The current economic crisis threatens many leading corporate law firms. Layoffs are legion, profits are down, and new hiring is limited. What that situation obscures, however, is that there may be deeper problems, not just for particular law firms, but for the entire structural model that sustains law firm recruitment and profitability.
The model depends on a tournament-style process: A large pool of well-credentialed associates start their careers in large law firms, work hard, and compete for a relatively small number of partnership positions. But the model also depends on the lure of the large corporate law firm. The lucrative salary, the prestige, and the doors the jobs are said to open all culminate in a yearly battle to obtain jobs at big firms.
Recently, cracks have appeared in that model. More and more, associates at large firms report that they are willing to trade their high salaries for fewer hours, pursuit of a better work/life balance, or what they see as better training and experience elsewhere. (For results of The American Lawyer ‘s most recent midlevel job satisfaction survey, see americanlawyer.com/associates.)
Along with a team of scholars, we have been tracking the careers of a nationally representative sample of 5,000 lawyers who began practice in 2000. The study, which is based at the American Bar Foundation, is called After the JD (AJD). While the lawyers in this study work in a range of practice settings and sectors, we find that new lawyers working for firms of more than 250 lawyers are less satisfied with their jobs than their counterparts in smaller firms.
Two things puzzled us about this finding. First, it’s not so clear why lawyers at large firms are dissatisfied. After all, they are earning generous salaries and are generally on the fast track. Second, the big firms could make changes, such as lowering the billing requirements, so that their attorneys are not so miserable, but do not.
The AJD study sheds light on these questions. The data shows that there is a specific pattern to the dissatisfaction among young associates at large firms: It varies by law school attended. Graduates of the most selective schools are the least satisfied with their jobs at large firms, while graduates of less selective schools are relatively more satisfied. Among AJD respondents working at firms of more than 100 lawyers, only 26 percent of graduates of U.S. News & World Report ‘s top ten law schools report extreme satisfaction with their decision to become a lawyer, compared to almost half (49 percent) of graduates from fourth-tier law schools. Similarly, 59 percent of top-ten law school graduates expressed the intention to leave their employer within two years, compared to just over a quarter of fourth-tier law school graduates.
So the looming predicament among young associates in large corporate law firms appears to be limited to those students graduating from the nation’s most selective law schools. The irony is that this is precisely the demographic that big law firms typically vie to attract. Firms flock to the campuses of elite law schools in order to recruit these students, often bypassing lower-tier schools. The AJD data shows that after graduation, about two-thirds of top-ten law graduates were working in firms of over 100 lawyers, compared to 11 percent of third-tier graduates, and 7 percent of fourth-tier graduates.
Why are elite law graduates dissatisfied with these jobs? Part of the answer is that graduates of elite law schools are groomed to expect success. As Robert Granfield found in his 1992 study of Harvard law students, this group of law students is inculcated with a sense of mutual eliteness that he called “collective eminence.” The AJD data shows that graduates of elite law schools come to the job market with different career expectations than graduates of nonelite schools. Among other things, they are more likely to have considered careers in business consulting or investment banking. Thus it may be that the lucrative salaries offered by the large law firms are no consolation for the hours that they have to work. They know they have other options, and they have friends who are getting even richer with those other options.
Hard times for the investment banking industry may reduce the salary and bonus envy of elite law graduates, especially if unemployment is higher in the banking sector than the legal sector, but that won’t solve the problem. This group of law graduates looks at its time in a large law firm as an apprenticeship for other options in law, business, or government. Interviews with lawyers in this group reveal that they do not want to work the long hours generally required at law firms, and they especially do not want to put in those hours patiently for ten years to compete for the partnership prize. They believe they can more quickly accumulate experience, contacts, and stature in other positions, and given the lives of the partners they observe, they do not think that partnership is much of a prize.