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NYT Editorial: With the Downturn, It's Time to Rethink the Legal Profession

The New York Times has an interesting editorial on the economic downturn and its implications for the legal profession - and they aren't all bad, according to the author.

The downturn will probably rein in [first year] salaries at the high end. Top firms are already under pressure to lower the $160,000 starting salary; one industry-watcher says it could fall as low as $100,000. And fewer firms will feel the need to pay the top salary.

Lower pay should mean that associates will not need to work the grueling hours many have been forced to. And it will mean less pressure to go into private practice for law graduates who would rather do something else.

Clients are also likely to benefit -- and consumers, since legal fees are built into the cost of almost everything. Even before the downturn, big-firm clients, led by the Association of Corporate Counsel, were pushing to phase out the billable hour -- which can go as high as $1,000. Tight corporate budgets will give clients more leverage to push to pay by the project or for successful outcomes.

If the downturn is prolonged, law schools will need to keep tuition and other costs in check so students do not graduate with unmanageable debt....Law schools may also become more serious about curriculum reform....

The past few decades of prosperity made a lot of lawyers wealthy, but they were not always good for the profession. Law school deans, bar association leaders and firm managers should follow Rahm Emanuel's advice about never allowing a crisis to go to waste and start planning for what comes next.