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Today's Reason to Hate Lawyers: The Skadden Sabbatical

By Brian Kumnick | Last updated on
This week's hard-to-miss legal career discussion topic: Skadden's sabbatical program for its associates, which was highlighted yesterday in this New York Times piece.

According to the article, nearly ten percent of Skadden's 1300 associates have expressed interest in being paid one-third of their usual salary in exchange for disappearing for a year.  What they do with their time, says the Times, is up to them: although many are seeking the chance to do pro bono legal work, "the lawyers could . . . spend the year catching up on every episode of Top Chef that they missed during the boom years, or traveling around the world, 'all of which is O.K. by us,' said Matthew Mallow, a partner at the firm."

And with assurances from Skadden that even should it end up having to conduct layoffs in the next year, associates will actually be immune from termination during their sabbaticals, it's perhaps no wonder that so many overworked associates would welcome the chance to step off the big firm treadmill and take a deep breath.

So what drew readers' attention to this piece, and sent it to the top of the Times's "Most E-Mailed" list?  The mention of the $80,000 "reduced" salary the firm will pay the sixth-year featured in the piece.The offer made for an attention-grabbing headline, and (surprise!) elicited strong responses from commenters, who were perhaps not surprisingly more interested in the idea that anyone would ever earn $250,000 a year to sit behind a desk than they were in the novelty and potential utility of the sabbatical program.

"There's no clearer sign (than this grotesque offer) that the legal profession is in denial about our state of financial affairs," wrote one commenter.  Another agreed that salaries on that scale "for being an attorney" are "what's wrong with our society."  Those in the medical profession, too, had issues when they realized the inferior bargain they'd apparently signed up for: "What's the starting salary for pediatricians after 7 years of medical school and training? $130,000," noted one.

Certainly, there were a few defenders.  One commenter wished that more people would focus on the fact that "instead of laying people off, here is an institution which is doing something better - allowing people to enjoy life, possibly help the world, and keeping them 'in the stable' for when the economy improves)."  Another agreed but still found $80,000 a "distasteful" sum to offer someone not to work.

Perhaps too there was some envy at work.  More than one commenter seemed to wish that a sabbatical might someday come their way.  But no matter which way you look at it, thanks to Skadden's effort to innovate and perhaps do a bit of good in hard times, and the Times's willingness to indulge the escapist fantasies of its deskbound readership, it seems everyone else hates lawyers a little more today.
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