Biglaw, Job Searches, Money, New York Times

Not on the Partner Track — and Maybe That’s Okay

You'd smile too if you got home in time for dinner.

Today’s New York Times has a front-page story by Catherine Rampell entitled At Well-Paying Law Firms, a Low-Paid Corner. The article focuses on the phenomenon of “career associates” or “permanent associates” at large law firms. These lawyers are not eligible for partnership consideration and earn less than traditional associates, but they do enjoy a better “lifestyle,” in terms of more-reasonable hours and greater control over their schedules.

These positions generally pay around $60,000, significantly lower than the $160,000 that’s standard at top Biglaw shops. They are typically located not in New York or Chicago or L.A., but in more out-of-the-way places — such as Wheeling, West Virginia, where Orrick has its back-office operations, or Dayton, Ohio, where WilmerHale has “in-sourced” much of its work.

We mentioned the Times article earlier today. Morning Dockette was not impressed: “Career associates get to have ‘lifestyle’ jobs at Biglaw firms — but really, what kind of a lifestyle is it when you have to live in a crappy city with an even crappier salary?” Elie has also criticized these positions, characterizing them as “barely legal” jobs.

But such criticism might be overly harsh. Let’s look on the bright side….

At this year’s NALP conference, Charlotte Wager, partner and chief talent officer at Jenner & Block, had some interesting reflections on defining “success” in the law firm world. I paraphrased Wager’s thoughts as follows:

Is the only form of success making equity partner? Sometimes these surveys of equity versus non-equity partner status reinforce the perception that the only form of success at a firm is making equity partner, which isn’t accurate. A firm needs experts in many different substantive areas, and it needs lawyers at different billing rates and levels of seniority. Not everyone can become an equity partner — and perhaps that’s not a bad thing.

Indeed — and “career associate” or “permanent associate” positions seem to reflect this reality. Here’s what one such associate had to say to the Times:

“To me there’s not much of a difference between what I’m doing now and what I would be doing in a partner-track job,” said Mark Thompson, 29, who accepted a non-partner-track post at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe when he could not find a traditional associate job. “I still feel like I’m doing pretty high-level work — writing briefs, visiting client sites, prepping witnesses for hearings.”

Interesting work and a decent salary, in super-affordable Wheeling — a most pleasant place to live, as I can tell you from having visited the area (to speak at a conference at WVU Law in Morgantown a few years ago). What’s not to like?

It’s also an appealing option for lawyers with family responsibilities — appealing enough that a partnership-track associate at another firm jumped over to Orrick for the opportunity:

Heather Boylan Clark, 34, was a seventh-year associate at Jones Day before applying for a career associate position after the birth of her second child. She makes 40 percent less than before, but says she still does “challenging work,” and, more important, has greater control of her schedule.

“I’m not killing myself to be hitting specific numbers of billable hours in any given year,” said Ms. Boylan Clark, a graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law. “Now I’m always home for bedtime.”

(I assume she means the bedtime of her kids. I’m always home for my bedtime.)

Rampell does identify this potential downside in her Times article:

Lower salaries make it even more difficult for newly minted lawyers to pay off their law school debt — like the $150,000 in loans that David Perry accumulated upon graduation from Northwestern University School of Law in 2009.

Mr. Perry, 37, became a career associate at Orrick after unsuccessfully seeking public service work (which would offer the option of loan forgiveness). But he says he loves his “lifestyle job,” which enables him to work from home and spend time with his infant son while still doing interesting work.

But remember that money goes farther in places like Wheeling, where the cost of living is low. If you don’t have to shell out $3,000 a month for a shoebox-sized apartment in Manhattan, you have more money to put towards loan repayment.

Of course, there’s another downside in the status-obsessed legal profession — potentially diminished prestige:

Orrick has not encouraged associates on its partner track to switch to career associate out of concern that it would seem like a demotion, according to Laura Saklad, Orrick’s chief lawyer development officer.

“That’s just about perception, though,” Ms. Saklad said. “These are not second-class jobs, but the program is so new that they may be perceived that way.”

Sure, career associate positions might have lower pay and prestige than partnership-track associate posts. But let’s face the reality: many of those positions were lost in the Great Recession, and it’s not clear that they will be coming back.

A $60K a year job in Wheeling might not be as desirable (to some people) as a $160K job in New York — but it’s better than no job at all, because the work got sent to India. As Orrick CEO Ralph Baxter told the Times, having permanent associates in Wheeling is “our version of outsourcing, except we’re staying within the United States.”

Regardless of how these new career tracks might be received by young lawyers — gratefully, or disdainfully, or somewhere in between — the benefits to clients are clear. As WilmerHale executive director Scott Green said to the Times, speaking about the firm’s “in-sourcing” facility in Dayton, “There’s a big, low-cost attorney market there. That means we can offer our services more efficiently, at lower prices.”

Ian Nelson, vice president at the Practical Law Company, shared some interesting thoughts with us about the NYT piece:

It’s interesting to see this issue of Biglaw and efficiency / new models of practice make it to the front page of the Times. What they are describing, essentially, is the rise of the professional support lawyer and looking at newer, higher-level outsourcing, so that firms can focus on client-facing work and control costs.

They are basically spelling out the need for a new solution to reinventing the wheel — and this is exactly what PLC does. Firms need to make educated, informed decisions on the whole “buy” versus “build” debate, and get content from the best, highest quality source.

That’s absolutely right. The economy is changing, the legal profession is changing, and smart firms need to change with the times.

The rise of “permanent associates” is one part of this transformation. And even if some lawyers might not like this development in the short run, waxing nostalgic for the days when everyone could be a $160K-a-year, partnership-track associate, it’s happening because it’s helpful in delivering high-quality legal services to clients, in a cost-effective manner.

And if it’s helpful to clients, then it’s helpful to lawyers, over the long run. Because without clients, where would lawyers be?

At Well-Paying Law Firms, a Low-Paid Corner [New York Times]
Second Tier Associates Who are Decidedly Not Second Tier [WSJ Law Blog]
Will Career Associate Programs Cause Resentment? At Orrick, Lawyers Cite the Benefits [ABA Journal]

Earlier: Law Graduates: Welcome to Your ‘Barely Legal’ Future
Morning Docket: 05.24.11

Disclosure: PLC is an ATL advertiser.

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