I came of age in the era of Ronald Reagan, Trickle-Down Economics and Gordon Gekko. In my lifetime, the economy always got better, jobs always paid more, and there was something bigger and better down the road.

Not so for today’s associates and law students. The trends that I am seeing do not bode well for the 2Ls, 3Ls and junior associates out there:

Law firms are slashing summer programs, or eliminating their summer programs all together. The consequences will be fewer job opportunities for current law school students. The competition will be fierce for the few positions available. And, as we all know, summer programs lead to 1st year legal positions. No summer jobs = no jobs after law school.

Job offers deferred or rescinded. The market is tight, and it will continue to tighten. Students are no longer competing against themselves for jobs, but they are competing with already trained lawyers who have been laid-off. These currently licensed attorneys are ready to hit the ground running, and are willing to take the work.

Summers and 1st years are being banned from client files. I’ve been hearing this for the past couple years, but firms like Morgan Lewis are confirming it. At $160,000 per year, client reluctance to utilize these younger attorneys makes them less valuable to the firm, and more susceptible to layoffs.

Salaries are being rolled back. Who thought we’d long for the good ol’ days of January 2009 when salaries were only frozen. Salary roll-backs started with Robinson & Cole and the trend will pick up steam. Do I hear $20,000?? $30,000?? Womble Carlyle announced a straight 10% cut last week.

So, what’s this all mean?

I see a smack-down between the 2Ls, 3Ls and 1st-3rd year associates.

Those currently employed want to stay employed and will be willing to do what is necessary to keep their jobs. They have a bit of experience under their belts, and are now able to effectively bill/work on files.

With fewer turnovers there are fewer jobs available for the 3Ls. Couple that with firms reducing their summer programs, and deferring entering fall classes until 2010, we will once again see fewer jobs available for the current 2Ls.

So, who wins in all of this? There are several.

The clients will benefit on pricing. One of the Ps of marketing is “price.” For the most part, there are more lawyers and law firms than work at the moment. Clients are in the position to renegotiate the hourly rates that they have agreed upon in the past. I am hearing of clients pressuring their big-law lawyers to move to smaller shops, or set up their own, both of which will force down their preferred lawyer’s hourly rates.

Regional and boutique firms will benefit as law students will be looking to them as they have not in the past. Clients are also looking closer at the regional and boutique firms that they have used in the past, exploring whether they can expand work in other areas.

Government, public interest and non-profits will benefit from the pool of experienced (and unemployed) attorneys and well-educated 1st years who might not explore these options in a better economy.

The attorneys will benefit … in the long run. For those of us in-house, we have witnessed associates and partners burnout from the pace they’ve been keeping, and can confirm the low job satisfaction in the ranks as well. In 1958, the ABA suggested a 1300 billable hour year. By 2001, the ABA recommended:

billing expectations of 2300 hours annually, composed of 1900 hours billable to clients plus a total of 400 additional hours for: firm service (100 hours), pro bono (100 hours), client development (75 hours), training and professional development (75 hours) and professional service (50 hours).

Work-life balance might be something that looks good on paper, and sounds great in a job interview, but in most firms it is not practiced. Women, while graduating law school in equal numbers to men, still make up less than 19% of the partners.

I believe that 2009 provides a great opportunity for lawyers and law firms to reevaluate their business models and strategic plans, including recruitment and retention of attorneys. Yes, there will be bumps, hurdles, lost jobs and shuttered firms along the way, but the end result will hopefully be a better attorney-client relationship, increased client satisfaction, lawyers who are more fulfilled, and a better workplace for all of us who work in the legal industry.

And, if all else fails, there is always “life after law.”