The 2010 American Lawyer survey reports the lowest overall level of associate satisfaction since 2004.

The firms faring poorly will take comfort in standard disclaimers: response rates are low and negatively biased; survey questions are flawed; the poll captures attitudes from a generation of young attorneys who feel entitled. We all know the list. Lawyers specialize in explaining away bad facts and sometimes the critique is valid.

But before lower-ranked firms throw these results into a sea of self-serving rationalizations, they should consider the criteria by which others did quite well: relations with partners and other associates, interest in and satisfaction level of the work, training and guidance, policy on billable hours, management openness about firm strategies and partnership chances, the firm’s attitude toward pro bono work, compensation and benefits, and the respondents’ inclination to stay at their firms for at least two more years.

Now correlate each factor to the metrics that dominate today’s Biglaw business models — billings, billable hours, and associate/partner leverage ratios, all of which produce equity partner profits. For too many, the relationship is inverse. The absence of a metric by which firms hold partners accountable for associate satisfaction means that it gets ignored.

What’s the solution? Pay them more money? They won’t object, but according to a recent survey published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, additional income beyond $75,000 a year doesn’t increase happiness. (http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2010/08/27/1011492107.full.pdf+html?sid=61f259ad-92a2-470f-b218-23537d8e2972)

How about just telling them to suck it up and push through to a better day? Doesn’t time cure all ills? Another NAS study suggests that our sense of global well-being is U-shaped. We start at a high point around age 18, move down until 50, and take a major upward turn until 85. (http://www.pnas.org/content/107/22/9985.abstract?sid=61f259ad-92a2-470f-b218-23537d8e2972) This comes from a 2008 telephone survey asking 340,000 people how they felt on the day the researchers called them. No attempt was made to control for health, employment, marital status, or anything else. It’s just a cross-sectional slice of the population at a moment in time. In short, draw conclusions at your peril.

Still, it’s interesting to compare these results with recent evidence about the happiness life-cycle of many Biglaw attorneys.

There no need for melodrama or hyperbole. Many lawyers of all ages have fulfilling careers and lead satisfying lives. Generalizations are always treacherous. Within and among firms, there are always exceptions to whatever is typical or predominant.

But the big picture can be informative. In the ABA’s 2007 survey of the profession, about 60% of attorneys in practice fewer than 5 years said they would recommend a legal career to a young person. That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement; however, it’s better than more senior attorneys’ views. For those practicing more than 10 years, it dropped to 40%.

Of course, “more than 10 years” covers lawyers from 35 to 90. So it’s difficult to know if the data support a U-shaped theory. They lend some credence to the notion that there’s a steep slide for people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s. But is there an uptick when attorneys hit the mid-century mark? That’s not clear — and it seems like a long wait.

It’s not all bad news. In the ABA survey, 84% found the practice of law to be intellectually stimulating. When I’ve invited lawyers of different ages and stages of their careers to make guest appearances in my undergraduate course on the profession, Biglaw attorneys spoke enthusiastically about tackling cutting-edge legal problems. Then they heard this question:

“What has been your happiest time as a lawyer?”

Here are some answers:

A 20-something senior associate: “Certainly not now. My life is not my own. I’m billing long hours in the hope of becoming a partner. Then I’ll gain more autonomy and control.”

A 30-something non-equity partner: “Life was easier when I was an associate. But I work hard now because I think things will get better if I make equity partner. Of course, that’s a big ‘if”.”

A 40-something equity partner: “I never realized how good I had it as an associate. Now I feel pressure to bring in clients so I can justify my equity compensation; that process never ends. You think that becoming an equity partner means you’ve crossed some finish line, but that’s when the race really begins.”

A 50-something equity partner: “I don’t know what I’ll do when I’m not a partner in my firm anymore. I haven’t had time to think about what’s next for me. Now, when I consider that prospect, the future becomes a source of anxiety.”

I don’t know to what extent these attorneys’ comments represent their respective demographic groups in Biglaw or elsewhere. But it’s no surprise to me that surveys consistently find practicing lawyers to be among the least satisfied workers and that attorneys in large firms today have the most difficulty finding the upward leg of the U-shaped happiness curve, assuming it’s out there.

The Biglaw business model has provided some of its attorneys with a lot more money than their predecessors. Career satisfaction that contributes to overall happiness?

That’s more complicated.


  1. The last time that I can recall mid-level associate surveys consistently showing BigLaw mid-levels to be very satisfied was in the mid-1990s. Certainly we were making good money then but nothing like today. There are a number of things that separate those days from practice today that I think account for the greater satisfaction back then, even if we earned comparatively less money: fewer hours; less travel; more opportunity for trials and meaningful litigation responsibility and experiences; a shorter track to and greater chance of equity partnership; a closer relationship and more opportunity to work with senior lawyers. It is clear what has changed. BigLaw has become addicted to the metrics that the consultants have highlighted, most notably profits per partner and its cousin revenue per lawyer. When such a premium is placed on revenue and profits, there is no mystery about who will suffer the consequences.

  2. The urge to drive up PPP numbers can’t be for the money, everyone else in the family spends it. It’s to finish first (or as close to it as possible) in the “prestige” race. Prestige could be measured in sophisticated terms, of course, but using an ordinal ranking is the simplest method and the easiest one to tout. The hard question, for which there have been many answers over the years, is why supposedly smart people get caught up in the race. Are lawyers so deeply insecure about their fragile, finite, and ultimately trivial existence that they need to do something, even if silly, to convince themselves that their lives have at least relative meaning? If so, the craziness is not under rational control and it makes as little sense to bemoan or criticize it as it does to get caught up in it. It is possible to save oneself, of course, but saving the profession is not one of the options on the table.

  3. Interesting post, especially the answers from the various seniority lawyer. I just recently quit BigLaw as a sixth year. I have started a blog (everysixminutes.com) to chronicle my journal after the law in search of happiness. I know it sounds a bit corny, but the very issues about prestige, ego, work/life balance etc. are something I have been thinking about.

  4. Extremely interesting post, Professor Harper.

    My own view is that law firm associate job satisfaction is not something of which we should be dismissive. The issue is real and not simply the result of whining or cranky associates. My own experience as a former “biglaw” associate and then partner, differs in some material respects from “Former Biglaw Partner.” I was an associate in the late 70’s and a partner thereafter in 1982. I worked extremely long hours, travelled extensively, tried cases of significance and worked on many cutting edge matters. Surely, there were many dysfuntional aspects of my firm; we practiced in a time of ancient technology and less sophisticated management. I am quite nostalgic about the era. The dysfunctional aspects of our firm required some members of the law firm leadership to focus on associate job satisfaction, an area in which I played a role, while others did focus on profitability.

    There is much, if not all that you comment upon in which we are in vigorous agreement: http://kowalskiandassociatesblog.com/2010/09/13/associate-job-satisfaction-why-law-firms-should-care/associate-job-satisfaction-jd/

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s