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Morale is in the Money

Vivia Chen

October 6, 2010

Kisspiggy-by--Jason-Stitt---Fotolia.com Oh, that pesky cliche again about money not buying you happiness. Recently that concept was given a new twist when Princeton University released findings that a $75,000 annual income is the benchmark at which happiness levels off. In other words, people making less than that amount tend to be unhappy, but people making more than that weren't happier.

By that standard, if big-firm lawyers are unhappy, money shouldn't be the issue, right?

Not so fast. Money might not buy happiness, but it will buy some satisfaction. Like it or not, how much you get paid goes to the heart of how you feel your employer treats you. If you don't feel the money is fair, you're bound to feel unappreciated, unloved.

Take that recent Am Law survey where midlevel associates expressed widespread dissatisfaction with their firms. What really bothered those lawyers? "Associates were particularly peeved about their compensation. Only 4 percent of respondents said their pay was reduced in 2010, but associates were eager to see law firms make up for previous cuts." What's more, "many associates also complained that they are no longer being paid market rates."

Those of us who follow the legal industry tend to dig deep for other reasons for lawyers' discontent--cultural or organizational reasons--as we should. Just a few days ago, I questioned whether firms really cared about associate morale (my conclusion: no).

But let's ask a more fundamental question: What constitutes "morale" in a law firm? Personally, I'd start with a baseline of civility in the workplace--something that wasn't always present when I was an associate.

Perhaps firms are more civil now, because most of the gripes in that midlevel survey focused on money-related issues, rather than the way associates are treated. They were stressed about advancement, new compensation structures based on competency, and lack of transparency about partnership decisions--along with complaints about 401(k) funding, health insurance costs, and staff reductions. Some really mundane stuff.

But where were those larger life issues about the meaning of their job or the soul of the workplace? I didn't see them.

Of course, there were some whimpers about long hours and work/life balance. Some 37 percent reported heavier workloads, and 45 percent said that if they changed jobs, they'd want better balance in their lives.

But a surprising 72 percent of the respondents considered themselves to be on the partner track, so it doesn't look like too many are actively seeking jobs with balance. My impression is that those life issues played second fiddle to the one about money.

Seems to me that those ambitious lawyers know the score. They'll work hard for big bucks. Let's not kid ourselves: Morale and money go hand in hand.

Related post: Think Firms 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: Jason Stitt / Fotolia


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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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