Friday, May 27, 2011

Sign of the Times

Apparently, there is a hot new trend among large law firms, to create a separate career track for newly hired attorneys whereby they do the same work as others, but are paid less than half the salary, usually bringing in somewhere between fifty and sixty-five thousand dollars annually. Could there be any clearer warning about the rapidly advancing death of the American middle class? If you graduated from law school ten years ago and secured employment at a high-level firm, you stood to easily make six figures. If you’re just graduating now, you absorb a greater debt burden, but your earning potential is drastically reduced as a matter of policy.

This is not really a new trend. What’s new is just that it is being appropriated by such esteemed employers, for such otherwise high-class positions. Some employers in the field of manufacturing have already introduced this sort of economic segregation of workers, as a way of compensating for the fact that unions prevent them from making across-the-board pay cuts. Law firms, by contrast are only hampered by expectations and self-image, but the end result is the same in both cases: a workplace landscape in which the newest generation of employees makes significantly less money than their forerunners had at the start of their employment.

The article about this tendency, originally from the New York Times, but conveniently reprinted on Yahoo, sagely warns:

“…as has been the case in other industries, a two-tier system threatens to breed resentments among workers in both tiers, given disparities in pay and workload expectations.”

Gee, you don’t say. Who would think that drawing an arbitrary line identifying the well-off and the well-screwed would be source of conflict? I am a little puzzled, however, by the notion that there will be similar resentments on the part of those who come out on top of this little graduation-date lottery. I suppose it is only natural that in any professional contexts, someone will look with envy on the person who works fewer hours, and fail to connect this with financial differences. But I object to the author lending credence to this impulse by reporting it as she does, when anyone should know that if you ask anyone whether they’d like to switch places with their colleagues, nobody who makes $150,000 is going to elect to sacrifice $90,000 in exchange for a slight reduction in his share of the exact same work.

Unfortunately, this article adopts to some extent the twenty-first century journalistic principle that false equivalence is balance, and so it makes several claims about the upsides of making a lot less money, and includes delightfully euphemistic quotations from law firm executives, and rhetorically optimistic ones from people stuck in these low-paying “career associate” positions.

“[Some] career associates at [Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe] said they… were content, even if this track was not their first choice out of law school.

“Heather Boylan Clark, 34, was a seventh-year associate at Jones Day before applying for a career associate position after the birth of her second child. She makes 40 percent less than before, but says she still does “challenging work,” and, more important, has greater control of her schedule.

“’I’m not killing myself to be hitting specific numbers of billable hours in any given year,’ said Ms. Boylan Clark, a graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law. ‘Now I’m always home for bedtime.’”

See? Making a lot less money can be good, because it means you might get to work less. So all of you American workers who are financially imperiled by the fact that you can only find part-time jobs should really count yourselves lucky, because at least your sleep schedule doesn’t suffer. And surely there was never another way of working for a major law firm without making firm commitments of time. Wait a minute…

“To some extent, firms have been using lawyers off the partner track for years, known as staff attorneys, although usually on an ad-hoc basis. Executives at Orrick were quick to clarify that the new class of career associates should not be confused with such attorneys, and emphasized efforts to make career associates feel valued."

But not by paying them.

“’There are no second-class citizens at Orrick,’ said Mr. Baxter. ‘This is a career path for people who want it because they prefer the attributes.’”

Oh, I see. So you offer both positions to all new hires and allow them to choose the one that suits them best? And most of them choose a fifty percent pay cut so they don’t have to work past 6 PM? Somehow, I doubt that very much. This quotation from Mr. Baxter actually comes very near to the end of the article, and I was quite impressed to find that they held off on victim-blaming language until that point. But once we’ve read and understood the story, evidently one of the last points we’re supposed to take away from it is that new lawyers who earn barely more than school teachers and can never make partner don’t accept their positions because they have to, but because they choose to. By the same token, the unemployed simply prefer to sit at home and collect a check rather than getting a new job, and the homeless would rather sleep on a park bench than pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. Isn’t it funny how it’s never the fault of the people in charge? Those of us who are on the outer edge of the workforce must be a real bunch of shitheads, huh?

One of the best things that young career seekers can do to score one of these wonderful jobs with fewer hours and less pay is live in an exceptionally economically depressed area.

“Orrick moved its back-office operations to a former metal-stamping factory [in West Virginia] in 2002, and in late 2009 began hiring career associates. Costs of living are much cheaper in Wheeling than in San Francisco, Tokyo or its 21 other locations, saving $6 million to $10 million annually, according to Will A. Turani, Wheeling’s director of operations.

Oh boy, if the cost of living is low, that almost justifies paying people half the amount of money for the same work! Almost. Of course, depriving the citizenry of well-paying jobs is a good way of consequently depriving these cities themselves of the capital that could be invested in their revitalization. And as a firm, determining your pay scale based on what sustains the employee, rather than based on that employee’s qualifications or the value of his position, sends a clear message that value them as individuals beyond their ability to sustain your current profit margin. And that seems to stand in direct contradiction with what Mr. Baxter was reported as saying above.

Buffalo is very much one of these places that is treated differently from much of the country on the basis of its low cost of living, a term which could be considered synonymous with “low standard of living” in this context. Outside observers are given to a shockingly non-empathetic view that means affordable living and is in no way connected to a deficiency of opportunity. But Orrick’s own reports about their activities demonstrate that even the very best jobs in places like this have their salaries adjusted to reflect the lesser minimum financial requirements of the local population. It is elementary economics, operating upon human beings as if they are commodities, and it is exactly the kind of thinking that allows us to exploit foreign workers because they’ll take it if they want any income whatsoever.

“’It’s our version of outsourcing,’ said Ralph Baxter, Orrick’s chief executive. ‘Except we’re staying within the United States.’”

It’s astonishing that people can acknowledge this without the slightest sense of shame. And as it turns out, this practice, evidently called “insourcing,” is also by no means new. And it’s something with which I have a good deal of personal experience. As a freelance writer, insourcing work is practically all I do, but on a broad conception of that term, it simply means contracting from outside a company. There’s a scrupulous way to do that. But for every one person who is willing to hire a writer to do work for a fee that roughly reflects its worth, there must be hundreds who are in the exclusive business of insourcing and outsourcing, and aim at producing as much shoddy copy as they can, through reliance on anyone who is willing to work for less than a penny per word. And with the economy as it is today, there are people who are willing to do it. There are countless many of them, because the country is full of people who are out of work and looking for any source of cash, and if you know where the home keys are, you’re fit to write for a content factory. Where, then, does that leave people who are actually highly skilled. Well, if we can’t find legitimate clients with who to deal, we either accept insulting, unlivable wages, or we go away empty handed.

Now it is apparently coming to be the case that no one is spared from this business model. You may be highly educated, highly trained, an asset to your profession, but if you are not willing to work for far, far less than you are worth, someone else is prepared to step over you to do just that. And we are essentially being asked to accept this without protest. They are driving a wedge straight down the center of the middle class, and yet I’m certain that against that backdrop Conservatives and the media will continue to talk about “class warfare” as if it is a term invented by the political left, and something that can only be waged by the poor against the rich, and never the other way around.

It’s not difficult to pretend that that’s true, because when the poor gain ground in that conflict, it is obvious. Any leveling policy that might result in a more equitable distribution of wealth would show the obvious marks of purposive human action. Victories of rich over poor, however, are easily looked upon as natural developments, as the turning of the wheel. Only the former tends to meet with great outcry, because it’s so much more obvious when you’ve lost something than when you’ve been prevented from being able to gain it in the first place. That is the situation for many aspiring lawyers.

"And as these programs expand to more and more firms, they will eliminate many of the lucrative partner-track positions for which law students suffer so much debt."

And tragically, unless society is poised to greatly surprise me, those students will not stop suffering that debt just because they’re no longer being presented with the opportunity to pay it off. The situation worsens year-by-year for the vast majority of Americans, and we continue to adapt and accept the burdens that we’re expected to take upon ourselves for the sake of the privilege to be second-class citizens. And we do it for the reason that a former coworker of mine said that she planned to go to graduate school: “Because what else is there to do?”

It will only be at a breaking point that we will convince ourselves that it’s worth taking a stand and figuring that out. Will we reach that point? Will it be enough when the middle class has vanished altogether, and even lawyers are counted among the poor? Orrick’s chief lawyer development officer seems to hint at the answer when she dispels the notion that the career associate position is a lower position than the partner-track alternative:

"'That’s just about perception, though,' Ms. Saklad said. 'These are not second-class jobs, but the program is so new that they may be perceived that way.'"

Translation: You’ll get used to it. And pretty soon, your drastically reduced standard of living will be so commonplace that you’ll forget there was ever another way to live.

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