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The Kids Are All Right

Vivia Chen

October 10, 2011

SmileFaceNow that everyone and his mother has weighed in about the misery of young lawyers, I'm going to propose something radical: They're not that bad off.

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?


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Hi, Vivia,

Your observations are interesting, but I'd offer three more: 1) For the past several years, the associate satisfaction trend has been unambiguously negative; 2) I don't know the distribution of individual scores that produces each firm's overall average. But if, for any given firm, it's a standard normal distribution -- that is, the median, mean and mode are the same -- then the absolute number of dissatisfied associates (say, those who submitted ratings of three or lower) is enormous; and 3) hotel reviews are one analogy, but here's another: while no law firm can hope to please everyone, if the survey were a final exam, 3.73 out of 5 would be a 75 (out of 100). Anything below a 70 (3.5) would be an "F" in any course I ever taught or took. Money repays student loans; it doesn't buy happiness.
I enjoy your blog. Keep up the good work.

I think this demonstrates that it is the younger associates boosting the scores. The midlevel/senior associate are the ones dealing with new parenthood, worries about partnership. I agree that Big Firm is a great place despite the pressures for younger associates - they can pay off law school loans, save some money, and sleep off those long hours without worrying about childcare constraints.

Therein lies the rub: money does N O T equate to satisfaction.

Personally, I am a first-year associate, in a plaintiffs' medical malpractice unit, within a firm that is exclusively plaintiffs' personal injury focused.

And, my salary is about 100K less than the above-mentioned salary (even sans the clerking).

Candidly, I may be a different story from most (I am 32, had to work through college, make money to support a family, and T H E N, after a few years, go to law school); but, I derive a S I G N I F I C A N T degree of satisfaction from my practice.

And, although I was spawned from treatment-givers (moms was a psychotherapist; pops a psychiatrist; and, bro's a shrink too), and my family wasn't all too thrilled with my trajectory... the ability to help someone obtain, even a small modicum of justice, from the courts, where someone they wen't to get healing from, hurt them instead... leaves me satisfied.

So, that brings me back to my original statement (though the money has yet to come my way) I am V E R Y satisfied with my practice... although, I do close my eyes at the end of the month, and hope that, I make ends meet (most times I don't), I wouldn't trade it for a transaction-related gig in a large firm making a lot of dough... it would be a hollow satisfaction, and wouldn't be what I set out to become a lawyer to do.

Well, maybe that's the crux of the issue:
If you set out to be a lawyer to make money; then, money'll be enough to satisfy you. However, if you set out to "help people" (yeah I know it sounds trite); then, unless you are doing that (H E L Ping people, and not just your coffers), no amount of specie will serve to satisfy.

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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