Is Big Law in Trouble?

According to the National Association for Law Placement, firms with more than 500 lawyers hired nearly 32% of all law school graduates from the 2021 class, the largest portion since at least 2011. The 5,750 lawyers hired was more than had ever been hired by those firms in history.

Despite these numbers, some experts are saying Big Law should actually be worried. While they have never been the first choice for the most altruistic individuals, the biggest law firms are facing more criticism now than in recent memory for the “anti-democracy, anti-climate, and anti-worker lawyering they’re engaged in,” as Molly Coleman, a Harvard Law School graduate who co-founded People’s Parity Project, puts it.

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Also drawing attention to Big Law’s faults is the recently published book “Servants of the Damned,” which chronicles Jones Day’s work for former President Donald Trump and corporate actors like Big Tobacco and Purdue Pharma. Among many other topics, the book also details how Supreme Court clerks were hired by Jones Day to negotiate “carve outs” so they could avoid cases such as tobacco litigation, according to the book’s author, New York Times business investigations editor David Enrich.

While Big Law firms did indeed hire a large portion of all 2021 law school graduates, The University of Michigan Law School was one school that did not follow the trend.

Although it did send 219 students to Big Law, which was slightly more than the previous year, the school’s data shows the portion of its graduates going to firms with more than 500 lawyers fell to 45.5% from 47.3% in 2020.

Meanwhile, the percentage of Michigan graduates who took public interest jobs rose to 12.7% from 10.8%, while that figure stayed flat nationally at 8.7%.

Despite some numbers to the contrary, Coleman remains convinced that a “cultural change” has occurred among some law students, saying, “We’ll continue to see this activism popping up.”

“Even if you’re comfortable going into corporate legal work, there are some firms that are just off limits for anyone who’s left of center, who values democracy, or holds some basic values above their need to pay their student bills,” she said in an interview.

The fact remains, however, that whether law school grads agree or disagree with the practices of Big Law firms or the cases they take, those firms are paying more now than ever, which certainly helps cover student debts reaching into the six-figures. It’s difficult to predict how many students will be willing to forego these big paychecks to take a moral stance.