A few weeks ago, I greeted this year’s class of incoming students. They were anxious, as first years always are, but this year’s jitters were about more than the Socratic Method. That morning, The New York Times had published the latest in a stream of articles describing the economic woes of large law firms—and, with them, the supposedly diminishing prospects of graduates from elite law schools. These stories have surprised me because I thought everyone had agreed long before the economy collapsed that the system funneling students to these firms was broken and needed to change. • Of course, “big law” is not about to disappear (though it does seem likely to become a bit less big). And that’s a good thing: The mega-firms do valuable work, and, for the right people, they are wonderful places to make a career. They have great lawyers, and they work with influential clients on interesting and important cases and transactions. For many, they are the right choice. • Just not for everyone. If there has been a problem, it’s that too many of our graduates have gone to these firms for the wrong reasons—with predictable results, including boredom, frustration, and early lateral movement. The tendency of students from elite schools to go disproportionately to large firms is not new, but it has become considerably more pronounced in recent years. There is a conspicuous difference between what Stanford graduates did right out of law school 25 years ago and what they do today. Many went to big firms even then (though, at the time, “big” was measured in hundreds rather than thousands). But they also went to medium firms and small firms and new firms. Sometimes they started their own firms. And they went, in appreciable numbers, to smaller markets, like Seattle, Boston, Phoenix, and Dallas. Today, only a trickle makes such choices.

Photo of Kramer, seated in front of law books
Larry Kramer - Richard E. Lang Professor of Law and Dean

What happened? To begin, the big firms adopted a business model that leverages billable hours to maximize profits by utilizing large numbers of low-level associates. To attract people the firms started to offer stunningly high salaries—while depending on most new associates to leave voluntarily after three or four years. Law schools contributed by failing to arm students with knowledge they could use to make a different choice. Big firms came to dominate the on-campus interview process, much as they dominate the profession. And except for students interested in government and public interest work, we did too little to make alternatives easy for students to find. That failure, notably, included failing to prepare students to do much more than the sort of work performed by new associates at big firms.

Be all that as it may, still it has been the graduates themselves making this choice. They believe they are playing it safe: going to a big firm to get some basic training and pay down debt while biding their time until they find a job they actually want.

Student loans play a part here, but they do not compel this choice. For while debt burdens have risen, salaries have risen faster, and there are still countless jobs graduates might take that would permit them to pay their debt while living well. It’s a trade-off students make: a choice to start their careers with higher pay but lower job satisfaction at firms that add another prestigious line on a resume while making it possible to put off for a few more years deciding what they really want from their career. (This trade-off is particularly attractive to today’s star students, who have been taught from a very early age that the way to succeed is to collect gold stars while keeping one’s options open.)

We know the trade-off hasn’t worked well for many, if not most, of those who make it. So, if the economic downturn shrinks the big firm market enough to force students to consider a wider range of jobs, that’s a good thing. We should be pleased if the graduates who go to big firms are only those who actually want a big firm career. It’s unfortunate that it took an economic calamity to force a change, but the change—if it occurs—might well be for the better.

The law school bears a heavy responsibility to help. We have, as you know, been changing our curriculum for the past several years to prepare students better to hit the ground running. We have also changed career services to give students more and better information about a wider range of opportunities. Now we need to push students not to wait until after graduation to begin deciding what kind of career they want and how to get there. That way of “playing it safe” isn’t safe at all. Nor does it make for a fulfilling professional life.

4 Responses to From the Dean
  1. Dear Dean Kramer

    This is a very thoughtful perspective that I appreciate you sharing. The Big Firm mindset is so pervasive. It is refreshing to be reminded that our our training allows us to be more impactful than just covering the issues of those business constituents we serve in our day-to-day jobs as lawyers and advisors.

    Communication with students (and alums) regarding different career paths (1 year, 5 years and 10+ years out) as well as providing objective pros and cons of each alternative (inclusive of the Big Firm) is much overdue. It would be empowering for SLS students and alums to be more aware of their capabilities in our society. In my view, the information would improve our SLS collective perspective and help us have a greater impact in our communities and organizations.

    We got a great education at Stanford Law School and it is crucial to be reminded of its utility and value in our society. I support and appreciate all of your initiatives, and I appreciate you continuing to share the latest thinking from SLS with the alums.

    Best regards,

    Mark Kuskin ’81


  2. Dear Dean Kramer,

    Thank you for your thoughtful commentary, with which I wholeheartedly agree.

    I arrived at SLS committed to using my legal skills to help the environment; I ended up following the exact path you describe but not due to financial pressures. The dearth of opportunities with public interest organizations and government agencies on the employment schedule that worked for graduating law students (to which private law firms expressly cater) combined with these employers’ insistence on practice experience meant that there was really no alternative to taking employment with a private law firm in the third year of law school. SLS needs to convince non-Big Law employers to hire its graduates; it sounds as though SLS is well-launched down this path.

    Lynn Fuller ’88


  3. Dear Dean Kramer,

    As you said, it is very important for students to be aware of the opportunities that they might have other than working for large law firms that might pay them high salaries but not necessarily bring them satisfaction in life. Yes, it is important to be able to pay off school loans in order to feel free to take later on jobs with low salaries but students should be well informed about the risk of getting adducted to a job driven mostly by money.

    Students should follow their own feelings. They shouldn’t be influenced by friends or relatives who might think that success is synonymous of getting a job that pay well and from a renewed law firms. Other than money, the feelings of doing a job that matters for the community doesn’t have a prize. The reward is countless.

    I am saying this by experience. After leaving a well paid job with a world renewed organization and founding an NGO, I feel that my life has a meaning and that I am doing something that if I succeed will change my community and bring a better life for so many people. To me, no money will ever bring me this kind of feeling of peace of mind and joy despite daily struggle to move forward social policies.

    As you said, it’s a trade off between different interests but we have to keep in mind that every day counts in life. The path that we decided to follow out of school will shape the rest of our career in general. So, it’s very important for students to make the right decision early in their career in order to avoid getting the feeling of having wasted time and energy for a job that was not their vocation.

    If the current job market situation leads students to ask the rights questions in order to make the rights decision, then, it would have helped to open our horizon for the better.

    Thierno Balde, JSM 2006


  4. Dear Dean Kramer,

    Wow! As a prospective law student, graduating college in just a few short months, this piece was very sobering. Of course the recession is on all young people’s minds, including my own. Clearly, it has also created a real shift in the legal world. For months now, filling out applications and paying considerable fees for all the preparatory materials of an applicant, I have really had to defend my desire to become both a powerful legal advocate (some day), and convince my colleagues I could do it without ‘selling out’ or turning into the next ‘starving artist,’ as someone who will be shouldering high debt over the coming three years. On behalf of my peers and myself, we really do hope to carry the torch for our generation, to move and shake our planet in a new direction that is more just, enlightened, and respectful to future generations. But financial burden, especially at a young age and in a time of recession, has understandably dissuaded people from the “save the world” mantra carried into freshman year as an undergraduate. Elite schools everywhere tell their students two things: Rule the world and Save the world. Many young people have a hard time figuring out how to handle both tasks, and I can only hope that my legal education, just over the horizon, will help me learn about the vast opportunities that may be underrepresented in the On-Campus Recruiting circle at law school. Your mission at Stanford Law is noble, and on behalf of the next wave of lawyers and learners, I thank you for your honesty.


    Sonja Tonnesen ‘??
    Prospective Student
    University of Pennsylvania ’10


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