Building a Better Legal Profession :: The Old Blog


“Less Money, Fewer Hours,” Say Many Summer Associates
December 4, 2007, 7:27 pm
Filed under: Job Search Tools

The American Lawyer has just published the results of its annual summer associate survey.  Overall, the piece argues that summers have a better experience (training, mentorship, etc) at medium-size firms:

Students craved juicy assignments, friendly offices and lots of attention, and the firms that best satisfied these needs tended to be medium-size shops with relatively small summer programs.

But the buzz around BBLP was about the survey’s work/life balance findings.  Time and time again, we at BBLP hear that over-worked associates have too much money and no time to spend it.  They frequently tell us they would happily trade money for more personal time.

Firms, take note: even in the midst of all the wining and dining, the “less money, fewer hours” message has filtered down to summer associates.  According to AmLaw,

Others suggested they would gladly trade some of the riches for less time at the office. “Give people an option of opting out of the salary increase in return for less billable hours,” advised a clerk at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman. “Stop raising salaries, it is just going to hit us in hours in the end,” grumbled a summer associate at Hogan & Hartson.

Indeed, interns got a taste of how arduous law firm life can be. On average, they worked 44 hours per week. An Orrick summer grimly remembered “watching the sun go down and come back up and not even realizing the time had passed as I worked all night to finish a memo.” At LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae, a clerk recalled “sending an e-mail to an associate past 1 a.m. and getting a reply in less than two minutes. Scary.”

For most respondents, long hours weren’t appealing. When asked to identify factors influencing whether they would accept a full-time job offer, students cited “work/life balance” 54 percent of the time. No other factor was chosen more often. 

Students heading to big firms next summer increasingly want something different.  It’s not about finding the most prestigious place with the highest salary.  Work/life balance is a big issue for our generation, and will continue to be as we become associates and partners in large law firms.

Finally — for those students wondering how to have the best big firm summer possible — if last year is any guide, summers have the best time when they found great training and had good work to do.

Firms that did well in the survey, whether large or small, focused on training and mentoring and pushed partners to involve summers in exciting projects.  . . . One of the few big programs at the top of the chart, Philadelphia’s Morgan, Lewis & Bockius maintained its strong ranking — fourth this year, seventh last year — by making sure that its 120 clerks had plenty of real work.

You can view the entire article and rankings here.



Our Professional Obligations
December 4, 2007, 6:50 pm
Filed under: Law reform

Judge Baer (SDNY) is NOT happy. Last Friday he released an opinion containing some strong words for the legal profession (HT: WSJ):

The legal profession has seen a transformation wherein the naked competition and singular economic focus of the marketplace have begun to infiltrate the practice of the law, subordinating high standards of service, collegiality, and professionalism as a result.

The next 125 pages are spent detailing the misbehavior of a couple of attorneys practicing before him. But Baer’s not done with the rest of us:

The fact that partners are at times made and retained for their rainmaking skills and not for their legal skill, that the number of billable hours is not only the alpha and omega of bonuses but that these hours – or at least the ones that count – often exclude pro bono hours, or that who gets credit for originating a piece of business can throw a firm into turmoil and prompt internecine struggles, or that the bottom line has eclipsed most everything else for which the practice of law stands or stood to the extent that the practice of law is now frequently described as a business rather than a profession.

No one’s confused into thinking that there was some ‘golden age’ of practice, where law was exclusively a profession. Law has always been both a profession and a business, and will continue to be. But Judge Baer’s not alone in thinking that we’ve moved too far away from the roots our professional obligations to clients and the community.

In this particular case, it seems clear that the client isn’t getting anywhere by hiring lawyers that make Judge Baer this mad. You don’t hire a firm thinking, “I want the Judge to write a 129 page opinion disciplining my attorney. That’s the best way to victory.” So put this case aside for a second.

Judge Baer’s opinion provides a good opportunity to step back and evaluate your own work for a second. It’s a chance to make sure we’re really living up to our professional obligations of service to others.

- Do we really have the same interests as our clients? It should depend on how each side measures success, yes. But for many attorneys at large firms, the need to achieve high billables — using this number as the measure of our professional success — means tracking something fundamentally contrary to client outcomes. Is there a better way to do this?

- Even in a time with steep competition and ever-increasing business pressure, are we still looking out for our community? Does our understanding of the law as a profession include service to something or someone greater than ourselves?



Wining & Dining
November 27, 2007, 8:05 pm
Filed under: Law reform

Last weekend’s “Dr. Drug Rep” article in the Times Magazine caught my eye. In it, a doctor explains how he was recruited to become a once-a-week salesman for a large pharmaceutical company (Wyeth), eventually going town to town to speak to other doctors about a particular anti-depressant for $500/hour.

We pick up the story after the author’s recruitment visit to New York. He’s just heard the firm’s pharmaceutical company’s pitch:

Was I swallowing the message whole? Certainly not. I knew that this was hardly impartial medical education, and that we were being fed a marketing line. But when you are treated like the anointed, wined and dined in Manhattan and placed among the leaders of the field, you inevitably put some of your critical faculties on hold. I was truly impressed with Effexor’s remission numbers, and like any physician, I was hopeful that something new and different had been introduced to my quiver of therapeutic options.

At the end of the last lecture, we were all handed envelopes as we left the conference room. Inside were checks for $750. It was time to enjoy ourselves in the city.

It’s an all-too familiar feeling. As we approach the end of recruiting season, we at BBLP wish you well in your decisions. And hope you don’t put “your critical faculties on hold.”



The Strange World of Law Firm Recruiting
November 13, 2007, 11:28 pm
Filed under: Law reform

Some thoughts on the incredible recruiting system employed by large law firms, by Irene Hahn, a student at Stanford Law School:

If you’re looking for evidence of the market power of law students, look no further than the nature of law firm recruiting. It’s a strange place, really.

In major U.S. markets, the median starting salary for associates at large firms is $145,000, and many firms begin at $160,000. Oftentimes that doesn’t include an annual bonus, which can be significant: as reported in the New York Times, Cravath recently announced that associates will receive a one-time bonus of between $10,000 and $50,000 on top of the starting salary of $160,000. This bonus has since been matched by other firms.

For all that cash, you’d think that the selection process would be grueling, subjecting would-be associates to tough questions evaluating their analytical skills and motivations. But the reality? Not nearly as grueling as you’d expect, as a recent article in the American Lawyer reported:

It’s a scary prospect, meeting with partners at a big firm about a job. But, as one law student who landed a summer position at Latham & Watkins quickly realized, the pre-interview jitters were the hardest part. “I don’t think through the entire interview process I got one difficult question,” he says. In fact, the partners he met weren’t all that interested in his academic work or his future career: “Almost everyone I talked to did fantasy football and was really interested in talking about their inner-firm leagues,” he says. Partners might have been trying to make a connection with him by chatting about the trivial, but as the Latham summer puts it: “You don’t feel you are being seriously vetted for a position.”

Ask law firm recruits — particularly those from elite schools — about the recruiting experience, and the stories are fairly similar: Short interviews, shallow questions and a sheaf of boilerplate marketing materials. It’s not much better on the other side of the equation. To find qualified candidates, firms respond to cattle calls at top law schools. There, partners meet 20 students a day for 20 minutes at a time for several days in a row. On the basis of those meetings, students are called back for a series of 30-minute office interviews. If a student is from a good school, has an acceptable resume, and decent social skills, he or she is practically guaranteed an offer for a summer position within 24 hours of the office visit. And nine times out of 10, a summer job leads to an offer for a full-time associate position.

It’s a far cry from, say, an interview at a consulting firm or investment bank, where candidates are asked to perform case studies and explain how they have dealt with difficult situations in the past.

The reason for the ease of law firm interviews is simple: lots of spaces, not enough qualified candidates to fill them. Firms don’t want to antagonize a good candidate who might turn them down just because their interview was too hard. As reported in the article, demand for associates continues to rise-in the last decade, the number of associates increased 76 percent at the largest 250 law firms, while the number of law school graduates rose just 7 percent.

It’s not uncommon for students at the top law schools to get multiple offers. For instance, a summer associate with Covington & Burling said that “he gave all his interviewers an apparently believable reason for why he wanted to work at their firm, even though he really had no idea. He did 12 interviews and got 11 callbacks and ten offers.” It’s not so much a matter of whether you’ll get a job, but where you want to work.

So how do you choose between firms? For many students, the choice is an arbitrary one:

Students … have problems vetting firms. They aren’t helped much by firm marketing materials, which often say the same thing and make firms indistinguishable from each other. “They all tell you they have great clients, and they work hard but [have] a very collegial atmosphere,” says [a] Stanford student. “It’s the same discourse over and over again.”

The nature of the recruiting process makes it tough to assess how happy you’re going to be at any one firm. Associates leave law firms at astonishingly high rates-40% leave by the end of their third year, 62% by the end of their fourth. Some of the reasons have to do with quality of life issues or disillusionment with the work itself; others have to do with despair at the low possibility of advancement, which can be far worse for women and minorities. In all these cases, it’s a no-brainer that some way of distinguishing between firms might have been helpful when you were trying to decide where to go.

Our hope is that rankings such as the ones put out by BBLP will help make students more informed consumers about the professional choices you are about to make. We have the right to choose law firms on the basis of more than just first impressions of the office or the quality of the restaurant the recruiters take you to, which are bad criteria anyway for making a decision that will shape the next several years of your life.

Look at their diversity statistics. Look at their pro bono record. Look at how many women actually make partner. By choosing the firms who have something more to offer its young associates, we can get the firms who aren’t doing as good a job to change their practices.

The bottom line: the firms need us more than we need them. Don’t be afraid to be selective.



Correction: Greater Asian Representation at Gordon & Rees
November 5, 2007, 12:27 am
Filed under: Law reform

In our report on diversity in large Northern California firms, we mistakenly under-reported the number of Asian-American attorneys at Gordon & Rees. As the corrected numbers show, as of February 1, 2007, 9.3% of the firm’s partners and 24.5% of the firm’s associates in San Francisco are Asian. When compared to all large law firms in Northern California, the revised numbers place Gordon & Rees in the second quintile for Asian-American representation. We have also revised our ‘Diversity Report Card’ to reflect the higher rating.

This was a significant mistake on our part and we are deeply sorry for the error. We would like to take this opportunity to publicly apologize to Gordon & Rees. The mistake was corrected within 48 hours of notification.

Since we’re big on transparency, we should also take this moment to say more about our process. We have a relatively slow, labor-intensive data collection process that results in some amount of human error. We have calculated an extremely low error rate, but it is still non-zero. We encourage law firms to write us with corrections and are committed to resolving them immediately.



Our Market-Based Approach
October 29, 2007, 9:51 am
Filed under: Law reform

Some thoughts on our approach by Matt Steilen, a third-year law student at Stanford:

To understand Law Students Building a Better Legal Profession you have to appreciate that its approach to changing private practice is based in the market for legal services. While its members are advocates for change in the sense that they aim to improve conditions for associates at leading law firms, they are not advocates in another sense. The idea is not simply to ask of firms that they change, but to choose to work at firms that are changing and have changed. In other words, students are not the advocates. The market is.

Law students at the nation’s top schools are valuable assets for firms. Ask managing partners what their top priorities are for ensuring the continued success of the firm, and almost all will tell you that recruitment of the very best young associates is absolutely critical. Top schools are producing far fewer graduates than firms need to fill their ranks. This is why large firms have massive budgets for finding, wooing, hiring and retaining law students. And this is why it will matter to firms if some of their best candidates decline offers out of concern about the environment they are about to enter.

In this sense, Law Students Building a Better Legal Profession is not about “whining.” It is not about complaining that the life of a lawyer is hard. The life of a lawyer is hard, and the group’s members and leaders acknowledge that. Instead, Law Students Building a Better Legal Profession seeks to enable students who have reasonable concerns about their careers to make informed choices about the alternatives available in the market. And in so doing, the group aims to incentivize the managers of leading firms to make workable choices about billing, hiring, and community involvement. While we have done a considerable amount to educate ourselves about the business of law, managing partners are the experts. They have the tools to address why many young associates leave before they can produce value for the firm. They have the tools to improve conditions for associates. If they do so, they will be better able to recruit the associates they want.

Law Students Building a Better Legal Profession understands that law is a demanding profession. It is this, in part, that has attracted many of us to the field. But this is not the only demand we recognize. We choose not to simply set aside the demands of other aspects of our lives. We choose not to work in environments that lack diversity, openness, and a commitment to professionalism and respect. These are reasonable choices. And when they are made on the basis of accurate information, they make an advocate of the market.



Michigan Lawyers & Part-Time Practice
October 28, 2007, 6:23 pm
Filed under: Law reform

Interesting, potentially controversial new findings out from Ken Dau-Schmidt et al. about part-time lawyers.

In a nutshell, we find that childcare responsibilities drive much of the differences in income and promotion experienced by men and women lawyers, and that men who miss paid work to do childcare experience the same disadvantages as women who miss paid work to do childcare. We also find that both more men and more women lawyers are missing paid work to do childcare, that they are taking longer absences from paid work to do childcare, and they are working less hours after they return to their careers.

Some of our less systematic, but more curious findings are that: in part male lawyers earn more than women lawyers because they are more interested in income than the woman lawyers; women who have kids but who do not miss paid work to do childcare are more likely to be in private practice and be a partner than women without kids, even though women without kids work more hours; and women who miss paid work to do childcare have significantly higher LSAT’s and GPA’s than women who don’t miss paid work to do childcare.

The study uses the Michigan Law alumni survey, which according to the authors is “one of the richest and largest data sets available on lawyers over much of the period that encompassed women’s move into the legal profession.”



Two Firms Come Forward: “Mistakes Were Made”
October 28, 2007, 6:13 pm
Filed under: Job Search Tools

As a result of our project, several firms have decided to double-check their NALP reporting.  It turns out that a couple did not accurately report their statistics.  Sidley’s New York office, for example, sent us the following email:

In perusing your very detailed and comprehensive rankings, I became aware of an error on our part that was carried through to our rankings. In our New York office as of Feb. 1 2007, we had six (6) openly LGBT associates who for some reason were not reported on our NALP form. Needless to say, they are very distressed at this omission, and the additional consequence of seeing their office receive an “F” in ranking the number of lgbt associates.

Sidley has revised its NALP form and is committed to better reporting on its February 1, 2008 NALP survey.

Patton Boggs in DC found that it too had made an error, this time in pro bono participation figures.  The firm’s initial NALP response had its pro bono participation figures among the lowest in the country — suggesting that only 2% of the firm’s partners contributed to pro bono.

Fortunately, this was a mistake, and Patton now reports that 53.8% of partners and 85.2% of associates do pro bono work.  According to Mary Kimber, the firm’s Chief Marketing Officer:

It is my understanding that the confusion arose over the way the question was posited. The numbers that were in the NALP survey (and in error) were actually the percentage of pro bono hours worked vs. billable hours worked, rather than the percentage of participation. I hope that this clears up any misunderstanding and errors in the NALP survey and on the blog. Patton Boggs is proud of its commitment to pro bono and we appreciate you reporting on the correction of the NALP survey results.

To the best of our knowledge, no other firm made this kind of interpretative error.

A major goal of building a better legal profession is to encourage firms to prioritize full and accurate reporting on NALP forms.  We’re glad that these firms have renewed their commitments to such reporting, and look forward to publishing their updated numbers in our 2008 rankings.



Suspect Rankings, continued
October 25, 2007, 10:41 pm
Filed under: Job Search Tools

Our post on Multicultural Law mag struck a chord — is this just the tip of the iceberg?  Said PT-Law Mom,

It’s these types of misrepresentations that also make it hard for women to choose a law firm.  The rankings in Working Mother magazine (Best Places to Work) seem suspect.  I have several friends at Pillsbury Winthrop who have found that the much-touted “part-time program” ends up being more of a “work full-time hours for less pay to meet client demands”.  Pillsbury (and other firms) buy huge ads in Working Mother and, amazingly enough, they appear year after year.  Worth looking at, I’d say.

PT-LawMom

More on this soon.



Correction
October 25, 2007, 10:28 pm
Filed under: Blogroll

Since we’re big on transparency, we also need to acknowledge places where we’ve gone wrong. And in an early draft of our rankings, our female partnership numbers for Northern California were incorrect.

Specifically, although we assigned Howard Rice their correct ranking (#2 in the Bay), the firm’s female partnership rate should have read 28.6%.  In our first draft of the online rankings, the Bay Area female partnership numbers were listed with data points from another market.  We corrected the mistake the evening of October 10, 2007, but were not able to make the change in time for an article in The Recorder.

We regret the error, have notified the paper, and apologized to Howard Rice.



How NOT to sell a firm diversity program
October 23, 2007, 1:47 pm
Filed under: Job Search Tools, Law reform

The legal employment market suffers from imperfect information. Law students considering large law firms don’t have enough information about their future employers. And much of what they DO have is of very low quality. Firms exploit this lack of accurate information to sell their diversity and work/life programs with questionable claims.

One way Building a Better Legal Profession tries to combat this problem is with a ‘Most Transparent’ and ‘Least Transparent’ chart, which looks at how New York firms performed on billable hour and pro bono reporting. But here’s a case study on how NOT to sell your diversity program, courtesy of Fish & Richardson:

Earlier this month, Fish & Richardson had the following claim posted on its website: “Multicultural Law ranked us in the top one-third of their 2007 ‘Top 100 Law Firms for Diversity’ list.” The claim was the very first bullet point of achievement on Fish’s “Diversity” page — a place where law students and clients considering the firm would inevitably look to see success in attracting and retaining talent from diverse backgrounds.

We at b.b.l.p. looked up Multicultural Law‘s website, and found that Fish & Richardson was indeed ranked number 33. That’s good. We also saw that the list was sorted in alphabetical order. . . . That’s bad.

Fish & Richardson was ranked 33 because their name starts with the letter F, not because it was more diverse than firms 34-100. Akerman Senterfitt shouldn’t be #1 just because it starts with the letter A, and Fish shouldn’t be #33 just because it’s earlier in the alphabet than Winston & Strawn.

We called Fish & Richardson to inquire, and the firm was so embarrassed it changed its website to remove the “top one-third” designation. (Too late: we still got the screen shot.) Although even now I really question why the firm continues to list being on the Top 100 as an achievement, since a) there’s no description of how the list was compiled, see below, and b) Fish doesn’t really need some dubious rankings to show their achievements: based on our rankings, the firm actually does quite well on several diversity indicators in the Boston region.

But this is the problem – law students don’t have easily-accessible, high-quality information to make employment decisions with. Our rankings help remedy that situation. Using our reports, law students can now identify firms taking the lead on important issues, and by doing so, can send a message to large firms to improve their own organizations.

One more thing: Fish & Richardson shouldn’t make such claims, but Multicultural Law magazine may be the real culprit. The purpose of the magazine is “to serve as a vehicle for law firms to promote their diversity message.” Um … does that mean firms pay for the opportunity to be on a “Top 100 Firms for Diversity” list? If Building a Better Legal Profession bought an ad, could we be ranked #4 on the rankings, since our name starts with the letter B?

Our repeated phone messages to the magazine seeking comment were not returned. But you can check out their rankings here. Ask yourself: What data are they based upon? How did firms get themselves on the list? How did they decide that the firms should be ranked in alphabetical order?

And for you enterprising readers, which other firms tout this ranking as an achievement? Drop us an email if you come across something.



what’s going on with the Chicago links?
October 19, 2007, 5:31 pm
Filed under: Blogroll

A helpful reader has written in to say that a couple of the Chicago rankings aren’t working right now.  While the eight rankings for african-american, hispanic, asian, and lgbt attorneys are correct, the three rankings of women attorneys incorrectly go to our Boston lists.

We are working on this and expect to have it fixed in the next few days.  We’re checking all of the other rankings too, and should have any remaining bugs resolved soon.

Thanks to this reader and others for your comments and suggestions.



Rankings Released!
October 10, 2007, 1:09 pm
Filed under: Job Search Tools, Law reform

Today we released a series of reports ranking firms on diversity, pro bono participation, and billable hours in six major markets. You can find our rankings and charts for the New York, DC, Boston, Chicago, Northern California, and Southern California markets here.

And press releases:

New York

Washington, D.C.

Northern California

Southern California

Chicago

Boston (coming soon)



orrick speaks out!
October 3, 2007, 10:28 pm
Filed under: endorsement, Law reform

… about our efforts. we’re releasing a major report ranking large firms on key metrics, including five forms of diversity, pro bono participation, and billable hours. some firms are doing very well, while others are lagging behind.

who are these top performers, you might ask? you’ll have to wait until wednesday for the full results, but here’s a preview: when it comes to all forms of diversity, orrick is one of very best firms in new york city. Here’s what they have to say about that:

“we are proud to earn this recognition from law students building a better legal profession. a commitment to workplace diversity is essential in attracting and retaining exceptional attorneys out of law school and to ensuring the success of law firms. it will continue to be a top priority at o.”

ralph baxter, chairman and CEO, orrick

stay tuned — more endorsements soon …



Dear Stanford Law Students:
September 30, 2007, 10:24 pm
Filed under: Job Search Tools, Law reform

Welcome. Thanks for taking the time to check out our website.

Building a Better Legal Profession seeks to harness the market power of law students to encourage reform at large private law firms. We think the current model at large firms — one based on high salaries, but higher billable hour expectations — isn’t just bad for young lawyers, it’s bad for the profession.

Billable hours keep going up. Which makes it harder to do pro bono. Harder to live your own life outside of the office. And harder to have a family. Firms lose some of their best young lawyers — female AND male associates — when they fail to accommodate their employees’ need to balance work and family. That hurts their bottom line.

But firms won’t change on their own.

That’s where we come in. Law students are in a special position. We are in high demand. We can afford to be a little choosy about where we work after graduation. By opting for firms with more realistic billable hour requirements, higher pro bono participation rates, and higher retention rates for women and other minority lawyers, not only will we have a better employment experience, we will also send a powerful message to all firms that these metrics matter.

The information we posted all around school (about billable hours, pro bono participation, transparency, and diversity) is one way to show major distinctions between law firms. All of this information is publicly available, but, before this project, no one had ever bothered to display it in a useful format. You can use your market power to exploit these distinctions. You’re a valuable commodity, for better or for worse.

We’re not alone in believing that the billable hour could use some rethinking. See our posts below for articles about billables, their effect on a balanced work and life, and a few law firms that are doing things differently.

Want to hear more? Join our organization by emailing us at refirmation (at) gmail.com. We can use your help in expanding this to more markets (including the Bay Area, yes) and to cover additional metrics you’d find useful.



Firm Actually REDUCES Billable Hour Expectation
September 12, 2007, 5:25 pm
Filed under: Law reform

Hanson Bridgett, a midsize San Francisco firm, has just decided to lower its billable hour requirement by 50 hours a year:

Weeks before the fiscal year’s end, Hanson Bridgett circulated a memo to its 50 associates and senior counsel announcing 50 hours would be lopped off the annual billings expectations, from 1,850 to 1,800 hours, without compromising partnership trajectory. For comparison, most big law associates are required to bill north of 2,000 hours a year.

According to the San Francisco Daily Journal of Sept. 7, 2007 (no link available), Hanson Bridgett said “these changes reinforce our difference as a law firm committed to offering you rewarding careers as lawyers, while at the same time respecting your goals outside of work.”

We couldn’t be happier to hear the news. Hanson Bridgett’s movement — in the right direction, for once — is a tremendous step toward building a better firm and profession, benefiting both their attorneys and their clients. As a partner there put it:

“We think this is the best way to do right by our people, acknowledging that there’s a marketplace where they can go out and make more money; do right by our firm and our clients by trying to make sure we hold on to the best people and attract the best people; and not do something we think would damage our business, like going up to 160.”

You can learn more about Hanson Bridgett here.



Firm Kills Billable Hour for First-Years
September 6, 2007, 4:03 pm
Filed under: Law reform

Great news from a mid-size law firm in Atlanta: no more billable hours for starting associates. Congratulations to Ford & Harrison for taking the plunge:

Ford & Harrison, a 190-attorney labor and employment firm, has tossed out billable-hour requirements for first-year associates. The program aims to close the practical-skills gap of law school education and increase value to clients. The firm also hopes it will enable associates to handle meatier matters more quickly.

According to the National Law Journal, the firm used to require 1900 billables a year. Now first-years have no requirement, and can devote their time and attention to training.

The change also has advantages for the partners:

Most partners liked the concept, he said, and saw it as a way to eliminate all the hand-wringing — and time — involved in determining which hours worked by associates are valuable enough to bill. Partners also saw the long-term payoff of training new lawyers to become profitable sooner in their careers, he said.

I’ve heard similar rumors from a large law firm out in San Francisco, but as far as I know, Ford & Harrison is the first mover. I wouldn’t be surprised if they benefit from their entrepreneurship. You can find them online here:

Ford & Harrison: Careers



Who Says Being a Lawyer Has to Suck?
August 15, 2007, 10:44 am
Filed under: Law reform

San Francisco magazine asks why large law firms are increasingly unattractive to young attorneys in the Bay Area, and reports back about “absurd hours,” a 78% 5-year attrition rate, and “brutal” business pressure. 

“The elephant in the room is the billable hour,” says Beth Parker, a partner at Bingham McCutchen’s San Francisco office. “People cannot work 20 to 30 years doing 2,400 hours a year. It’s just not sustainable.” Not surprisingly, a 2006 survey by the Bar Association of San Francisco found that the higher its number of billable hours, the higher a firm’s associate attrition rate.

At least in the Bay Area, many firm attorneys aren’t going to take it anymore:

But even as the profession slowly wakes up, young lawyers in the Bay Area aren’t waiting around. Entirely on their own, they’re creating new, Gen-Y-inspired ways of being a lawyer that acknowledge that things like family and yoga and volunteering should be as much a part of the good life as working hard. And if they are going to work like dogs, in the land of Google they want to make real money (read millions, not a couple hundred thousand) doing it.

The article goes on to describe a few of the options attorneys have pursued, including plaintiff-side work, launching their own firm, and the government, among others.  Yes, these are the standard options.  But there are new kinds of firms, too.  Have you ever heard of Axiom?

So do many of the attorneys at the maverick Axiom Legal, an entirely new kind of law firm with no partners, no billable-hour rat race, and no pricey overhead on a 25th-floor vista and mahogany-paneled library. The seven-year-old firm’s business model is simple: match up Axiom attorneys with clients on a free-agency basis. Clients and Axiom agree on a set price for a project, and then clients pick the attorney they want from Axiom’s roster, with each attorney free to turn down work that’s uninteresting or too demanding.

For founder and CEO Mark Harris, the decision to opt out of the law firm life came when he realized he was billing out in one month an amount equal to his entire salary. Seeing his new firm as a refuge for other top-achieving law firm escapees, Harris and executive vice president Mehul Patel are practically the only people who work at the tiny San Francisco office. The rest of the attorneys, who run the gamut from parents who want to spend more time with their children to people who want time to write the next great American novel, work from home or at their clients’ offices.

Axiom attorneys have spoken at Stanford Law School Career Services events before, and it’s always interesting/refreshing to compare them to the usual lineup of large firms. 



“The Real Losers Are the Associates”
August 15, 2007, 6:49 am
Filed under: Law reform

Since January, many large law firms have raised salaries of first-year associates to $160,000 (not including the bonus).  And there are rumors of even steeper increases in the near future, pushing that salary closer to $200,000.

But who pays for that?   There are only a few options.  Either partners pay for it themselves (a likely story, right?), associates work more hours, or clients get stuck with a bigger bill. 

Law students are concerned about working more hours on top of already-high billable expectations.  So it’s nice to see clients speaking out about the effect of the pay hike on them:

But in trying to keep fresh talent coming through their doors, law firms have created some resentment among corporate clients who want to stop their legal dollars from flying out the window.

“At some point, we’ll say we don’t want any associates on our matters,” said Steve Hantler, DaimlerChrysler A.G.’s assistant general counsel for government and regulatory matters.

Uh-oh.  Many of us go to law firms — at least in part — for the training opportunities.  But students don’t expect to be taken off of matters because we’re too expensive.  Are we really being billed out at rates clients can’t accommodate?  Should law students take this into account when choosing a firm?

Clients also fear a major impact on associate life and attrition:

Susan Hackett, general counsel for the Association of Corporate Counsel, said that she is “very angry” about the recent raises. Besides the increased resistance that clients may exert in paying for associates to work on their matters, she also predicts heightened billable-hour expectations from firms to cover the costs of the increases. Such expectations will lead to bill padding, she fears.

Hackett said her concerns go beyond the cost of services to corporate counsel. She worries about the impact that high salaries may have on the profession in general.

“The real losers are the associates,” she said.

She is concerned that higher billable requirements will worsen an attrition rate that reaches nearly 80 percent by the time associates are in their fifth year of practice at large firms, according to NALP, a Washington-based nonprofit group that tracks jobs in the legal industry.

Finally, what about associate satisfaction?  The article suggests that “higher pay may well intensify already high anxiety levels among associates.”   There’s a disconnect here: law students aren’t “anxious” about making more money.  The connection between more money and more billables may be known on some level, but it isn’t strongly felt, even if it matters a great deal to associates. 



Summer Vacation …
August 15, 2007, 5:56 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

… is over.  And although you can’t tell from the website, behind the scenes we’ve been very busy.  We’ll soon be releasing information collected to help students distinguish between big firms, and are also getting back to touring law schools across the country.

We’ll post the materials and the speaking schedule as they’re finalized. 




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