victims of a natural gas explosion and ends with lawyers walking out on their firm for representing the Trump campaign in a 2020 challenge to Pennsylvania’s election rules.

The book’s author, New York Times business investigations editor David Enrich, told me that Supreme Court clerks hired by Jones Day negotiated “carve outs” so they could avoid cases such as tobacco litigation.

A Jones Day spokesman didn’t respond to a request for comment on the book or whether the firm granted carve outs to associates.

Partners may look at all this and scoff. One reason: Big Law had no problem hiring new lawyers last year.

Firms with more than 500 lawyers hired nearly 32% of all law school graduates from the 2021 class, the largest portion since at least 2011, according to the National Association for Law Placement. The 5,750 lawyers hired by those firms was the most ever.

Big Law’s Nightmare: Ethics Issues Scare Away New Recruits

The University of Michigan Law School, where students began a campaign to boycott firms that worked on election issues that aided Trump, bucked the trend.

The portion of its graduates going to firms with more than 500 lawyers fell to 45.5% for the 2021 class from 47.3% in 2020, school data show. (Still, it sent 219 students to Big Law, which was slightly more than the previous year.)

The percentage of Michigan graduates entering public interest jobs rose to 12.7% from 10.8%, despite that figure staying flat nationally at 8.7%.

A Michigan Law recruiting director didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The People’s Parity Project, a group of activist law students, pushed the Michigan boycott nationally. About 175 students pledged they wouldn’t work for four firms targeted—Jones Day, King & Spalding, Porter Wright Morris & Arthur and Consovoy McCarthy.

A “cultural change” has occurred among some law students, said Molly Coleman, a Harvard Law School graduate who co-founded People’s Parity Project. “We’ll continue to see this activism popping up.”

“Even if you’re comfortable going into corporate legal work, there are some firms that are just off limits for anyone who’s left of center, who values democracy, or holds some basic values above their need to pay their student bills,” she said in an interview.

Coleman acknowledged it was hard to quantify the impact of the boycott on Big Law hiring, but she was uninspired by the growing portion of law grads joining large firms.

“It’s incredibly alarming to know that ever-more law students are entering Big Law given the anti-democracy, anti-climate, and anti-worker lawyering they’re engaged in,” she said.

It’s hard to know how many students will be willing to forego Big Law paychecks to take a moral stance. The largest firms pay more than ever, helping cover six-figure student debts quicker.

And plenty of law students will view their peers as being overly dramatic for wondering whether a short stint in Big Law will be a “permanent black mark on my life.” (That’s the phrase one new lawyer used to describe the quandary to the New York Times Magazine.)

But if Big Law gives up on the law school students motivated to make the world a better place, it risks falling even more susceptible to the criticisms behind their protests.

For that reason alone, it’s worth engaging with young lawyers—and having more robust internal debates about who to represent and how to represent them.

Worth Your Time

On Antitrust Enforcement: The Justice Department’s antitrust division is hiring trial attorneys from Big Law firms as the Biden administration heightens its focus on competition amid a surge in mergers, Dan Papscun and Sam Skolnik report.

On NFL Lawyers: The Buffalo Bills’ general counsel is on an unexplained absence from the team, Brian Baxter reports, just weeks after the team dropped a rookie punter facing allegations of a gang rape.

On DOJ Lawyers: Nicholas McQuaid, the second-in-command at the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, plans to leave at the end of this week, Ben Penn reports, noting McQuaid is expected to return to Latham & Watkins, though his final decision is yet to be made.

That’s it for this week! Thanks for reading and please send me your thoughts, critiques, and tips.

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