Associate Attrition

Over the course of the past two months, we’ve been able to allow only one week to pass without the mention of a layoff or buyout of some sort, whether it be from a law firm or a law school.

These layoffs haven’t affected only handfuls of people — with about 20 people here, and more than 50 people there, hordes of law firm and law school personnel have been thrust into the unemployment line in recent weeks. Today, we’ve got word on yet another double-digit law firm layoff, this time coming amid the “surreptitious firing” of associates and the defection of several partners.

Which firm is the source of this unfortunate action?

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Tom Wallerstein

For years, it has been common knowledge that the vast majority of associates at most Biglaw firms will leave before becoming a partner. At many firms, it is not uncommon for fewer than one in ten entering associates to ultimately become a partner. As partnership tracks lengthen, the attrition rate goes even higher. The decision to leave a firm to form a private practice, for example, is becoming increasingly common.

We assume (hope?) that the high attrition is because Biglaw offers the most exit opportunities; i.e., the prospects of developing a career as in-house counsel, or joining a business unit of a company, or going into government, or joining to a small or midsize or boutique law firm, or maybe even leaving the law altogether to become a consultant, a blogger, a Lego artist, what have you. Just because you start your legal career with a law firm doesn’t mean your goal is to become a partner.

Often, associates who know that they will not become a partner seem content to just put in their time, try to keep their head down, and collect a paycheck while waiting for their firm to announce their intended bonuses. They rationalize that they know they will leave anyway, so why bend over backwards for the firm?

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The good folks over at Building A Better Legal Profession — a national grassroots movement that we’ve written about before, which seeks market-based workplace reforms in large private law firms — have updated their online directory and rankings of law firms with new information for 2011. The updated rankings shed light on which top law firms are excelling in such areas as diversity and pro bono work, and which ones still have some work to do.

Let’s look at some highlights from the new data, on such subjects as diversity, partnership, and associate attrition….

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