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Associates Are Getting So Weird

Vivia Chen

September 18, 2012

Nerd by Scott Hancock_Fotolia.comOMG, could they be any more dull and earnest? You might think those are fine traits for the legal profession, but to me there's something amiss when young lawyers want nothing more than to say to their masters (sorry, I meant "partners"): "Please, sir, can I have some more?"

I am referring to the newly released surveys of summer and midlevel associates by The American Lawyer. "A vocal minority of those would-be lawyers" in TAL's Summer Associates Survey wished they had more work and less fun in their summer programs. "Mandatory social events can be physically and mentally taxing," summed up a Cooley summer associate in the survey.

I don't know about you, but I don't think that's normal for a twenty-something. If social events are "physically and mentally taxing" at that age, I hate to imagine what this person will be like in middle age after going through the mill of law practice. Likely a neurotic mess and a social misfit.

But here's the real irony: Associates in the survey don't seem to think being a big-firm lawyer is all that stressful:

Virtually all of the survey's respondents said they believe the attorneys they worked with over the summer have a manageable amount of stress. (That impression is in line with the findings of The American Lawyer's most recent Associates Survey, which saw job satisfaction among midlevels reach its highest level since 2004.)

Let me repeat: They think the stress is "manageable." Wow. I thought generation Y lawyers were suppose to revolutionize the workplace. Weren't they the ones with different priorities—better priorities? They're not supposed to kill themselves for their jobs like the old fogies at the firm. They're supposed to be religious about going to the gym, putting their families before work, taking vacations (all four weeks), and all that other work/life balance jazz.

Judging by the Am Law surveys, I wouldn't bet that the work culture of big law firms will change anytime soon. In fact, there seems to be a greater acceptance of the status quo more than ever.

Why are young lawyers so sweet and docile? Well, they're probably grateful to have well-paying jobs in this shaky economy. And maybe firms are getting better at vetting candidates who show the "right" attitude (could those psychological tests and substantive interviews that some firms use to screen recruits be paying off?).

To law firms, it must seem like a fantasy come true. Imagine a new generation of lawyers who want nothing more than the opportunity to put their nose to the grindstone and grind away. Imagine increasing efficiency and hitting new highs in what's considered the norm for billables!

So maybe this "all work, no play" attitude is good for the law firm enterprise. And maybe associates spouting that attitude will end up happier in Big Law. In the end, who cares if law firms end up being run by a bunch of people you'd want to dodge at a cocktail party?

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I agree with the comments by the summer associates. Those social events are phony and stress-inducing. Also, they're insulting. Do I need my employer to provide me with a social life? Maybe, for the ultra-nerds, the answer is yes, but by the time they've finished two years of law school, most people have family, friends and an idea of how they like to spend their spare time.

You're so out of touch, I don't even know where to start. The opposite of essentially everything you've written is true. Let me just point out your 2 biggest misconceptions:

1) Social events are "physically and mentally taxing" because they aren't real social events. they are events where you're forced to smile and pretend to be someone you're not for 4 hours

2) Stress is "manageable" preciously because we don't kill ourselves for the firm. we manage it by prioritizing our own mental health, physical health (gym), family and friends, all above the firm. But the biggest thing is that we do what steve jobs did - do what we love. We only interviewed/took offers from firms we actually loved, and once here we only asked for work we would love. If there was ever a point where we didn't love our jobs anymore, we would quit with zero hesitation (again, because we prioritize us above the firm)

Having leadership ability and the capability for strategic thinking are important for the few entering associates who will eventually make partner. Most of them will be expected to grind out hours creating good legal work and will be eased out over time.

At my Biglaw, I remember one summer associate being dinged because he wasn't "sufficiently uptight." The comment was made by a partner lacking emotional intelligence -- as was the norm!

Can you be anymore out-of-touch with reality? The rising generation of lawyers are scared sh*tless that they (a) will have the rug pulled out from under them like the last three classes of graduates and (b) will, therefore, be crippled by unsustainable debt. And can you blame them?! The 2012 summer associates are those that applied for law school at the height of "The Culling" and are painfully aware of the razor's edge they're walking between a modicum of success and certain financial ruin. You'll have to excuse them for not reveling in the "bread and circuses" that those who have advanced in the profession enjoy. If new associates are dull, boring, and uber-focused, it’s because the market has imposed those traits on them.

I agree with Dan, but also want to quote a friend, a successful large firm lawyer. Over twenty-five years ago, this person said (half in jest, and knowing it would never happen), firms should forget the 8 - 10 hours of otherwise billable time interviewing law students and junior lawyers. Instead they should give psychological tests to find obsessive-compulsives. The partners at the firm should then spend 1 -2 hours making sure someone is not psychotic, and hire the non-psychotic obsessive-compulsives. “They make great associates. Figure out who is qualified to be a partner over the next years. Some of them will be.”

The long-term issue is the traits that get the summer associate hired (top grades, nose-to-the grindstone style) don't necessarily correlate with success over the long haul, where emotional intelligence, leadership ability, strategic thinking, etc., count for a lot more.

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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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