Clues that explain the growing ranks of dissatisfied Biglaw attorneys are everywhere — even on C-Span. I’d intended to watch the recently televised replay of a judicial conference panel discussion for a few minutes, but the ongoing train wreck captivated this onlooker for an hour. I wonder if I can get CLE credit?

Participants included a Biglaw managing partner, the general counsel of Fortune 100 company, and a professor at a top law school. The absence of a law firm management consultant was surprising; they’re ubiquitous.

There’s no reason to name the Biglaw partner or his firm because his views are mainstream — and reveal why attorney career dissatisfaction continues to increase more rapidly in large firms than elsewhere. Here’s a synopsis of his comments:

1.  Law schools should turn out project managers. That’s what he and his clients really need because front line opportunities — such as trials for litigators — are disappearing.

2.  In their first days at his firm, new associates learn about its finances: “They realize that our 35% profit margins are fragile. They understand the importance of billing their time. They know more about the firm’s finances than I did as a first-year partner.” He didn’t mention Am Law‘s most recent report that his firm’s average equity partner profits exceeded $1 million. Everyone avoided that elephant in the room.

3.  When asked whether associates today felt greater work-related pressures, he was adamant: “No. People today are nostalgic for a time that never existed. As an associate, I worked hundreds of hours a week reviewing documents. Today’s associates don’t work any harder, just differently. They leave the office, have dinner with their families, help put the kids to bed, and then work from their home computers. So they actually have it better than I did.”

The client representative on the panel followed with a line that generated the day’s biggest laugh: “I’m wondering how you billed hundreds of hours a week when there are only 168 hours in a week. But then I realized that you were talking about the bill you sent the client!”

No one asked the Biglaw partner an obvious and unsettling question: His firm’s NALP directory reports an associate minimum requirement of 2,000 billable hours yearly. What was the requirement in the early 1970s, when he was an associate? (Answer: There wasn’t one. There also weren’t cellphones or BlackBerrys that tether today’s attorneys to their jobs — 24/7.)

The law professor responded that law schools can’t train project managers because they’re not business schools. Besides, the law requires something different from such vocational-type training. He could have added that fewer that 15% of all attorneys comprise the NLJ 250, thereby prompting the obvious follow-up: Why should law schools tailor curriculum to satisfy such a small segment of the profession anyway?

“With highly paid starting positions in big firms disappearing,” he concluded, “what am I supposed to tell incoming students they’ll be getting for the $150,000 required to obtain a law degree?” No one suggested the truth, however he saw it.

The general counsel disagreed with the Biglaw partner on a key point: “I don’t hire lawyers to be project managers. I want their best judgments and special skills.” The Biglaw partner replied that perhaps the GC didn’t really know what he wanted or needed.

The audience submitted written questions; the best came from a judge: “I didn’t go to law school to become rich. Why is everything so focused on the money? Is professionalism gone and, if so, how do we recover it?”

When such panels include attorneys willing to speak truth to power, we’ll hear honest answers to those inquiries. But who wants that?


  1. Since I am one of the ubiquitous law firm consultants not invited to participate, I am happy to at least have the opportunity to chime in here. (You know, of course, the definition of a consultant: Somebody who takes your watch off and then tells you te time, after you pay his or her fee).

    As we all know there is somehing both invidious an pernicious about hourly billing. A particular insidious aspects of the hourly billing model, aside from its inherent promotion of inefficiency, is the concept of a law firm maintaining a “minimum annual billing requirement.” If an associate does not have enough work to do to fill the 2,000 hour annual requirement, it is not his or her fault that the firm is not producing enough work for him or her to do, yet it is the associate who is threatened with the most severe sanction, namely loss of employment. Faced with the prospect of unempoyment in this market, the results are quite obvious: Let’s be charitable and simply suggest less than complete fidelity in recording time.

    Respectfully, the professor (I hesitate to call him your colleague, given your standing and always refreshing candor) just has it all wrong, as you clearly suggset. There is, as you and most see so well, an extraordinary crisis in the nation’s sytsem of legal education, which will doubtless explode sooner rather than later in the fashion of the implosion of the financial sector eighteen months ago. See, for example

    And as for legal project management, everybody has it both right and wrong. Clients of course do not want to pay seperately for project management. But, at the same they (and I do include clients who are serviced by the 85% of lawyers not in the NLJ 250), want their work handled efficently. Like it or not, legal project management is here to stay; it is a required arrow that every lawyer need to carry in his or her quiver.

    When you and I went to law school (perhaps more in my time than yours, since you are still of relatively tender years), many law schools looked askance at schools that offered clinical programs, since conducting such programs cheapened the ivory tower of the law school, by making them more like vocational schools.

    Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

    Jerry Kowalski

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