If you are a current midlevel associate at a top firm, that means you survived the worst of the Biglaw layoffs. In fact, it probably means you survived while friends and colleagues were having their careers ruined.

That should make you happy, right? Not according to the American Lawyer’s annual midlevel associate survey. The results, released this morning, show that midlevel associates are anything but satisfied with their careers. From the report:

Many people would consider Am Law 200 midlevel associates to be extremely fortunate. While thousands of their colleagues lost jobs, these young lawyers are gainfully employed with salaries in the six figures. The midlevels tell us that they survived the recession in part because of the quality of their work, and that they aren’t worried about losing their jobs going forward. And even though revenue and profits dipped at the majority of their firms, relative to other industries, Big Law wasn’t hit as hard during the recession. In many ways, once their student loans are paid off, midlevel associates’ prospects seem bright.

But that’s not how they see it. Maybe it’s the posttraumatic stress syndrome from watching so many associates and law firm staffers get the ax, but the midlevels who survived the great purge aren’t feeling particularly fortunate. In fact, they seem downright cranky.

Survivor’s guilt? Not bloody likely. The result are probably due to people working harder than they were before the recession for less pay and job security than they had before the recession. Add in the fact that their secretaries have probably been fired (and so the partners now treat them like paralegals), and the fact that they’re more likely to get struck by a bolt of lightning than make partner, and you can see why these people are a little disappointed with the way things have turned out.

I’ll pause now so all the members of the Lost Generation can comment on how they would change places with these disgruntled midlevels faster than one can ask “would you like fries with that”…

The pressure from below probably also contributes to the midlevels’ dissatisfaction. What are they going to do — leave? Complain about work/life balance? Ask the partner in charge of associate development for more meaningful and substantive work because “damnit, it’s my fifth year”? Please. Partners can’t take a dump without soiling 100 unemployed attorneys who have their resumes hanging out. My father used to say: “The reason America allows people to be poor is to keep the middle class motivated and terrified.” Right now, every Biglaw partner can act like the warden from Shawshank, threatening to cast complaining associates “back down with the sodomites.”

Put it all together, and you get a paragraph like this from Am Law:

In our annual survey of 5,092 midlevel associates, attorneys in their third, fourth, and fifth years of practice, the average composite score–which is based on ratings for 12 core questions–fell from 3.897 in 2009 to 3.728 this year. That’s the lowest score since 2004. In particular, asso­ciates lowered the individual grades for their own firms, giving an average rating of 3.96 this year–less than the 4.16 rating in 2009–and the lowest score in recent years. (Only 15 firms saw their individual scores increase in 2010.) A look at the ratings according to the cities where the associates are located shows a downward trend, too. The overall scores for 15 big American cities, including the major legal hubs, declined over last year. “People are busier, but . . . there remains a sense of unease,” says a Simpson Thacher & Bartlett associate, in reference to the overall mood of associates at national firms.

What a nice little euphemism, random Simpson Thacher attorney. “Unease.” Yes, I do imagine getting screwed with your pants on does feel a little uneasy, at least the first time.

In light of all these facts, Am Law asks if these midlevels are “The Lucky Ones.” And the answer is yes. A resounding and incontrovertible “yes.” Because having a job in this economy is much better than not having a job. That sounds trite, but it’s not always the case that being employed in a job you hate is preferable to not having a job at all. Back when I quit, I didn’t have anything lined up. But whatever, the economy was booming, something would work out. Marin did it too. I know a lot of other Biglaw associates who quit sometime between 2005 and early 2008. They weren’t forced out. They just left to do, well, whatever.

Since Lehman collapsed in September 2008, I’ve met a lot of associates who hate their jobs. People who absolutely loathe what’s been happening at their firm. You know how many of them quit of their own volition (without anything else lined up)? One. Precisely one. And that’s just anecdotal evidence, but to get down to brass tacks, if you have a job right now you are still hanging on to it for dear life. You’d rather being filling out the mid-level associate survey than reading about it on the computer in your mother’s basement.

So these associates are the lucky ones. Which ones are the most lucky? Here are the top ten firms based on Am Law survey respondents (for the full list, click here):

1. Nutter McClennen
2. Thompson Coburn
3. Gibson Dunn
4. Harter Secrest
5. Best Best
6. Dorsey & Whitney
7. Paul Hastings
8. Harris Beach
9. Gibbons
10. Ropes & Gray

And now the five lowest scoring firms on Am Law’s survey:

128. Dechert
129. Armstrong Teasdale
130. White & Case
131. Stroock & Stroock
132. Bryan Cave
133. Winston & Strawn
134. Taft, Stettinius
135. Kaye Scholer
136. Curtis Mallet
137. Blank Rome

Do the top and bottom of the list seem fair to you? It might not matter. Midlevels may want to leave the firms at the bottom of this list, but it doesn’t look like they are prepared to actually take the leap.

ASSOCIATES SURVEY 2010: The Lucky Ones? [Am Law Daily]
Associates Survey 2010: National Rankings [American Lawyer]


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