Number One Concern for 4 Generations of Lawyers? It's the Economy Stupid!

Fifty-year lawyer Rust Reid smiles when he remembers his starting salary as a newly-minted attorney:

"New lawyers were more like apprentices, paid about the same as public school teachers and worth a lot less."

Recently Reid and I participated in a panel discussion at the Dallas Bar Association featuring perspectives from four generations of lawyers. The number one issue across the board? The economy.

Here's how it played out among the generations.

Gen Y.  This generation was born between 1980 and 2000 (lawyers age 31 and under). Gen Y'er Erin Callahan is a recent graduate of SMU Dedman Law School. Like many new graduates, she plans to hang out a shingle. Acoording to Callahan, the biggest stress among her peers is debt; the national average is $70,000 in debt for new grads of public law schools and $90,000 for private law school grads. Some of her classmates have student loan debt as high as $200,000 with no job in sight. 

Gen X. Penny Blackwell is a Partner with GreenbergTraurig and President of the Dallas Association of Young Lawyers. Penny graduated in 2000 when top law school graduates received a $40,000 raise afteraccepting jobs with big law firms and before reporting for day one of work. They never expected to be paid that well and felt tremendous pressure to produce. Today, the pressure contines. Even though many would trade dollars for time, they don't want to give up the seat at the table that equity partnership brings. And they worry about the new lawyers coming behind them who are starting solo practices. Blackwell and other bar leaders fear these lawyers will not get the training and mentoring they need. She believes the Bar must take on the challenge of helping them succeed.  

Boomers:  Ike Vanden Eykel is a hard-working baby boomer, CEO of a prestigious family law firm,Koons Fuller, and Immediate Past President of the Dallas Bar Association. He wonders where the new lawyers are who are willing to work as hard as his generation.  I too am a baby boomer and Vanden Eykel's concern is one I've heard often from my cohorts.  He acknowledges that:

"Many younger lawyers look at the "dysfunctional" lives baby boomers have created and say "no thanks."

But his experience is that they don't really want to say "no thanks" to the corresponding incomes that baby boomers have generated. Boomer lawyers are also worried about retirement.  Will they have the needed savings?  And will they really be happy to let go of the reins? For many the answer is no.  

Matures:  These lawyers are 66 and over. Many have postponed retirement due to inadequate savings and stock market declines. They are known for their loyaly, modesty and hard work ethic.  Panelist Rust Reid exempliefies this generation. He continues to practice law today with the same firm where he began his career, Thompson & Knight. He doesn't much like the billable hour and recalls the time in his career when lawyers resisted recording time. In 1960 when he started his career, billing was determined by the value to the client. He concedes that firms could afford to worry less about billing then since new atttorneys at top firms were paid the equivilant of $40,000 in today's dollars; time to learn and train was built into the salary structure then.  And with less debt than today's graduates, the finanical pressure on the new lawyer was less as well.  

I left the panel that day with mixed feelings.  I know that the newest generation of lawyers haa a rough road ahead. Not only will they struggle with student debt and perhaps fewer opportunities for legal employment; they also may not have access to the mentoring and training that lawyers of my generation received. On the other hand, the enthusiasm and commitment to the profession that I hear from Callahan and many of her cohorts is reminiscent of another generation of lawyers, the ones who mentored me. One in particular comes to mind. His name........ Rust Reid.