LABOR DAY

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.

What Problem?

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.

THINKING BEYOND THE AM LAW 100 RANKINGS

It’s Am Law 100 time. Every year as May 1 approaches, all eyes turn to Big Law’s definitive rankings — The American Lawyer equivalent of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. But behind those numbers, what do law firm leaders think about their institutions and fellow partners?

The 2015 Citibank/Hildebrandt Client Advisory contains some interesting answers to that question. Media summaries of those annual survey results tend to focus on macro trends and numbers. Will demand for legal services increase in the coming months? Are billable hours up? Will equity partner profits continue to rise? Will clients accept hourly rate increases? Or will client discounts reduce realizations?

Those are important topics, but some of the survey’s best nuggets deserve more attention than they get. So as big law firm partners everywhere pore over the annual Am Law 100 numbers, here are five buried treasures from this year’s Citibank/Hildebrandt Client Advisory that will get lost in the obsession over Am Law’s short-term growth and profits metrics. They may reveal more about the state of Big Law than any ranking system can.

Chickens Come Home To Roost

1. “While excess capacity remains an issue, we are hearing from a good number of firms that mid-level associates are in short supply.”

My comment: After 2009, most firms reduced dramatically summer programs and new associate hiring to preserve short-term equity partner profits. That was a shortsighted failure to invest in the future, and it’s still pervasive. See #4 and #5 below.

The Growth Trap

2. “Many [law firm mergers] have tended to be mergers of strong firms with weaker firms, or mergers of firms that are pursuing growth for growth’s sake. On this latter trend, it is our view that these mergers are generally ill-conceived. In our experience, combining separate firm revenues does not necessarily translate into better profit results and long-term success.”

My comment: Regardless of who says it (or how often), many managing partners just don’t believe it.

The Lateral Hiring Ruse

3. “For all the popularity of growth through laterals, the success rate of a firm’s lateral strategy can be quite low. For the past few years, we have asked leaders of large firms to quantify the rate of success of the laterals they hired over the past five years. Each year, the proportion of laterals who they would describe as being above ‘break even’, by their own definition, has fallen. In 2014, the number was just 54 percent of laterals who had joined their firms during 2009-2013.” [Emphasis added]

My comment: Think about that one. The survey allows managing partners to use their own personal, subjective, and undisclosed definition of “success.” Even with that unrestricted discretion to make themselves look good, firm leaders still admit that almost half of their lateral hiring decisions over the past five years have been failures — and that they’re track record has been getting worse! That’s stunning.

Pulling Up The Ladder

4. “We are now seeing [permanent non-partner track associates and other lower cost lawyers] appear among some of the most elite firms. When we ask these firms whether they are concerned that expanding their lawyer base beyond partner-track associates will hurt their brand, their response is simply that this is what their clients, and the market in general demands.”

My comment: At best such managing partner responses are disingenuous; at worst they are lies. Clients aren’t demanding non-partner track attorneys; they’re demanding more value from their outside lawyers. Thoughtful clients understand the importance of motivating the next generation’s best and brightest lawyers with meaningful long-term career opportunities.

Permanent dead-end tracks undermine that objective. So does the continuing trend in many firms to increase overall attorney headcount while keeping the total number of equity partners flat or declining. But rather than accept responsibility for the underlying greed that continues to propel equity partner profits higher, law firm leaders try to blame clients and “the market.” For the truth, they should consult a mirror.

The Real Problem

5. “Leaders of successful firms also talk about getting their partners to adopt a more long-term, ‘investment’ mindset. In an industry where the profits are typically paid out in a short time to partners, rather than being retained for longer term investment, this can be a challenge.”

My comment: Thinking beyond current year profits is the challenge facing the leadership of every big firm. Succeeding at that mission is also the key assumption underlying the Client Advisory’s optimistic conclusion:

“It is clear to us that law firms have the capacity and the talent to adapt to the needs of their clients, and meet the challenges of the future — contrary to those who continually forecast their death.”

I’m not among those forecasting the death of all big firms. In fact, I don’t know anyone who is. That would be silly. But as in 2013 and 2014, some large firms will fail or disappear into “survival mergers.” As that happens, everyone will see that having what the Client Advisory describes as “the capacity and talent to adapt” to the profession’s dramatic transformation is not the same as actually adapting. The difference will separate the winners from the losers.

LESSONS FROM THE BUSINESS WORLD

The current issue of the Harvard Business Review has an article that every big law leader should read, “Manage Your Work, Manage Your Life,” by Boris Groysberg and Robin Abrahams. Unfortunately, few law firm managing partners will bother.

It’s not that big law leaders are averse to thinking about their firms in business terms. To the contrary, the legal profession has imported business-type concepts to create the currently prevailing model. Running firms to maximize simple metrics — billables, leverage ratios, and hourly rates — has made many equity partners rich.

The downside is that the myopic focus on near-term revenue growth and current profits comes at a price that most leaders prefer to ignore. Values that can be difficult to quantify often get sacrificed. One example is the loss of balance between an individual’s professional and personal life.

Looking at the same things differently

The HBR article contradicts a popular narrative, namely, that balancing professional and personal demands requires constant juggling. Over a five-year period, the authors surveyed more than 4,000 executives on how they reconciled their personal and professional lives. The results produced a simple recommendation: Rather than juggling to achieve “work-life balance,” treat each — work and life — with the same level of focused determination.

The most successful and satisfied executives (they’re not mutually exclusive descriptors) make deliberate choices about what to pursue in each realm as opportunities present themselves. In other words, they think about life as it unfolds.

According to the authors, the executives’ stories “reflect five main themes: defining success for yourself, managing technology, building support networks at work and home, traveling or relocating selectively, and collaborating with your [home] partner.”

Professional success

Defining professional success is the key foundational step and not everyone agrees on its elements. That’s no surprise.

But some gender distinctions are fascinating. For example, 46 percent of women equated professional success with “individual achievement,” compared to only 24 percent of men. Likewise, more women than men (33 percent v. 21 percent) defined success as “making a difference.” The gender gap was even greater for those defining success as “respect from others” (25 percent of women v. 7 of percent men) and “passion for the work” (21 percent of women v. 5 percent of men). (Respondents could choose more than one element in defining success, so the totals exceed 100 percent.)

On the other hand, more men than women thought that success was “ongoing learning and development and challenges” (24 percent of men v. 13 percent of women), “organizational achievement” (22 percent v. 13 percent), “enjoying work on a daily basis” (14 percent v. 8 percent). More men also saw success in financial terms (16 percent) than did women (4 percent).

Personal success

For men and women, the most widely reported definition of personal success was “rewarding relationships” (59 percent of men; 46 percent of women). (Surprised that more men than women picked that one?) Most other definitions revealed few gender-based differences (“happiness/enjoyment,” “work/life balance,” “a life of meaning/feeling no regrets”).

But big gender gaps again emerged for those defining personal success as “learning and developing” and “financial success.” In fact, zero women equated “financial success” with personal success, but 12 percent of men did.

Putting it all together

After defining success, the next steps seem pretty obvious: master technology, develop support networks, move when necessary, and make life a joint venture with your partner if you have one. But few law firm leaders create a climate that encourages such behavior. Short-term profits flow more readily from environments that a recent Wall Street Journal headline captured: “When The Boss Works Long Hours, Do We All Have To?” In most big law firms, the short answer is yes, even if the boss doesn’t.

In general, the HBR strategy amounts to tackling life outside your career with the same dedication and focus that you apply to your day job.

A few examples:

Are you becoming a prisoner of technology that facilitates 24/7 access to you? Then occasionally turn it off and spend real time with the people around you.

Are you concerned that you’re missing too many family dinners? Then treat them with the same level of importance that you attach to a client meeting.

These and other ideas aren’t excuses to become a slacker. After all, the interview respondents are high-powered business executives. Rather, they comprise a way to anticipate and preempt problems. As one survey respondent said, people tend to ignore work/life balance until “something is wrong. But,” the authors continue, “that kind of disregard is a choice, and not a wise one. Since when do smart executives assume that everything will work out just fine? If that approach makes no sense in the boardroom or on the factory floor, it makes no sense in one’s personal life.”

That’s seems obvious. But try telling it to managing partners in big law firms who are urging younger colleagues to get their hours up.

Here’s a thought: maybe attorneys should record how they spend their hours at home, too.

A STORIED LATERAL HIRE

“Are Laterals Killing Your Firm?” is the provocative title of The American Lawyer‘s February issue. The centerpiece is a thoughtful article, “Of Partners and Peacocks,” by Bill Henderson, professor at Indiana University Maurer School of Law and Director of the Center on the Global Legal Profession, and Christopher Zorn, professor of political science, sociology, crime, law, and justice at Penn State University.

Henderson and Zorn conclude that “for most law firms there is no statistically significant relationship between more lateral partner hiring and higher profits.” As I observed in last week’s post, most big law managing partners have conceded as much in anonymous surveys. Even so, the drumbeat of lateral hiring to achieve top line revenue growth persists, even in the face of dubious bottom line results.

A timely topic

One lateral hire outcome became particularly fascinating this week. On the way out of the top spot at DLA Piper is global co-chair Tony Angel. You might remember him from one of my earlier articles, “The Ultimate Lateral Hire.”

The American Lawyer 2012 Lateral Report identified Angel as one of the top lateral hires of the year — “a typically bold and iconoclastic play by DLA. For a firm to bring in a former managing partner from another firm is rare,” Am Law Daily reporter Chris Johnson wrote in March 2012. According to the article, the 59-year-old Angel was to receive $3 million a year for a three-year term.

With great fanfare, DLA touted its coup. “He’s got great values and he believes in what we’re trying to do and he shares our view of what’s going on in the world,” boasted then co-chair Frank Burch.

At the time, DLA’s press release was equally effusive: “Tony will work with the senior leadership on the refinement and execution of DLA Piper’s global strategy with a principal focus on improving financial performance and developing capability in key markets.”

Predictably, law firm management consultants also praised the move:  “It’s hard to get a guy that talented. There just aren’t that many people out there who have done what he has done,” said Peter Zeughauser. Legal headhunter Jack Zaremski called it a “brave move” that “might very well pay off.”

On second thought…

The current publicity surrounding Angel’s transition is decidedly more subdued. According to a recent Am Law article, Angel and his fellow outgoing global co-chair, Lee Miller, “will remain with the firm in a senior advisory capacity, the details of which will be worked out later this year.”

Two years, plus another 10 months as a lame duck, is a remarkably short period to occupy the top spot of any big firm. Only those who work at DLA Piper can say whether Angel’s brief reign was a success (and why it’s over so soon). Not all of them are likely to provide the same answer.

Separating winners from losers

In 2008, more than three years before Angel’s arrival, the firm’s non-equity partners found themselves on the receiving end of requests for capital contributions. According to Legal Week, “275 partners contributed up to $150,000 each to join the equity.” The move was “intended to motivate partners by granting them a direct share of the firm’s profits, as well as an equal vote in the firm’s decisions.” But it also helped “DLA reduce its bank debt.”

That equitization trend continued during Angel’s tenure. In 2012, the firm’s non-U.S. business reportedly added capital totaling 30 million pounds Sterling “as a result of the move to an all-equity partnership structure.” Again according to Legal Week, the firm’s non-equity partners in the UK, Europe, and Asia Pacific paid on average 61,000 pounds Sterling each to join the equity.”

Perhaps most new equity partners discovered that their mandatory bets became winners. After all, gross profits and average profits for the DLA Piper verein went up in 2012. Then again, averages don’t mean much when the distribution is skewed. According to a Wall Street Journal article three years ago, the internal top-to-bottom spread within DLA Piper was already nine-to-one.

Anyone looking beyond short-term dollars and willing to consider things that matter in the long run could consult associate satisfaction rankings for cultural clues. In the 2013 Am Law Survey of Midlevel Associate Satisfaction, DLA Piper dropped from #53 to #77 (out of 134 firms). That’s still above the firm’s #99 ranking in 2011.

The more things change

Management changes are always about the future. It’s not clear how, if at all, incoming co-chair Roger Meltzer’s vision for DLA Piper diverges from Angel’s. Age differences certainly don’t explain the transition; both men are around 60. Likewise, both have business orientations. Meltzer practices corporate and securities law; Angel joined DLA Piper after serving as executive managing director of Standard & Poor’s in London.

Maybe it’s irrelevant, but Meltzer and Angel also have this in common: Both are high-powered lateral hires. Angel parachuted in from Standard & Poor’s in 2011; Meltzer left Cahill, Gordon & Reindel to join DLA Piper in 2007. It makes you wonder where these guys and DLA Piper will be a few years from now.

Failure of Leadership

The American Lawyer’s annual leaders survey reveals that most law firm managing partners are living in denial. When the changing world intrudes in ways that they can no longer ignore, another psychological state — cognitive dissonance — sets in as they try simultaneously to hold contradictory ideas in their heads. As a consequence, what is happening today at the top of most big firms is the antithesis of leadership.

Denial

In the Am Law leaders survey, 70 percent of respondents said that the sluggish demand for legal services in 2013 would continue through 2014. That’s not surprising. In 2012, only a fourth quarter surge saved many firms from the abyss. The unusual circumstances producing that phenomenon aren’t present this year.

If 2014 will be more of the same as firms compete for business in a zero-sum game, how do individual managing partners size up their situations? Unrealistically. Two-thirds of the 105 leaders responding to the survey of Am Law 200 firms were “somewhat optimistic” about the prospects for their firms in 2014. Another ten percent were “very optimistic.”

More than 80 percent expect profits per partner to grow in 2014 — and one-fourth of those expect growth to exceed five percent. They’ll use the same old model — 98 percent expect billable hour increases, even though three-fourths of respondents said their realization rates for 2013 are 90% or worse. They also said that only 18 percent of their matters include an alternative fee arrangement.

Cognitive dissonance

They can’t all be right about 2014 — for which an overwhelming majority say that “things will be tough for almost everyone else, but my firm will thrive.” More importantly, most of them won’t be right. So what are today’s leaders doing to prepare their firms for more of the harsh reality that they’ve already experienced for the past several years? Not much.

A staggering 85 percent of managing partners said they were somewhat worried (61 percent) or very worried (24 percent) about partners who are not billing enough hours. Almost 70 percent are concerned that some partners are staying on too long before retirement.

An Altman Weil Survey found similar results last summer. Seventy percent of law firm leaders said that older partners were hanging on too long. In the process, they are hoarding clients, billings, and opportunities in ways that impede the transition of firm business to younger lawyers. Yet the drive to maximize short-term profits led 80 percent of firm leaders to admit that they planned to respond to current pressures by tightening equity partner admission standards. Pulling up the ladder on the next generation is not the way to motivate the young talent needed to solve the transition problem.

Morale

All of this may be working well for some partners at the top of what remains a leveraged pyramid business model. But even among the partners, all is not well. The Altman Weil Survey reported that 40 percent of law firm leaders thought partner morale was lower than it had been in 2008. In other words, deequitizations and partnership purges during the Great Recession haven’t produced greater happiness in the survivor cohort.

The Am Law Survey confirms that this downward trend continues. In 2012, 63 percent of managing partners characterized the morale of their partners as “somewhat optimistic.” In 2013, it dropped to 56 percent — near the 2009 nadir of 54 percent.

Leadership lemmings

Every survey reveals that most big firm leaders have their eyes on a single mission: growth. Whether through aggressive lateral hiring or mergers and acquisitions, some managing partners are cobbling together entities that aren’t really law firm partnerships. They’ve forgotten that a sense of community and common purpose is essential to maintaining organizational morale. They’ve also forgotten that no law firm is better than the quality of its people.

Most leaders also acknowledge that a myopic growth strategy imposes significant financial and other costs on their institutions — overpaying for so-called rainmakers who are less than advertised; sacrificing the stability that comes from a cohesive culture in exchange for current top line revenues; incentivizing partners to hoard clients because billings determine compensation and client silos facilitate lateral exits; discouraging the development of talent that should comprise the future of the firm.

As managing partners build empires that they hope will be too big to fail, they might spend a little time considering whether their denial and cognitive dissonance are producing entities that are too big to succeed.

THE NEWEST BIG LAW PARTNERS SPEAK

A recent survey of associates who became partners in their Am Law 200 firms between 2010 and 2013 produced some startling results. The headline in The American Lawyer proclaims that new partners “feel well-prepped and well-paid.” But other conclusions are troubling.

More than half (59 percent) of the 469 attorneys responding to the survey were non-equity partners. That’s significant because for them the real hurdle has yet to come. Most won’t advance to equity partnership in their firms. But even the combined results paint an unattractive portrait of the prevailing big law firm business model.

Lateral progress

It should surprise no one that institutional loyalty continues to suffer as the leveraged big law pyramid continues to depend on staggering associate attrition rates. According to the survey, almost half of new partners said that “making partner is nearly impossible.”

It’s toughest for home grown talent. Forty-seven percent of new partners switched firms before their promotions, most within the previous four years. An earlier survey of 50 Am Law 200 firms made the point even more dramatically: 59 percent of those who made partner in 2013 began their careers elsewhere. Long ago, a lot of older partners became wise to this gambit. They learned to hoard opportunities and preserve client silos as the way to move up and/or acquire tickets into the lucrative lateral partner market.

Somewhat paradoxically in light of their lateral paths into the partnership, 90 percent of new partners thought that commitment to their firms was of great or some importance as a factor in their promotion to partner. Yet almost 60 percent said that, since making partner, their commitment to the firm had decreased or only stayed the same.

Why don’t they feel like winners?

More than 80 percent of respondents thought that the “ability to develop and cultivate new clients” was “of great or some importance” in their promotion to partner. Yet more than half of new partners said that they received no formal training in business development.

Other results also suggest that a big law partnership has become an increasingly mixed bag. Almost eight out of ten said their business development efforts had increased since making partner. How did they make room for those activities in their already full workdays as “on-track-for-partner associates”? Eighty-three percent reported that time with their family “had decreased or stayed the same.” More than half said that control of their schedules had decreased or stayed the same. Making partner doesn’t seem to help attorneys achieve the kind of autonomy that contributes to career satisfaction and overall happiness.

The meaning of it all

More than 60 percent of new partners were satisfied or very satisfied with their compensation. Maybe money alone will continue to draw the best law graduates into big firms. A more important question is whether they will stay.

Most partners running today’s big firms assume that every associate has the same ambition that they had: to become an equity partner. Meanwhile, they’ve been pulling up the ladder on the next generation. Leverage ratios in big firms have doubled since 1985; making equity partner is now twice as difficult as it was then. Does anyone really believe that the current generation of young attorneys contains only half the talent of its predecessors?

The law is a service business. People are its only stock in trade. For today’s leaders who fail to retain and nurture young lawyers, the future of their institutions will become grim indeed. As that unfortunate story unfolds, they will have only themselves to blame. Then again, if these aging senior partners’ temporal scopes extend only to the day they retire, perhaps they don’t care.

ARE LAWYERS BECOMING HAPPIER?

A recent scholarly study and the 2013 Am Law Midlevel Associates Survey together pose an intriguing question: Is the legal profession becoming happier? If so, that would be a welcome development.

Perhaps the answer is yes and I should take partial credit, at least for improved associate morale in some big firms. After all, for years I’ve been writing and speaking about the extent to which the profession has evolved in ways that undermine attorney well being, especially in large firms. Since the publication of my book, The Lawyer Bubble, many managing partners have invited me to address their partnership meetings on that subject. But before getting too carried away, let’s take a closer look.

No Buyer’s Remorse!

In “Buyers’ Remorse? An Empirical Assessment of the Desirability of a Lawyer Career,” Professors Ronit Dinovitzer (University of Toronto), Bryant Garth (University of California, Irvine – School of Law), and Joyce S. Sterling (University of Denver Strum College of Law) analyzed data from the After the JD project. It tracks about 4,500 lawyers from the class of 2000 who responded to questions in 2003, 2007, and 2012.

Among other things, the authors conclude that “the evidence of mass buyer’s remorse [over getting a legal degree] is thin at best.” (p. 3) I’m not convinced.

First, a new lawyer entering the market in 2000 has enjoyed better times for the profession than graduates of the last several years. That doesn’t render data from the class of 2000 meaningless, but a study based on the experience of those attorneys shouldn’t become a headline-grabber that unduly influences anyone considering a legal career today.

Second, the authors rely only on responses that attorneys provided in 2007. The answers they gave in 2012 are “currently being cleaned and readied for analysis” (p. 5), so the authors didn’t use them. What was the rush to get to print with 2007 data? Why not wait and use the 2012 results to see whether accelerating law firm trends since 2007 affected responses from even the comparatively lucky class of 2000.

(For more on those trends, including partner de-equitizations, salary reductions for non-equity partners, and the environment that has accompanied the accelerating drive to increase short-term profits, read Edwin Reeser’s excellent two-part article in the ABA Journal.)

More on the Data

In the end, After the JD is a useful source of information. But it’s an overstatement to argue, as Dinovitzer et al. assert, “the data from the AJD project are the best (and almost only) data available on the issues currently being debated.” (p. 5)

In fact, there have been dozens of studies on attorney satisfaction, including an October 2007 ABA survey in which six out of ten attorneys who have been practicing 10 years or more said they would not recommend a legal career to a young person. And that was prior to the Great Recession.

Now before defensive academics pull out their knives, let me state clearly that I’m not suggesting that the ABA’s online survey of 800 lawyers is somehow superior to the obviously more comprehensive After the JD project. It’s not. But contrary to the authors’ assertion, AJD is far from the only data available on the issues currently being debated.”

For example, Professor Jerome A. Organ (University of St Thomas School of Law) recently published a compilation of 28 attorney surveys taken between 1984 and 2007. Rates of satisfied attorneys ranged from a low of 59 percent (South Carolina – 2008) to a high of 93 percent (Minnesota – 1987). The latest national study on Organ’s list (ABA/NALP – 2007) reported a satisfaction rate of 76 percent. (He excluded the ABA’s reported 55 percent satisfaction rate in 2007 because it “was not a random sample of attorneys.” n. 144.)

The Am Law Survey

Meanwhile, Am Law’s annual Midlevel Associates Survey of third-, fourth-, and fifth-year associates reported record high levels of associate satisfaction. Are their lives improving?

Anecdotal evidence of another possibility comes from an observed shift in attitudes among students in my undergraduate and law classes over the past several years. Many members of the youngest generation of lawyers (and would-be lawyers) are so concerned about finding jobs that they are now equating satisfaction with getting and keeping one long enough to repay their staggering student loans. That might explain why the same Am Law survey found that only 10 percent of men and 6.5 percent of women saw themselves as equity partners at their current firms in five years.

Now What?

Even so, inquiries that I receive from law firm managing partners provide more anecdotal proof that some firms have decided to value associate morale. The question is whether firm leaders will have the courage to push positive change into the very heart of the prevailing big law firm business model.

On that front, the news is less encouraging. In March 2013, Forbes reported on a “Career Bliss” survey of 65,000 employees that ranked “law firm associate” first on the list of “Unhappiest Jobs in America.” Likewise, in a recent Altman Weil Flash Survey, 40 percent of managing partners reported that partner morale at their firms in 2013 was lower than at the beginning of 2008 (pre-recession).

The Bottom Line

In the end, Dinovitzer et al. seem encouraged that “the overall trend is that more than three-quarters of respondents, irrespective of debt, express extreme or moderate satisfaction with the decision to become a lawyer.”

That’s supposed to be good news. But there are more than 1.2 million attorneys in the U.S.. Even a 75 to 80 percent satisfaction rate leaves more than 200,000 lawyers with what sure looks like buyer’s remorse.

The profession can do better than a “C.”