Give credit where it’s due: Not all big firms are bad, and even those many might consider the most problematic aren’t problems for everybody in them. After all, the ABA’s most recent survey reported that 44% of lawyers in big firms (defined as having more than 100 lawyers — which means it’s not limited to Biglaw) were satisfied with their careers. Sure, that’s a failing grade in every course I’ve ever taken or taught, but it’s a base upon which to build. So what accounts for such attorneys and what can be done to increase their ranks?
Some are satisfied because they thrive in the predominant Biglaw business model. The myopic focus on metrics — billings, billable hours, and associate/partner leverage to maximize short-term equity partner profits — doesn’t seem misguided to them. Rather, it feels natural, maybe even necessary. When I was in law school, most of these personality types were in business schools. Now they’re everywhere.
Another group works at firms that have resisted adopting this MBA mentality; the beneficial results permeate their cultures. I spoke recently with a friend who’s the chairman of a big firm that hasn’t wrapped itself in the false security of numbers. Instead of metrics, he still requires senior partners to render subjective judgments about attorney quality in determining compensation and promotion. Of course, objective data matter, but they’re not dispositive.
That’s how most firms once operated. They’re reluctant to admit it now, but just about everybody running a big firm today owed early success to someone else. Typically, it was a mentor who recognized untapped potential and was willing to spend time and effort developing it. Rather than self-contained books of business, young attorneys had supporters whose principal aim was to identify and nurture first-rate minds that would eventually produce first-rate lawyering. Whatever wealth followed was a by-product of talent that attracted clients, not the exclusive goal of a short-term profits equation.
My friend’s firm doesn’t lead the Am Law 100 in any rankings, but it has done reasonably well in associate satisfaction surveys and equity partners are averaging over $1 million yearly. If polled, he and many in his firm would be among Biglaw’s satisfied attorneys. They serve interesting clients on challenging matters.
That takes me to a third point. Even firms adhering slavishly to the misguided metrics model have something valuable to offer their lawyers besides money. When I started at my former firm over 30 years ago, partners recruiting me warned that some tasks would be boring, even menial, but others would be exhilarating. Biglaw clients typically have problems at the law’s cutting edge. It was true then; it’s true now — although the balance has tipped more toward boring and menial, especially for younger attorneys.
Still, this begins to resolve an apparent paradox: The ABA survey reporting high levels of dissatisfaction — with big firms faring the worst — also found that seven out of ten attorneys generally regarded their jobs as intellectually challenging.
So whether a lawyer is at a firm like the one my friend leads, in a different environment where the MBA mentality of misguided metrics rules, or somewhere in between, a viable path to career satisfaction remains possible throughout Biglaw. In the end, it’s is no different from other aspects of life: We are products of decisions that define who and what we are.
That’s leads to a final observation. Sooner than it realizes (or prefers), the current generation of large firm managers will find itself replaced with a younger group of leaders who will impose their own vision. How will the ascendants respond to the choices that will define them, their institutions, and the 15% of the bar comprising the NLJ 250 that exerts a disproportionate influence over the profession?
My friend put the issue squarely:
“I’ve been able to resist the dominant trend toward what you correctly call misguided metrics. The challenge is whether those of us sharing that view will be able to pass that ethic along to the next generation. I don’t know the answer to that question. But you agree, don’t you, that it’s a great profession?”
Yes, I do.
He’s still the best — and smartest — lawyer I know.