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?