The marketing gurus at the new New Republic must have lawyers squarely in their sights. Its latest cover story, "The Last Days of Big Law," is a juicy insider cruise on the Big Law flagship firm Mayer Brown as it navigates the rough economic waters of the last decade. On the cruise you'll meet this passenger with a Michigan connection:
In May, I spoke to a former Mayer Brown associate who joined the firm’s finance group out of law school in 2001 before transferring to the pensions department so she could work saner hours. The associate, call her Helen (not her real name), survived two rounds of layoffs, then got pregnant in 2009. Helen had previously felt she was on track to make partner—her performance reviews were consistently strong—but she began to worry as she was preparing to go on maternity leave. “We would have these group meetings where we’d talk about billable hours, how down they were for our group. I knew that, if there was another layoff, we were going to be hit.”
Helen’s son was born on March 19, 2010. Just before he turned three weeks old, she received the call she’d been dreading. Mayer Brown gave her the rest of her maternity leave, plus another three months pay as severance. It was, under most circumstances, a fair offer. But Helen was in a bind. Her husband was a stay-at-home dad, and the couple owned a condominium in downtown Chicago. “I sent out a ridiculous number of resumés,” she says. “If I didn’t have a job lined up by time the time the severance ended, I didn’t have a way to make payments on my house.” She landed two or three interviews and no offers. “The market was so bad in the spring of 2010. Not a single law firm was hiring.”
Inevitably, the bank foreclosed on her condo. She and her husband relocated to the Michigan town where he grew up, and she eventually joined a local firm. Her annual salary when she left Mayer Brown was $230,000. Last year she made $40,000. It was barely enough to put food on the table and clothe her children, much less keep up with tens of thousands of dollars in law school debt. “There’s probably a bankruptcy in our future. I don’t think there’s a way out of it,” Helen told me. “In ten years, hopefully we’ll be financially recovered, we can buy a house, have a credit card again.” Before we hung up, I pointed out that the legal market had improved since 2010. Why not look for another fancy job in Chicago? “There’s no way I would go back to Big Law,” she said. “I’m doing a lot of criminal law now. I love it. It’s originally what I’d intended to do when I went to law school.”
If that story, which Brian Leiter hated, isn't enough for you, TNR will also treat you to a tour of America's swankiest law offices. Of the nine they picked, two amazingly enough are in Michigan -- the Detroit headquarters of Charfoos and Christensen, and the Southfield headquarters of 1-800-LAW-FIRM, which TNR tells us is technically not a law firm but a "network of legal experts." Who knew?