My new novel, The Partnership, has led to some interesting conversations with other lawyers, especially biglaw partners.(http://www.amazon.com/Partnership-Novel-Steven-J-Harper/dp/0984369104/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1273000077&sr=1-1)
“Here’s the problem with young associates today: they’re lazy,” barked a middle-aged man at a recent dinner party that I attended. Soon thereafter, he revealed his occupation: partner in an Am Law 100 firm.
“They feel entitled. They want to make the big bucks, but they don’t want to put in the hours,” he continued indignantly.
Biglaw partners say that a lot. Many regard themselves as special in ways that few young people today ever can be. It’s a form of magical thinking that rationalizes hubris, bad behavior, and arbitrary decisions.
“It’s more complicated,” I suggested after confessing that I’d recently retired after 30 years in a big firm that he respected. “For the last three years, I’ve taught an undergraduate seminar that has given me a different perspective. Ultimately, my students inspired me to write my latest book.”
“How so?” he asked.
“As you know, law school has long been the last bastion of liberal arts majors who didn’t know what to do next. Once they got there, the pressure to get a high-paying job at a big firm began. But most students heading that way had no idea what their lives at such places would be like. When reality struck, many didn’t like it.”
“That’s one reason lawyers are among the most dissatisfied workers in our society. It’s also why, before the Great Recession, the five-year associate attrition rate from big firms exceeded 80%.”
“I didn’t realize it was that high,” he interjected.
“Contributing to all of this is the business model that has overtaken most large firms over the past 20 years,” I continued. “It requires associate and non-equity partner attrition to increase leverage ratios and enhance equity partner profits. Being a good lawyer doesn’t mean the firm will have room for you as an equity partner. The resulting behaviors have dramatically changed the culture of most big firms.”
“You’re right,” he said as he inadvertently moved to his own unhappy plight. “People don’t understand what it means to go from 1,600 to 1,800 to 2,000 billable hours a year. Once you become a partner, it’s even harder. You can’t bill all of the time you spend on client development, but those hours are just another form of work.”
“We agree,” I suggested. “The job turns out to be much different from what most undergraduates expect, insofar as they have any expectations at all. In fact, even as an equity partner, your firm’s increased billable hour requirements have changed your job while you held it, right?”
“True,” he admitted.
“So you’re a victim of the MBA mentality of misguided metrics, too. When reality clashes with young attorneys’ idealized expectations, you have a prescription for psychological disaster. Factor in a business model that myopically focuses on a few metrics — billings, billable hours, and leverage — and look at the result.”
The biglaw partner then revealed his secret: “My son is thinking about going to law school. I told him to stay away from big firms.”
“You’re not alone,” I assured him. “The most recent ABA study shows that 60% of attorneys practicing 10 years or more advise young people against a legal career. As a group, biglaw attorneys are the most dissatisfied; public sector lawyers are happier.”
The senior partner nodded. Long ago, he confessed, his career began in government.
“So we’re back where you started this conversation,” I suggested, “– associate motivation.”
“When an entering class of, say, 50 new associates figures out that only 10 of them will be around five years later and maybe two or three will eventually become equity partners some unknown number of years after that, how does it affect their behavior? How would it affect yours?”
“Partners would say I was lazy,” he laughed. “I think I’m going to enjoy your new book. I’ll get a copy for my son, too.”