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Are Young Associates Slackers, or Just Rational Actors?:
Last week, Law.com posted this National Law Journal article on the work ethic of law firm associates who are part of the the so-called "Generation Y" — those born in 1978 or later. The verdict? From the perspective of today's law firm partners, associates from Generation Y are "slackers" with "a flabby work ethic" who don't "take charge of their career," lack "loyalty," aren't eager to do mindless work, and "don't volunteer for committee or other firm work." The article suggests everything from 9/11 to the dot.com bust as an explanation for this alleged generational shift in attitudes.

  Most of my knowledge of law firm life is second-hand, so my own take on this is sheer speculation. But I wonder if the article is missing a better explanation for the shift: law school graduates today understand that law firms — particularly large firms — are businesses. Law firms hire associates to make money, not for the esprit de corps. Big firm partners want to maximize their profits, and hiring lots of associates and having them bill lots of hours with little hope of making partner is a way to do that. Partners who have created this sort of environment are in an odd position to complain that today's young associates lack loyalty and don't volunteer for committee work. If I'm not mistaken, associates are taking their clues from partners and are viewing law firms as means to an end. Most big-firm partners are looking to make lots of money; most big-firm associates are looking to pay off some loans, get some experience, and add a line to the resume before figuring out what they really want to do with their lives. Associates in this position may seem lazy and insufficiently loyal to some partners, but that's mostly because the associates are not planning on sticking around for the long haul.

  But enough of my speculation. VC readers at law firms know a lot more about these dynamics than I do. I have opened up comments so we can get the real scoop from our readers.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. The Problem With Partners These Days:
  2. Are Young Associates Slackers, or Just Rational Actors?:
zzyz:
I'm not at a law firm yet, but I'm a 3L taking my required legal ethics class right now. We talked about that article in clas last week. The teacher, who's general counsel at a large law firm, says he's seen no evidence of the factual basis for the article -- that current associates are less committed, slack off more, things like that.

I suspect it's a combination of two things: general "back in my day" type selective memory, and the fact that the people remembering -- partners -- are the ones who did volunteer for assignments and committee spots and such, and so don't realize that most associates aren't like that.
3.6.2005 1:20pm
alkali (mail):
I would add to Orin's sensible the comments the following thoughts:

(1) It is my sense that minimum billable requirements have skyrocketed at most big firms over the last 10 years. I would say that 1600-1800 hours was pretty common a decade ago; now it's more like 2100-2400. That's a huge difference in terms of extra night and weekend work and foregone vacation time. So far as I can tell this development has pretty much gone unremarked.

(2) It is now well understood that if you want to make big bucks with a law degree, you go into investment banking/private equity, etc., not the practice of law, and there are now more clearly defined pathways for people who want to do that. The upshot is that a good chunk of the people who want to make big bucks with a law degree just aren't going to law firms any more.

(3) In view of (1) and (2) and an increasingly tight market for law firms seeking to hire, I think it is probable that we are not very far off from a market "correction" in favor of associate salaries.
3.6.2005 1:41pm
BTD_Venkat (mail) (www):
Anecdotal evidence relating to associates not wanting to stay at one firm (this sort of flows down into the slacker work ethic issue or is a related issue).

I worked at two large firms (big one based in LA and a big one in WA) and virtually none of the people that I started with are still there. When in prior years the norm was that partners started at a particular firm that they ended up being partner at, the recent trend is exactly the opposite. It's tough to find a single person who is partner at a firm who started their legal career there. So, for whatever reason, people don't expect to stick around at a particular place and loyalty is less. Obviously they are not thinking about giving their lives (read: weekend) for the firm.

I think the loyalty issue is also playing out vis a vis clients and firms. Rather than hiring one firm for all of its legal needs, in this day and age, virtually every company will shop around and hire the best lawyers. This affects firm loyalty. The practice is heading in a more lawyer-centered direction, rather than firm-centered. You can more easily switch firms and retain your clients, etc. etc.

One of the biggest catalysts in all this was the dot com boom. It had two significant effects: (1) exorbitant starting salaries and (2) in-house positions for people who would not have gotten a second look in-house. The turnover rate caused by the dot com boom was simply staggering. An entire couple of classes of people going into firms didn't follow the traditional path. But most of them left the big firms, I would be interested in seeing how many went back.
3.6.2005 1:43pm
SupremacyClaus (mail):
Associateships are like medical residencies, apprenticeships. These pay a token $45,000, barely living expenses, with crushing debts, while learning Hollywood plastic surgery from an experienced person. During that time of learning, he is being markedly slowed down by the ignorance and mistakes of the trainee. He does it as a sacrifice for the continuation of his craft.

I notice law school teaches nothing about lawyering. The profs are not real lawyers. They are scholars, above crass craft considerations. The pay for the mind-numbing, paper pushing, proceduralist nonsense of the law firm is $120,000, plus bonuses, all generated at another law firm. Sleeping with clients is allowed. Anyone who sticks around past the time where the learning curve loses slope is an education addict or a dope. I do not understand the motivation for wanting to be partners with people who charge shady expenses and marina fees to the firm. You are shopping for the consequences of everyone's shadiness at the IRS store. Being fired is a huge favor for the indecisive.

The exploitation is mutual. If you serve enthusiastically and loyally, 80 hours a week, the partner will let you in on the stuff to buy the Gulfstream when you grow up.

As an apprenticeship, it is decent. The difference in pay compared to doctors reflects the sincere value society places on these 2 professions at this time. Society deserves what's coming to it.
3.6.2005 2:02pm
chris (mail):
I adopt most of the first two comments (especially the "our generation is better than their generation" notion), but want to add something: I think the notions of "loyalty" were far less unaffected by the dot-coms and 9/11 than they were by many of the young associates growing up in an era where many of us know someone, whether our father or a father of a friend, that worked 20-30 years for a company and was "downsized" at a time when they weren't exactly marketable. The illusion of mutual loyalty is gone. As a generation, we've learned the ugly truth that businesses have no loyalty to their workers. So why should workers have loyalty to the businesses? Just like businesses now seek to maximize value, workers must now seek to maximize value - and value can be having a personal life or making sure that you are doing the kind of work that will help you get another job down the line when the associate to partner attrition hits you. If that means that workers don't fall into line as tireless automatons, then too bad, so sad. Law firms are businesses. And if partners don't want to admit that, then they should keep that in mind when they are pressuring associates to bill more hours, looking at AmLaw to see how their profits per partner stacks up, or asking someone to leave because they aren't bringing enough money into the firm.
3.6.2005 2:13pm
Sean O'Hara (mail):
Wait, I thought Generation X got the slacker stereotype? Is the new generation really any worse, or are the X-ers just getting old enough to complain about "these kids today"?
3.6.2005 2:16pm
ryan:
Calculate out what you are making per hour.

If you are an associate working
80 hours per week for $120,000,

you are in reality working
two "normal 40-hour per week jobs" at $60,000.

How many people would voluntarily do that? Not many people who value their family and health.
3.6.2005 2:17pm
Crime & Federalism (mail) (www):
I'm glad you covered that article. A lot of people realized, after seeing their parents downsized, that being a "company man [woman]" really means being a dupe. Companies (including law firms) are upset because they can no longer manipulate traditional values ordinarily associated with friendship and country, e.g., loyalty, duty, fidelity, to a profit-making entity. This issue has been covered in several excellent articles I can dig up if you like.

It's a welcome shift. I always found it odd that someone would have loyalty to a company that only uses a economic cost-benefit analysis in employee retention. I am altruistic towards my friends (though some would say it's reciprocal altruism), but why sacrifice for someone who uses me to make it money? That's crazy!

Gen Y is hip to the game, the jig is up, and law firms are miffed. We want more money, we're going to figure out how much profit we're making you, and we're going to try to get as much of that delta as possible. And why can't we?

Why can a law firm seek to profit from associates, while a law firm associate can not seek to profit frim the law firm?
3.6.2005 2:31pm
3L:
The "rational actor" explanation was the first thing that came to my mind after reading the article. I'm a 3L, so I don't have any more firsthand knowledge than you do, but I'm under the impression that the partners and adminstrators see it as a business just as much as the associates do.

Once I start working as an associate, I will have it in the back of my mind that, for all of the firm's talk of "loyalty" and "family," once it stops being profitable for the firm to keep me around, security will show at my desk with some boxes and watch me pack up my stuff. I assume that they only treat me as something approaching a human being because if they don't, some other firm will.

Likewise, every hour I spend doing their work beyond what they absolutely require of me is one less hour I could spend with my family, or sleeping, or doing something else for which I might actually be compensated. As one of the previous commenters remarked, being a "company man" means being a dupe.
3.6.2005 2:39pm
Peter Siroka (mail):
Don't you think a lot of this has to do with the elitism of big firm hiring in the first place? I'm not saying that people who get into top-15 law schools aren't smart, but your admission letter is basically a ticket to the big firm job of your choice. As such, there's little motivation to do much with your 3 years of law school - things like being on Law Review is much more of an option than a requirement. It's like anything else - motivation begets motivation. If the bigger firms are looking for more motivation, they might increasingly choose to look toward tier-2 schools, where students who are plenty smart and motivated bust their tail to make Law Review just to have a shot at a big firm job, only to discover that more than half of the people that make Law Review at those schools aren't even offered a job at a big firm. So it works both ways.
3.6.2005 2:41pm
frankcross (mail):
I think there is data supporting a rational actor model. A recent NYT article demonstrated that the probability of making partner at major firms had been cut by about half. Assume that this is the end to which associates work. They assume a cost (many associate hours) in order to get a benefit down the line (partnership profits). When you reduce the promise of the benefit, a rational associate will see the cost/benefit ratio of working many hours decline.
3.6.2005 2:45pm
John Steele (mail) (www):
I agree with the thoughts in the first comment. There is a lot of distorted memory driving the "Generation Y are slackers" comments.

But there is something very different about this generation of lawyers, and especially the lawyers who came out of "top" law schools. Many (most?) of them have rationally concluded that they will never be owners of their own law practice. Recall that just 25 years ago or so, most US lawywer were solos or partners in micro-sized firms. They were owners, with the mentality of owners. That practice just continues to shrink. More and more of our elite law students are assuming that they will be employee lawyers for life. I don't think that makes them "lazy" or "slackers." I do think that makes them more of "floaters" throughout their career. That mobility will force big firms to re-think how to generate longer term loyalty from valued employees.
3.6.2005 2:46pm
Doug B. (mail):
I would add the anecdotal perception that a lot more of today's young lawyers, whether men or women, enter firm life with a heightened concern for maintaining a balance between work and family.

The "revered" senior named partner at the firm I worked for a decade ago wrote a book about successful practice which essentially encouraged (male) associates to be "married to the firm" for their first five+ years. At the time this book was written (I think the mid-1970s), such advice might have perhaps sounded sensible; by the mid-1990s, it sounded nuts to me and my colleagues. And now, a decade later, nearly every student I discuss career plans with has a clear focus on work/family balance issues.
3.6.2005 3:17pm
Nick B. (mail):
Loyalty, of course, must be earned by a firm; moreover, it must be a two way street.

Furthermore, we have multiple loyalties. My first loyalty is to my family. If another firm offers me $30K more and my current firm cannot match it, taking that offer does not mean I'm being disloyal to my firm. Because, firstly, I'm being loyal to my family by increasing the family's income. Secondly, if my firm were loyal to me, they would match the offer, otherwise they're being disloyal to me, in a key sense, by not paying me what I'm worth. If loyalty isn't a two-way street, it's stupidity.
3.6.2005 3:23pm
SupremacyClaus (mail):
Ryan: I see you the 80 hours a week for $120,000, and raise you 80 hours for $45,000 for the "associate" doc. The $45,000 is something the old timers gripe about. In their day, it was free hospital cafeteria meals, laundry for the uniform and a room into which one had to walk sideways. It was a privilege to be an apprentice. They were grateful to not be charged tuition. Then there was an escalating race of getting to work ever earlier to know the patient labs and progress before the other guy. So, get to work at 5 AM, everyone says, "Where you been, we're almost done."

The thing about the doc? You spend $1200 in fees, get better, return to the $120,000 law associate job, otherwise impossible with a serious illness. That is a 10,000% return on investment (ROI) for health. I will not even discuss the ROI on returning a senior partner to work. Come 40, one major organ system will fail. Guaronteed.

What is the ROI on a law associate? That is a better estimated of real worth. If a law associate finds an error in the font on the back of the airline ticket, invalidating the international limitation on the payout in a crash, I would tip him.
3.6.2005 4:29pm
Stephen M (Ethesis) (mail):
Many of these posts are closing on the cascade of realities.

First, in the 1920s, "law clerks" really were law clerks and a big firm job meant being required to be married (because your wife had to help support you), six and a half days in the office, the firm gave you a list of churches that were acceptable and you made partner in six years.

That transitioned to 1600 billable hours a year, partner in 6-8 years and a living wage.

Now, 90% don't make partner, the rest are on a ten-twelve year partnership track and hours are up to 2400 a year. On top of which, many large firms will fire associates who tell the truth about hour requirements to the summer hires.

The sea change came a couple of cycles ago when firms suddenly fired the "lawyer's lawyers" and kept the guys with portable business during the downturn cycle. That adjustment came before the dot com and equity boom kicked up associate salaries during the bidding war (though many firms just changed the way they counted salaries to publish numbers higher than they actually paid -- and a few jumped to 2700 to 3000 hours).

It is amazing stuff.

Would be nice to get tips. I litigate and get 14+ summary dispositions a year. I'd be glad to just get a 1k tip for each ;)

But seriously, appreciate "SupremacyClaus" who needs to also note that critical path analysis reflects that if medical care was free, it didn't have a net benefit until 1989. Lots of implications flow from that.

Interesting stuff here, wish you fun with your questions and the answers.
3.6.2005 4:49pm
David Cavanagh (mail):
I'm not a laywer. If the average level of writing ability exhibited in earlier posts is typical of new graduates from prestigious law schools, then law firms have more to complain about than a lack of loyalty.
3.6.2005 5:36pm
Been there, done that:
I went to a top 10-15 law school, but thankfully learned how to practice law by first working in a government litigation position. After four years of significant experience, I lateralled to a large firm.

Big mistake. In the first week, they had me make photocopies. The client was billed over two c-notes an hour for having me figure out paper jams and "supervise" an army of paralegals who billed at a rate equal to that charged by an average lawyer in an only slightly smaller city. I had no experience or particular aptitude for assembling paperwork, but I was forced to spend nights at the office pretending to have some influence over this publication project.

Some of the partners were abusive. None were particularly impressive as attorneys, and few had any redeeming human qualities.

I didn't mind taking the firm's money, since they were wasting my time. But I was morally uncomfortable billing the clients for my "work." Not that it was necessarily easy to find "work" within the firm. The partners were aloof, in their own little worlds, so when things didn't work out with the partner who originally brought me aboard (I just wasn't going to be a six-figure photocopy boy), there wasn't a whole lot else to do.

I left after about a year, and resumed practicing law. I've never been impressed by the work product that comes out of these large firms; it doesn't live up to their ego.

I wasn't around in the 1920s, but in the 1990s, there was zero loyalty from these firms. The real question is whether the big firms will survive as they fail to develop much talent organically. Right now all that's left is brand name.
3.6.2005 5:54pm
The Doctor (mail) (www):
It is very interesting to see the law profession also taking on this question. Many of us in the medical profession, especially those of us in time-demanding surgical specialties, have been debating this same issue. Many of my colleagues and I have noticed a huge difference in the work ethic of these gen-Yers. A confounding part of this discussion has been the recent imposition of work-hour limitations on interns, residents and fellows. This has resulted in the work being passed UP the ladder rather than the traditional DOWN the ladder as the residents go home early and leave the attendings behind. Despite this, many of us truly feel that the newest trainees lack a dedication to their patients and to the team. They have very me-centric values and often display a "what's in it for me?" mentality when it comes to the more mundane part of medical care. I'm really not sure how we combat this - and since other professions are noticing the same thing, I wonder if this is more of a societal issue. Let me know if you find a way to correct this in your profession.
3.6.2005 6:00pm
SupremacyClaus (mail):
David: It (sic) is 100 times worse than any outsider will ever realize. Quality of writing is the least of it.

Think the jaw dropping, I-am-going-to-pass-out reaction of Howard Carter, opening King Tut's tomb. And, what lays before one in law school is not gold. Think massive mummification. Think the rush of air of 2000 years ago. You are getting close.

This message has been sanitized for your protection, with Warriner's, 8th Grade Edition, English Grammar and Composition.
3.6.2005 6:04pm
Lostingotham (mail):
As a former waiter, bricklayer, taxi driver, printing press operator and roofer, as well as a current junior associate in a 250 lawyer Wall Street firm I can say with complete confidence that the stories about how tough life gets in biglaw are vastly overblown. Granted the hours are sometimes long and the personalities can be a bit trying, but the fat check on the first and fifteenth and the fact that my butt sits in a climate controlled office free of grit, grime and serious injury hazards more than makes up for it.

For a fair number of the members of my class this is the first job they've ever had. I've noticed that they're the ones who whine the loudest about the hours. They're also the first to complain if the car to take them home in the evening or the Seamless Web delivery guy are five minutes late.

Personally, I don't care if I make partner. As long as there's a signature at the bottom of that check every payday, I'll be as loyal and hard-working as you could ask anyone to be...
3.6.2005 6:04pm
SupremacyClaus (mail):
Doc: What do you think of paying your residents $120K/year? I know they are more valuable and productive than these paper pushers.

After 36 hours at work, in the good old days, when you were a resident, did you ever fall to the ground on rounds, fully asleep? What is a patient supposed to think of a person with lids closing in mid exam of their wound? Is the feeling going to be, "Wow, that is impressive pursuit of excellence in medical education?"
3.6.2005 6:34pm
SupremacyClaus (mail):
Lost: I met someone with a $250,000 cocaine habit. I asked him how many crimes he committed to finance that habit. He replied, surprised, "None. I'm a roofer." He must have made roofer partner. I know, come 5 PM, not a trace. Family friendly for Gen Y.
3.6.2005 6:48pm
WaitingforGodot (www):
While temping at biglaw, I chatted with a senior paralegal. She told me that she was a graduate of a top-10 law school. She had worked as an attorney in a large law firm for 3 years, billing 2400 hours per year.

When she got home one night, and her husband told her that she had missed her baby's first steps, she knew she had to quit. She stepped down the salary and prestige ladder, and now works more manageable hours as a senior paralegal in charge of a number of lower level paralegals and clerks.

I am now a 2L, and while I understand the need for occasional weekends and long-hour weeks to prep for trial, I also know that 2100-2400 hours is not a sustainable goal for anybody who hopes to enjoy family life, or, dare I say, a hobby, in addition to work at the firm.

I have seen a trend, at least in the glossy advertisements and web-pages, for firms to say they are family-friendly and more flexible. I hope there is some truth to that. If I were working at a firm that demanded 2000-2100 hours, I'd hardly be the first one in line to take on extra responsibilities.

Having the money is useless if I lose half of it in my divorce, and the other half paying for my biannual balloon angioplasty.

I must add, parenthetically, that these hourly requirements are billable. SO it doesn't count when you visit the john, or get a coffee. More significantly, it doesn't count whn you are engaged in any of the routine administrative tasks that can fill up a business day damnably fast. So either an associate has to be extremely (!) liberal with what gets billed, or else they have to be in the office nearly all the time.
3.6.2005 7:30pm
Wish I Had Done Things Differently:
I think many (most?) partners don't realize how many more hours an associate has to bill these days and that the sudden increase from one's 3L year can be shocking. On top of that, I don't think many 2Ls realize how difficult it can be to bill 2100 hours a year doing something you may not necessarily enjoy. Nothing can prepare someone for what big law requires. But the money draws people that might not have the right personality for the job. It certainly did for me. Looking back, I never thought to myself, "Will I be happy doing this? I know I'm smart enough to do the work, but does it really fit my personality and work habits?" I just thought, "Wow!! 125,000 and I'm only 25!!" This effect is probably compounded by the fact that many smart people go to law school just for something to do after undergrad.
3.6.2005 7:48pm
MP:
Loyalty is dead (look at the average holding period for stocks; brand loyalty; affairs, etc.). We live in an at-will culture and mindset. Most of us are mercenaries not missionaries. The same issue is happening in consulting. Longer route to partner, often less $$, and more headaches. Add the regulatory constraints and Sarbox, and no one wants to sign their name or walk around w/o a hold harmless. On its face, I don't have an issue w/ it - it is what it is. As long as you understand the game - you go in to upgrade your skillsets, your resume, and make some personal alliances and coalitions. At the end of the day, when you need another job, you don't call the company, you call John or Mary who "lived" down the hallway.
3.6.2005 8:07pm
anonymous (mail):
I think WishIHadDoneThingsDifferently makes an excellent point. I'd take it even farther:

How many of us have any idea *what* work fits our personality and work habits at 22/25? Some people do, but many many do not.

It used to be that people didn't have many choices in life. You did what your father/mother did; maybe, if you were lucky, you did what your parents dreamed of doing themselves. The boom created by the GI Bill and the changing face of America, its educational system, its entrepreneurship, changed our choices. We have a lot more choices now. Speaking historically, many many more people can go to law school/get a job in a law firm than ever before. Couple that with a concomitant lack of knowledge of what we think is "a good fit", and you'll get plenty of "Slackers", "job hopping", "unwillingness", etc.

With so many available choices, other choices might appear better, so we have more incentive to work less hard (and experience more hobbies than we would have in the past), or job hop--to test the hypothesis that a different job would be a good fit. Our unwillingness to do mindless work can be again, simply an unwillingness to accept the opportunity cost. It might be a proper recognition of the value of that task--a rational choice to not be bothered to do something that a paralegal being paid $20 an hour could do.

Before, the personality types of those going to law school was probably extremely limited. Chances are, psychology is the determining factor for success in any of these environments, and it isn't that prior generations were any more loyal; it may just be that those people's psychology led them to act in a way that appeared to be "more loyal"--as they didn't have any better options for happiness elsewhere.
3.6.2005 8:36pm
Peg (mail):
"A lot more of today's young lawyers, whether men or women, enter firm life with a heightened concern for maintaining a balance between work and family." Yet, the same people expect $120,000 per year, despite the fact that the average legal secretary knows more about the practice of law.

Sorry, I've been there. We're forced to teach grammar and spelling to our young "stars" (some grads from the "top" schools), and that's before the logical reasoning lessons. And lessons on common courtesy to support staff.

Then there are the complaints about workload. In many reputable large firms, the demands are still relatively reasonable, yet partners are working late or on weekends (when it's needed, and sometimes, well, it IS) while young associates whine: "Don't dare bother me on weekends." A quote.

And it's generally only the Wall Street firms, with profits in the millions per partner, where the associate leverage is such that very few make partner. Those firms drive the salary demands, however.

If you want more "personal time," fine -- work for the government or in-house. If you want financial or professional recognition, work (hard) for a firm, volunteer for committees, and write articles and speeches.
3.6.2005 9:02pm
Greedy Clerk (mail):
I find the hyperbole in this thread laughable. I am a third year associate at a large firm, and will make about 190K this year with lock-step bonus. Few of my colleagues are billing 2400 hours. Most have "lives" -- they work hard, but are not generally spending 90 hours/week in the office unless they are on a trial or a deal that's closing.

As for the reason partners in that article are bitching, I think the first post hit the nail on the head --- it's typical generational tension always present. Sure the older partners were saying the same thing about the associates who are now partners. The old "I walked ten miles to school in the snow."
3.6.2005 9:19pm
Armchair Genius (mail) (www):
I agree with most of the comments listed above. First, I reject the premise that associates of generation Y are slackers (I am not of that generation, but I am close). I billed about 2400 hours last year, I don't consider that slacking obviously. Most of the associates I know billed the required minimum hours. And several billed close to what I billed (and a couple billed more!). And those that did not just didn't get the work (some for quality reasons no doubt - but still).

Second, billing the minimum hours most firms require is definitely not slacking (well I think it is when I have a slow month that puts me on that pace - but I am insane). If it was slacking then perhaps the firm should raise the minimum billables?

As far as loyalty, that has to be a joke? A big law firm wanting loyalty? The same firm that cuts associates if they fall off pace for a few months? Large law firms (and I am at one that is consistently ranked high in associate quality of life/satisfaction) don't care about associates. Certain partners might care about you, but not the law firm as a whole. I guarantee that the only thing 90 percent of the partners know about me is that I am consistently at the top of the monthly associate billable hours reports (that's right every partner in every firm that I know of gets one of these that goes associate by associate, not just cumulative).

All law firms care about are the numbers, the bottom line - and their decision making process makes that apparent. And I agree, partners are the same way, and associates draw their cues from that.

As far as the committee issue, I wouldn't even know who to talk to about joining a committee, perhaps that is my fault, perhaps the firms fault. But I suspect most associates are in the same boat. Besides which, you don't get any credit for being on a committee. I recall at my first firm when they had to cut associates and 4 of the 5 they cut were from the associates committee - it was a nice touch I thought.

Finally, here is my favorite part of that article:


"[Newer associates] have a very strong connection with each other as opposed to the institution. If someone is treated badly, they all react to it," the attorney said.


Wow, how horrible! If a partner mistreats an associate badly, all the associates may stop taking work from that partner. What a horrible world we live in! There is one partner at my firm that I would never do work for after both hearing about and seeing the way she treats associates. (I am very thick skinned - she is truly that bad ) The problem is clearly the partner not the associates in this case. And I suspect any attorney who would make a comment like the one in the article is "one of those" partners.
3.6.2005 10:31pm
BSKB (mail) (www):
I'm a 2L and when I look forward to the possibility of 2000 billable hours at a large firm, I only wonder what type of loyalty I'll get back from them. I'll be happy to bust my rear end for them, but will they appreciate my work or only look at the numbers when evaluating me?
For some reason, the more that I look at the larger law firms, I think that it's more like Office Space than a legal thriller. "
"Well, you do have the minimum 7 pieces of flair, but you could always do more"
"but I do have the minimum right?"
"yes, if you are happy with the minimum..."
With pieces of flair, it's one thing, buy another stupid button. Adding 200 billable hours or joining a committee in return for the esteem for management just seems idiotic. I'd rather have a family thank you very much.
3.6.2005 11:01pm
SupremacyClaus (mail):
Greedy: That roofer blew his $250K on cocaine in 1992. Adjusted for inflation, who knows what he is doing now.

I spent $5K on my roof. People who spoke a little English did the work, as my roofer supervised from the ground. He did have to use a bunch of expensive tar. That was one day, to 5 PM.

I believe the 1992 roofer's claim. His coke habit required, let's say, 100 days of honest labor to finance. That left 150 days' pay for other expenses.

That 190K was salary to you. What was the value of any pension payments, health plan, expense accounts, overhead support?

You then saved or made the clients ... how much?
3.6.2005 11:04pm
OrinKerr:
SupremacyClaus,

FWIW, I don't think that the coke habits of roofers and the details of your own roofing experiences are particularly relevant to this thread. Please keep you comments relevant to the post; my general sense is that most VC readers would prefer I delete comments that stray this far, and I would rather not have to do that.
3.6.2005 11:19pm
One More Thought (mail) (www):
Many attorneys are joining these top defense-side litigation firms out of law school because they don't realize how many other things they can do with their degrees. But they're the ones who come to campus, who are prestigious and selective, and their promise you stimulating work! variety! and money!

So you chase them, and they choose you, and then about three years later, you realize, hey, I'd rather have a job with purpose and meaning. Or, hey, maybe being on the plaintiff's side is better suited for me. Or gov't work. Or boutiques.

But especially if you go to law school soon from college, you take what's in front of you, and choose it not realize what you're getting, and what else is out there. And the first few years -- after the initial thrill until you realize that you alone control your career -- can be brutally un-fun.
3.6.2005 11:37pm
SupremacyClaus (mail):
Mr. Kerr: The roofer line goes to family friendly and Gen Y.

Just laying foundation for this: GreedyClerk, making 190K, 3 years out, is underpaid. He needs a raise.

Sorry. I was just trying to help.
3.6.2005 11:45pm
Phillip Carter (mail) (www):
Orin,

I think I missed the "Gen Y" cutoff by a few years, so I think that I'm technically a "Gen X'er" at a big law firm. No matter.

I think the problem really goes back much further in time than an associate's present-day employment at a law firm -- I think it stretches back to the decision (made by many young law students) to go straight from their undergraduate experience to the law school, or to go to law school with just 1 or 2 years of experience in the world. This lack of experience is fundamental the way that law firms exploit these young associates, because they just don't understand how a workplace can and should work -- let alone how their firms are dysfunctional. More importantly, though, I think these young law students strive to work at a big firm because they've always aimed for the brass ring in everything they've done. It's almost instinctive by the time they get to their second year of law school. The 6-figure salaries merely whet their appetites, but they already know how to play the game.

And so, striving for that "dream job" at Kirkland or Cravath -- or a judicial clerkship -- is second nature to them, because it's all they know. But once they get into that position, disillusionment must inevitably set in. After all, this is the end of the the line -- why they've been working for 12 years of school, 4 years of college, and 3 years of law school. Anything less than pure nirvana will invariably lead to disillusionment and alienation.

So, my prescription is this: take time off after college. Do something challenging and rewarding like teaching, small business work, public service, etc. (I joined the Army, but that's not for everyone) As I told many of my students at UCLA, unless you are so absolutely brilliant that the world would suffer for your delay (see, e.g., Eugene Volokh), then you owe it to yourself to take some time off before committing to the profession of law.

v/r
Phil

(For the record: I greatly enjoy my work at a big law firm, and am very happy with my choice. But I think much of that owes to the fact that I had enough real world experience as a 2L to pick a firm with a good work environment where I would fit in well.)
3.7.2005 12:06am
Proud Gen Y Slacker (mail):
1. Law school tuition, like all higher education tuition, keeps growing at embarrassing rates. Law schools increase it as much as they can. One reason they can increase it so much is that there are lots of law firms paying $125,000 a year. The increases in financial aid and loan repayment schemes for graduates going into "public interest" jobs simply shifts more and more of the tuition burden onto those who aren't poor and/or want to work in the private sector. Graduates really need these salaries just to service their debt.

On the other side, law firms have grown rapidly over the past 20 years, with many doubling, tripling, or quadrupling in size. They want graduates from top schools, but law school class sizes are fixed or grow only very slowly. To attract more people, firms need to pay more. It's both cost-push and demand-pull inflation.

2. Another consequence of rapid firm growth is that they have to go after people whose interest in big firm work is lower. Simple diminishing returns.

3. There is more competition. There are more high-paying jobs in the financial sector, and these attract many of the same people who also consider law. There are more exit options for big firm associates to go into financial services.
3.7.2005 11:22am
Samantha:
My initial reaction is outrage (I'm a fourth year litigation associate at a large firm) -- how dare they call us "slackers" with a "flabby work ethic"?! We're slaving away for at least 50-60 hours per week (during slow times; many more during busy times) -- always trying to reach an ever-increasing billable hour goal. How awful that young associates should strive for work-life balance, and personal and professional fulfillment, in spite of a system that consistently discourages any time spent that cannot be billed to a client! (for example, my 250 hours of pro bono legal work in 2004 --time spent with clients, in court, and on briefs to the highest court in Massachusetts -- in addition to 400+ hours spent in trainings, marketing, networking, recruiting, and other "firm-related" tasks, were completely excluded from my 2000 billable hour target, despite my firm's constant advertising of its dedication to the "public interest" and associates' "professional development"). These hurculean efforts are an indication of the "survivalist" nature of associates, who, despite the "beating" they take (be it in the form of negative evaluations, foregone bonuses, or back-handed comments from partners) for their efforts in furtherance of "goodness" or "fulfillment" rather than "money," rise above this narrow-minded mantra... These hard-working, level-headed, passionately-devoted associates should be applauded -- not just by other associates, professors, and legal associations who recognize the importance of balance and personal and professional well-being, but also (and perhaps most importantly) by the law firms' management, who can only benefit from employees who are happy and fulfilled, rather than stressed and disillusioned!
3.7.2005 11:27am
Dirtyfingers (mail):
I think Orin nailed it. The partners at the big firms created this environment--wanting young associates to bill monstrous hours without any hope of becoming partner. Yet they complain about a lack of loyalty, etc.? That is, they created this situation but don't like the inevitable consequences? Well, welcome to reality and human nature, boys. A good article about this topic, "Who's Killing the Great Harvard Lawyers," or something appeared in Esquire a few years ago.
3.7.2005 11:39am
A.S.:
I spent my first 4 years after law school at a big NYC firm, and have spent the last 4 years at a NYC branch of a large non-NYC firm, up for partner this year ("Then what you doing posting - get back to work!" Good point...)

First, let me add that I agree with Phillip Carter to some degree. Time off is key. (In my case, though, I worked for the 4 years before taking time off - I just outright quit my job, spent time travelling in Asia, then found my new job when I came home. Would I have been as unhappy after 4 years if I had taken time off BEFORE starting my career? Doubtful.)

As to the topic, I think part of the issue is that partners are not a monolithic group. My firm caluclates the "profitability" of each associate, based on billables and lots of other variables. It is most certainly the main thing by which I am judged here. Nonetheless, most partners care about individual associates and the firm as a firm, rather than just as a source of income. I don't think they look at associates merely as profitiability-drivers. Isn't that a contradiction? I think a lot of this comes from the fact that large law firms' management are increasingly remote from associates. As large firms grow even larger, the management do not (and cannot, given the size of the firm) know individual associates. Moreover, firms' profitability are often judged by NON-LAWYERS. My firm has a very power CFO, for example.

So we get this situation where I know and like all of the partners who I work with, and they care about me as a person, rather than just someone who is profitable. But THEIR bosses can only look at my statistics and the statistics of the office and the department for which I work.

Where the firm is 1000 lawyers strong, rather than even 100 or 200, it is inevitable that there is distance between the management and the associates. And other partners are caught in the middle. So while I do have some loyalty to the people I work with, they are not my ultimate bosses, and are not the people who will ultimately determine whether I become a partner. And I think THAT is quite a difference from the "old days" when there was apparently more loyalty.
3.7.2005 11:42am
Proud Gen Y Slacker (mail):
"Many attorneys are joining these top defense-side litigation firms out of law school because they don't realize how many other things they can do with their degrees. But they're the ones who come to campus, who are prestigious and selective, and their promise you stimulating work! variety! and money!"

No, if you pay for law school yourself the traditional way, by taking out loans, you really have no choice.
3.7.2005 12:42pm
One (More) More Thought (www):
PGYS, you're right -- there is little choice, and I did borrow my way through law school, aided by my 2L summer salary from BigLaw. But at a high-end P's firm in antitrust/securities, you can do well enough, for sure.

This, from Phil Carter, gets my 100% agreement: More importantly, though, I think these young law students strive to work at a big firm because they've always aimed for the brass ring in everything they've done.

If it's prestigious and selective, therefore I should want it.
3.7.2005 12:53pm
Peter (mail) (www):
I'm a 2L who previously worked at a Fortune 500 company. Today, being a "company man" is indeed to be a dupe. My company (heck, I'll just say it: Intuit), has a particularly good track record of employee loyalty. Nonetheless, when our new CEO came in, he decided that the quicken.com service was a waste of money since we were essentially giving away a stripped down version of Quicken for free. Poof! 300 employees were laid off. He was right, of course, but that didn't make it any easier for those getting laid off. For all the corporate blather about how damn near everything we do is a "teaching opportunity," this was viewed as one by me. Isn't there a saying that starts with, "Fool me once..."
3.7.2005 1:12pm
MK2 (mail):
I agree with much of what's been said earlier -- the lack of loyalty up is a direct result of a clearly demonstrated lack of loyalty down.

Things are only going to get more fierce.
3.7.2005 1:38pm
Consigliere (mail):
I went to work at a large insurance defense firm out of law school. Out of the 14 associates that started with me, only 1 remains at the firm. The firm required 2100 hours. The hours were not billable, but billed hours. This meant that I had to work far in excess of 2100 hours.

The partners were not slackers either. They worked weekends as well. That is why I left. There was no light at the end of the tunnel when it came to the workload. The only difference for the partner, when compared to the associate was that the partner was at a higher risk of a malpractice claim because he was supervising hundreds of cases. I didn't want to be working on the 4th of July for the rest of my life.
3.7.2005 2:24pm
ronbo (mail):
I'm amazed that so many commenters believe that anything has changed for young associates other than the salaries. I haven't practiced law for many years, but we bitched were concerned about the same issues back in the 80s. We didn't have an initial - call us Generation Schmuck - but we worked the same hours, endured the same hardships and learned the same skills.

I'm less surprised that partners are bitching about the quality of today's associates. I'm about the same age as today's prime earning partners, and I assure you we all were once on the receiving end of the same complaints. Call it cognitive dissonance or call it Stockholm Syndrome, but like fraternity hazing and child abuse the law firm culture perpetuates itself despite the best intentions of those who experienced it.

So to those who think they have sussed out something new: not quite. We all billed over 2000 hours back in the day, and I hit 2400 most years. We neither expected nor received loyalty from the firm (although it was rare for an associate to be shafted by a partner - why bother?). We knew even then that the big money was on the client side, but most of us lacked the social skills to thrive in a more entrepreneurial environment. And like today's associates, Generation Schmuck paid a price for our work that was measured in more than foregone vacations: plenty of marriages (my own included) did not survive our law firm tenure.

So here's my thought for the day, slackers, from the first lawyer I ever fired: Trying to make partner at a large law firm is like a pie eating contest where first prize is a pie.
3.7.2005 3:18pm
Ben (mail):
I am a 1L at a third tier school (albeit on a scholarship) and although I doubt I could even get a biglaw job, I am not sure I would want to. My friends at school are mixed on this issue; one or two want very badly to work at a big firm, but many others (myself included) want to work and make the bucks, but want to enjoy their life as well. I am already married, and I see no point in working myself to the point that I alienate my wife and get divorced, especially when I have little confidence that a big law firm would care about me in the long run.
3.7.2005 7:21pm
Elias:
I agree with much that's been said here, what Orin wrote in his post and what zzyz and Philip Carter have written here in the comments section.

I'd like to add one more point: today's partners may overestimate the purchasing power of $120k. Yes, of course that's still quite a lot of money, especially for a 25- or 26-year-old first-year associate. But I think many partners think that $120k is not just a high salary, but a ridiculously high salary. That's because they're comparing, in nominal terms, today's starting salaries with what they earned as young associates 15 or 20 years ago.

I live in the Washington, D.C. area. About twenty years ago here, you could buy a beautiful new single-family home in a wooded area for about $120k. Today, you could spend four times that much on a 25-year-old garageless townhouse. Inflation has contributed to a "gratitude gap": Partners think that their exultant young associates are all going home to beautiful single-family homes and thanking their lucky stars that they're making so much money. And of course some associates do just that. But far more D.C. associates, even mid-level associates, go home to an apartment or older townhouse. $120k is still very good pay, but not the kind of pay that will inspire fervent loyalty to the firm.
3.7.2005 9:09pm
You Folks Are Right On (mail) (www):
As a six year veteran of a Big Law firm (about to hang a shingle so I can start practicing law), I'll let you know that most of you are dead on accurate. Thank you for this post and the comments, which have been the most entertaining thing I've read this morning (and it is 8:06 already).
3.8.2005 8:09am
brett (mail):
I just left a big firm for a small one, for reasons that include the attitude of partners as expressed in the article. I found it interesting that the article assumes that partners care about the work habits of associates - in my experience, they don't. They work people as hard as they can for a couple of years, knowing that no one will stay and that they can hire a new naif fresh out of law school. They don't want to pay salaries higher than 2nd or 3rd year anyway. It's the rare associate who actually wants to stay, and is wanted. I think there is a tacit agreement between partners and associates to this effect - associates agree to work reasonably hard for two years or so, and partners agree to pay them. I found it intolerable, but it paid the bills. I am ecstatic to be gone..
3.8.2005 4:15pm