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Big Law’s Bonus Spree Fails to Curtail Risk of Associate Burnout

April 1, 2021, 8:55 AM

Welcome back to the Big Law Business column on the changing legal marketplace written by me, Roy Strom. Today, we explore ways firms can help associates avoid burnout other than handing out more bonus money. Sign up to receive this column in your Inbox every Thursday morning.

Will Meyerhofer’s patients lately tell their therapist a similar story. They are working all hours of the day and night. Being the Big Law workhorses they are, they’re going along fine. That’s until they hit a wall, staring at a blank screen when they know they have more work to do.

“They can’t push it anymore,” Meyerhofer said. “It’s like you’re whipping a horse and it’s not moving. It’s classic burnout.”

Meyerhofer, a former Big Law attorney who now practices psychotherapy on Zoom based in Manhattan, said burnout among Big Law associates is not a new phenomenon, but it has kicked up to new levels during a pandemic that has seen record levels of demand for associates’ time. One recruiter recently estimated some Big Law associates could be on track to put in an annualized 3,000 billing hours in 2021 if they continue their current pace.

The curious thing about “burnout,” Meyerhofer said, is that it usually afflicts the highest-performing lawyers. It’s different from the longer-term emotional distress lawyers suffer when they realize they just don’t like the job—and there’s plenty of that, he said. Burnout, specifically, can occur when hard-working lawyers feel there is no end to the mountain of billable hours and they start to become emotionally disoriented and disillusioned.

“What happens is you burst into a fury at somebody and you don’t know what got into you. Or you just burst into tears. And you’re like: ‘I’m sorry I didn’t mean to burst into tears,’” he said. “People who would never cry or who don’t scream at secretaries start doing that.”

The challenge of overwork, compounded by the personal stress brought on by the pandemic, is likely to be especially profound for women associates, who still tend to bear more of the burden in juggling child care and at-home schooling.

The increased focus on burnout in the legal profession comes at a time when demands on associates have never been greater and when the monetary rewards have risen to match.

Big Law firms have for the second time in a year created a new round of bonuses to reward their busier-than-ever associates. An ever-growing list of firms are now giving out as much as $64,000 to associates in payments split in two parts, mostly between the spring and fall.

Add it all up and the most senior associates at firms like Davis Polk, Milbank, or about 30 other law firms (so far), will have earned more than $200,000 in bonuses during the pandemic.

Firms reporting record profits are smart to let associates share in the wealth. But boosting compensation is not necessarily the best way to retain overworked employees or make them feel more satisfied with their work.

My colleague Meghan Tribe reported on the topic earlier this week. She spoke to a former Am Law 50 associate—highly-paid, to be sure—who said the lure of just a couple weeks of downtime was enough for some associates to want to switch law firms. With many firms matching these bonuses, associates make comparable salaries almost anywhere they go.

“Levels of mental health issues, stress, and burnout in the legal profession are arguably at an all-time high,” said Patrick Krill, who advises large law firms on strategies to promote lawyer well-being. “The question is will bonuses in any way offset the challenges around mental health and burnout? That is far from clear. And I would argue that in many instances they won’t. Compensation does not create capacity.”

Jarrett Green, another Big Law ex-pat who now advises law firms and legal departments on mental health and well-being strategies, likens paying overworked associates special bonuses to throwing a cup of cold water on a marathon runner. It feels good in the moment, but it doesn’t address the root cause of the problem.

“There are studies showing people feel they are being paid off for their pain. So sometimes it can actually backfire,” he said.

Good lawyers who just can’t grind any harder could benefit from perks other than (or in addition to) money.

Green has a long list of ways firms can make associates feel better about their workplace. One key is to have important people at the firm show empathy and compassion for the stress they’re dealing with, he said.

A good way to do that, he said, is a weekly program where high-ranking partners discuss their own stress levels and share how they define well-being. If you paired that program with providing billable hour credit for addressing mental health and well-being, another of Green’s suggestions, firms could expect a high turnout.

One program that’s gained applause in the industry is Orrick’s decision to provide 40 hours of “unplug time,” making a formal policy that all of its lawyers are expected take 40 hours a year away from work responsibilities.

Another way to demonstrate that you care about an associate’s well-being is to have more frequent discussions about it, either as part of the annual review process or through regular surveys, Green said.

“Employees who just perceive that they are being listened to decreases burnout and increases engagement and loyalty to the organization,” he said. “But especially right now firms are plugging their ears out of fear they can’t make any changes.”

Worth Your Time

On Associate Hiring: Goodwin Procter is hiring fully remote associates in a bevy of cities where the Boston-founded firm has no traditional office space. It’s an effort to expand the firm’s associate base and respond to the tight job market for Big Law associates.

On Berkshire Hathaway: Brian Baxter took a deep dive into Warren Buffett’s legal philosophy at Berkshire Hathaway, where a lack of in-house lawyers has meant big business for Munger, Tolles & Olson. The firm has earned more than $105 million in legal fees from Berkshire since 2005, Baxter reports.

On Boies Schiller: Chris Opfer reports Boies Schiller Flexner partner Joshua Schiller is returning to work after an outside investigation into a criminal domestic violence case against him. Boies Schiller said it found no evidence of physical violence on Schiller’s part.

That’s it for this week. Thanks for reading and please continue to send me your thoughts, critiques, and tips.

To contact the reporter on this story: Roy Strom in Chicago at rstrom@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rebekah Mintzer at rmintzer@bloomberglaw.com; Chris Opfer at copfer@bloomberglaw.com

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