Not the Happiest of Days

These are not the happiest times to be coming out of law school or business school. An article and a blog posting in today's Wall Street Journal jumped out at me:

"Recession Batters Law Firms, Triggering Layoffs, Closings" is a sad post-mortem of the once-venerable San Francisco law firm Heller, Ehrman, which closed its doors last year. I summered there as a 2L, during much happier times (thank you, internet bubble). It sounds as if Heller, like many other firms, had been in the process of renegotiating its business model, and that's been a problem industry-wide. But check out this paragraph: 

When Heller lawyers gathered for a retreat in March 2007 in Santa Barbara, Calif., some had grown anxious about the firm's finances. Mr. Bomse staged a mock opera about the firm's struggles. It featured professional opera singers and members of the Santa Barbara orchestra, and cost the firm more than $200,000, according to a member of the firm's executive committee. During the performance, lawyer David Goodwin says his wife turned to him, aghast at what she imagined the cost to be, and said, "This is a poorly managed firm. You need to leave."

After reading the whole article, and this anecdote in particular, I find the article's title misleading. It's not clear to me at all that the recession is responsible for killing off Heller. The article points to the firm's overreliance on big cases that ended up settling, as well as clients in general who have been wising up and learning to avoid long, costly trials. And throwing money around on stupid things also says something about a firm's managerial priorities.

So lawyer-guy's wife got me thinking. When you're out intervieiwng, for any kind of job, you can take a look around at your prospective employer and, like that wife at the retreat, do a gut check. I know firms are spending a lot less on recruiting these days, but they still have to recruit. So if employers are being frugal in recruiting you, think about whether that's actually a good sign. Same goes for colleges and grad schools that try to lure you with stupid bling.

"Nowadays, an MBA Doesn't Equal Job Security" states the obvious to some degree -- did it ever equal job security? -- but take a look at the interesting comments to that blog posting, where we see a debate unfold about the commodification of MBA degrees vs. the school of thought that still puts a lot of stock in the "seal of approval" you're getting from the top schools. I'll add to that debate this observation: I'm hearing from a number of MBAs from the very top schools who are having trouble finding jobs right now. It's grim. Hang in there. An MBA, even from a top school, and even during economically healthy times, is not some sort of magic pixie dust you can sprinkle on your resume. You still have to do the work of figuring out what you want to do with your career, and figuring out how you're going to get from A to B. See here for more thoughts on that.


Former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and a recovering lawyer, Anna Ivey founded Ivey Consulting to help college, law school, and MBA applicants navigate the admissions process. Read more admissions tips in The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions, recently updated and available as an e-book. Follow Anna on Twitter (@annaivey).