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Think Firms Care About Morale?

Vivia Chen

October 4, 2010

My fellow blogger Steven Harper has some insightful thoughts about associate morale in The Am Law Daily. He seems troubled--though I assume not surprised--by the high dissatifaction rate among midlevel associates.

In the post, Harper makes the rather radical suggestion that partners be held accountable for associate satisfaction:

Firms that fared poorly in associate satisfaction should pretend that there's a cost associated with young attorney dissatisfaction that their short-term profit-maximizing metrics aren't capturing. Then they should look at the categories by which associates measure their satisfaction. Finally, they should develop a mechanism for evaluating partner behavior that takes those categories into account--and rewards or penalizes partners accordingly.

All perfectly good ideas. But to be perfectly frank, I doubt most firms give a damn. Maybe they'll survey their associates about the topic, hold a few meetings, then let the matter drop.

Not that I think law firm management wants people to be miserable. Any workplace that's buzzing with joyful workers is bound to be more productive. But for the average managing partner who's fretting about keeping clients happy, collecting billables, and soothing the egos of competing partners, the issue of associate morale is not going to rank high. Certainly not in this job market.

Sure, Harper is on the right track when he says that partners should be rewarded or penalized for the way they treat associates. At many firms, it's still a feudal system where partners have almost unchecked power over the associates who work for them. But will firms really "punish" a low-scoring partner? Maybe one that they're trying to get rid of. Probably not one who's making rain.

In every firm, there are really decent partners who take a genuine interest in their associates' well-being. I once worked for a gentlemanly partner who often bemoaned the insane hours (he thought they were "unhealthy") and the lack of civility of his colleagues. But he was a rarity. More to the point, he had little clout in the firm. Sure, he was respected-for his old-school ways by younger, more aggressive partners. (Well, actually, "tolerated" is a better word.)

But you think anyone listened to him?

What's the situation at your firm? Do you think the powers-that-be care about morale?

Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? E-mail The Careerist's chief blogger, Vivia Chen, at [email protected].

 Photo: Yuri Arcurs - Fotolia.com


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Chen and Harper both are at once, on and off the mark. The key here is not to make the arguement for Morale improvement - either for its own, or economic performance sake. The key is to actually IMPROVE the firms, as organizations, as employers. Morale will improve as an outgrowth of that effort as will economic performance. The best way to do this? To-Code Organizational Ombudsmen for Law Firms. This simple effective human technology asset achieves many outcomes managing partners will lap up - Dramatically Reduced Costs, Increased Productivity, Saved Management Time and this will be concurrent with yes improved associate morale.
Organizations from American Express and Chevron to Harvard, Yale, and U Chi. as well as the World Bank, IMF, and UN all gain significant benefit from such programs, with some demonstrating ROIs as high as $22:1. What managing partner would not want that return, along WITH improved Morale? More at ConflictBenefit.com.

morale will never be important to management until a dollar value is placed on it. even then, the dollar value would have to SUBSTANTIALLY exceed their short-term profit-maximizing metrics... it's just never going to happen. at the end of the day, partners care about their own pockets more than anything else, and "i suffered through it, it's their turn" rules the day. long story short, even the least evil partners, are evil.

They don't give a damn about morale, and if they do they would prefer us miserable.

Yes, I believe our firm does care about morale. Our Managing Partner regularly holds meetings with Associates to talk about the firm, our goals, finances etc. He is very open and I think most Associates respond positively to it.

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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: [email protected]

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