Big Money, Big Jobs but still Big Law lawyers so unhappy?
A recent report shows that just 44 percent of BigLaw lawyers report satisfaction with their careers, compared to 68 percent of public sector lawyers.
The BloombergView report in an article by Yale law professor Stephen Carter is based on figures provided by University of Tennessee law professor Benjamin Barton, author of Glass Half Full: The decline and Rebirth of the Legal Profession.
According to Professor Barton’s report, the reasons for the unhappiness is largely exhaustion. By some measures Big Law lawyers are arguably one of the least happy work groups in the US, writes Carter.
On the face of it, this might seem absurd. Associates in large corporate firms are compensated handsomely, starting at about $160,000 plus a bonus, with a rapidly climbing scale. Although their chances of winning the partnership tournament are quite small, their jobs reward them with considerable prestige and a broad array of future prospects. A 2009 study by the American Bar Foundation found that attorneys in big corporate firms, those with more than 250 lawyers, scored by far the highest of any lawyers in “satisfaction with power track” — roughly, a combination of compensation, opportunities for advancement, and recognition.
Forty-one percent of lawyers in large firms work 60 hours or more each week, compared to 50 hours for the median lawyer.
Why do BigLaw lawyers work so hard? Carter blames billable hours and associate exploitation.
Let’s start with the work itself. It’s possible that much of the work may actually be boring. No lesser an oracle than the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit decreed this summer that reviewing documentsaccording to rigorous standards provided by the employer — a huge chunk of the day-to-day activity of junior associates — involves no legal judgment and therefore is not the practice of law. Yet the 2009 American Bar Foundation study found that lawyers in the large corporate firms, when asked to rate their satisfaction with the substance of their work, were slightly above the median for the profession as a whole.
So it must be the hours.
The American Bar Foundation study also found that while the median lawyer worked 50 hours a week, 41 percent of those in large law firms worked 60 hours or more. The comparable figures for public interest lawyers and government lawyers were 15 percent and 12 percent respectively. For public defenders, the figure was under 8 percent.
Why do Big Law associates work so many hours? Because the economic organization of the large corporate firm requires them to bill 2,000 to 2,200 hours a year, and not every hour worked is an hour that can be billed. Those billed hours help pay the associate’s salary and overhead (total costs for each associate are usually estimated at twice her salary). The rest of the effort goes into profit for the partners.
He points out that the ethic to work hard is something ingrained in the lawyers at Big Law – part of the culture of what they do and who they are. Also part of being in the elite club whose membership they pursued.
Pity it just comes at the cost of happiness.