Happy Associates? Say It Isn’t So
Law.com reports that associates are happier than ever but here’s the punch line: they still plan on leaving firms. In fact, 44.9 percent plan on leaving their firms and 11.7 percent expect not to be equity partners. And as the article puts it, “Despite all the hand-wringing over associate retention, law firms report that in nearly half the associate departures — 49 percent — the firms were either neutral about the departures or happy to have the associates leave.” Perhaps the best part for law school readers is the prediction that AMLaw 200 firms want to hire about 10,000 associates and as the article explains “That astonishing number equals about one-quarter of all the students who will graduate from U.S. law schools next year. To put it another way, the top 20 law schools will only produce about 6,500 graduates.” The article goes on to predict talent wars and salaries in the $200K range. All of which is wild (insert appropriate the market is mad etc. comment and wait for the firms to continue on the path) but another point from the article may be more interesting: Hiring techniques of firms are suspect.
If these numbers are correct, it could be that firms should invest in human resources staff closer to what other corporate enterprises use as way to mitigate what seem to be hiring errors (These methods are suspect as well but appear better than current firm hiring systems). Alternatively it may be that hiring from brand name schools misplaces trust in those schools’ admissions. Sure the people are smart and can be attorneys, but do they want to be one bad enough to suffer through the life of a firm attorney for years and/or do they aim to be a partner? More on that question and the nature of firm hiring is below the fold.
It may be that the person who is at the top of the class happens to be smart and hard working but not interested in being an attorney, whereas the one who is right at edge of the 20 percent rank is smart, hard working and thinks having the income, ulcer, and lack of personal life is the best way to exist. The firm may be what that person dreamed of and he or she will bleed for the firm. Furthermore, I wonder whether firms will start to look to non-top 20 schools for the truly hungry, smart, and hard working people who happen to have only started to shine later in their academic career. This idea is a Gordon Gecko riff: take the less privileged, smart, and hungry ones, they will give firms what they want. They may be harder to find, but my guess is that Career Services offices would love to show firms the stand-outs from their schools who have visions of sugar plum salaries in their heads.
Then again, the nonplussed “Hey, we are happy to see half of them go” view indicates that firms know exactly what they are doing: hire brand name graduates and other high PR value associates so that the firm looks smart and diverse, but rely on the idea that only a few will want to stay. After all, if a firm wanted to keep people around and salaries are starting to bump into $200k, better mentorship, flexible pay and hours (i.e., true limited billing after the first few years with a lower salary) seem possible and are options that some might desire. To be fair I know a few people who have managed to get such deals from large firms, but they are rare and seem to cut against the pyramid model. There is more to say on this topic (especially about why I think a few years at firm can be a good thing), but I will stop here.