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The WSJ Law Blog (which has a new
editor, by the way) featured an article yesterday on clients' increasing unease with paying for the work of first-
and second-year associates.
I've seen this change building for
some years now, in my work with both clients and firms. It's a trend that
antedates the current recession, but it's starting to really take hold. It's
not universal by any means, but the curve is starting to look like the
traditional "hockey stick" pattern for rapid adoption of a trend.
Once a trend moves past the tipping
point, to use Malcolm Gladwell's term, it becomes hard to keep it from "taking
over." Think of the adoption of cell phones. First Gordon Gecko had one. Then a
few early adopters had them, those old brick-sized devices from Motorola. Then
in the mid-1990s more and more people got the early digital, fist-sized models.
Suddenly, everyone had one. (Then Steve Jobs created a really cool one, but
Apple was camping onto rather than setting a trend.)
I saw it happen with televisions
when I was growing up. We saw it happen with PCs a few decades ago. Our kids
are all texting, when three years ago most of us didn't know what it was.
It's not just technology, either,
although technology examples are among the easiest to spot and measure. Ideas
flood the marketplace the same way. (Now people are calling these ideas
"memes," a term that hasn't quite hit the tipping point itself.)
One of those ideas is that clients
want to pay first- and second-years only what they're worth to the client.
That's right. They don't care what
these folks cost the law firm; they care only about the value received.1
So what can the firms do? Obviously,
they can simply fight the trend, but is that the only option?
I don't think so. Tomorrow, I'll
offer some suggestions around this issue for both firm and client.
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1They care mostly about the value received. Corporate
clients do recognize that there's a more complex issue underlying this
discussion, the overall value of what they receive. I've heard corporate
clients suggest that they overpay associates and underpay folks at the top on
an hourly basis and that it all comes out in the wash, assuming the associates
aren't just running up the hours. However, that's a nuanced (and interesting)
discussion that may well get drowned out in a more direct conversation about