Associate Issues

Danger, Biglaw Associates!

Contractors have been there before — an unnecessarily angry associate screaming at a room of temps muttering about when they were first-year associates. So what has got their panties in a bunch? Well, like most curmudgeons, it is change. The legal landscape is rapidly shifting, and one has to move with the tide or be swept away.

We frequently throw the term “Contract Attorney” around in this column, but there are a wide variety of tasks that are now considered contract work. As the tasks change, contractors encroach more and more on work traditionally thought of as an associate’s domain.

So what are the most typical contractor tasks, and how are they affecting the associates’ way of life?

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I think that if they really wanted to do this, [the Technology Oversight Group should have said,] “We’ll buy you guys an iPad. . . . It’s less than my billable rate for one hour.”

– An anonymous associate commenting on King & Spalding’s policy of blocking access to personal email accounts on firm computers, which has now been in effect for several months. The firm ranked 125th out of 134 Biglaw firms in the latest American Lawyer Associate Tech Survey, part of the magazine’s midlevel survey measuring associate satisfaction.

Missing: multiple midlevels

Even though there’s significant excess capacity — meaning too many lawyers chasing too little work — I am hearing the concern that there aren’t enough midlevel associates.

Dan DiPietro, chairman of the Citi Private Bank Law Firm Group, offering an explanation as to why he thinks Biglaw firms want to increase headcount in this time of economic stress. In the latest Law Watch Managing Partner Confidence Index Survey, law firm leaders’ overall confidence level was lower than it has been since last year at this time, with expectations for profits and revenues also on the decline. The only area where their confidence rose was in expectations for hiring associates and equity partners.

Ed. note: This is the fourth installment in a new series of posts from the ATL Career Center’s team of expert contributors. Today, we have some great advice for newly minted attorneys from Joshua Stein, the principal of Joshua Stein PLLC, a prominent commercial real estate law practice in Manhattan.

It’s your first year as a new lawyer. What do you need to know? How can you not screw it up? Here are some suggestions, based on more than 30 years of experience — as an associate at two firms, then a brief time as an associate at a third firm, followed by 20+ years as a partner at that third firm. These suggestions reflect my own experiences, lessons learned along the way, and what I’ve seen and heard from others. Nothing here applies specifically or uniquely to any firm where I worked.

It’s a Business. As much as we might all want law firms to be kind and gentle, remember that client demands are not kind and gentle. Also remember that a firm’s profitability — the ultimate main event — depends on buying a lot of legal expertise wholesale, converting it into as many hours of billable legal work as possible, then selling those hours at retail. That isn’t going to go away. Get used to it. That’s the business you’re in. If you don’t want to be in it, go find some other business to be in.

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Fair is fair: I wrote last week about “what drives partners nuts.” Having armed associates with the ammunition needed to drive partners crazy, it’s only right that I arm partners with ways to drive associates nuts. (I realize that many partners are quite good at this even without my help, but I figure a stray few could use some guidance.)

Come on, partners, how can you drive associates nuts?

First: Give associates disembodied projects!

If you wanted someone actually to be interested in a project, you’d tell that person what the project was about. You’d explain what the transaction entails, what the client needs, and the critical issues likely to arise. In litigation matters, you’d explain who’s suing whom for what, the path the case is taking, the client’s main concerns, and the likely endgame. That would put a person’s brain in gear, and the person might actually care about his or her work.

So don’t do it!

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This week, Lateral Link Director Tricia McGrath shares the inside scoop on what fifth years need to do to make sure they stay on track to become partner, and avoid the pitfalls that come with being passed over continually.

Law firm economics changed substantially over the past decade. Law firms now run like “businesses,” in corporate America parlance. In the last few years, many associates at top firms who thought that they were “on track” for partnership were unexpectedly passed over. Unfortunately, market conditions suggest that many more will be passed over in future years.

As a recruiter, I frequently speak with senior associates who were on the wrong side of partnership decisions, and as a result, realized the “out” side of the firm’s “up-and-out” policy. Many of these overlooked associates are now wondering how the train went off the track so quickly. Don’t the years of solid billables and strong reviews account for anything? For most of these associates, their best-case scenarios are a new position at another Biglaw firm with a three-year partner look — often going in to their new firm as a fifth or sixth year — or an in-house position at significantly less compensation (in most cases). Often, neither of these options is particularly attractive for the candidate.

How can you protect yourself from becoming a senior associate who has been passed over, has no business, and has limited job prospects?

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Lawyers like to complain about the billable hours requirements at their firms. A common question seems to be what will count and what won’t. In this line of work, time is money, and many associates want to know if they’re wasting their time.

If the firm makes you go to a professional development event, are you losing out on hours? If you get wrangled into doing pro bono work, are your weekly billables for paid clients going to plummet? And will that ultimately get reflected in your bonus check?

Yesterday, we lamented the fact that we often report on depressing news about the state of the legal profession in this country. Today, we actually have some good news. Jenner & Block realized that their lawyers shouldn’t be toiling away in their dungeons offices and forgoing pro bono opportunities in order to meet their billable hours requirements.

The firm remembered that this profession is supposed to be about helping the less fortunate, and it has adjusted its policies accordingly….

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* The tried and true accounting method of finders keepers, losers weepers prevailed in an appeals court win for Irving Picard in the Madoff case. [Bloomberg]

* Why in the world did you think it would be a good idea to file a $77M lawsuit against Kasowitz Benson? Are you out of your “superior legal mind”? [Thomson Reuters News & Insight]

* Apparently racism still exists, even at prestigious university like NYU. Skip the damn banana, I’ll take $210K instead, thanks. [New York Daily News]

* First they came for the eggs, and I didn’t speak out because I don’t like breakfast. Then they came for the turkey, and I flipped out because my freezer is full of it. [Los Angeles Times]

* Imitation may be the highest form of flattery, but Christian Louboutin plans to appeal last week’s ruling on his red-soled shoes. You go girl, because I don’t want to pay for an imitation. [Daily Mail]

* What kind of a neighbor goes after Girl Scouts for selling cookies in their own driveway? Apparently the kind you don’t want to live next to anymore. [Daily RFT / Riverfront Times]

As any law student can tell you, pulling an all-nighter sucks. Biglaw associates, however, have to pull all-nighters quite frequently — and sometimes they’ll have to get by with very little sleep, for multiple nights in a row. As one of our Above the Law editors mentioned to me, a Biglaw all-nighter “is nothing like any other kind of all-nighter [he's] ever experienced.”

So what happens when you’re on your eighth caffeinated beverage of the night and you’re still yawning? You can literally feel the small amount of blood left in your coffee stream getting ready to stage a strike if you don’t catch a few Z’s. As a young lawyer, would you even consider going to sleep? And would your firm approve?

Hell no. Don’t even think about it. You can sleep when you’re dead. But for now, you get a futuristic-looking pod to take a nap in….

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Associates are under a lot of pressure these days. But we applaud those junior lawyers who respond to the current demands with initiative and creativity. We found just such an associate in Toronto.

The man’s problems seem trivial to the outside world. His office is crappy. He needs an upgrade, but not because he wants to feel like he’s some hotshot. He just knows that he has to look like a hotshot in order to generate business. This is how he explains it on a Craigslist post:

I work in a large Bay Street law firm. Many of my partners and clients have extensive collections of original artwork. As a struggling associate with a mortgage, no job security and a wife with a penchant for running into things with our car, I cannot afford to buy original artwork myself, so I appear low-rent to the higher-ups. Given the high standards of my clients and partners, I also cannot go out and buy prints or copies of original art – I will be laughed into the unemployment line.

A lot of associates would have noted the problem and left it at that. Maybe they would have gone home crying to their mothers about life’s unfairness. But not this kid…

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