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As we have conversations with reporters, students, and firms, one question comes up again and again: if this is so bad, why hasn’t anyone tried to change it before?
There are more than one answer to this. Candidates include:
1. The prestige culture of law schools that teaches students to equate unreasonable workload with success.
2. The fact that the situation is getting steadily worse–perhaps we simply had not reached the breaking point earlier on.
3. The lack of transparent hours data–which makes it hard for students to exert their market power.
All of these are likely true, but our money is on a vicious cycle driven by climbing attrition rates. Firms lose huge numbers of young associates. This comes at considerable cost–many lawyers leave before firms have made back their training and first year salary investments–but has become standard operating procedure. One result of this expectation that people will come and go quickly is that entering associates (and interviewing students) for the most part do not expect to stay. They expect to pay off their debts and find somewhere more humane.
The result? Because attrition is both high and expected, associates come to think of firms as a short-term sentence–they serve their time and get out, and so do not have a strong incentive to improve conditions during their short time at the firm. The model may not be sustainable, but it does help defuse pressure for change.
Is this good news for firms? Not really. It means that they are less likely to experience market pressure to provide conditions that would reduce attrition and encourage workers to commit to them as employers–not just rather painful debt repayment devices. It means that they suffer very high attrition costs. And it means that working conditions do not improve, even though it would make economic sense for them to do so.
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