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Maybe Associates Aren't That Sharp

Vivia Chen

September 12, 2020

Boy-633014_1920I just plowed through The American Lawyer’s 2020 Midlevel Associates Survey, and I’m really worried about this generation.

For starters, why on earth are associates giving their firms such inflated grades for satisfaction? As every third-grader in New York knows, life as a Big Law associate is nasty, brutish and short. No one has a pleasant stay and only a paltry few survive to make partner.

Yet, this year’s average composite satisfaction score for participating firms (73 of them) was 4.32 on a five-point scale—which is a pretty solid “A.” In fact, when I combed through some of the associate comments, I couldn’t believe the gush. Asked what they’d say to the managing partner, some associates said, “Thank you!” or “Continue the good work.” And asked what they’d change, quite a few said, “Not a thing.”

Nothing? Seriously?

More shocking, in my humble opinion, was the ridiculously high mark associates gave to “partner relations”—4.46. That’s mind-boggling, considering that associates I know often feel tortured or stifled by their boss and leave precisely for that reason.

So are firms and partners much kinder and gentler these days? Or are associates being snookered?

I hate to say that the best and brightest are naive, but you have to wonder. For instance, most associates seem to think they’re special snowflakes bound for glory. An astonishing 57% think they’re on partnership track, while only 11.4% say they’re not. (I would have guessed the numbers would be reversed—except that elevating one associate in 10 to partner might be overly generous at a number of elite firms.)

And why are these associates so optimistic about their partnership prospects? No particular reason.

Here’s the rub: While associates lauded “management openness” generally (this year, it scored 4.26, while last year it was 4.07), firms weren’t so forthright about communicating partnership chances to them. Of the 12 categories on communications, management messaging about partnership was dead last, scoring 3.82, “significantly behind the 4.4 average of the other 11 responses, note my colleagues Gina Passarella and Patrick Fuller in their Law.com Pro Executive Briefing.

Not to state the obvious, but if management isn’t telling you about whether you have a future at the firm, it’s not being transparent! So enough already about how management is now wonderfully open.

It gets more frustrating: Though most associates think they’re on track, they’re clueless about what making partner entails. Almost 60% didn’t know about the firm’s policy on origination credit for new business. And, presumably, they’re not inquiring.

And what else? They’re babes in the woods about developing business. Asked to rate their training in various areas, associates gave business development training the lowest score at 3.7.

“From not fully understanding what is required to make partner and a vital driver of the compensation plan to the lowest rating on the survey for business development training, this should catch firm leadership’s attention,” sum up Passarella and Fuller.

It should get leadership’s attention. However, maybe keeping associates busy and content but otherwise in the dark is part of the grander scheme. I mean, is it in a firm’s interest to be brutally honest about partnership chances?

Look, I don’t know if associates are truly this dense or just pretending to be happy campers. (To be included in the survey, each firm had to have at least 10 participants. Arguably the 73 firms represented in this survey made greater efforts at addressing associate satisfaction and pushed their associates to participate.)

One chink in the armor, though, is that some associates are hinting they could be losing it. Beyond the usual clamor for greater work-life balance and the end of the billable hour—which, I’m afraid, are cries in the dark—there were noises about mental health and substance abuse issues. Quite a few associates wished for more access to mental health experts—some even suggesting an on-site psychiatrist or therapist. (Perhaps Axe Capital’s Dr. Wendy Rhoades is for hire?)

A number of associates mentioned the stigma of mental illness in the legal profession. “So much of mental health discussions are around getting help and ‘accommodations,’ but accommodations aren’t the same for invisible/mental disabilities as say, having a broken leg,” writes an associate at a California-based firm. “There also is still a stigma around mental health like no other illness.”

A few associates also talked about the need for “mandatory vacations” or “mandatory confidential mental health check-ins with mental health professionals”—as if they needed to be forced to deal with their stress issues.

So are associates unreasonably content or on the brink of a nervous breakdown? I suppose they could be both at different moments in their Big Law journey.

Any way you look at it, I’m not sure this bodes well for their future or that of their firms.

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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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