Research Reports

Making the Best of a Bad Beginning: Young New York Lawyers Confronting the Great Recession (GR 16-01)

The recession that began at the end of 2007 and lasted until 2009 is often referred to as the Great Recession, because it was the most serious financial crisis in the United States since the Great Depression. The recession affected organizations, individuals, and communities, and its effects are still felt today. As it did in other professions, the Great Recession impacted the practice of law and lawyers more broadly.

The goal of this research is to shed light on the experiences of lawyers admitted to the New York State bar and practicing in the New York metropolitan area during the recession. Recent studies of lawyers conducted during the recession have relied primarily on survey data. We also present findings from a survey during this period, but a unique feature of our research involves in-depth personal interviews with young New York lawyers who entered practice at the onset of the recession. Thus, in addition to survey data, this study utilizes 31 interviews with lawyers admitted to the New York State bar in 2008. These lawyers began their professional careers just as the Great Recession took hold.

Unlike studies focused on large law firms, this research examines the experiences of lawyers in a variety of settings: large, midsize, and small law firms; in-house legal departments; federal, state, and local governments; and public interest settings. Thus, this study covers the broad landscape of lawyers’ experiences in a variety of work environments.

Significantly, we do not find support among our young New York lawyer respondents for the conventional assumption that a legal education well equips law graduates for a wide range of employment possibilities. The new lawyers in this study challenged the belief that a law degree is flexible and broadly applicable beyond conventional law settings, providing a broad blanket of occupational protection in a time of economic malaise. Nonetheless, like many previous studies, and now here in the context of a serious recession, a large majority of the sampled New York lawyers indicated that they were generally satisfied with their careers in law. Our findings provide insight into this apparent contradiction.

We further find that a significant number of lawyers in our study reported that they chose “alternative” professional career paths as a result of the recession, and that this resulted in their feeling physically healthier than their peers. In contrast, those who decided to stay on in conventional career tracks, such as large law firm practice, tended to report being in worse health than their peers. Yet these traditionally inclined young lawyers who stayed on more conventional career tracks generally reported being no less satisfied in doing so. This sacrifice of good health in pursuit of apparently still-satisfying careers in law is a focus of our attention.

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