Take that much-dissected Am Law midlevel associates survey, which showed satisfaction scores plummeting to a seven-year low. Industry critics, including Steven Harper, have been lambasting the profession for not caring enough about morale.
Their criticisms are on target, except for this: If lawyers were truly despondent, why did firms still come out with an average satisfaction score of 3.729 ("5" being the high score) on the survey?
Wouldn't you expect the score to be scraping bottom--at least something closer to a 2.5?
Put it this way: If law firms were rated like hotels, they'd come close to getting four stars. So maybe working at a big firm is not a Four Seasons experience, but it's comparable to staying at the Hilton. Which is to say that the setup, while hardly sybaritic, is not all that dreadful either.
Why the disconnect between how unhappy lawyers say they are and how they rate their actual experience? The explanation is quite obvious: Lawyering is not much fun, but it pays well--damn well. And money buys some modicum of morale.
Truth is, there aren't that many jobs where a 25-year-old can fetch $160,000 a year, not counting bonuses. (And don't forget--if you've clerked for the U.S. Supreme Court, firms give you an extra $280,000 just to walk through the door.) Yes, the hours are long, the work tedious, and the pressure unrelenting, but did you really expect meaning and happiness for that dough?
Which explains why lawyers aren't complaining as much as you'd expect. For instance, despite working extremely hard (the Am Law survey shows that associates billed on average a whopping 2,071 hours last year), 77 percent describe their work level as "manageable."
Frankly, I find those numbers daunting. But people know the bargain. Associates aren't harboring dreams of becoming partners one day. And law firms aren't trying to seduce anyone with promises of partnership either. The more progressive firms are quite up-front about all this and sell good training as the lure (Milbank Tweed, Skadden Arps, and Debevoise, for example, have institutionalized mini-MBA programs).
People burn out (or are kicked out) during the process--hence, the "get it while you can" attitude pervades the profession. (And yes, even partners making a cool million or two feel that way.)
It's a cynical survival tactic, I suppose. But is it really that awful to walk to the bank with your eyes wide open?
Get The Careerist in your morning e-mail. Sign up today--see box on upper right corner.
Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? E-mail The Careerist's chief blogger, Vivia Chen, at VChen@alm.com.