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The Main Reasons Staff Attorneys Are Valuable for Law Firms

published April 18, 2022

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Staff attorneys are often considered "less than" in the legal industry. They may sometimes do the same amount of work for a law firm and even have titles like associate or counsel on the firm's documents. However, they earn significantly less than their full-time counterparts. They do not have the same advancement opportunities. Many major law firms do not consider them marketable even though they come from great law schools. Still, law firms hire staff attorneys every day, and their demand is high.
 

This article explains the advantages and disadvantages of hiring staff attorneys for law firms and the advantages and disadvantages of becoming a staff attorney to help you decide whether this position is something for you.
 

Advantages of Hiring Staff Attorneys for Law Firms

 

Ability To Keep Low Billing Rates to Attract/Keep Clients

 

Clients, even those with enough money, want to keep their legal costs as low as possible, and law firms are aware of this. When a potential client comes to the firm and asks about its billing rates, they often mention that they employ staff attorneys with rates significantly lower than those of partners and always do everything to keep the bills down. Even when the billing rates of partners or associates are astronomical, law firms can still seem like a great friendly option by mentioning that they employ staff attorneys with significantly lower fees.

Having people on staff attorney positions effectively attracts new clients and keeps the existing ones. Law firms can persuade their clients that they are doing everything to keep their bills as low as possible. Thus, they are the best advocate for them.
 

Staff Attorneys Are Better for Practice Areas That Are Not Profitable for the Law Firm or Have Low Billing Rates


There are some practice areas in which the pressure to keep the billing rates low is very high or are not that profitable for firms because they do not have any certainty of continual work. It is too risky for law firms to employ full-time associates in these areas, so they often opt for hiring staff attorneys.

Examples of these areas are:
 

Trademark Law: There is usually a lack of continual work in trademark law because the cases are generally a one-time task, and there is not a lot of them. The area is only active when the economy is doing well, and the moment the economy slows down so does the practice area. Moreover, this practice area is common among small law firms willing to keep the billing rates very low, forcing even the larger firms to keep rates low to compete with them. This makes trademark law the ideal practice area for hiring staff attorneys.

Employment and Labor Law: Employment is another practice area mainly found in small or boutique law firms, which means that the billing rates are very low. If large law firms want to do any employment work (apart from class actions and similarly high profile matters), they must keep the rates comparably low. It is not profitable to employ full-time associates for employment legal matters, and staff attorneys are better options.

Litigation: Litigation is one of the most popular areas. There is a huge pool of qualified litigators to choose from, and it is cheaper for firms to hire staff attorneys than to employ associates. Because of the popularity of this area, the pressure to keep billing rates is also high.

Another reason why staff attorneys are more lucrative in litigation is because this practice area picks up and slows down quite rapidly. Once a big litigation matter is resolved, law firms are often forced to lay most litigators off. When these attorneys are in staff attorney positions, this is not an issue for the firm.

Patent Prosecution: There is not much patent work in a general law firm that does not specifically focus on patent prosecution. The billing rates are also usually quite low for this type of work, and much of it is even based on fixed fees. This nature of the practice area often leads patent prosecutors to want to change their job and leave the firm. Staff attorneys are usually the better option for many law firms.

Immigration Law: Like with patent prosecution, law firms focusing only on immigration law are doing it for very low rates. If larger law firms want to stand any chance of getting this type of work, they have to be able to do it at low rates. The work is usually quite routine, so there is no need to hire expensive attorneys. Because there are enough immigration lawyers, law firms can always find staff attorneys qualified for this type of work and do not have to have full-time associates.

New Practice Areas Not Established in the Law Firm: As law firms develop and grow, they often experiment and try out new areas. These might be well-known areas that the firm had not focused on before or even new areas that did not exist when the firm was created but are now becoming active. Hiring staff attorneys rather than associates are often more sensible because the firm cannot predict whether the area will be profitable enough. For instance, litigation-focused firms usually try to get into corporate law, and many large firms try to get into areas such as data privacy or technology transactions.
 

Partners Can Earn More When the Firm Hires Staff Attorneys

 

Partners are very important for law firms because they bring in the most money, so law firms always want to keep them happy. A big part of that is making sure that their profits are as high as possible. If the partners or senior associates are not satisfied with their compensation, they will switch to a firm with bigger profits. Hiring staff attorneys instead of associates is a great way to increase the profit the partners can get.

The salaries of staff attorneys are significantly lower than those of regular associates, which means that the firm is making more money from their work. They can also bill more hours for clients because their rates are usually lower. Their work is also much cheaper for the firm, and they can hire and fire them quickly. This means that when there is enough work, the firm can quickly hire staff attorneys to make sure that they maximize their profit, and when there is not enough work, they do not have to keep attorneys sitting behind their desks doing nothing and can fire them quickly.
 

The Supply of Attorneys From Law Schools Is Huge, and It Is Easier To Hire Staff Attorneys

 

Studying law at a law school is extremely popular, and law schools spit out a ton of attorneys every year. That means that law firms have hundreds of candidates for every position and know that they are the ones who determine the conditions.

It is much more sensible for law firms to offer them a staff attorney position rather than a full-time associate position, as they can pay them less, do not have to provide them with advancement options, and have the opportunity to quickly change them if they are not satisfied with their work.
 

When Needed, Law Firms Can Hire Staff Attorneys Who Do Not Fit The General Standards Expected From Attorneys Who Want To Advance in the Law Firm

 

Law firms, especially the prestigious and competitive ones, have set standards for hiring and a general course of how these attorneys advance in the firm. They only want to hire attorneys from the best schools who are extremely committed to law and are willing to work extremely hard for years to be able to make partners in the firm. The firm generally does not want to hire an attorney who showed a lack of commitment by switching to a different practice setting like going in-house counsel or on an extended leave. The firm is hiring and firing junior associates often, and the associates know that if they want to survive and advance, they eventually have to bring in their own business.

However, in some situations and some practice areas, law firms want to hire new attorneys and not have to offer them advancement. The staff attorney position is ideal for this. The law firm can hire attorneys from a different setting or have other disadvantages in their background without promising them the possibility of advancing. This step does not influence the standard requirements and associates' expectations that have been in the firm for decades.
 

A Law Firm Can Offer More Flexibility and Work-Life Balance to Staff Attorneys

 

Almost every profession has seen the shift toward a better work-life balance and more flexible hours in the past years, and the legal profession is no different. Many highly qualified attorneys have found out that working fewer hours and having a better lifestyle outside of work is important to them, so they are looking at options for getting it even at the expense of not getting the traditional advancement options.

Becoming a staff attorney is a great way to find all of this while still being able to work on sophisticated, complex legal matters. It is also beneficial for law firms because they are under less pressure when hiring staff attorneys than hiring associates while also finding the most talented attorneys to work for their clients.
 

Staff Attorneys Do Not Work Under False Pretenses of the Possibility of Advancing

 

Most attorneys a law firm hires will never advance to equity partners. Even if they are employed as associates, they will not make it to partners, and if they do, partners or counsel are often asked to leave for one reason or another. The hiring of staff attorneys does not come with the same implication of advancement in the future, which makes it more honest in the eyes of many firms.
 

Staff Attorneys Are Beneficial for Older Firms With Strict Hierarchy

 

Prestigious law firms that have been around for decades usually have a strict hierarchy of associates and partners. Because they were established so many years ago, the positions at the top are typically filled, and the firm cannot offer a partnership to anyone new. These firms often start hiring staff attorneys instead of associates to ensure that the workers they have are not trying to advance and take some of the profit the current partners are taking.
 

Hiring Staff Attorneys Is Beneficial for Current Associates

 

When law firms hire staff attorneys, it can benefit the associates already working in the firm. These staff attorneys are a working power that does not threaten the associates because they are not competing with them to advance. Staff attorneys are often hired to do the work associates do not want to do - proofreading, discovery, or document review. Associates can then focus more on doing the more sophisticated work they enjoy.
 

Law Firms Do Not Have To Train Staff Attorneys As Much As Associates

 

Associates generally require a lot of training before handling more complex tasks themselves. Staff attorneys are usually hired for easy tasks they do not need training for. However, law firms can also hire staff attorneys who have been well-trained and have enough experience and assign them more complex work without training them.
 

Firms Can Control Staff Attorneys Better


Associates or partners that are not satisfied with how they are treated in their firm or the conditions they have there can usually negotiate better conditions in a different law firm. However, staff attorneys do not have as many options, so law firms have much more control over them.
 

Firms Can Give Staff Attorneys the Illusion of Work Stability and Advancement Possibility

 

Because a staff attorney position is usually salaried rather than based on a contract, staff attorneys typically have some sense of stability and might think that they will be able to advance in the firm. However, staff attorneys almost never advance, and they are always the first to go when the firm gets into trouble.
 

Disadvantages of Hiring Staff Attorneys for Law Firms


Staff Attorneys Might Be Angry With the Staff Position and Have a Bad Attitude Toward the Firm

 

While most staff attorneys are hired to these positions because they would otherwise not be able to get hired in that law firm, after working in the firm for a while, many of them start to think that they deserve more. Many associates and partners treat staff attorneys as second-class attorneys, and they are not afraid to show the disdain they have. That can make staff attorneys feel negative toward the other attorneys and the firm itself.

Staff attorneys often come to partners wanting to negotiate better working conditions, higher salaries, or even advancement to level with the other lawyers in the firm. The firm generally does not want to do that (although they might tell the attorney they are thinking about it), so when the conditions do not change, the staff attorney might get angrier and start looking for another job.

As a legal recruiter in BCG Attorney Search, I often contact such attorneys, and they are usually angry with their firm. They often talk very negatively about the firm and the attorneys working there because of their experience.

Of course, not every staff attorney is like this, and many extremely competent lawyers in staff positions are happy with their place in the firm and do not want to demand anything more. However, many lawyers in staff positions can cause problems, and firms should be aware of this.
 

Staff Attorneys Can Spread Bad Attitude and Lower Morale of Others

 

Because staff attorneys are often regarded as second-class lawyers, they usually start feeling quite negative toward their firm and work and have a bad attitude. This bad attitude can spread among other attorneys very quickly, affecting how these attorneys feel in their job and how well they perform in it. It is difficult to maintain motivation when working next to someone who has already given up on such a job. It may be easier to keep attorneys motivated and competitive when they are in a similar position.
 

Advantages of Working as a Staff Attorney

 

Better Work-Life Balance/Working Hours

 

A staff attorney often has set working hours - they are expected to show up in the morning, can leave by five or six in the afternoon, and can enjoy their weekends as they want. That is something associates can only dream of as they often have to work long hours seven days a week. This predictable schedule and stable paycheck allow the attorneys to take care of their families or spend time on their interests outside of work.
 

Less Pressure At Work

 

Associates and partners are under constant pressure at work. They have to bill an unbelievable number of hours and generate business. Otherwise, they are risking their careers. Attorneys in staff attorney positions do not experience such pressure. They come into the office to do their job, and after they have done that, they can leave. They do not have to impress others to advance or compete with them to secure a better position.
 

It Is Easier To Get a Staff Attorney Job Than Other Types of Jobs in a Big Law Firm

 

Staff attorney positions allow attorneys to work in law firms they would otherwise not be able to get in. Although major law firms have very high standards for hiring associates, they are not as strict with their staff attorneys. If you have taken time off, gone in-house, or worked as a contract attorney, it is possible to get a staff position in a major law firm even when you are not coming from the top law school.

There is also less competition for these positions because the salary is lower than associate positions, and there is less potential for professional development. Finding a staff attorney position might often be easier and quicker than other positions in major firms.
 

There Is SOME Advancement Potential

 

It does not happen often, but if you show talent, commitment, work ethic, and get in with the right people, there is a chance to advance and get a full-time position. An important thing to note here is that the attorney who can advance cannot be completely "off" when considering the hiring requirements. A major law firm will not offer a full-time position to a staff attorney that did poorly in law school or comes from an in-house position.
 

The Work of Staff Attorneys Can Be as Complex as That of Other Attorneys


Although many attorneys believe that staff attorneys work only on busy work and easy tasks, it is not true. Many staff attorneys work on complex assignments and enjoy this sophisticated work.
 

Disadvantages of Working as a Staff Attorney


Advancement Is Extremely Difficult


While it is not impossible to advance, as mentioned previously, it is extremely difficult and does not happen often. Moreover, advancement is rarely possible, even when the pay staff attorneys get. Staff attorneys do not usually get raises or bonuses, and their income is frozen at one level.

Many attorneys become staff attorneys because they enjoy the work and lack of pressure knowing about this lack of title and income advancement opportunities. However, after a few years of seeing others get raises, they might start to feel resentful.
 

Staff Attorneys Usually Have a Second-Class Status


It is a well-known fact that staff attorneys are often regarded as second-class citizens. They are not as respected and do not have the same level of prestige as other attorneys in the law firm. They may get assigned less important work, smaller offices, less support, and any mistakes or quirks are less tolerated. They do not get the work they want but rather work others do not want, and are often excluded from going to court, closings, firm functions, and other events.
 

Lower Income

 

Staff attorneys have significantly lower salaries than associates even though they might be working on equally complex tasks. It does not matter how much experience a staff attorney has. They usually get paid less than junior associates.
 

It Is Rarely Possible To Get a Different Position in a Biglaw Firm After Being a Staff Attorney


Once an attorney becomes a staff attorney, it is very hard for them to find any other position in a major law firm. They showed that they are willing to work for less money and without advancement options, so why change that?

Moreover, firms always wonder what led the attorney to choose a staff position. They may think that the attorney does not want responsibilities and pressure to be an associate. They do not care about advancement or are not good enough to get a better position.
 

Staff Attorneys Are the First To Go During Layoffs

 

Law firms usually do not invest a lot of money in hiring and training staff attorneys. That is a stark difference from other attorneys in law firms who are often sent to conferences, and firms spend money and effort on helping them develop their skills and business.

Firms are not as invested in their staff attorneys, and they are usually the first to go when the firm has to lay people off.
 

Conclusions


The role of a staff attorney comes with its advantages and disadvantages, as with everything in the legal industry. It can be extremely beneficial for many law firms, and some attorneys can be very happy in their position as a staff attorney long-term. However, as it has some drawbacks that can have lasting negative effects, becoming (or hiring) a staff attorney must be approached with reason.

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