The attrition rate in Biglaw is legendary. Since the recession hit, associates are less likely to voluntarily abandon a six-figure job and more often believe that you don’t get up and go until they throw you out the door. On the other hand, since the recession hit, associates are less likely to have any choice in the matter should their firm feel the need to reduce headcount. But especially during the boom years when I began practicing, associates frequently left their firm gigs to do all manner of things, from going in-house, to starting a private practice, to hiking across the country, or moving to Nepal.
I worked in large and medium-sized firms for nearly a decade, and during my tenure, I saw an awful lot of associates come and go. Rarely if ever was I surprised to hear the news. In fact, I was usually surprised that others were surprised. In my experience, there are certain tell-tale signs that an associate is crafting a farewell email….
I’ve known some lawyers to proudly proclaim that in litigation, they leave no stone unturned. They boast that they will pursue every defense, review every document, and raise every argument. In doing so, presumably, they assure victory. They strive to win at any cost.
This approach makes sense when a well-funded client faces bet-the-company litigation. In that case, of course, a lawyer should pursue every possible path to victory, even if a particular path seems like a long shot. It may cost a lot to win, but even more to lose. In these cases, the economic interest of the attorney and the client are aligned. If the amount at stake warrants it, the lawyer can work the case to the max, and the client is happy to pay for it.
But smaller firms handling smaller matters know that many times, winning in litigation is relative to the amount at stake and the fees incurred. Every client is initially delighted to receive a favorable verdict at trial. But when the heat cools down, and only the bill remains, even the winning client may resent his lawyer when he reflects on the price he paid for his “victory”….
If you’re trying to grow a solo or small firm practice, you generally shouldn’t work for free unless you have a deliberate business development objective in mind. Conversely, if you have a client willing to pay, you generally should prefer to scale up your headcount instead of turning down work due to lack of bandwidth.
Does this mean you should never turn down a client who is willing and able to pay your fees?
No. There are lots of reasons it might make sense to turn down a paying client….
There comes a time in all associates’ careers when they stop and do the math. They think about their salary, bonus, and benefits. They think about their billable hours. They multiply their billable hours by their billable rate and suddenly they think, hey, WAITAMINUTE. My firm makes threefour five times what it pays me!
Like any other salaried employee, the more hours an associate works, the less they make per hour, bonuses notwithstanding. They might not mind so much if they’re also bucking for promotion, i.e., up for partner. Regardless, at some point, every associate thinks, “if only I were paid as much per hour as I bill per hour . . . .”
That moment for me was the epiphany that ultimately led to helping form my own firm. But since that time, I’ve also been able to see the other side of the fence, so to speak. There are a lot of reasons — some obvious, and some less so — why the math isn’t quite as simple as it seems….
Law bloggers, including me, spend a lot of time talking about the economics of being a lawyer. This site voraciously covers news about salaries and bonuses, and often opines about the financial value of a law degree. I, too, often write about some particular financial aspect of managing a litigation boutique.
But as I have told countless prospective and current law students, if you’re in it for the money, you’re in the wrong profession. And this was true even in the glory days when six-figure bonuses were routine, and when students were only half joking when they called for starting salaries of $190,000 per year.
Virtually no amount of money can justify tolerating everything it means to be an attorney. Ask someone like Will Meyerhofer. The billable hours, the deadlines, and the overall stress makes many attorneys question why they ever went to law school in the first place. Dear 16 year old me…
Over the last few years, the legal market has changed dramatically. We live in a buyer’s market in which the clients hold the upper hand and can demand financial concessions from their attorneys that go beyond lower hourly rates.
This good news for clients might sound like bad news for lawyers. If lawyers can’t charge as much, they likely won’t make as much. But although greater price competition might lower revenue for some firms, it surely presents an opportunity for others. Small law firms often compete with bigger firms on price, and increased client sensitivity to legal fees can be a marketing boon to firms that can undercut their competition (with the familiar caveat, of course, that the smaller firm must be able to provide the resources and quality required by the particular matter).
The changing market invites, if not demands, lawyers to offer concessions for clients. Happily, many of the concessions have relatively little impact on the firm’s bottom line, but can garner significant goodwill with clients. For example….
I’ve written before about some of the challenges a small law firm faces when hiring employees. But more fundamental and difficult questions are why and when should a solo or small law shop expand by adding employees?
Like all businesses, most firms with excess demand for their services have a natural incentive to grow. A company is leaving money on the table if it is forced to turn away work because all of its lawyers are at full capacity with their billable work.
The incentive to grow might be tempered by concerns over preserving a valued culture. A small law firm might resist growth because it fears disrupting a favorable workplace environment. With each new associate hired, however, the reasons for not hiring the next associate get weaker.
The major disincentive to growth is the inability to predict future business. Litigation is especially fickle. A case might go to trial, and generate hundreds of hours of billable work, or suddenly be dismissed or settled. In litigation especially, sometimes the line between swamped and dead is razor thin.
This uncertainty makes hiring additional associates extremely risky — even if the immediate workload warrants it….
I hate to invoke a cliché, but “David versus Goliath” captures the challenge a smaller firm faces when litigating against an Am Law 200 firm. A small firm can feel like David when facing a larger firm that can bring more resources to bear on legal research, drafting motions, reviewing documents, etc.
The challenge increases when applied to clients. Many of my firm’s initial clients were startups or emerging companies with limited litigation budgets. Their adversaries often were much larger, established companies with seemingly unlimited budgets. Thus, we faced not only the challenge of litigating against brand-name firms with hundreds of attorneys, but we also initially had clients who simply could not afford to spend as much in legal fees as their well-heeled opponents.
So how can a small firm, especially representing a smaller company, effectively litigate against a proverbial army of lawyers representing a client to whom money is no object?
Everyone knows how challenging it can be for lawyers to find satisfying work in today’s economy. Employers who are looking to hire associate attorneys seem to have the upper hand because there are so many qualified candidates available.
Even with an abundance of candidates, however, hiring associates and support staff can be particularly challenging for small and boutique law firms. Although Biglaw firms are notoriously selective, in some ways they are actually less selective than their smaller counterparts.
Unfortunately for most, and fortunately for some, larger firms’ hiring is largely focused on the candidate’s objective credentials. Every firm pays lip service to its unique culture, but for junior associates your resume is often more important than your personality.
In a small or boutique firm, personality and “fit” are more important than they are in Biglaw. A small firm is more likely to have a distinct firm culture that is a reflection of its partners. The more owners, the more diffuse the personalities and culture. If nothing else, in a smaller environment you are going to be working in closer physical proximity to the other employees.
So, how can small firms find new associates who fit best?
For attorneys who bill by the hour, one of the less enjoyable aspects of the job is recording time. For many associates, entering time is a necessary evil done only under coercion. The process also can be fraught with pressure. Associates know that all too often their worth might be measured by their billable hours.
Of course, for big and small firms alike, we tolerate the timesheets because they are our firms’ lifeblood. Recording our time enables our firms to generate their invoices. The inherent purpose of entering our time is to generate this request for payment.
But an invoice can and should do much more, especially for a small firm or solo practice….
We currently have a number of active openings for associate roles at US and UK firms in HK / China, Singapore and two new in-house openings. As always, please feel free to reach out to us at email@example.com in order to get details of current openings in Asia, as well as to discuss the Asia markets in general and what we expect for openings later this year. Our Evan Jowers and Robert Kinney will be in Beijing the week of March 25 and Evan Jowers will be in Hong Kong the week of April 1, if you would like to meet them in person.
The US associate openings we have in law firms are in the usual areas of M&A, cap markets, FCPA / white collar litigation, finance, and project finance. The most urgent of our top tier (top 15 US or magic circle) law firm openings in Asia (among many other firm openings that we have in Asia) are as follows:
• 2nd to 5th year mandarin fluent M&A associates needed in Beijing and Hong Kong at several firms;
• Korean fluent 2nd to 4th year cap markets associate needed in Hong Kong;
• 2nd to 5th year Japanese fluent M&A associates needed in Tokyo;
• 4th to 6th year mandarin fluent cap markets associate needed in Hong Kong;
• 2nd to 4th year M&A / cap markets mix associate needed in Singapore.
In a land that is right here and in a time that is right now, a technology has arisen so powerful that it can replace basic human document review. Is it time to bow down before our new robot overlords?
First, here’s a little story about me: my life in the legal world began as a paralegal. My first case was a GIANT patent infringement case that was already six years old and had involved as many as five companies, multiple US courts, the ITC and an international standards committee. I knew nothing about any of this.
On my first day, my supervisor (a paralegal with at least eight other cases driving her crazy) sat me down in front of a Concordance database with a 100,000+ patents and patent file histories. “Code these,” she said. I learned that “coding”, for the purposes of this exercise, meant manually typing the inventor’s name, the title of the patent, the assignee, the file date, and other objective data for each document. I worked on that project – and only that project – for at least the first six months of my job. After a week or so, time began to blur.
What I know, in retrospect and with absolutely certainty, is that as time began to blur, so did my judgment. So did my attention to detail. If you could tell me that I did not make at least one mistake a day – one inconsistent spelling, one reversed day and month, one incorrectly spaced title – I frankly would need to see your evidence. I would not believe it. The human mind is trainable but it is not a machine.
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