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Law Firm Associate Dichotomy: Mega Salary vs. Pay Cut for Fewer Hours

As law students approach interview season, I have been keeping up with Above the Law's "open threads" on the Vault 100 law firms. Each day, Above the Law invites open commentary on these firms, in groups of five at a time, to give law students and associates an opportunity for anonymous, candid discussions about each firm’s pay, recruiting, lifestyle, reputation, etc. Maybe there are a few partners also posting anonymously to keep things interesting, but that’s the idea anyway.

From the open thread comments on Above the Law (see, e.g., here), word of mouth sources, and ongoing articles in the mainstream media about law firms that are raising salaries to $160k for first year associates (see, e.g., here, here, here, and here on law.com) (as well as some firms that are not meeting the competition, see here), it appears that law firms are still using increasing salaries as the primary tool to attract top talent even though many law firm associates say they would gladly take pay cuts to work fewer hours

In short, there appears to be a dichotomy among law students and associates – those who want ultra-mega-salaries and those who are willing to exchange some level of salary for more time outside the office.

How about this for a probably unoriginal, but underutilized, idea: What if we could match up the big salary firms with the associates who want more money, and the lifestyle firms with the associates who want lifestyle? It is not hard to imagine law firms eventually deciding to be either a money and big hours firm, or a lifestyle firm, and recruiting accordingly. Maybe then, law firms and associates can be honest with each other in interviews about what their expectations are, and we can stop having this tired exchange: “We’re a collegial firm, like a family,” followed by, “Don’t worry, I don’t need collegial. I’m here to bill hours.”

By Ashley Brewer, Lawyer/Life Coach, The Balanced Life Spa

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Not to be a cheerleader for my firm (Fenwick & West), but the partners have come up with what I think is a pretty good solution. Associates are allowed to choose (purely of their own free will, no "permission" from anyone required) the "regular" 1950+ minimum billable hours track or an "alternate" track with a 1800-hour minimum and proportionately lower salary (considered full-time). I'm on the 1800 hours track and I work just as hard as the 1950-ers on a daily basis, and of course still work late nights and weekends when it's necessary to meet a deadline/client demands, but don't have the additional pressure to do so purely to add on extra hours. The marginal decrease in hours makes for a livable career that isn't going to burn me out and is certainly keeping me loyal to the firm. It's not a perfect system (when there's too much work for the number of associates, we're all still swamped regardless of hours track), but I think it's an idea worthy of attention.

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