A Clearer Career Path Needed for Associates

A Clearer Career Path Needed for Associates

"Can't Get No Satisfaction?"

These are unhappy days for many associates.  Web sites like LawShucks, Above the Law and Vault are full of negative and cynical stories and comments, propelled by years of layoffs and cutbacks in associate staffing and compensation.  Some have spent up to several hundred thousand dollars on the path to a J.D. degree that now seems a good deal less valuable. Few are truly happy.

In a number of our columns, we have explored various dimensions of an important cause of this dissatisfaction - the fact that law schools do not prepare students for life as a lawyer.  One dimension relates to the business model of large firms which views associates as a leveraged commodity rather than skilled individuals.  On the web sites of a number of Wall Street firms, associates often have nothing more than name and practice area.  They virtually are treated as non-persons who will be here today but perhaps gone tomorrow - recruited by another firm, or laid off by their own.  These firms, and others, retain young lawyers for five, six or seven years. Then, if they don't make partner, they're asked to leave to make way for the next group of young "unwashed" law school graduates. This is not the way Corporate America chooses to do business.  Until law firms understand that there can be a better model of running a law firm, associates' satisfaction with their workplace will remain unfulfilled.

There is, however, another dimension that goes beyond megafirm life.  Consider these alternate scenarios:

  • Scenario 1: Young Dr. Kildare works a medical internship in private practice, learning the trade and then takes over the practice as the old doctor fades into the sunset.

 

  • Scenario 2: In a small firm, a young associate works for a few years, and feels entitled to become a partner. While a good lawyer, this person has yet to develop rainmaking skills and still has no personal client following, or book of business. The result is a classic "Catch-22" - the associate cannot become a partner without having clients, but is precluded from opportunities to do so by virtue of associate status.

While there may be variations on this theme, consider the contrasting perspectives of the folks involved in each of these scenarios.  In the first case, there generally is no discussion of money; the young doctor is happy to have a job, likes and respects the older doctor and is eager to learn as much as possible from the experienced doctor. The older doctor, on the other hand, is happy to have a younger person to help out and to mentor so that his patients will receive both his experience and the new learning coming out of a recent medical graduate. 

In the second scenario, the young associate may be thrilled to have a chance for the partnership, but having never developed clients for the business book of the firm, the associate has no real idea of what "ownership" as a partner means.  Often, associates believe that their time and effort working toward becoming a partner are substantially responsible for creating value in the firm and believe they should be given credit for that. Of course, in this scenario, they ignore the fact that they have been paid a market price for their services, doing exactly that for which they were hired. This is not lost on the partnership, however. And, we have the Catch-22 preventing their ascension.

Making clear the expectations for associates is the only practical solution.  The absence of such clarity promotes inconsistency and threatens objectivity.  There should be written documentation and constant review of the specific, significant tasks of each associate and the performance standards by which the accomplishment of these tasks is judged.  When associates understand what they should be doing and how they are evaluated, particularly from the standpoint of their client development activities, they are more likely to be successful - and less likely to be dissatisfied with actual or perceived unfair treatment.

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For a fuller discussion of this topic, see Ed Poll's article for the ABA's Law Practice Today, "So Associates are Dissatisfied?  It's Not Hard to See Why," at LawBiz.com..   He provides additional perspective in "The Bottom Line on the Cost of Associate Loyalty,"  by following this link to LawBiz.com.  Ed also offers personal thoughts for associates on "excellence, dominance and development" in his LawBiz Forum Post.