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Big Law Brain Drain:
The New York Post reports that a "Brain Drain" is hitting major law firms:
  The city's largest, most prestigious law firms are suffering from serious brain drain.
  Young, Gen-X lawyers in their third to fifth year in the business are walking away from their $200,000-a-year positions in record numbers - at times without another job in view.
  The reason? They are unhappy with their Blackberry lifestyle - being tethered to the job 24/7 and having to rush back to the office at a moment's notice when e-mail orders pop up on the ubiquitous PDA.
  The exodus of law firm associates is unprecedented, according to the National Association of Law Placement, or NALP, which found that 37 percent of associates leave large firms within the first three years.
Maybe they all can become federal judges.

  Hat tip: Above The Law.
Houston Lawyer:
Being a young associate at a large firm has always sucked. I started before fax machines, voice mail, cell phones, networked computers and PDAs. On out of town deals, we could only turn one draft a day to the other side. In town was slighly faster with messenger service.

Once you left the office, you were gone until the next day and everyone understood it. I'm amazed at how attorneys jump for their crackberries.
1.2.2007 2:08pm
Beerslurpy (mail) (www):
This is yet another benefit of being in a field where good labor is scarce.

I heard that many people do a few years at major firms to make contacts with clients and earn a reputation then hang their shingle in some place more affordable.

Could also be a desire to pay off law school debt and then settle down into a not-quite-as-well-paying job that doesnt ruin their lives.
1.2.2007 2:08pm
Guest2 (mail):
Could it be that salaries have risen so much that they have dimmed the attraction of making partner? The jump from $70K to $500K involves a much bigger utility boost than the jump from $200K to $1 million.

Firms may need to start providing more realistic part-time or of-counsel options to keep talented people who are happy with $200K and less-than-partner responsibility. (E.g., I was given the choice and took the "of counsel" option for that reason.)
1.2.2007 2:12pm
Enoch:
National Association of Law Placement, or NALP, which found that 37 percent of associates leave large firms within the first three years. A whopping 77 percent of associates leave within five years, according to NALP's latest survey.

Is the real story here not that they're leaving because they don't like working hard (after all, they still have loans to repay even if they hate what they do), but that the firms are throwing them out after 3-5 years so they don't have to make them partners? Hire the fresh grads, work them hard for 3 years, then get rid of them and hire a new crop of fresh grads?
1.2.2007 2:15pm
anonVCfan:
I'd happily walk out of a third-year associate position and into a federal judgeship.
1.2.2007 2:17pm
Drive By Comments:
NEWSFLASH: ASSOCIATE ATTRITION AT BIGLAW FIRMS REMAINS HIGH
1.2.2007 2:24pm
mattwinst (mail):
I highly doubt all the 3-5 year attorneys are being thrown out. It's right at that time that those attorneys become the most profitable as firms can charge very high rates for their work, while using fewer resources (less training and oversight) to get the work done. Attorneys in the first couple of years out of law school are simply not very profitable for firms.

Between crackberries and laptops (can't recall the last time I vacationed without both), I think private practice, particularly at big firms, has become less and less rewarding and worthwhile.
1.2.2007 2:24pm
A.C.:
I don't understand why people take those jobs in the first place. The word that got bantered around in law school was "prestige," and here it is again. I've always taken that word as a sign someone was trying to sell me a $75 watch for $500, and it sounds like other people are finally figuring that out.

If money is your main goal, go into business instead of law.
1.2.2007 2:25pm
Xanthippas (mail) (www):
These people may be tired of it. To that I say, where do I sign up for their jobs?
1.2.2007 2:33pm
John1977:
Anyone take a look at the bio of the "reporter" who wrote this article?
1.2.2007 2:53pm
Mike BUSL07 (mail):
Good call John. Guess she didn't like the views out of 1 Liberty Plaza.
1.2.2007 2:57pm
Bobbie (mail):
It's not just the hours, although those certainly are difficult. It's the expectation that you have to always be on call, no matter how late you are given notice or whether you had a small vacation planned. It is being managed by partners who made it to where they are not because they're good managers of people, but because they are great lawyers or they bring in business -- two traits that often have contradictory skill sets to being a good manager. It is being given work that most people could do out of high school. And it is being treated completely unreasonably, from fake deadlines to having to do it "their way" because that's the way they do it, no matter how inefficient.

Many people who leave law firms take jobs that work nearly as many hours. The problems run much deeper than our hours requirement. I'm not sure if the above is a new phenomenon (I suspect it isn't) or if people of my generation (I'm 26) simply expect more out of life. I'm going to be making half as much money next year (around $100,000 less), yet not one of my lawyer friends ever bats an eyelash about that or asks me about it. Everyone understands the tradeoff and nobody thinks that it is unreasonable -- perhaps 20 years ago it would have been seen differently.

Perhaps it's wishful thinking, but I hope that big firms are forced to re-evaluate their practices and determine whether it really is worth it to lose so many qualified people under their current business model. Part of the problem is that firm management comes from such a different perspective as people like me. They got to where they are because the tradeoffs you have to make to succeed at a big firm make sense to them. But a large percentage of my generation has very different values. If people continue to leave, hopefully somebody will sit down and figure out another way.
1.2.2007 3:03pm
Bobbie (mail):
I meant to add that I'm a second-year associate at a big firm who will be leaving soon.
1.2.2007 3:27pm
Randy R. (mail):
And please don't call this a 'brain drain.' That implies that only the best smartest lawyers go to the big law firms. There are plenty of smart young lawyers who go to work for the gov't or NGOs or elsewhere. And there are plenty of people who got good grades in law school, but are pretty stupid at everything else, who go to big firms.

Repeat after me: Good grades in law school is NOT necessarily an indication of intellect or smarts.
1.2.2007 3:32pm
OrinKerr:
Randy,

No such implication, I think.
1.2.2007 3:38pm
Sodapop650 (mail) (www):
From my experience working at a top firm: (a) after the fourth year if you aren't on the partner track its time you start heading for the door anyways; (b) the really top recruits (top 10% from the top 5 w/ federal clerkship) are, more often than not, prima donnas who are easily turned off by the day-to-day-to-day-to-day-to-day of litigation.

there - i said it.
1.2.2007 3:42pm
James Dillon (mail):
Enoch,

No, in my experience (which includes 2 years at a Biglaw firm before leaving for a federal clerkship), firms are happy to keep associates around for 8 years before denying them partnership just to get the (believe it or not) relatively cheap labor. As long as an associate is billing sufficiently and doing decent work, there's no reason for a firm to want to get rid of them sooner than necessary, even when it's apparent that they're not going to make partner.

Sodapop650,
In light of the fact that mid-level to senior associate compensation packages are approaching the $300k range (including bonus), it seems to me that it might be perfectly rational to ride out your tenure track even when you're pretty sure that you're not going to make partner, since in all likelihood, your next job won't pay nearly so well, and I can't imagine that employers are going to consider an extra few years at a big law firm to be a negative resume item.
1.2.2007 3:59pm
Joel B. (mail):
This seems common to many industries nowadays. Law as well as accounting seems to be suffering from a very significant drain on 3-7 year associates. Baby Boomers think Gen-Xers are lazy since many associates leave after a few years, most Gen-Xers think that the Baby Boomers are trying to take advantage of us, and have incredibly unrealistic expectations.

Seriously though, this "brain drain" couldn't be happening to a kinder set of people.
1.2.2007 4:10pm
Proud to be a liberal :
The change in the demand for hours is real. When I worked at a big firm in the early 1980s, I was expected to bill 1800-2000 hours &got a bonus for working more than 2000; the most I billed was about 2300. Today, many big firms expected close to 2500 billable hours or more at a minimum, which makes it very hard to have a reasonable life.

There is a difference between working hard and working brutally long hours.
1.2.2007 4:16pm
CES (mail):
I left not one, but two "biglaw" firms, and even if I end up losing my house because of it, have no regrets. The first firm, where I went after a federal appellate clerkship, expected 2400 hours minimum, paid a big salary, and screwed its associates on bonuses both years that I was there. I was a single mother of a toddler at the time and that "big salary" not only didn't compensate for missing two years of my son's life, it didn't even allow for more than a middle-class lifestyle because I spent so much money on day care, a night nanny, and child support (joint custody) to my lawyer/loser ex-husband. The second firm claimed it was 2000 hours and very explicitly took me off the partnership track after I married and had a second baby, after handing out bonuses to my male counterparts that were five times as much what they gave me, notwithstanding the fact that I had been billing as much as the young single guys and had glowing reviews the entire four years I was there. The excuse? "Well, it's not about the quality of your work." Ugh. Screw the firms.
1.2.2007 4:22pm
UVAgirl:
This isn't simply a matter of associates who have no chance of making partner being weeded out. As a 5th year, it's that partnership isn't that attractive to those of us in Gen X and Gen Y. Sure, the partner title is nice and the partner money is good, but in return, you have to work a lot more hours than other middle-aged professionals and you have to be available to demanding clients 24/7/365. There are considerably less partners these days who get to work a little and reap the benefits of the hard-working minions beneath them. More often, those partners are working really hard, trying to keep demanding clients happy, hustling to get new business, balancing adminstrative burdens, and trying to oversee their associates. The money isn't enticing if you never have a free moment to enjoy it - most partners I know get very little chance to take vacation, and usually it is spent working or checking in 50-75% of the time. To a select workaholic few, there's honor in being 40, a partner, and at work until 10 p.m. each night. To most others, they are willing to trade the money and title for a more normal, and less stressful career.

It's not that most associates are lazy, it's that our priorities and our views of work (as a whole, our generation changes employers far more often than boomers) are very different. Time is as important as money to us.

If I died tomorrow, I would not wish that I had worked or billed one more hour, but I would wish that I'd had more time with my husband, dog and family. I think a lot of people are looking for the appropriate balance of career and personal life/family.
1.2.2007 4:38pm
Billy Bud:
The truly interesting thing about the Brain Drain phenomena is how it will interact with the coming retirement of baby boomers. The latter event, which is projected to start in earnest in 2011--12, will greatly increase the need to mint new partners. If associate attrition is really much worse than it used to be (and I'm not sure this is the case), then there might be some serious supply and demand issues. If this is the case, it could force biglaw firms to finally address the work-life issue in a satisfactory manner. On the other hand, the retirement effect could increase the likelihood of making partner for mid-levels, ameliorating the attrition problem. Who knows.
1.2.2007 5:11pm
Bryan DB:
I don't think it's a "brain drain" in the way that Randy R. took it, but it's certainly a common misconception that the best and brightest go to big firms. The best and brightest use their best and bright brains to pick jobs they don't have to leave in three years because they suck so bad.
Having said that, this is the least surprising news ever. Is it really surprising that people with no foresight leave their crappy jobs within 5 years? I've only got a minimal amount of foresight, and I landed a "nonprestigious small-firm job" where I make a little more than half of the "jumpers'" salary but work from my home office, looking out over the mountains as my two young kids play in the room next door. The right jobs are out there if you have enough sense to use your brains to avoid the drain.
1.2.2007 5:13pm
Bored Lawyer:
Q:

Are the associates billing 2500 hours giving the client full value for their time?

It is one thing to work late occassionally when there is a deadline or preparing for a trial or closing a deal. It is another to work 15 hour days, day in and day out.

At some point, mental exhaustion sets in. Is is ethical to bill a client for such "hours" worked?
1.2.2007 5:17pm
Guest_2007:
I am suspicious of anyone who claims to actually bill 2500 hours a year. I work in a big firm and typically end up billing 2050 hours each year (including credited pro bono), which is absolutely exhausting! I can't imagine working a single hour more and being able to function. That said, I probably could bill more than that if I captured all of my time —to answer Bored Lawyer's question, I never bill when I know I am completely inefficient or daydreaming. I know how long things should take and if they take longer, I know its not a good day and my clients don't pay for that. I hope I am not the exception.
1.2.2007 5:34pm
anonVCfan:
If I ever leave a job because I'm unhappy, I'll have to remember to write an article asserting that my previous employer is in the middle of a "brain drain." Good catch, John.
1.2.2007 5:39pm
Guest_2007:
Brian DB wrote: "Is it really surprising that people with no foresight leave their crappy jobs within 5 years?"

So to Brian DB, the best and brightest are those that chose Brian DB's path?? To be sure, biglaw associates are deserving of some criticism, but BrianDB doesn't seem to comprehend that there are many reasons why law students *intentionally* choose biglaw, even if only for a few years (including training and paying off student loans).

Sounds like *someone* is very bitter.
1.2.2007 5:47pm
ATL (mail) (www):

I am suspicious of anyone who claims to actually bill 2500 hours a year.



I cosign this point. I am likewise suspicious of non-time-billers who claim to routinely work 60 hour weeks or 80 hour weeks. If I'm feeling especially snarky, I cross-examine them on it. What time do you get to work? When do you leave? How often do you work weekends? 99% of the time, such a boast (and that's what it is) involves gross exaggeration.

A couple of things on billing hours, but first, an admission: I'm a young partner at a large firm.

First point: I have never billed more than 2100 hours (not including pro bono, which we only first added to billables in FY 2006). The year I did was absolutely exhausting. I don't think I could physically, mentally or emotionally bill more than 2100 hours in a year. I typically bill 2000-2050 hours a year, which is still hard work, considering the amount of non-billable work that gets piled on attorneys. I am absolutely convinced that the vast majority of attorneys routinely billing over 2200 hours use...ahem...creative billing practices. Such practices are rumored to be rampant in the largest markets, where hour pressure is the greatest.

Second point: The youngest lawyers here are right. There is a marked (and healthy) schism on the issue of hours worked between the generation in their mid-40s to 50s and the generation now in its late 20s to late 30s. Younger lawyers are generally up for working long hours when necessary, in trial prep, closing a deal, meeting a deadline. But we don't want to work like that all year long. And we have no stomach for the type of hours necessary to make a 2500 hour goal.

Some may call us lazy. I have no qualms about calling "some" stupid. YMMV.
1.2.2007 6:05pm
Pete Freans (mail):
If I died tomorrow, I would not wish that I had worked or billed one more hour, but I would wish that I'd had more time with my husband, dog and family.

Nicely stated.
1.2.2007 6:44pm
Kelvin McCabe (mail):
I am Generation X - (28 yrs old), and when i graduated from law school i didnt have the tiniest inkling of trying to get into a big firm - or even a medium firm. And there are plenty of both in Chicago. I went into private practice for myself, with the help of a few other solo's, whom i had clerked for during law school. I office with them now and do criminal defense work.

I dont have billable hours, a salary, a manager, or anything set in stone. I guess i am the opposite of the big firm types. I sometimes have problems with clients paying and that affects the timeliness of the payment of my bills, but would i exchange my freedom for a higher paying gig with a definite paycheck? ABSOLUTELY NOT!

I would gladly be poor for a few yrs until i get my loans paid off and my practice settled, than be miserable and overworked with money I dont have time to spend, or children i dont have time to see. (and trust me, i have been quite poor, especially at the beginning) And in the five years it takes an associate to figure out he needs to leave the firm, i will hopefully be at a place where my practice is settled, work is plentiful, and vacations are often. The associate who leaves, on the other hand, will be exactly at the same place i was when i first left school. (assuming they dont just leave for another firm) Do i pity the associate? No, not really. I do pity his family and friends though.

The salaries the firms pay was enticing, but what good is it all if your overworked and miserable? I can take off work to see a cubs game, any day i want. Who at Jenner and Block at my age can say the same?

The firms should just cut their billable hours to a max of 1700 or so, pay the younger associates less to correspond to lesser amount of work,(say 85k instead of 120k) and keep them happier. Then they wont be fighting their way out the door and trying to steal my clients :) Just a thought...
1.2.2007 7:12pm
PW-anon:
I am a third-year associate at an elite New York law firm. I offer the following:

Good grades in law school are a generally reliable indication of "intellect or smarts."

The vast majority of those who reflexively scoff at the idea of working as an associate at an elite law firm do so out of pure jealousy. If they could land such employment, they would accept gladly (save, perhaps, for those too paralyzed by the fear of incompetence).

I concede that I regularly experience intense frustration caused by the combined idiosyncrasies of my co-workers and the inevitable disappointments of a business day. However, I am confident to a metaphysical certainty that such frustrations exist in every work place (including the quaint, little home-office setup described by "Bryan DB" at 5:13pm).

Thus, I have concluded that it is a fair trade to work under such conditions and, on occasion, to suffer the involuntary sacrifices of time I would have otherwise preferred to reserve for personal use, in exchange for a quite handsome total compensation package and the respect (earned or not) that accompanies employment at an elite law firm.

Indeed, I have difficulty understanding what others find so loathsome about working at an elite law firm (and, judging from the comments, it seems I am responding mostly to individuals who have either never held such employment, or did so in a manner that failed to satisfy the expectations of his or her an employer).

My "Biglaw" job allows me to indulge my mild acquisitiveness, pay my student loans faithfully, and save a more than modest amount each month, all of which is more than many are able to do on salaries from "lesser" employers. Further, should I decide to leave my current employment in the future, I trust that my time spent as an associate in an elite law firm, working with preeminent figures in the area of my specialization, will open more doors, more widely, than would be the case had I spent my time engaged in most other legal jobs.

It seems to me that things turned out even better than I hoped for walking in the door on my first day of law school.

Maybe I could be a little happier in my employment (like maybe I could be in San Francisco instead of Manhattan, or maybe I could be working half-days), but one thing is for sure: I could be a lot less happy.
1.2.2007 7:18pm
hey (mail):
ATL et al: now its not exactly sustainable for a large number of years, but 2500 isn't totally out of line. It mostly revolves around how much you underbill your clients, your recovery rate, and how much slack time you have. I've done a number of years at a VERY high burn rate for a strategy consulting firm. 100 hour weeks is easy (especially if you add in travel time) and the months where I've been in the office every day for at least 10 hours (Sundays usually are light, so only 10-12, typically rather than the normal 16+).

Even at only a 50% bill rate and you're there, and even my partners let me bill at higher rates (there's significant resistance to bill more than 50 hours, even when you're doing 120s with lots of travel). Now lots of lawyers think up ways to not bill the client for their time. Billing only what a project should take, rather than what it did take, only billing 100% working minutes, rather than when you go down for a coffee to chat about the case, etc. Your client is using your time, and if they gave you so much work that you need to be doing 120s and you're less than your perfect efficiency than that's their rush premium.

2500 isn't fully sustainable long term, but it easily possible, as long as you're not trying to convince yourself that you're not worthy of a billable hour.
1.2.2007 7:19pm
Randy R. (mail):
One problem not addressed here is the high cost of operating these biglaw places. They choose the highest rent in the best buildings, line the walls with original art, fly 1st class everywhere, and so on. One friend of mine said his wife was in tears when she was flown to another city, put up in the most expensive hotel, and was sent to catalog documents in a no window room for one week. This is something a local secretary could have done at a fraction of the cost, but the firm obviously needed to bill out at a high fee to support their extravagant lifestyles.

The real problem, of course, is the stupid clients who pay outlandish legal fees. They should refuse to do so, or negotiate something less expensive. But then, I like living in fantasy worlds....
1.2.2007 7:22pm
brett (mail):
> Attorneys in the first couple of years out of law school are simply not very profitable for firms.

Sorry, but this is a crock. At the firm where I worked, they billed new lawyers out at 180. ($180 x 1850 hours) - piddling associate salary (well under 100K) = PROFIT for firms. Supervision and training? What are those? The old canard that new lawyers aren't profitable is just another way partners "motivate" (i.e. scare) associates.

I, too, left the big firm for a smaller one..
1.2.2007 7:26pm
Retired BigLaw @ 3.1 Yrs:
I think the main thing for BigLaw escapees is that the life does not get better. I went in thinking I'd work hard, make partner, and then chill out while making a few mill a year . . . Nope. Partners work longer, are on call to clients (and junior associates and senior partners) and have a life that is not really worth living. They have missed their child's growing up, they rarely see thier spouses, the only vacations they take include 8 hours in the hotel with their laptop. They "live" for the work. BORING. It just wasn't what I thought it was when I went into it.
1.2.2007 7:56pm
R_S (mail):
I'm a third year associate at the biglaw firm, and I guess I just don't see what the big deal is. Maybe it's because I became a lawyer later in life -- I went to law school in my mid-30's -- and yeah, I bill a fair number of hours, 2100 or so last year -- but it's not like I'm working that much more than I did when I was an engineer before going to law school. And I now make essentially twice the most I ever did as an engineer. Maybe it's just my firm, or my practice area (patent lit), but I find the work pretty interesting. Yes, some of the work is mindless, but that's true in engineering as well.

As for not having a life, well, yeah, I would rather have more free time than I do now. But it's not as if I don't have any free time. I have plenty of time to indulge in my current favorite hobby, roadracing motorcycles, and, more importantly, I have the means to do it. I would like more time (and energy) to read, but I'm sure if I wasn't so lazy at home, I could make the time! Sure, sometimes stuff gets cancelled because of work, but it seems to me a fair trade off for the compensation. I guess maybe I just view things a bit differently -- I've had jobs in the past where I had much more free time, but usually didn't have the money to do what I really wanted to do, like travel. Now I have less time, but when the time does free up, the money isn't an issue.

I spent three weeks travelling last year alone, even with the "crazy" hours -- I just had to schedule in advance. And I didn't take my laptop or blackberry. Again, maybe my situation is unique, but I doubt it -- my friends at other "biglaw" firms seem to find time to have free time and hobbies. Maybe it's because we are all married and "established" -- maybe if we had to spend a lot of time trying to date and all that, maybe the hours would seem that much more oppressive. But, like I said, I billed over 2100 hours last year AND took three weeks off. And still had time to take the bike out to the track (had to cancel one event on short notice, but the others went off okay, even the midweek events). And I still have time to socialize with friends at least once a week. And I still have time to spend with my wife (who frankly enjoys the "alone" time she gets because my hours are longer than hers).

And as far as partnership goes, I again don't see why partnership should be expected to be semi-retirement with a huge paycheck. I don't know of any job where after 8-10 years you can just put it on cruise control and collect a paycheck.
1.2.2007 8:35pm
James Dillon (mail):
Brett,

I don't think you can simply look at the billing rate (which seems surprisingly low to me assuming your big-firm experience is a recent one) without taking other things into account. How much junior associate time was written off rather than billed to the client? How much did the firm spend on its summer associate program, on-campus interviewing, and other recruiting activities necessary before recouping a dime of billable time? I don't know enough to take an informed position on whether junior associates are actually profitable for firms, but it's obvious that you can't just multiply billing rate by hours worked and assume that every first-year is a windfall for the partnership.
1.2.2007 8:36pm
David Krinsky (mail):
ATL writes:

I don't think I could physically, mentally or emotionally bill more than 2100 hours in a year.


A lot depends on how you go about billing it. Many firms count travel time towards billables whether or not the client gets billed fully. If yours does that, you can rack up hours pretty quickly. A daytrip from New York or DC to Chicago, where you leave the house at 7 am and get back at 9 pm, can yield 14 straight hours of legitimately billable time without anything like the mental drain of 14 hours sitting in one's office doing legal analysis.

That said, I do have to wonder where all these storied Biglaw associates are who bill 2500+ hours in a year. I know a lot of Biglaw associates here in DC, including mid- to upper-level associates who are getting favorable reviews and are among the top billers in their Biglaw practice groups. And I only know one person--an insane and direly overcommitted partner--who billed 2500.

Assuming you find your work stimulating, those numbers are actually fairly sane. With four weeks of vacations/holidays and no weekend work, nine billable hours a workday works out to 2160 hrs/year. Some inefficiency, non-billable time, early departures, etc. can easily be balanced by the odd late-night or weekend blow-up or the odd business trip, even if neither is so frequent as to be exhausting.

(Then again, I'm often happier working 60 hours one week and 30 the next than working 45 hours both weeks. I think the former style makes it easier to rack up high billables without burning out.)

[Disclaimer: I was an engineer, then a law student, and now I'm a law clerk. I've worked long hours, but not billing time. I'm married to a Biglaw fifth-year associate, though, so I have a fair sense of how billable hours can translate to personal time. My wife billed something like 2100 hours last year--while pregnant for eight of those months--and likes her job.]
1.2.2007 10:27pm
David Krinsky (mail):
James Dillon writes:

I don't think you can simply look at the billing rate (which seems surprisingly low to me assuming your big-firm experience is a recent one) without taking other things into account. How much junior associate time was written off rather than billed to the client? How much did the firm spend on its summer associate program, on-campus interviewing, and other recruiting activities necessary before recouping a dime of billable time? I don't know enough to take an informed position on whether junior associates are actually profitable for firms, but it's obvious that you can't just multiply billing rate by hours worked and assume that every first-year is a windfall for the partnership.


Even if you do, you have to get the billing rate and the salaries right. First-year salaries are up to $135-145K at many firms. Billing rates are higher too, admittedly, but even leaving aside the summer associate program, recruiting, and other such expenses, firms have high per-lawyer overhead in the form of benefits, real estate costs, non-billing support staff, etc.

When I was a summer associate, we were given a talk with plausible-seeming numbers. They suggested that most junior associates get profitable when they hit about 1900-2000 hours billed (and not written off), which many but by no means all associates do. As salaries have increased--this was almost three years ago--those hour figures have probably only increased.

Once you hit about third year, you become profitable sooner. I think most upper-levels are major profit centers.
1.2.2007 10:33pm
Waldensian (mail):
I don't know much about much, but after six years as a partner doing litigation at a large (more than 700-lawyer) firm, I know this: 2500 billed hours is a very, very significant amount of work in a year at a law firm. People making partner at my firm are working their butts off but they aren't typically billing 2500 hours a year. More like 2100, often less.

In my experience, most people who think it is "easy" to bill (not "spend time at the office" but successfully and legitimately bill) 2500 hours a year, or 9 hours day after day, or 100 hours a week (!) simply don't bill in, or really understand, the modern legal profession. Like all vendors and service providers, we are subject to constant and intense pressure from highly sophisticated clients who need to keep their costs down. If I send a client a bill for 100 hours of my time in a week, I had better be jetting around the globe preparing for the trial of the century, or the client will just laugh and send the bill back.

In fact, many of our clients don't pay for travel time all, and I think that trend is growing.

The real dilemma we face in "Biglaw" is not crushing billable hour requirements, but an increasing difficulty in getting interesting and stimulating work to young lawyers. If you polled the associates who are leaving Biglaw firms, I'd bet a fair number were doing big document reviews and other mind-numbing tasks.
1.3.2007 12:13am
hey (mail):
waldensian... if you're working a 100 week, you should be able to bill for 50. 100 weeks = 4800+ year, so a 2500 year should be easily achieveable. Obviously no one will get a 100 hour bill, but partners need to be less afraid of the 50-70 hour bill. Hourly models are stupid, as your clients can argue you down, you dont get the value of your work, and you resort to stupid tactics to keep the bill up. If you figure out how to bill intelligently for services there are many professions that will pay you millions.

I've been there and done that, though for a much bigger org than yours. Supposedly Clifford Chance doesn't bonus until 2500 or more so they don't view it as overly heroic... they're cynical, but not that cynical.
1.3.2007 12:35am
JSC (mail):
I can think of two people, at different firms, who claimed -- and I believe them -- to have billed 3500 hours in a year. One was at Wachtell, and he said it about killed him.
1.3.2007 12:38am
JSC (mail):
Also, to address other commenters' points, it's not as if any one client is seeing a bill for 100 hours in one week. The guys who bill that much would be staffed on maybe 10 or 20 different cases at the same time. So if you spend 5 hours in depo prep for one client, 3 hours in a meeting for another client, then go home and work until 2 in the morning writing a brief for another client, no one client is going to see an inordinately huge bill for that day.
1.3.2007 12:44am
Brian G (mail) (www):
Where is her bio at John? You mention One Liberty Plaza. Is that the one in Philly, One Liberty Place? (If not, sorry, but I still want to share this).

I just graduated law school last month at age 35 at a western state law school but I grew up in Philly. I remember walking from school when One Liberty Place was a hole in the ground.

Interestingly, just because of the building, I researched and appplid to nearly every firm int he joint, all BIGLAW of course. When I actually got some interviews, and one offer, I started to think about it and decided to take an offer from a one man office, who guaranteed me only half of what the Philly firm did. Yet, I'll hustle up simple trials and traffic stuff, and end up with about the same net income. The difference? I am going to take a 2-week honeymoon and take another week off to play a few events at the World Series of Poker (not the main event, the $1,000 and 1,500 buy-in events) and I am going to also going to attend all of my daughter's dance recitals and my nephew's soccer games.

In sum, no thanks to the big law firms. I think if more lawyers were willing to hustle, they could make the same amount of money with less commitment. But, I guess if your name at the top of the letterhead is that important, you can watch the tape of kids' events when time permits.
1.3.2007 12:47am
Brian G (mail) (www):
One other thing. I work at a mid-size law firm right now as a clerk, and I spend about 5-6 hours a week just on billing. No thanks to that as well. Just give me $250.00, I'll get your traffic ticket reduced to next to nothing, and it'll take me about an hour of time at most.
1.3.2007 12:49am
outgoing 3L:
FWIW, as a 3L member of Generation Y (born after 1980), I'm happy to see Xers noticing the same things we see - that Boomer lawyers with their insane hours and shredded families are nuts.

My wife's dad is a biglaw partner (and law review vet, of course), but still spends the vast majority of hours every day, including Sundays, at the office, though he's now passed 60 (and the other partners still complain that he's slacking on his hours). Sure, the poor guy makes a lot but he sleeps about 5 hours/night and hardly sees his kids or his (second) wife. His job already cost him his first wife and shattered his kids' lives.

Why would I want an existence that looks anything like that? I've seen that, and "brain drained" my way out of that route before I even started law school. I've worked for Uncle Sam both summers, and took a research assistantship with nights free with my wife rather than spend my evenings cite-checking in the library with the biglaw-seeking law review crew.

I'm still in the top 15% of my class at a top 30 law school, so I'm doing well (but hardly "elite"), and I'll soon be starting work with an Uncle Sam honors program at a federal agency known for its quality of life, and am very pleased with the total package of salary, hours, benefits, work responsibilities, etc. On the other hand, my old roommate took a high-paying biglaw associate position, but I'll easily be netting more per hour than he will next year (with substantially less hours). Of course he can easily pass me as his salary goes up, but he'll be lonely and working insane hours to reach that level, while I'll be enjoying dinners and weekends with my wife. He's a workaholic, but I predict he leaves in a few years. I predict mr. "elite" man up the thread does so too, and he should. He'll gain a life, and he won't regret it.
1.3.2007 1:32am
MattL:
I am not a lawyer or a law student, but I find it troubling how easily the two sides in this discussion (biglaw attorneys and those who drop out or seek another type of employment) can judge the other's lifestyle. Some people are clearly happy putting in the hours and making the sacrifices for any number of reasons (prestige, money), and some are clearly happy working fewer hours. To each his own. One can weigh and outline the obvious pros/cons of choosing one tract over the other, but outright moral condemnation seems a little far.

Overall, it seems that the trend is no longer top biglaw firm straight out of school and stay there, but I see nothing wrong with those who choose to do otherwise.
1.3.2007 2:24am
jelewis (mail):
I am a 30-something, MA in European history, turned professional NY and DC-based foreign policy analyst on European and Middle Eastern politics writing for the Wall Street Journal op-ed pages and other publications, and soon to be 1-L. Having had the opportunity to know enough people who went on to law school immediately after college or who did it at age 22, then left "big law" by age 28, I am probably one of the few people applying to law school who has no intention of doing the big firm/hours billable route. I see nothing wrong about being a DC government lawyer, working in Europe, or being in legal academia and find it silly that people would see these careers as less desirable than working 80-100 hours/week doing document review or that aspiring law students are supposed to be gunning for big firms.
1.3.2007 2:57am
Bobby Fuller 4 (mail):
Thing to remember is, some people aren't that interesting or charismatic to begin with. They wouldn't make much alternative use of all those hours.

I have seen some of these types do very well in the firms with little sense of personal sacrifice.
1.3.2007 3:48am
A.C.:
MattL -- One of the reasons the debate gets so nasty is the tone adopted by PW-anon above. Look at the words -- "quaint," "lesser," "jealousy," and so forth. That sort of thing tends to put people's backs up. Multiply this by hundreds of individuals talking like this in law school, and you can understand why people who prefer other career paths might get a bit touchy. It's also why we experience such Schadenfreude when the people who talked like this as students run for the hills after a few years in their firms.

But putting that aside, and even disregarding the question of hours for the moment, I think the real issue is whether a lawyer wants to do the kind of work that the big firms do. Not everybody does. The big firms represent a specific class of clients in specific kinds of situation. You won't be a prosecuter if you go to one. You might do white collar criminal defense, but probably not a lot of other criminal work. If you do environmental, labor, or anti-trust law, you'll almost always end up on the corporate side of the dispute. Chances are that you won't do much family law or estate planning at all, although I do know one exception to that rule. (I'd take his job if I could get it, but I wouldn't go into a big firm otherwise.) You also won't be setting yourself up to become governor of Nebraska, if that happens to be your career goal. The businesses you represent will be Wall Street, not Main Street, and chances are you won't even get the time to pay attention to state and local politics. And you won't go to court much early in your career.

Lots of people go to law school specifically to do the things that you don't get to do as an associate in a big firm. Furthermore, lots of people go to law school specifically to litigate AGAINST the clients that hire the top New York firms... and not just liberals, either.

Yes, some people want to go the big firm route and get shut out because they don't have the grades. People in the big firms often talk as if ALL other lawyers are in this category, but it simply isn't true. And so we enjoy zinging them back on occasion. Taking it is part of what they have to do to earn those big pay packets.
1.3.2007 8:49am
Mike BUSL07 (mail):
A.C., (and those of one heart with you),

I don't think this debate has been entirely fair to biglaw and biglaw lawyers. First of all, there are many who are not miserable - folks capable of balancing the hours with having a decent personal life. Many of my friends fall into this category. Admittedly - I'm biased - as I will be starting my own biglaw job next year, but my limited experience, with what I hear from my firm and my friends in other firms, is that much of the pessimism here is unwarranted.

Moreover, from what I understand, there are significant differences among biglaw firms with respect to how they treat associates - hour requirements are not universal, and how teams are staffed affects the type of work that associates get to do.

At the end of the day, biglaw jobs are coveted much more than they are shunned. The law school experience is one of hearing chest-pounding 1L's talk about how they will hold out for Skadden over Greenberg, seeing uneasy 2L's crossing their fingers, and finally realizing that of your 3L friends, only about 1/3 secured biglaw jobs, while most of the other 2/3 literally go wanting. Put another way, I'm rather confident that jealousy has been a factor in this discussion.
1.3.2007 10:23am
Sodapop650 (mail) (www):
MattL -- One of the reasons the debate gets so nasty is the tone adopted by PW-anon above. Look at the words -- "quaint," "lesser," "jealousy," and so forth.


I wonder whether he has taken a deposition or had the chance to open his mouth in a courtroom after three years.
1.3.2007 10:57am
Pete Freans (mail):
One of the reasons the debate gets so nasty is the tone adopted by PW-anon above.

You make good points, but as far as I'm concerned, "PW-anon"'s comments didn't bother me at all. It appears that he's comfortable with his choice of lifestyle, even though there's no need to justify it outside this blog thread. Our profession contains all types of egos with obscure and complex predilections. That's what makes it so interesting. The reality is we all share the same amount of hours in the day and are presumably members of the same bar. In a mornings' notice, you could find yourself unemployed - as I was in the past from a mid-size firm - so there are no fairy tales here.
1.3.2007 11:04am
Adeez (mail):
"I find it troubling how easily the two sides in this discussion (biglaw attorneys and those who drop out or seek another type of employment) can judge the other's lifestyle. Some people are clearly happy putting in the hours and making the sacrifices for any number of reasons (prestige, money), and some are clearly happy working fewer hours. To each his own."

Well said, MattL! Are you sure you're not a lawyer, because you made the point that this lawyer was clamoring to write after reading the above exchanges.

Look, some people are what we in NYC used to call "herbs." Herbs aren't very cool. Herbs generally didn't have many friends growing up. The smart herbs became well educated and went onto law school. Since they've never really experienced being cool, they mistook ideas such as going to an elite high-paying law firm as something cool. So now many of them spend their waking lives at work (or en route) but are perfectly happy, because they never really had lives to begin with. But now at least they're cool, because their employers are more well known than yours, and their clients are richer too.

I didn't expect to land on Law Review in school. So I was shocked to see how eager these herbs were to spend their lives in a prestigious firm. I believe I was the only one of my colleagues from the journal who did not go that route. As a result, I have sex with my wife regularly, I am a Big Brother, I read more than ever, I volunteer for political causes, and I can see my abs. This stuff matters to me a lot, and means nothing to others. Fighting with them over who has it better is as sensible as arguing over whether vanilla tastes better than chocolate.

And no, not ALL of my journal colleagues were herbs. But I know that the few that weren't can't wait to get the hell out of those firms.
1.3.2007 11:16am
Adeez (mail):
Oh, one more thing to add to my highly sophisticated thesis on herbs. A good way to identify the herbs who post comments on this cite would be to scroll through all the comments of those who were posting around the time of the ball drop Sunday night. Now my sytem is more art than science, but if someone is sitting at their computer on New Year's eve posting comments while the world parties, chances are he or she is a Herb.
1.3.2007 11:41am
A.C.:
Mike BUSL07 -- Remember, I said "disregarding the question of hours"! The real question is whether a person wants to do corporate law. If so, he or she will figure out a way to deal with the demands. If not, even much lower demands would probably be excessive.

I guess my argument is that smart, well-educated people might legitimately have ambitions other than representing big business. Lots of people prefer to represent individuals, or prefer to prosecute white-collar crime rather than defend those cases. Some people know this before law school, some learn it during law school, and some don't figure it out until they have been practicing a while. This is another dimension to the problem which isn't captured in the previous debate, which tends to put intellectual merit and money on one side and work/life balance on the other. I'm putting a third dimension into the mix -- what kind of people do you want to represent? I assume it's possible put in long hours and make gobs of money representing individuals or start-up businesses rather than big corporations, so this is NOT the same as the work/life balance dimension. And neither one is the same as the one about grades.

A fourth dimension to the debate might be about entrepreneurial personalities vs. the personalities that thrive in hierarchical organizations. I'm not sure which one is better, but they are certainly different.

I also have some friends in big law firms, including two who actually enjoy what they do. Notably, they are not the type of people to carry on about grades and merit and snobbery. They just do their thing, and that's fine. It's the other ones I object to, the ones who go on about "prestige" instead of saying how much they like what they're working on. I suspect they aren't all that happy, and that they therefore enjoy building themselves up at the expense of others. I avoid that type.
1.3.2007 11:53am
PW-anon:
Wow.

Adeez, have you really not moved beyond: "Cool Kids" v. "Herbs"?

Astonishing inanity.

I weep for the future.
1.3.2007 2:21pm
Adeez (mail):
Awww come on, get a tissue. Re-read my comments. You'll find that I was actually making a legitimate point surrounded by tongue-in-cheek banter.

So, someone who works for a big firm--where the main goal is to help rich corporations get richer--weeps for the future b/c someone who could've worked for a big firm instead chooses to work less hours so that he could engage in charitable activities in order to be a better person and try to make this shitty world a better place?

Now, I have a policy of not insulting anyone personally on this cite. Shit, I don't know you and you don't know me. So I'll ignore your "astonishing inanity" comment. It's something only a herb would say anyway.

And shouldn't you be billing hours right now?
1.3.2007 3:13pm
Guest2 (mail):

a big firm--where the main goal is to help rich corporations get richer



Good lawyering adds value to an enterprise just as good researching, good engineering, good managing, good bookeeping, and good selling do. A "rich" enterprise naturally attracts (and can pay for) more talent than a "poor" one. Added value to the enterprise means better products &services, lower prices, higher salaries, and bigger dividends and greater capital gains for investors.
1.3.2007 3:33pm
Waldensian (mail):
hey writes:

if you're working a 100 week, you should be able to bill for 50. 100 weeks = 4800+ year, so a 2500 year should be easily achieveable.

Wow. As a preliminary matter, I'll hold to one side whether working 100 hours a week (billable or not), for 48 weeks per year, the starting point for this equation, is "easily achievable." For the record, I certainly never claimed to routinely work 100 hour weeks, and I think it would be incredibly difficult to maintain that pace.

Anyway, here's a shared premise: it certainly is physically possible to bill 2500 hours or more per year, and there are a number of circumstances where that amount of work will in fact be accepted by clients (generally multiple clients, as one poster correctly notes).

But the idea that billing 2500 hours is "easily achievable" strikes me as a very odd definition of "easy." I'll go further -- that statement is just wrong. I know a lot of very hard working people who don't bill 2500 a year, yet they certainly would if it that goal was "easily achievable."

Is there anyone here who is routinely billing 2500 hours or more per year? I suppose there must be, because I know these people do exist. I work with some of them. Let's talk with those people about the nitty gritty facts of their lives, and about whether that level of performance is "easily achievable."

JSC writes:

I can think of two people, at different firms, who claimed -- and I believe them -- to have billed 3500 hours in a year. One was at Wachtell, and he said it about killed him.

I also have known or met several people who have made this claim. And I believe that each of them did in fact bill 3500 hours in one year. Whether each hour was worth as much as every other hour is an interesting question. But the "about killed him" quote is exactly right -- getting anywhere close to 3500 is just an utterly crushing amount of work. I think working at that rate would often lead to major adverse health effects.

And by definition you would have no life whatsoever outside of work, as you'd be averaging over 9.5 billable hours per day, every day. Factor in non-billable time at work (there must be some) and even a short commute, and the number of hours devoted to work is just mind boggling.

As an aside, I would be very, very reluctant to hire an associate who billed 3500 hours annually at his or her last firm. I just don't understand people who would do that to themselves, and in the long run I doubt they are the kind of people I want to work with. To be fair, they probably wouldn't like me either. :)
1.3.2007 3:51pm
A.C.:
Guest2 describes a common theory. It's sometimes true, but I don't believe it's always true. Sometimes corporate shenanigans destroy wealth rather than create it, but then family feuds over property can do the same thing. I'm no John Edwards populist, but I HAVE lost a lot of my illusions about the "commanding heights" of the economy. I don't have many illusions about government either, of course -- somebody has to keep an eye on all concentrations of wealth and power, and some of us actually like that kind of work!

I might add that I've seen some questionable lawyering come out of the big corporate firms, and some equally bizarre stuff produced by the little guys. Merit isn't all on one side. Although, to be fair, either side can be stuck with a bum case. There's only so much a lawyer can do with a ridiculous factual situation, and big corporations can get into messy circumstances the same as anyone else. That said, all else being equal, I prefer the little guy to the big guy. The small town to the metropolis. It's partly romanticism, but what the heck... isn't it good that someone leans in that direction? There are certainly enough people who call ties the other way, and they state their preferences in no uncertain terms.
1.3.2007 8:29pm
David Maquera (mail) (www):
I married a few months after starting at a decently sized law firm for the Detroit area. I quickly realized that I could not be a good father and maintain my billable hour requirements (in addition to my non-billable requirements). Therefore, I made the personal decision to not start a family or have any kids if I was going to be spending long days at the law firm. My wife and I are an older couple so after a few years as an associate we are now past the childbearing age. Do I second guess my personal decision? Sometimes, but what's done is done.
1.3.2007 8:38pm
lawyer:
I went to a top tier law school and went on to get an LL.M. from a top 2 program. Filled with intelligence but lacking social graces, I did not end up at a big firm. I bounced around from small firms and government agencies for the last 20 years.

So, I am 47 and working at a state agency for less than a quarter of what these associates are earning. I work a flat 40 hours per week. Not much retirement saved. Lots of time spent serving the pleasure of the "cool" people; lots of good deeds and volunteer work but little to show for it. No wife. No girlfriend. No house. No kids. No dog. Ok, I have a nice car. Woo hoo.

At this point, I would not mind a job making me work 80 per week. I have done my share of contract work at big firms and loved it (averaging 70 billables per week and even hitting 99.5). I might as well use my time productively since I don't really have a social life (unless I want to hop in my car and drive 200 miles to see my nearest friends).

Not everyone is blessed with intelligence and all God's graces. Those of us who are not so lucky get by doing the best we can. So, Adeez would call me a "herb." I have a few choice epithets that I would call him.
1.4.2007 4:09pm
xxx (mail):
It depends on the kind of work you do. If you are working on public deals all the time, so all day every day on the same file, it is not that hard to bill 8-9 hours a day for months with no wasted time. Say 9am to 6pm with a sandwich at your desk, equals 9 hours a day, with the occasional surge of hours at the end of a deal offsetting certain non-billable time. 50 weeks x 5 days x 9 hours = 2250 billable hours, without killing yourself.

If you have a lot of little files, or your firm forces you to do a lot of non-billable crap, or you are in an area of law that requires a lot of reading to keep up, then it can be a real challenge to break 2000.
1.5.2007 9:47am