The futures game

Led by Mary Curry, a six-year federal judicial clerk who wants in on law firm life, a 13-member group of young lawyers is making plans to change their profession.
Led by Mary Curry, a six-year federal judicial clerk who wants in on law firm life, a 13-member group of young lawyers is making plans to change their profession.  —Photo by Chandler West

By Roy Strom

Mary Curry wants more young lawyers to think about and talk about the struggles facing them and their profession.

So when Curry started her term as chair of The Chicago Bar Association’s Young Lawyer Section in June last year, she mulled a couple of options to choose for her “theme.”

The question she wanted to discuss, at its heart, was simple: “Why are so many young lawyers unhappy with the profession?”

But that proved difficult to express in a catchy theme.

Speaking publicly about professional unhappiness — or showing up to an event with that in its title — could be viewed, rightly or wrongly, as counterproductive, especially in the hypercompetitive, image-conscious legal field.

And Curry didn’t want to call it “work/life balance.” That’s an important discussion, she said, but she figured it’s been played out — people view it as a gender-related issue, and, overall, it wouldn’t garner much interest.

“That has become such a throwaway topic,” said Curry, who gave birth to her second child during her term as chair and, multiple YLS members said, never missed a beat. “People don’t want to hear about it.”

So Curry chose something that everybody has at least heard rumblings about, but, based on her experience, few are actually planning for: The future of the legal profession.

“Some people would think everyone would know something about this,” said Curry, who is in her sixth year as a law clerk for U.S. Magistrate Judge Susan Cox. “But it seems like it’s not something young lawyers have been in tune with as much as I expected. And to me, it seemed like, ‘Why aren’t we talking about this?’”

Curry and a group of 12 similarly minded young lawyers have been doing just that for the past year.

They signed up for the futures committee. Starting with Curry, the members’ stories highlight the ever-more complex professional career that young lawyers find themselves navigating. The group, ranging from solo plaintiff attorneys to a large firm associate, promotes changes in the way the profession operates in all corners — from law school to technology and from solo practitioners to Big Law.

Members of the committee described Curry as a mentor, a role model, a dynamo, “an extraordinary young woman” and “the workhorse behind everything.” She will need to take advantage of all those characteristics, given the scope of the gauntlet she is throwing down.

“The challenge I want to send to the young lawyers in Chicago is: How are we going to be better leaders than some of the leaders ahead of us?” Curry said. “We’re going to be the people who are going to make the changes and so we, right now, should be thinking about how we can do it different and better.”

Personal motivation …

When Curry began as YLS chair, she knew that Forbes magazine had published a ranking that named “associate lawyer” the unhappiest job in America. She knew the ABA stats that said only 56 percent of 2012 law school graduates found full-time employment that actually required passing the bar.

Last year, that number crept up to 57 percent. Such dismal job odds result in “a lot of darkness” among young lawyers, said Alexander Memmen, a futures committee member and solo plaintiff attorney.

Mary CurryAnd Curry knew that she, too, was at least slightly unsatisfied with the job prospects available to her, a 2005 graduate of Loyola University Chicago School of Law who has spent more than a half-decade clerking in the federal court and previously clerked in chancery court.

Curry’s extended clerkship is a relatively new phenomenon in the law, at least for someone like her who wants to join a law firm. It is emblematic of the tight legal job market that has changed certain positions, such as federal law clerk, from a professional fast lane to Big Law into a traffic jam with an uncertain destination.

It was during Curry’s third year clerking for Cox that she began to wonder why she couldn’t find a law firm job.

“I took the job thinking I would stay there as typical law clerks do — for one to two years and go off and be a lawyer,” Curry said. “But I stayed for two years and my judge asked me to stay a little longer, which I was happy to do. Federal law clerk positions are fabulous, and it’s a great job.

“And that’s when the market dropped. And everyone was talking about how hard it was to get jobs.”

… for a group focused on change

Those discussions were what led to her focus on the future as YLS chair. When she put out the word that she wanted to form the futures committee, 130 YLS members said they were interested in joining.

But, as evidence of Curry’s belief that few young lawyers are “in-tune” with the profession’s problems, only 12 eventually signed up: the aforementioned Memmen, Ashley Anderson, Jessica Bednarz, Shawna Boothe, Hanna Kaufman, Connie Margaritis, Padraig McCoid, Carl Newman, Cara Olie, Michelle Silverthorn, Jennifer Weed and Paraisa Winston.

The committee is split into three groups with focuses on technology, law schools and law firm administration.

They are not radicals. Most of their action has been traditional programming, including CLE events and scheduling speakers to discuss the changing legal profession. The theme kicked off in September, when about 100 lawyers showed up for a presentation by Deborah Epstein Henry, a law firm consultant whose book “Law & Reorder” has “work/life balance” in its subtitle.

Boothe, a first-year associate at Schiff Hardin and the only futures committee member to work at a large firm, put on a three-meeting program with legal/business consulting firm Akina focusing on client-relationship building.

Boothe said the series helped young lawyers and senior lawyers who were starting out on their own understand changes in the profession that make client development a required skill.

“There are tons of attorneys out there who are just as smart, are just as capable and can do exactly what I’m doing for the firm I’m doing it for,” said Boothe, a University of Illinois College of Law graduate. “And what young attorneys should strive for are not just the legal skills anymore. There are tons of attorneys out there. It’s having the legal skills you’ve honed in law school plus having the business skills.

“You need to be able to add value to your firm by being active in the community, by being active in pro bono work.”

McCoid, who is one of two lawyers that make up family and real estate-focused Norkus McCoid, primarily offers the service known as limited scope representation, recently OK’d by the Illinois Supreme Court. His firm was a part of the Chicago Bar Foundation’s Justice Entrepreneurs Project, which billed itself as a startup incubator for law firms focused on representing low-income clients.

Kaufman is the group’s lone law school student, a 3L at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. She intends to use the technology tools she learned in professor Ron Staudt’s class to develop an efficiency-focused practice.

“I think we can use technology to help teach people about their rights, their responsibilities and the legal process,” Kaufman said.

Remarking on Curry, Kaufman said: “One of the things that’s powerful about her is she’s a really good listener. And I wish that was a skill that was more highly valued in our community. I think that would make us more marketable to clients everywhere.”

Newman is a 2012 University of Chicago Law School graduate who now works at the Prairie State Legal Services in Peoria.

His first job out of law school was a University of Chicago-funded fellowship to provide legal aid for low-income clients who have follow-up legal problems such as a custody battle after a divorce.

After that nine-month program at the Domestic Violence Legal Clinic ended, he took a six-month temporary job as a federal district court clerk in Philadelphia. Following that, he worked briefly at a small family law firm in Chicago.

For Newman, the Prairie State position has multiple benefits.

For one, being in a public service position and making less than $80,000 a year allows him to qualify for a loan repayment program at his law school, which currently makes small payments on his roughly $200,000 student loan debt. The payments are less than the rate of growth from the interest on his loans, but Newman takes a long-term view, because if he can qualify for 120 months of such repayments (10 years), the government will forgive his debt through the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program.

“It’s a wonderful program. And everyone’s doing the paperwork for it,” Newman said. “We’re really just hoping that nobody changes the rules because at this point nobody’s debt has actually been forgiven yet.”

As for his reason to join the futures committee: “I view it as legal citizenship. … There are a lot of problems facing lawyers today. I don’t have the answers myself. I don’t have a solution. But I like the idea that there are people making a conscious effort to talk about these issues and to make an effort to provide resources to help other lawyers through it.”

Changing a rigid system

At least part of the reason for the new odyssey that is today’s early legal career can be seen at the top of the profession.

Big Law associate hiring plummeted when Curry was looking to leave her clerkship around 2010.

The 20 largest firms in Illinois hired 255 first-year associates last year, according to data reported to Chicago Lawyer. That represents a 35 percent drop from 2008, when those same firms reported hiring 393 lawyers in Illinois.

In the most dramatic shrinking of a first-year associate class, Jenner & Block’s 11-lawyer group last year is 80 percent smaller than its banner 2008 class of 55 fresh lawyers. Jenner & Block has said that it is focusing its growth in its newer offices in New York and Los Angeles.

One line of thinking is that the fall in hiring at top law firms cascades through nearly every level of the profession. And when that is combined with a simultaneous drop in public funding for legal-aid organizations, it creates a scenario in which there will only be legal jobs for half of the nation’s law school graduates for the foreseeable future, according to some predictions.

In addition to the general law firm hiring malaise, there is another roadblock standing in Curry’s way of working in private practice. The rigid hierarchy of law firms, where a third-year lawyer is something decidedly different from a fourth-year lawyer, does not react well when presented with a six-year federal clerk.

Curry is not guessing about this. She has been told it in job interviews.

Mary Curry“One law partner who sat down with me — and he was definitely a very confident person, I guess I can say — he said, ‘I can get 10 people lined up behind you to take this job for less money,’” Curry said.

“So he would prefer to have that younger lawyer who would do anything, work lots of hours, than someone who is a bit older, has a family and maybe won’t want to stay at the office overnight or come in early.

“Whether it’s talked about or not, I think that’s a big part of the decisions that are made. Will this person work these crazy hours? And will they want to?

“Which goes back to the whole point about why so many associates are unhappy. It’s because the model is not changing. And that’s what’s expected. And does it really need to be set up that way?”

These are the types of questions Curry and the futures committee are addressing. She believes, for instance, that technology, efficiency-focused tools and billing arrangements could provide an avenue to rearrange the traditional law firm hierarchy.

But it is a well-entrenched system that Cox — Curry’s boss, who said she would support her clerk’s efforts to get a law firm job and would be her best reference — said will only be changed by client demands and not from within the law firms.

“I think these are great things to explore. But they’re really pretty theoretical at this point,” said Cox, who worked in private practice for 15 years, including at a large firm.

“I really do believe, and I think a lot of people believe, that law firms and the practice of law is going to have to change or is going to change as clients’ needs change and as the world changes, (as) technology changes.

“But law firms are conservative entities. And that change will come very slowly. It will probably be client-driven, not law firm-driven.

“So she’s interested in those things. She should be. And I wish more people were. But I think it’s going to be a while before we see those things in practice in Chicago. And it’s frustrating for a lot of lawyers.”

A new training model

While chipping away at the law firm hierarchy may be a fight for farther down the line, the futures committee has a more immediate plan to change the way young lawyers get training.

It is called the “4L” program, and it was spearheaded by Memmen, owner of The Memmen Law Firm, a director of the CBA’s Young Lawyer Section and perhaps the futures committee’s most energized member when it comes to Big Law’s perceived problems, despite operating a personal-injury firm.

Memmen said his brainchild, the 4L program, will be something of a win-win-win for small law firms, new graduates and law schools. The law firms will employ a new lawyer for one year at a $30,000 salary, subsidized by the law school.

While it is hardly a livable wage — especially for someone with $200,000 in student loans — Memmen said a mentorship aspect of the program and continuing education provided by the law schools will benefit lawyers who would otherwise hang a shingle without any practical experience.

Memmen points out that the program, which has interest from DePaul University College of Law and IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law and would only include about 10 lawyers at the most, will also help lawyers avoid having a gap in their resume.

“A law degree is like radioactive material,” Memmen said. “It has a half-life when it’s not being used.”

A final rallying cry

The futures committee’s last hurrah under Curry’s leadership could be considered a presentation by Steven Harper and a discussion about the former Kirkland & Ellis partner’s book, “The Lawyer Bubble.”

About 75 people attended the April discussion at the CBA, where Harper told the crowd he was delighted to speak to any group with the word “young” in its title. That’s the target audience for his speech because it is his well-documented view that — from law schools to law firms — the right incentives do not exist for today’s leaders to make changes that benefit tomorrow’s lawyers.

“You and those in your generation are part of the group who’s going to fix this — because my generation, I don’t think, can,” Harper said. “Ultimately, what’s going to make a difference to big law firms is whether or not they can continue to attract the level of talent that they need.

“Because at the end of the day, we’re a service business. All we have to offer is our talents as people as lawyers — and you lose that, and you’re on your way to a bad place. And that’s really kind of the test: It comes down to what the next generation wants.”

While Curry’s term will come to a close this month, she said she wants her term to be viewed as a jumping off point for more young lawyers to think about how the profession can change to their benefit.

“It was a difficult question at the beginning of the year as to how to attack this issue. We’re so often just creating panels of professionals to talk to an audience,” Curry said. “What I was really trying to figure out is: How do we actually make something change? How can we help to fix something?

“And that’s just hard to do. I guess if we’ve helped some people recognize that we do need to make changes, then we’ve been successful this year.”