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American Lawyer Midlevel Associates Survey: Same Billable Hour Gripes 20 Years Later

The most recent American Lawyer survey of midlevel associates at law firms about their attitudes on everything from pay to partners -- the 20th since the survey was commenced in 1986 -- reveals little change in satisfaction levels. Many of the same gripes remain: vague requirements for making partner, overwhelming work loads, high intensity work environments, and lack of adequate training and mentoring. The silver lining is that many associates find their work intellectually challenging and express satisfaction with their level of client contact.

From the perspective of JD Bliss, it's clear from the survey that associate retention will remain a "hot button" issue for firms: 55% of the midlevels surveyed this year stated that they don't necessarily expect to be working in a law firm in five years.  Ambivalence about aiming for partnership often turns on the long hours. As one associate stated: "There are two inevitable truths. It's normal to have a family, and you cannot, with a two-wage-earning couple, competently [be a parent] and work the hours of a full-time associate."  Or as another commented: "You are asking too much of too few. No one should make the money you make on the backs of people working around the clock."

The survey suggests that firms should start getting creative about exploring alternative work arrangements that will keep associates happy -- and loyal. Client service suffers when talent keeps walking out the door, and recruiting and training costs remain high when a firm is constantly hiring laterals to replace departures.

What options might work? Consider this survey finding: 45% of respondents stated that they would take a 25 percent pay cut in exchange for a 25 percent cut in the billable hours requirement. Firms can leverage the willingness of associates to take pay cuts for reduced hours by considering arrangements under which two attorneys jointly share responsibility for client matters. Each attorney would work part-time at half-pay, and together both would make sure all client matters were properly handled. The arrangement has worked at large consulting firms - see past JD Bliss post here. Why not law firms?

Firms might also consider telecommuting arrangements that would cut down on associates' commuting time. If work can be handled responsibly from a home office, why not offer that option? Telecommuting has worked at some of the country's largest corporations.

Ultimately, given the high cost of associate turnover (see, e.g., Boston Bar Association report here), firms need to start taking steps to address associate frustrations and work life challenges.

For a more detailed discussion of the AmLaw survey results, visit law.com.

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