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Why Cold Hard Cash Beats Love in Big Law

April 23, 2021, 3:01 PM

The bleeding heart liberal in me says the legal profession needs to be more compassionate, banish the scourge of the billable hour and offer free pilates on demand. The hardened capitalist pig in me says, who are we kidding? Law is a rough and tumble profession, and everyone who gets into the game knows it.

This year, because of the unusual stresses brought by the pandemic, burnout has become a bigger topic than ever. Everyday, it seems, there are reports about how lawyers and Wall Streeters are going nuts because they’re struggling to juggle the demands of work and home or because they’re simply working themselves to a state of frazzle. According to Bloomberg Law’s Attorney Workload and Hours Survey, which looked at 1,554 law firm and in-house attorneys, three-quarters of respondents say they’ve experienced work-related disrupted sleep or anxiety, and the most unsatisfied lawyers in the survey report feeling job burnout 74% of the time.

What we keep hearing is that lawyers are on the brink, physically and mentally, and firms ought to get on the stick. The problem, though, is that firms are clueless about what to do. Their default is to throw money at overworked associates—and that’s apparently not doing the trick. The message is that associates need something more meaningful than filthy lucre to keep them going.

Something more meaningful than money? Really? As a former associate, I totally get the despair of being an overworked cog in the mega machinery—that feeling of having little control of one’s life—but I’m skeptical if burnout can be eradicated in a sustained way in the world of Big Law. From what I’ve experienced and seen, most associates do it for the money and put up with the unpleasantries until they can’t.

Perhaps millennials have higher aspirations—at least that’s what I keep hearing. I’m told associates these days expect a deeper reward than money from their Big Law experience. So is money no longer the ultimate expression of corporate love?

That’s hard to believe. Money has always defined the Big Law experience, and this year, against the backdrop of the pandemic, the nation’s top firms made gobs of it. According to The American Lawyer, 92 firms increased their profit per equity partner in 2020. Some—and we’re excluding Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz here—made out like bandits. One example is Davis Polk & Wardwell, which grew revenue by almost 22% to $1.8 billion and profits per equity partner by more than 40% to a stunning $6.35 million. Another standout is Kirkland & Ellis, where revenue rose by 16% to $4.8 billion, and profits per equity partner spiked nearly 20% to $6.2 million.

The result is that almost every firm that considers itself a member of the major league rewarded associates with tidy Covid-19 bonuses for their hard labor. Those bonuses started to roll out last fall and are continuing through this year—a new round is now being doled out, with another to follow later in the fall. By this fall, first year associates will pocket around $220,000 for a year’s worth of work, while some eighth year associates will take home up to $500,000, billable hours dependent (naturally).

To normal folks who toil in more pedestrian professions (that would include journalism), this seems like crazy money. Arguably, it’s also a bit unseemly—all that money being tossed around while the pandemic rages on. The inconvenient truth is that while large swaths of the country suffered, lawyers were blessed with opportunities, jumped on them, worked like maniacs and took home a bundle. Hey, no one ever said Big Law represents the real America.

In the context of that money gush, what does lawyer well-being or work/life balance mean? And what exactly should big firms do to help alleviate stress among its minions?

So far, there’s been a few recent stabs at associate morale. There’s Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe’s “Unplug Time” policy that gives lawyers 40 hours of additional vacation per year—which sounds great in theory but who has time to take it? (You might recall a bunch of firms—including DLA Piper; Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher; Kirkland & Ellis; Latham & Watkins; Mayer Brown; White & Case—offered “unlimited” vacation time at some point too.) Meanwhile, Greenberg Traurig’s managing partners are roaming around the country in a RV, holding town calls with associates at various locations to build morale—but wouldn’t weary associates just prefer cash or Amazon gift cards?

These are clever attempts at humanizing the law firm venture, but I doubt any of this will make a dent. Unless firms are willing to trash the billable hour, be far less solicitous to client demands and revamp their entire business structures, most of these gestures aimed at making the profession more humane are just that: gestures.

The sad truth is that law practice is inherently pressured and often unpleasant. Which is not to say that law firms shouldn’t try to be kinder institutions. Certainly, no firm should tolerate abusive behavior. Cordiality and respect should be a baseline. That said, ungodly hours and unimaginative pressure are sort of a given.

For all the talk about well-being, morale, spirituality—whatever you want to call it—isn’t the ultimate balm just cold hard cash?

To contact the reporter on this story: Vivia Chen in New York at vchen@bloombergindustry.com

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