Looking for a few good associates

Larry Ribstein —  20 September 2010

The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Chris Mondics writes about statistics showing that first-year law firm associate salaries are not declining despite the apparent turmoil in the legal marketplace.  He asks whether this means “the big-law-firm model has come through unscathed after the worst downturn since the Great Depression. Well, actually, no.”

In fact, he notes the revenue squeeze is continuing and this

will force firms to change even more in the coming years, said Larry Ribstein, associate dean for research at the University of Illinois College of Law and an expert on law-firm management and economics. Ribstein published a fascinating paper [link added] in the Wisconsin Law Review recently in which he argued that the changing economics of the legal industry were leading inexorably to the breakup of big firms.

Ribstein foresees a legal marketplace that still will have large firms, just fewer of them. Whole practice groups will splinter off, starting firms of their own as they seek refuge in smaller organizations with lower cost structures. * * *It’s Ribstein’s point that lateral recruiting, taken to an extreme, breaks down partnership cohesion, and undermines what he calls a firm’s “reputational capital.” When that happens, choosing a firm can be an eenie, meenie, miny mo, or throwing darts at a dart board. Pick your metaphor.

So, then, Mondics asks, “why have first-year salaries retained their robustness?”

“Good associates are still very valuable in this marketplace,” Ribstein said. “We are getting more regulation than ever, and a sophisticated ability to grapple with that is more important than ever. The question is how many of them do you need. And the answer is not as many as before.”

Of course, this raises the question of what is a “good associate.”  The answer is that it’s someone who actually knows something useful out of the starting gate, not just anybody with a high IQ from a top law school.  The question of how to produce these people should be dominating the discussion at law schools today.  So far, I haven’t seen that happen.

Larry Ribstein


Professor of Law, University of Illinois College of Law

3 responses to Looking for a few good associates


    I don’t get your last point, Larry. Why would it be important for someone to show up at work prepared for day 1? Isn’t it more important to have liberal arts-like flexibility and agility, and to learn the particulars you need for your particular job on the job?


    Sorry, can’t help it.

    A favorite comment from another site regarding Le Brouhaha Henderson:

    “Lesson from this article – don’t hire a lawyer to manage your money if you want something left over at the end of the month.”


    Truthonthemarket.com seems to be closing its comment marketplace.

    What’s up with that?

    Well, here’s a little spot one can register some truthiness.

    In his farewell post, Todd Henderson writes:

    “I have different ideas about this than many of our readers and my critics, but my motives are the same as theirs. I’ve never made up stuff about them, distorted their arguments, or questioned their good intentions. I would expect the same in return.”

    Well, Todd, let’s examine the record.

    On or about February 24, 2010, did you or did you not write the following in a post entitled “Morons of the world, unite!”:

    “My wife makes me subscribe to the New York Times, and occasionally it is worth it. Take this recent essay by Roger Cohen. It is difficult to get past the faux-intellectual babble — “As it is, everyone’s shrieking their lonesome anger, burrowing deeper into stress, gazing at their own images” — but if you can resist laughing or immolating yourself to escape Cohen’s drivel . . . ”

    Faux-intellectual babble? Cohen’s drivel? Morons?

    Professor Henderson, how to you reconcile those words with your statement, “I’ve never made up stuff about them, distorted their arguments, or questioned their good intentions.”?

    As my grandmother used to say: If you can’t stand the heat, get out of Dominique Francon’s kitchen.