right? Or is it just the economic climate?
I don’t get what “satisfaction” for associates means.
From where I sit, as both a former lawyer (I quit practice as
a fifth-year associate) and as a spectator of the profession,
being an associate has always seemed
fraught with anxiety and confusion.
But that’s not what our new midlevel associate survey seems to be
telling us [see “Memo From Your
Midlevels” on page 74]. Despite all
the bad news about the shrinking
legal market, the overall satisfaction
score hit 4.08 this year ( 5 is tops)—a
new high. And roughly 70 percent of
respondents say they consider themselves to be on partnership track.
So the scoop is that firms are taking good care of
their young and that associates are contented.
What a bunch of malarkey!
I was pretty miserable as an associate—and I suspect
many associates still are. Being a third-, fourth- or fifth-year associate is filled with pressure points. You’re no
longer an ingénue, so you have to at least pretend you
know what you’re doing. And even if you are proficient
at a particular area, you might fear that you are forever
trapped in a practice you disdain. (For me, researching
state securities laws pushed me over the edge.)
That’s not to say that firms haven’t made improvements since the dark days of the late eighties when I left
practice. Now, firms at least pay lip service to morale—
a topic that would have invited laughter 25 years ago
(at least now partners just chuckle privately). And some
firms have made extra efforts to improve the associate
experience, like offering more training and flexibility.
There’s some progress, but the problem is that the
fundamentals remain the same. The hours are still horrendous, the pressure unrelenting and the work often
less than scintillating. To top it off, most associates have
little chance of making partner in Big Law—particularly
entering the holy order of equity partnership.
Navigating the profession is certainly worse than
ever. Young lawyers are getting hit with contradictory
mandates: Firms are expecting higher billables from
young lawyers (remember when 1,800 hours a year
was considered respectable?); at the same time, lawyers
are constantly under client pressure to keep legal costs
down. And for all the hand-wringing that firms do about
retaining associate talent, the business model remains
the old up-or-out/make partner or die. The simple reality is that firms expect and need the vast majority of their
hires to leave (or be pushed out).
Some associates become so jaded by the time they’re
midlevels that being partner is the last thing they want.
Which brings us to another reason that being a midlevel
associate is so wearing: For many people, it’s during those
midlevel years that the question of a more meaningful career and life becomes more urgent. (Roughly one-third
of our respondents said that they “honestly don’t know”
what they’ll be doing careerwise in five years.)
Often, there’s a gradual but inexorable recognition
that law practice is simply not the way you want to spend
your life. I certainly came to that recognition. To me, law
practice required a saintly patience and a strange obsession with details that I found unnatural.
Some people get over the midlevel associate identity
crisis and bet on partnership. Some get out of the game.
Probably many more are just deferring the whole issue.
Why is that something to be satisfied with? ( C H
What a funny, strange notion:
Every year we take measure of the mood of midlevel associates as if we were taking the temperature
of babies. We chart the small rises and falls, trying to decipher the concerns of the next generation.
Are young lawyers less dour and more hopeful this year? If so, are firms finally doing something
By Vivia Chen
For The Careerist blog, go to americanlawyer.com