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How To Keep Associates Satisfied (and Obedient)

Vivia Chen

September 4, 2018


Dear Managing Partners:

Fabulous news. You don’t have to do anything radical (or spend much money) to satisfy the troops. Based on the results of The American Lawyer’s Midlevel Associates Survey, these associates are inexplicably content. They gave their experience a 4.27 score on a 5-point scale, even though they are billing more than ever. How awesome is that?

In fact, they’re respectful of the status quo. Some even answered “nothing” to the question, “What would you change about your firm?” And isn’t it incredible that some midlevels wanted to say “thank you” or “keep doing what you’re doing” when asked what they’d like to tell the managing partner of their firm?

Of course, there were the complainers—ones who railed about the tyranny of the billable hour, the lack of autonomy and the dearth of information about partnership prospects. Then, there were the idealists who seemed insistent that work-life balance should be a priority in Big Law. Lest balance is addressed, warns one Latham & Watkins associate, the firm will be “left with emotionally less mature individuals who are not well-rounded in life experiences.” (Question: Are mature, well-rounded people really prized commodities at law firms?)

Yet, after sifting through the associates’ comments, I’m quite sure you don’t have to take the gripes too seriously. These midlevels are an eager, self-impressed but deeply insecure group. So may I suggest you use those attributes to your benefit?

Here are my suggestions to keep associates exactly where you want them without draining your coffers:

Be nice. And send your partners to charm school, if necessary. It’s remarkable how little associates expect from their law firm experience. When asked what they found “surprising” about their jobs, associates often answered, “the collegiality,” “how nice everyone is” or “how normal people seem”—as if working with polite, pleasant people was an unexpected perk. Moreover, associates are easily endeared by common decencies. One associate complimented his firm for being “accommodating … when it comes to the ‘big’ life issues (death of loved ones, etc.).”

Imagine how your firm’s score would soar if your firm showed just a smidgen of compassion and your partners actually uttered “please” or “thank you” once in a blue moon.

Whisper some sweet nothings to them. Though associates are clamoring for more clarity in their prospects for making partner, you know you’re not going to give them meaningful direction on this score. But if you need them to stay put for your selfish reasons, at least give some encouragement. “Partners should explicitly say they want associates to stay,” says an Arnold & Porter associate.

I know lawyers tend to be repressed, but partners need to show associates a little love. Is it that hard?

Give them little treats—literally. It’s not a major complaint, but it’s notable. “Improve coffee and beverage selections, make snacks available,” implored a Greenberg Traurig associate. “Better doughnuts on Friday!” wrote a Kirkland & Ellis associate. ”Please give us free, healthy food,” pleaded a Manatt, Phelps & Phillips associate.

Yes, associates making six figures can afford to buy their own munchies. But that’s not the point. Like puppies, associates need little tokens of appreciation. So be generous and supply high-quality snacks.

Let them bill in their pajamas. A recurring complaint is the lack of flexible work arrangements at some firms. You might think that showing up is good for esprit de corps, but that is so 2006. A Vinson & Elkins associate pleaded to work remotely just one to two days a week: “We would be just as productive but much happier! It would also make national news and be great press showing that V&E is trying to cater to millennials.”

If associates can bill 2,500 hours a year lying on their futons all day, what do you care?

Throw in something trendy. If you insist that associates toil away at the office, at least give them an aesthetic environment. You don’t have to hire Gwathmey Siegel to redo the entire office, but at least give them a nice workspace. “My desk is getting old, let’s get some electric standing desks,” pleaded a Winston & Strawn associate in Chicago. (That office must be getting shabby because another Winston associate said: “I would like new furniture.”)

Remember, upgrading furniture is much cheaper than giving associates fat bonuses.

More cocktail parties! Maybe it’s because we’re all social beings. Or maybe it’s because it’s hard for busy lawyers to make friends outside their firms. For whatever reason, the dearth of socializing opportunities was a persistent complaint.

And yes, alcohol must be served. Despite those cautionary tales about the mischief involving alcohol, facing colleagues stone sober won’t cut it. Complains one Fried Frank associate: “Our holiday party should not be an alcohol-free two-hour lunch break in the middle of the workday.” Indeed.

Show them your human side. A few associates expressed the desire for more personal interaction with partners and colleagues. “Instead of a firm dinner-dance, we need a picnic or something where people can bring their families,” wrote one associate. “We need opportunities to actually get to know each other in a meaningful way.”

Imagine that: Associates actually want to get to know you on a personal level. It’s almost poignant.

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Twitter: @lawcareerist


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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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