The hiring emails started arriving in Allison Skager’s inbox the first week of her first job after graduating law school.
Now, more than a year since she started as an associate in Crowell & Moring’s Los Angeles office, the inbox deluge still shapes her morning routine. When Skager logs on to start her workday from her apartment, she first deletes a slew of inquiries from headhunters.
Skager, who works in Crowell’s corporate and government contracts group, said she hasn’t really been tempted, even as LinkedIn shows friends at other firms jumping from position to position. Still, the constant reminder of opportunities and the distance created by the pandemic has made it difficult not to question her choices.
“Am I best positioning myself for a career, for a future?” Skager said. “Am I foolish not to consider more money, more prestige, or the promise of whatever it is—mentorship, different areas of work?”
Skager’s situation reflects the unique position that second-year associates at Big Law firms—who graduated law school just months after the pandemic hit—find themselves in.
Many junior lawyers aren’t just surviving the change caused by remote work, they’re also making more money than ever before, thanks to booming business demand and a hot recruiting market. A second-year associate at a top firm can now expect to make as much as a quarter of a million dollars in annual salary and bonuses.
Associates are using the leverage traditionally not afforded to lawyers at their level to ramp up their expectations for firms. Not just when it comes to pay, but also flexible work arrangements and work-life balance.
“Things are so competitive right now that firms would harm themselves by forcing people back,” said Andrew Lang, a legal recruiter in Washington, D.C.
‘A New Paradigm’
The last two years ushered in a massive jump in corporate work throughout Big Law and kicked off a feeding frenzy for talent at every level.
There’s a lot of talk about the “Great Resignation,” but in Big Law, “it’s the opposite,” said Adam Oliver of law firm intelligence platform Firm Prospects. “People aren’t quitting because they burn out—firms are throwing them money.”
“In the past, firms were less interested in hiring people in their first year,” said Lang. “It was taboo: If you couldn’t make it a few years at the firm before deciding it was a good fit, that was a bad sign. Demands have forced firms to be more flexible, so there’s more willingness to bring first-years in, as opposed to fourth- or fifth- years.”
Many firms have raced to match salary increases announced by Wall Street law firm Milbank in January, boosting second-year associates’ pay to $225,000 under the new scale. They’ve also doled out multiple rounds of bonuses, topping out at $24,000 for second-year associates at major firms like Davis Polk and Cravath Swaine & Moore last year.
The flood of cash leaves associates looking for other incentives in deciding whether to stay or go, like flexible work arrangements.
“Not to dismiss all the horrible things going on, but we’re so lucky that we’re starting in a new paradigm of associates,” Skager said. “There’s not an immediate expectation that we’re in the office five days a week, that we arrive at nine and leave when the partners do. We’re starting our careers with flexibility, control, and a different approach to face time.”
Associates told Bloomberg Law in interviews that they don’t necessarily want to be fully remote or completely in the office.
The lack of informal interpersonal interactions has been particularly frustrating, said Roy Abernathy, a Crowell associate in D.C. who works in the firm’s antitrust and media groups and is a self-proclaimed extrovert. The firm has taken steps to get people together: associates regularly meet with partners from Day One, and mentors and various employee groups take special note of new hires, he said.
For Abernathy—who recently moved to the city from Gastonia, N.C.—his peers at Crowell have become some of his first and closest local friends. Going into the office “feels like a treat,” he said, because he mostly works from home.
In 2020, Grace Fernandez graduated from Berkeley Law, took the bar exam, and started a new job as an associate at Fenwick & West, all from her childhood bedroom in Phoenix. Now a second-year corporate associate for Fenwick in Northern California, she said the learning curve steepened during the pandemic. Without straightforward person-to-person interactions, even getting the answer to a simple question required more time and effort.
It can be especially nerve-wracking to reach out to coworkers about mentorship and advice remotely, where social cues and connections are awkward and hard to read, said Megan Hirsch, a commercial litigation associate in Boies Schiller Flexner’s Fort Lauderdale, Fla., office.
Certain networking opportunities have been easier, though. Skager said one of her practice groups is based in D.C., and without remote work she’d feel disconnected from the rest of the office. But with everyone online, she came in feeling none of the fear of missing out she would have expected.
“There’s no way to dress it up: we can’t have natural interactions,” Skager said. “Everything has to be an Outlook invite, sought out and planned and emailed back and forth.”
The disconnect of remote work, paired with the high-stress job and general pandemic anxiety, has made associates more conscious of developing relationships at their firms and making time to unplug and relax, they said.
It’s not always easy.
“When your work computer is fully your home office, it’s hard not to answer emails immediately when you see them,” Skager said. In the ‘before times,’ I might have had an automatic barrier when I left the office, but how do we gain that?”
Associates said their firms are not ignoring stress and burnout. But while firms are offering everything from resource groups to happy hours and virtual escape room events, they provided scant details on concrete steps to push associates to unplug when asked for specifics.
Crowell & Moring sent out FAQs aimed at senior associates and partners with information and guidance on best remote work practices and how to avoid burning associates out, Skager said. Fenwick & West and Boies Schiller have also offered a variety of more casual team engagement, like virtual escape rooms, magic shows, and cross-discipline lunches, Fernandez and Hirsch said.
Socialization hasn’t been much of an issue for Pablo Hernandez-Romero, a business law associate at Goodwin in Boston. There’s been near-constant construction on his apartment recently, so going into the office a few days a week throughout the fall was a no-brainer, he said. He’s seen the office space come back to life, bit by bit.
“It’s fun to see things change in the office, see people coming back,” he said.
That transition has taught him a valuable lesson: show up, whether it’s on Zoom or in person.
“That means showing up to events, group Zooms, trainings, town halls, coffee breaks, water cooler time, trivia nights,” Hernandez Romero said. “I’ve been fortunate to have opportunities presented to me just by virtue of showing up. It opens doors.”
Is Money Enough?
It’s not clear whether these initiatives are enough for firms to keep sought after associates.
“There’s no personal connection holding people at firms,” Firm Prospects’ Oliver said. “When Kirkland says ‘hey, join us, we’ll cut you a check for $150,000,’ it’s hard to say ‘no’ to that.”
Julian Sarafian is a former Wilson Sonsini associate who walked away from Big Law in December 2020 after his mental health plummeted during the pandemic.
Since then, he’s become a mental health advocate, accruing a sizable social media following. Sarafian broadly criticized Big Law for how it’s treated employees, citing overwork and a lack of boundaries as primary issues that precede the pandemic.
He said efforts like those cited by associates are a good start, but also called them a “band-aid for the real structural changes that need to take place,” like real billable hours limits and clearer delineations between work and free time.
“The thing holding mental health hostage is work expectations,” Sarafian said. “You can have as many happy hours as you want, but if you don’t have the mental bandwidth to take a break and unplug, plus if you don’t have a ton of passion or connection to the firm—which firms aren’t doing well with—people will burn out.”
Sarafian agreed that associates seem to have more power now than ever before, but he questioned whether that will lead to any significant adjustments to the system.
Associates’ greater power just means they have options as to where they’d like to burn out, he said.