The Generation that Doesnt Want to Work For Other People
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The Generation that Doesnt Want to Work For Other People

Bar & Bench

Lexpert examines the trend that is sweeping the present generation of lawyers who only want to do the work that they want to and how law firms increasingly need to adopt newer methods to empower their young people further while continuing to serve their clients with dedication.

Ok, I’m lying. It’s not a generation that doesn’t want to work, it’s a generation that only wants to do the work it wants. Before the recession hit the U.S. with a force that made Hurricane Katrina seem like a stiff breeze, graduates of the top law schools in the U.S. were joining law firms the same way they joined college – as a stepping stone to other things. Attrition rates at some firms were as high as 78% – within five years, only one fifth of an entering class of lawyers might be left.

So what did they want to do, these reluctant lawyers? Everything. Some went off to teach, others moved in-house, a few moved to smaller firms that specialized in the kind of work they enjoyed. But a very large number didn’t want to stay in law at all – they joined start-ups, produced plays, wrote novels, founded charities, volunteered everywhere from Delhi to Darfur and travelled the world. Others realized that the law isn’t necessarily the best way to make money – they jumped ship to Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan or Citi or to any of the hundreds of hedge funds in Stamford or Greenwich.

Let’s start with a famous, though not completely appropriate, example. Barack Obama was President of the Harvard Law Review – the first African-American to make it. He could have joined any one of a thousand law firms and he summered at one of the best firms in Chicago – Sidley Austin. But Obama didn’t go back there. When he graduated, he didn’t even clerk for a federal judge, as most of the top law school graduates in the U.S. do. He didn’t even choose a traditional legal career of any kind. Instead, he became a community organizer in the U.S. Amongst federal judges today, Obama is known as the “one that got away.”

But today, many more are getting away, some without even giving the law a cursory look. There are other examples –Daniyal Mueenuddin graduated from Yale Law School in 1996 and worked for Debevoise & Plimpton in New York between 1998 and 2001 as a corporate lawyer. In 2001, however, Mueenuddin decided to return to Pakistan to continue running his family farm in Punjab while simultaneously writing his first book. Mueenuddin’s first collection of stories In Other Rooms, Other Wonders was published in February 2009 and immediately met with awards and critical acclaim.

Corporate lawyering in India has only expanded significantly over the last decade or so and the rates of attrition for foreign associates are certainly lower in Indian firms. Nevertheless, India too has its own share of legal exiles. A few months ago, Bar&Bench published a story about Sameer Singh and Mathew Chandy, both NLS alumni who left BCG and Linklaters respectively to open up Mooli’s, an ‘on-the-go’ Indian roll joint in Soho, London.

There are other stories too – Nandan Kamath quit a successful career at Davis Polk & Wardwell’s Menlo Park office to start a sports management agency, Go Sports, with two friends (although Nandan hasn’t left the world of law either, he serves as the legal consultant for King’s XI Punjab).

Part of the reason for this attrition is because this generation of lawyers are impatient with the traditional role of lawyers. They don’t want to only draft someone else’s contracts, argue other people’s cases or negotiate for someone else’s benefit – they want to own something personal, create something new, break barriers and find fortunes. Until law firms find new ways to empower their young people further while continuing to serve their clients with dedication, young lawyers will often continue to look for exits

With the recent recession, the attrition rates at law firms have fallen sharply, even in the west. Corporate lawyers increasingly favor job security over the chances of fame and fortune. Yet, switching to other careers has not yet completely stopped. As Sherlock Holmes once said, “Art in the blood is liable to take the strangest of forms.”

Lexpert is an Indian lawyer currently working in the United States.

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