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Summary: Many associates quit soon after they get their first law firm job.
Is BigLaw getting you down?
Are you working your tail off only to get more work piled on top of what you already have?
Do you feel disrespected, taken advantage of, or simply mistreated?
If you are experiencing the same duress as many other young legal associate, it is no wonder there is such a high turnover rate among today’s legal associates, even as law firms enjoy increased profits within the last year.
But more than that, as a lawyer, you’re needed; and that is what’s truly important.
This business – this business of law so many of us respect and look up to, isn’t by any measure an easy profession. As many lawyers know, particularly associates, the practice of law can come with a huge amount of duress.
80-hour workweeks, a seemingly insurmountable workload, and to make things acutely agitating, the long hours can invariably damage a lawyer’s relationships away from work.
This is a common practice within the legal profession that is rarely discussed outside of law firms or courtrooms, as well as something rarely – if at all – taught in law school.
In fact, it is as if attorneys are required to grit and bear the consequences of their job without showing any outward pain or struggle, much like an injured pro athlete, or a soldier who experiences PTSD.
Simply put, many associates suffer this fate when they first begin their legal career, which causes them to quickly dispense with:
Their feeling of triumph due to completing law school, and embarking on a strong legal career.
Their feeling that their position as a lawyer has come to fruition for the better good.
Their feeling that the population at large has a new advocate with fresh outlooks on law.
All that quickly dissipates once a lawyer gets a taste of the inner workings of the sausage factories that represent today’s BigLaw firms. And while the before mentioned “abuses” are said to weave a common thread through many so-called prestigious legal establishments, an increasing number of lawyers have found that the only way to have a respite from the slave-like labor associated with a law firm is to quit the law practice entirely.
Quitting law, however, is not (and should not be) an easy decision.
It is a wryly funny that law firms like to call themselves businesses, yet at the same time, behave nothing like a traditional money-for-goods entity that cares for its employees simply because that entity understands the value of its employees.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, according to Rhonda Muir, Esq., attrition is back in the spotlight of the legal world with an ongoing 20% attrition rate among lawyers who should feel lucky to have a job. As the article explains, what is interesting about the 20% annual rate is that it remains the same as prior to the 2008 recession. Needless to say, this has caused panic within the legal world to the point legal professionals and consultants claim that with the alarming rate of departure, law firms will no longer be able to sustain their so-called “pyramid business model,” and work their drone attorneys until they drop.
With that bleak outlook, the query was put forth as to why there is such a high rate of legal career migration to other interests when legal jobs remain scarce, salaries and prestige are high, and even big bonuses are coming back?
While law firm turnover rate remains almost 10 times the 2-3% turnover rate at Fortune’s 100 Best Companies, legal insiders maintain that associates leave for many reasons, not the least of which is their own poor performance, as well as an evolving disinterest in the profession, its approachable amount of work, as well as other personal issues.
Many associates who have summarily left the legal profession subscribe their reasoning to poor management, which, when you’re told (not asked) to work 60 to 80 hours a week, poor management to overworked legal associates is more or less the same as the reverend preaching to the choir.
3 reasons to leave and 3 reasons to stay
In an article published by Law.com, the ongoing 20% attrition rate among associates boils down to three main reasons. The article also presents three actions a law firm can take to prevent that same 20% attrition rate from hollowing out their own legal staff. Essentially, the article concludes the following:
3 Reasons associates leave:
1. Lack of Associate Training and Mentoring
Newly graduated associates come into a law firm ready to practice law, yet they are immediately subjugated to perform mundane, administrative, non-law duties. Sure, they may write legal briefs, or embed themselves into the lonely world or research. Other than that as far as client contact or any actual real hands-on work with a case is concerned, such tasks are not part of their day-to-day work. On top of that, partners are so linearly focused on billable-hour expectations that taking additional time to include an associate as a teaching opportunity is an afterthought. This leaves associates feeling as if they are not a vital part of the team, particularly when they receive little to no feedback or suggestions on their work. Ultimately, associates struggle to see a clear path to growth and promotion, and with that decide to move away from law.
2. Profit per Partner Means No Room at the Top
The majority of law firms use profit per partner (PPP) to measure success. With many law firms reporting stagnant profitability in recent years (though some firms have shown an increase in profits), promoting more associates to partner without a corresponding reduction to the total number of partners, means lower PPP. Law firms have responded by lengthening the partnership track, creating two-tier partnership tracks and/or requiring a larger book of business to reach the equity partner level. Based on a NAWL journal study, a typical associate at a “BigLaw” firm has a 1 in 350 chance of making equity partner at his or her firm. With no clear path and long hours ahead, associates move on rather than try to navigate the system.
3. Millennial Generation Expectations
The makeup and personality of law school graduates is changing significantly. The millennial generation of associates brings different expectations and measures of success. This younger generation has grown up with advanced technology and an expectation of innovation. However, the majority of law firms still depend upon outdated technology or old manual processes.
In addition, younger attorneys place less value on face-time requirements and have a strong desire for work-life balance. These ideologies are in direct conflict with the legal industry mentality, which discourages working from home and focuses heavily on billable-hour requirements.
As the Law.com article cites that for the three reasons associates abandon law firms, there’s also three reasons these same associates should stay and stick it out, the work of which relies more on the law firm than the associate him or herself.
To combat attrition, law firms should focus on the following:
1. Law Is a Business
Even as it is difficult for some to do so, law firms need to continue the shift toward operating like a business. Adoption of project management tools into legal workflows can eliminate tasks that drive associate time from legal work to administrative tasks. Training programs that focus on sales and networking programs can help associates understand how to build a book of business and better transverse the path to partner. Additionally, fixed-fee arrangements allow associates to get exposure to higher-value projects, where clients would traditionally prohibit younger associate work on such matters or request larger write-offs.
The problem, yet again, is many law firms are slow to adapt to such changes, if at all. They see nothing outdated, incorrect, or simply unfair about how things are internally run. Associates continue to be given short shrift in which they are simply relegated to the level of clerks or paralegals. Be that as it may, this is no way any successful business runs, and if legal entities continue to operate in such a manner, future graduating classes of lawyers will soon learn to avoid these types of law firms.
2. Technology, Technology, Technology
Technology offers immense opportunity to revolutionize the legal industry. Many of the new legal technology products focus on removing the noise and distraction from daily activities in a law practice so attorneys can focus on practicing law. Firms need to close the gap between availability and adoption of technology and strive to innovate the legal experience for incoming millennial associates as well as more tech-savvy clients.
While this is a happy thought for many law firms, senior partners still control much of how a law firm operates. And while some older attorneys have in their partner roles adapted to new technology, the older, grayer, more set in their ways class of senior lawyers simply don’t see technology’s value, or can’t be bothered with change. Unfortunately, characters like these should either retire or die off before a law firm can begin its innovative process.
3. Measures of Success
Firms need to develop a clear path to success, goals and expectations. Associates need to understand what the possibilities are for vertical growth and what work is required in order to reach those goals. With that in mind, firms will need to consider other key metrics when making decisions on partner promotion, as PPP inherently works against firm growth and discourages innovation. Professional development plans can help associates translate those goals and metrics into an actionable plan. Additional effort should also be made to train partners and senior associates in management skills to help develop talent within the firm.
With the largest 400 firms in the U.S. suffering losses of around $9.1 billion annually from attrition, it is imperative for law firms to quickly adopt methods to retain associates. Product management and other technology tools can shift the focus from administrative tasks to legal work, while professional development plans and training can help provide a clearer pathway for advancement. Partners need to be mindful of associate concerns and changing demographics to continue the growth of the industry into the next generation.
To fortify this notion, law firms need to accept associates for what they truly are: New lawyers with new viewpoints that more often than not meld with the changing world. Many attorneys who have graduated within the past one or two decades are most likely environmentally aware, diversity minded and in that, excellent representations of the new world as we see it develop with social media, technology and world awareness. Attributes like this also need to be included in the development of a clear path to success within all BigLaw firms.
The Price You Pay if You Do Leave
Just as the decision to practice law is a very personal decision, so is the decision to leave law. Granted, we all have our reasons to do anything in life. But when it comes to quitting law, the resolution to do so more likely than not arrives from employment-related issues such as overwork, a feeling of being taken advantage or, or a lousy work-life balance.
Yes, all that at an associate’s beginning wage of $180,000.
Now, that’s not to say that work-related issues such as overwork, a feeling of being taken advantage or a lousy work-life balance are matters that aren’t worth regard. However, looking at things from an opposite viewpoint, $180,000…I mean, really? You can’t deal with some of your personal concerns and continue to make your high-level starting salary?
Hard to say, but honestly, sometimes a person – even an overworked associate – has to put their head down and deal with whatever they may feel is wrong within their law firm.
After all, few people, particularly just out of college and with little to no work experience are provided an opportunity to make nearly $180,000 or more; especially while in their mid-20s.
Of course, if you do quit law, you will effectively give up the following:
Freedom: Believe it or not, especially as you may feel enslaved at your associate attorney’s job, you really do have freedom, particularly with your salary. The more you make, the more doors open up to you (for better or for worse), and the more able you are to enjoy life. Sure, you still have to work long hours, or potentially have to rearrange events like vacations. But if anything at all, you’re still part of a prestigious, highly respected profession and institution. Oh, and the $180,000 also helps.
Ability to unburden yourself of bills and other obligations: By “bills” nearly every graduated law student knows what their most daunting long-term expense is – their student loans. Of course, as we all know, student loans are no joke. Their presence can haunt every single finance-related plan you have far into your future. Outstanding student loans can prevent you from buying a car, a house, vacationing, even having and marrying a significant other. And while your inability to purchase these items has nothing to truly do with your work situation, quitting because you’re a have-not with student debt is about as asinine an idea as can be imagined. A job is needed, particularly a good job, to erase six-digit college debt in one’s lifetime. So why bite the legal hand that, at day’s end, feeds you? Your best bet is to simply hold on, and at worst, pay off your debts. Then you can think about quitting law.
Ability to practice again: Career suicide in the legal business can happen no more quickly and efficiently than when a person quits practicing law. Doing this is career suicide. You will especially find that out once you tire of not practicing law, or at least exhaust yourself over your pending debts, and realize that law was your only ticket back to where you can reign in your liability. The problem is virtually no one is going to hire you, especially with a history of quitting law. Firms will think:
You have no interest in law.
You don’t have the motivation or dedication to law.
You have no allegiance with law firms or the lawyers who work there.
You will always remain a flight risk to any law firm that hires you.
With odds like these stacked against you, you may as well kiss your BigLaw legal career goodbye. Most law firms and many attorneys will avoid you like the plague. Lawyers are built to work hard, and if law firms that are hiring don’t see that aspect in you, then with your college debt and highly paid associate’s lifestyle, you’re truly out of luck.
Granted, being stuck at a job that doesn’t necessarily cater to your lifestyle can be a complete drag. The days wear on longer, and you wear out faster due to finding yourself in a situation you didn’t completely count on when you dreamed of the position you are in now.
But honestly (if not a bit harshly), sometimes you just need to suck it up. Becoming a lawyer is not easy. The studying is rigorous and the bar testing afterward remains one of the most stressful times in a young lawyer’s life.
And yet, if one pulls themselves through all this to a point where they can freely practice – well, that’s saying something about intelligence, perseverance and grit. Getting one’s first legal job is really icing on the cake. Now a young lawyer gets to put all they learned to practical application. Don’t worries if this doesn’t immediately happen; at least you are working in the same atmosphere as those who do get to apply their legal skills, and will, patience providing, allow you to do the same as they.
Of course, your school debt is another reason not to quit law. Lawyers make good money, and law schools that charge good money for their education know this. Yale, Harvard, Stanford and other legal learning entities don’t leave you with a legal bill in the hundreds of thousands of dollars only to see you fold under pressure, throw up your hands and quit law to be…whatever. They expect you to succeed, to be noted for your craft proudly represent the alumni, and lastly to pay them the hell back for your three years of being the worthy and promising subject of their pedagogy. In short, if you stay at your legal job, you have the potential to:
Advance within the law firm where you work.
An ability to pay your law school debt.
Last and most importantly, before you quit, take one moment to consider who you are really quitting on; and that is the clients, whether they are new or already existing. You may not know it now, but at a moment in the future, there is a strong chance someone will need your legal expertise, help and representation. And it will be important, real-life help that you will offer. Help with consequences that can change lives much in the way your life changed the moment you stepped foot into your first law school class.
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