Perspective: Millennials in Big Law — Let’s Get to Work

Editor’s Note: This post is written by two law firm associates. 

By Corey Laplante, Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom, and Katie Larkin-Wong, Latham & Watkins

Millennials are a much-maligned generation. Commentators of all stripes are pleased to dismiss us as entitled, distracted job-hoppers — unwilling to pay our dues. And they could be right. It’s more likely, though, that they have misinterpreted the impatience of a restless generation. We are deeply concerned about the world being left for us and our children. We want to take ownership; we want to shape the future we’re inheriting; and we want to do it while elevating historically minimized voices.

That is no less true of millennial lawyers working in “Big Law.” Though we’ve started our careers in a “pay your dues” environment, we share the hunger and impatience of our peers. We look around and see broken legal institutions crying out for reform. We can best contribute to such reforms if we draw on our generation’s best qualities: the desire to find meaning in our work and an appreciation for diversity.

A Legal System in Crisis

In a majority of states, there is not even one legal aid attorney for every 10,000 low-income Americans who qualify for legal aid. Eighty percent of litigants appear unrepresented in matters as important as evictions and child custody disputes — as do 83% of those held in immigration detention. The situation worsens every day. From California to New Jersey, the primary source of funding for legal aid in most states (IOLTA accounts) has been reduced by roughly 75% in the last six years.

As legal aid funding disappears, states are spending more than ever on prisons. Over the last two decades, state spending on prisons has grown at six times the rate of spending on higher education. As is well-documented, that spending increase has disproportionately affected people of color, who make up 75% of those in state prison for drug possession despite their using drugs at roughly the same rate as white Americans. When attempting to reintegrate into society, many of the formerly incarcerated cannot vote to change the policies that helped send them to prison to begin with.

But even those without felony convictions face shamefully high obstacles to voting. State legislatures continue to pass laws designed  to keep minority and low-income Americans from the polls, and the Supreme Court lent support to such efforts by invalidating Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act (despite Congress’ having reauthorized it with near-universal support).

Our point is this: our democracy is fragile and our legal system suffers deep and fundamental flaws. And here we are, some of the best-educated and best-positioned lawyers of our generation. What are we going to do about it?

Four Ways for Big Law Millennials to Engage

The first and most important step is to make space in your practice for regular civic engagement. Our firms take on some of the world’s most complex and high-profile matters. That means our jobs are demanding and sometimes all-encompassing. But if we’re honest with ourselves, we’re not always as crushingly busy as we like to think. Commit to billing 10% of your hours to pro-bono matters and board work. You will be a better attorney, and a happier person, for having done so.

Remember, though: we will never close the justice gap through pro-bono work alone. So we also must support and sustain the lawyers doing this work every day. Commit to giving (at least) 1% of your income to legal aid organizations. Yes, most of us have loans; but we also do very well and can afford to part with an extravagance or two. Make the sacrifice — someone out there is desperately hoping that you will.

Third, do your part to make our profession more inclusive. Unless the legal industry better reflects the diversity of the communities that most need it, we will never reach our potential as a profession. Men and women currently enter law firms in roughly equal numbers, but women comprise only 15-18% of equity partners. Worse still, lawyers of color represent a mere 8% of equity partners; LGBT attorneys, 1%. The ramifications of such disparities are far-reaching, and we must ask our firms to do more. But we must do more, too. Far too often our affinity groups preach to the choir and diverse associates feel alone. Become an ally to your diverse colleagues and support their goals.

Finally, bring your colleagues with you. Learn their top causes and find ways to collaborate. Pitch them a pro-bono case you want to bring in. Push bar associations and inns of court to do more to address causes that matter to you (and cancel your membership if they don’t). Write a letter to your firmwide chair and get your peers to sign. Be clear, be vocal, be persistent. It is easy to feel fungible when you belong to such a large institution, but your firm may be more responsive than you expect, and will be all the more so when you have the support of your colleagues.

These are just four recommendations. There are limitless additional ways to improve this profession and the system in which it exists. However you choose to engage, act now. We cannot wait for more senior attorneys to look out for our future. It is, after all, ours.