Labor Day marks the end of summer. It’s also a time to reflect on our relationship with work. Lawyers should do that more often. In that regard, some big law leaders will find false comfort in their 2015 Am Law Midlevel Associates Survey ranking.
In a recent New York Times Op-Ed, “Rethinking Work,” Swarthmore College Professor Barry Schwartz suggests that the long-held belief that people “work to live” dates to Adam Smith’s 1776 statement in “Wealth of Nations”: “It is in the interest of every man to live as much at his ease as he can.”
Schwartz notes that Smith’s idea helped to shape the scientific management movement that created systems to minimize the need for skill and judgment. As a result, workers found their jobs less meaningful. Over generations, Smith’s words became a self-fulfilling prophecy as worker disengagement became pervasive.
“Rather than exploiting a fact about human nature,” Schwartz writes, “[Smith and his descendants] were creating a fact about human nature.”
The result has been a world in which managers structure tasks so that most workers will never satisfy aspirations essential for job satisfaction. Widespread workplace disengagement — afflicting more than two-thirds of all workers, according to the most recent Gallup poll — has become an accepted fact of life.
Lawyers Take Note
Schwartz’s observations start with those performing menial tasks: “Maybe you’re a call center employee who wants to help customers solve their problems — but you find out that all that matters is how quickly you terminate each call.”
“Or you’re a teacher who wants to educate kids — but you discover that only their test scores matter,” he continues.
And then he takes us to the legal profession: “Or you’re a corporate lawyer who wants to serve his client with care and professionalism — but you learn that racking up billable hours is all that really counts.”
More than Money
Many Americans — especially lawyers who make decent incomes — have the luxury of thinking beyond how they’ll pay for their next meal. But relative affluence is no excuse to avoid the implications of short-term thinking that has taken the legal profession and other noble pursuits to an unfortunate place.
You might think that short-term profit-maximizing managers would heed the studies demonstrating that worker disengagement has a financial cost. But in most big law firms, that hasn’t happened. There’s a reason: Those at the top of the pyramid make a lot of money on eat-what-you-kill business models. They can’t see beyond their own short-term self-interest — which takes them only to their retirement age.
Maintaining their wealth has also been a straightforward proposition: Pull up the ladder while increasing the income gap within equity partnerships. The doubling of big firm leverage ratios since 1985 means that it’s now twice as difficult to become an equity partner in an Am Law 50 firm. Top-to-bottom compensation spreads within most equity partnerships have exploded from three- or four-to-one in 1990 to more than 10-to-1 today. At some firms, it’s 20-to-1.
Then again, maybe things aren’t so bad after all. The most recent Am Law Survey of mid-level associates reports that overall satisfaction among third- through fifth-level associates is its highest in a decade. But here’s the underlying and problematic truth: Big law associates have adjusted to the new normal.
Thirty-one percent of Am Law Survey respondents said they didn’t know what they’d be doing in five years. Only 14 percent expected to make non-equity partner by then. They see the future and have reconciled themselves to the harsh reality that their firms have no place for them in it.
No one feels sorry for big firm associates earning six-figure incomes, but perhaps someone should. As Professor Schwartz observes, work is about much more than the money. In that respect, he offers suggestions that few large firms will adopt: “giving employees more of a say in how they do their jobs… making sure we offer them opportunities to learn and grow… encouraging them to suggest improvements to the work process and listening to what they say.”
I’ll add one specially applicable to big law firms: Provide meaningful career paths that reward talent and don’t make advancement dependent upon the application of arbitrary short-term metrics, such as leverage ratios, billable hours, and client billings.
What’s the Mission?
Schwartz’s suggestions are a sharp contrast to the way most big law firm partners operate. They exclude their young attorneys from firm decision-making processes (other than recruiting new blood to the ranks of those who will leave within five years of their arrival). Compensation structures reward partners who hoard clients rather than mentor and develop talent for the eventual transition of firm business to the next generation. The behavior of partners and the processes of the firm discourage dissent.
“But most important,” Schwartz concludes, “we need to emphasize the ways in which an employee’s work makes other people’s lives at least a little bit better.”
Compare that to the dominant message that most big law firm leaders convey to their associates and fellow partners: We need to emphasize the ways in which an attorney’s work makes current equity partners wealthier.
Law firm leaders can develop solutions, or they can perpetuate the problem. It all starts from the top.