Junior Lawyers Claim to Be Loving Life at Big Firms. Really?

More associates at large law firms are happier with their jobs today than at any time in the last decade. No, seriously.

That’s the word, anyway, from American Lawyer based on an annual survey of midlevel associates at large law firms. “Job satisfaction among third-, fourth-, and fifth-year associates at large U.S. law firms hit new highs last year,” AmLaw reports. The legal trade publication based this year’s upbeat findings on responses from 5,683 attorneys at 134 firms.

Happy law firm associates? That contradicts practically everything one hears and reads on employment attitudes in Big Law. For one comprehensive treatment of misery at the bar, dip into The Lawyer Bubble: A Profession in Crisis, a recent, cringe-inducing book by Steven Harper, a former partner at Kirkland & Ellis, the Chicago-based megafirm. For another grim perspective, check out this broader survey by the online jobs website CareerBliss, which found that law firm associates are “the unhappiest of all” job categories (followed closely by customer service reps and all-purpose clerks). CareerBliss based its findings on more than 65,000 “employee-generated reviews,” a bigger pool than AmLaw’s.

What could explain the discrepancy between the conclusions of the legal biz bible and everyone else? A cynic might speculate that a publication pitching itself exclusively to attorneys would bend over backwards to reassure younger members of its readership that they aren’t the wretches everyone assumes they are. We, however, will avoid crude cynicism.

“It could be that some firm leaders are beginning to take more seriously the importance of morale to employee performance,” Harper, the author and a retired big-time litigator, observes via e-mail. “To the extent that is happening, it’s encouraging.” He doubts that’s the whole story, though.

Now an adjunct professor at Northwestern University, Harper has a theory based on his observations of undergraduates and law students: ”Many young people are adjusting themselves to a ‘new normal,’ in which they are grateful to have any decent (or even tolerable) full-time job. For young lawyers, I think the point emerges from this key finding: ’10.1 percent of men saw themselves as equity partners in five years at their current firm versus just 6.5 percent of women.’” Even the otherwise ebullient AmLaw concedes that “the low numbers … are noteworthy.”

“Midlevel associates at big firms,” Harper continues, “are realizing that their long-term career prospects for equity partnership are increasingly bleak, as senior partners in many firms pull up the ladder and tighten standards for equity partner admission. … [S]urviving associates feel relatively fortunate.”

Michael Trotter, a partner with the Taylor English Duma law firm in Atlanta and author of Declining Prospects: How Extraordinary Competition and Compensation Are Changing America’s Major Law Firms, agrees with Harper: “On a broader scale we may be witnessing a fundamental shift in the expectations and aspirations of midlevel associates,” he says. “More may be viewing their first firm as a stepping stone to a corporate law department or an alternative firm or smaller firm or a business opportunity. If they feel their current job will aid them in reaching their goals, they are likely to be relatively happy with it.”

If that sounds appealing, law school awaits.

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