The economic downturn is hitting the legal world hard. American Lawyer is calling it “the fire this time” and warning that big firms may be hurtling toward “a paradigm-shifting, blood-in-the-suites” future. Top firms are rapidly thinning their ranks.

The employment pains of the legal elite may not elicit a lot of sympathy in the broader context of the recession, but a lot of hard-working lawyers have been blindsided, including young associates who are suddenly finding themselves with six-figure student-loan debts and no source of income.

The changes are likely to begin with compensation. Years ago, law firm starting salaries were not that different from government or public-interest jobs. But the gap has become a chasm. The downturn will probably rein in salaries at the high end. Clients are also likely to benefit — and consumers, since legal fees are built into the cost of almost everything. For years, law school tuition rose along with big-firm salaries. Between 1990 and 2003, the cost of private law schools rose.

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 need to pay more attention to pre-paring students for nonlegal careers.—International Herald Tribune