Law Firm Culture

The Great Divide


And make no mistake about it: Young lawyers do want the rewards. And if they are denied, they won’t hesitate to make a run for greener pastures.

The grumblings are nothing new. Some even dismiss them, chalking them up to little more than a generational rite of passage where those who have finally made it to the top now look down on those beneath them and take them to task because they are, quite simply, doing things differently.

But the conflict between the generations seems to be worse than ever, and many lawyers—partners and associates alike—are crying out for a truce. Even if a white flag is being raised, though, the conversation is far from over.

John R. Sapp, a senior partner with a midsized Milwaukee-based firm, says it’s a topic on the tip of every managing partner’s tongue—one he himself discussed while presiding over his firm’s management committee. Sapp says he’s heard enough to question whether this new generation of lawyers is somehow different. But he has concluded it is the law firm that has changed, not the lawyer.

Money as a Motivator

Most large law firms are built upon a business model that exalts profits per partner over anything else. To keep those profit levels high, firms must entice associates to work longer hours. Most see fit to do that by offering higher salaries and bigger bonuses.

But this premise is problematic on many levels. Many young lawyers say they are not willing to sign their lives over to their law firm, no matter how much they are paid. Instead, they want the time to pursue other interests and build lives of their own.

Many also are chastened by memories of friends and family members who gave it all to their jobs only to get burned by layoffs or early retirement. “Employers’ actions with our parents have led us to expect less from them to the point that we approach employment as dating rather than marriage,” says William Schmidt, a law student at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. “We’ve seen our parents give almost every ounce of their beings to jobs, to the detriment of other areas of their lives,” he says. “Even though they may have garnered great favor in doing so, they may still be subject to layoffs, embarrassing and financially straining career changes, or early retirement. It’s no surprise that both sides are playing the new rules to their advantage.”

According to Sapp, high salaries are in some ways backfiring on law firms because they create financial independence. Young associates work for a large firm for a few years, paying off their loans and banking some money. After that, they have the financial wherewithal to explore other, possibly more meaningful, work.

“It gives a certain sense of independence on the part of associates because the reality is that there are other opportunities out there,” says Sapp, who wrote the second edition of Making Partner: A Guide for Law Firm Associates (American Bar Association, 2002). Law firm management consultant Karen MacKay sees another problem with using high salaries as a motivational tool: For many in Generation Y, money is not a motivator. On the other hand, money and status do motivate the baby boomer generation that holds the leadership positions in law firms.

MacKay of Toronto-based Edge International last year studied the value of partnership among lawyers working worldwide. The survey—conducted among member firms of Multilaw, a global network of independent law firms—questioned what partnership meant and whether it was desirable, attainable and equally available.

MacKay found that associates do not view partnership as the plum that it once was thought to be. If anything, says MacKay, the high salaries that firms are throwing to associates are diluting the value of partnership. It’s akin to winning a pie-eating contest where the prize is more pie, she says.

She says that many young lawyers would gladly trade off money for reduced billable-hour requirements. But the problem is that the baby boomers in charge of managing law firms have been slow to realize that their motivational tool is not working. As a result, it’s fueling resentment.

MacKay’s research makes sense to Peter Ellis, an associate in the Chicago office of a large, international firm. Ellis has heard the slacker label used to describe his contemporaries. But he questions it because a number of his colleagues not only aspire to be a partner, but also are logging long hours to get there. Walk around his office and you’ll see young lawyers there till all hours of the night, working hard, he says. And when they are not in the office, they can be reached at any time of the day or night via cell phone or PDA.

Ellis long ago fingered the high salaries as part of the reason that so many more senior lawyers were decrying his generation. “So many lawyers have practiced for 20 years and didn’t start hitting their financial stride until year eight,” he says. Now, associates in large law firms are starting with salaries into the six figures, and he speculates that senior lawyers view this as wrong.

That’s also the reasoning of Chicago lawyer Steve Borkan, a partner in a midsized firm who points to sky-high associate salaries as a factor aggravating the divide between the generations. “Associates think they are underpaid; there is this lottery market value out there,” he says. “The younger practicing attorneys feel that they do not have to give you more unless you give them more.”

Changing Work Ethic

Borkan says the behavior of young associates cannot be explained away by blaming the business model followed by so many law firms. He laments the lapse in work ethic of young lawyers today, along with what he sees as an overdeveloped sense of entitlement.

“This is the generation where everyone got the trophy in soccer,” he says. “I think the political correctness movement has diluted the work ethic that this country was built on.” In the past, Borkan notes, there were always a few lawyers who stood out in the crowd because they did not want to put in the effort. Now those who do want to put in the effort stand out. “All we see is the entitlement generation,” he says.

Borkan’s experience has led him to believe that young lawyers think nothing of putting Internet games and gossip ahead of work, and have little firm loyalty and even less interest in earning their keep. “When you find a few that break out of this mold, they shine like beacons in the night,” he says. But these few standouts also expect to be rewarded above and beyond their colleagues for doing what used to be the expected. “It’s turning the system on its head.”

Borkan is not alone in expressing his frustrations. Another lawyer, a partner at a New York City-based national firm who requested anonymity to avoid discord within her firm, says the Gen Y lawyers are simply a different breed. Few are motivated to work hard, she says, but all want the high salaries that once only went to those willing to put forth extreme effort.

At work, this partner says she sees few young lawyers around the office after 5 o’clock. “You can walk down the halls and only partners are there,” she says. Associates “are not appreciative of the tremendous salaries they are being paid. They don’t appreciate the training they are getting and the amount of investment we are expending on them.” Like Borkan, she’s watched associates burn bridges in a firm and leave for another in the same city without giving any thought to the consequences. “They don’t even think about the fact that they are going to run into you again in their career,” she says.

Reston, Va., lawyer Karen Turner McWilliams, in response to some of the behavior she has seen the past few years, often finds herself saying to her colleagues: “We never did that.” She offers numerous anecdotes, such as the associates who ask whether work can wait until Monday so they do not have to give up weekend plans, or those who refuse to work with certain partners or who use their BlackBerries to pretend they’ve left the office already. It often leaves her shaking her head.

“When I was coming up, associates did anything and everything they could to appease the partners,” she says. “That is no longer the case.”

But these associates are not slackers, McWilliams says. Most, if not all, are serious about their careers and work hard. What has changed, she says, are their priorities. Many do not see partnership as the reward that it once was thought to be. Instead, they are more focused on work-life balance and getting the most of their law firm experience before possibly moving on to another opportunity. “They really have bought into this work-life balance phenomenon that is pervading all industries. So they are not willing to work as late, be on call, work weekends. That is the mentality,” she says.

McWilliams also is unwilling to criticize them for their concerns over work-life balance and even firm loyalty. “It’s not a bad thing,” she says. “I honestly can see both sides of the argument.”

Technical Difficulties

Ellis says McWilliams is on to something about associates wanting more balance in their lives. But there also are tensions between the generations over how such balance can be achieved, thanks to the growing role that technology is playing in the practice of law.

Today’s associates grew up riding the great wave of technology. As a result, they are used to the perks of technology-enabled capabilities, like speed, efficiency and remote access. Such perks can enable outside interests to co-exist with billable time. But try telling that to senior partners, some of whom still may not be comfortable with technology. “There is a generation gap that presupposes that if you are not in your office, then you are not working,” Ellis says.

Ellis points out that most documents are now scanned into computer databases, making it possible to thoroughly review a file as easily from home or from Starbucks as from the office or a dirty warehouse. Yet more senior lawyers either don’t understand or are unwilling to understand that, he says. “It’s the difference between the generations,” he says. “This technology was not available to them.”

At the same time, many partners are taking full advantage of the technology to keep associates on call all the time. While some associates say they are criticized for using technology as an excuse to be out of the office, others say that they can never get away from the office because of their firm-supplied cell phones, PDAs and laptops. Professional development consultant Coke Morgan Stewart of Washington, D.C., thinks the use of technology is not just reflective of a generation gap. Rather, it is inextricably linked to the business model upon which so many law firms are now based.

Formerly an associate with two large area firms, she felt valued by her department and her clients for her efficiency, but also knew that this efficiency was antithetical to law firms structured around the accumulation of billable hours. Stewart, a new mother, was given the opportunity to reduce her work hours, but decided to pass on the offer. “I felt that I would always be out of sync with management,” she recalls.

Janis Meyer, a partner at a large New York City firm, says technology also has given young lawyers many new options in terms of taking charge of their careers. “The young lawyers coming out of law school today are extremely well-educated and extremely savvy,” she says. “They want to control their careers in ways that we just did not think about.”

Unfortunately, many young lawyers are disappointed when they come to firms expecting training and mentoring. Instead they may find that the pressure to bill hours takes precedence over everything else.

Los Angeles lawyer Seth Levy says this situation is causing a real predicament for lawyers and law firms alike. Many of his contemporaries went into large law firms out of law school expecting more of an apprenticeship model, and they didn’t find it. At the same time, because of high attrition rates in law firms, partners often have a hard time justifying the cost of training and mentoring young lawyers. Partners want to feel that associates are going to stick around, he says.

“My personal experience and that of some of my colleagues reflects the fact that if you are coming in as a junior lawyer and plan to stay, it’s not easy,” says Levy, a 2001 law school graduate who works for a large, international law firm. “It’s not easy to develop the practice and the business. And if you have not expanded the firm’s business, the realistic question from the partnership is why not just bring in a more junior lawyer to replace you.”

A Growing Problem

Larry Fox, a partner with a large firm in Philadelphia, says the issue that Levy has identified is indeed problematic. While there are many young lawyers who are coming to large firms just to collect the large salaries for a few years to pay off student loans, there also are those who want to put in the effort but find no support from their firms. Some “really want to make a run for it and are killing themselves, and then finding that the work is not rewarding, that they are not getting the experiences,” Fox adds. “Whatever the issues are, they are not staying.”

It’s a problem, he says. “It is real and it’s gotten worse because turnover is higher than it ever was before.”

Levy believes that few law firms ignore the issue, but even fewer act to solve it. “Some firms are better than others at providing … business development training, mentoring, pro bono opportunities, different hours, whatever it is that people are looking for. But if, at the end of the day, business is what drives a law firm,” Levy says, “then it becomes more difficult to capture and account for these types of things.”

Because of this attitude, Schmidt says, he plans to explore his career options with eyes wide open once he completes his degree.

He is willing to make a lot of trade-offs, but he expects training and fidelity in return.

“We realize what we are giving up in working these long hours at the professional jobs in terms of work-life balance,” he says. “And because we recognize what we are giving up, we want to make sure that we are building that intangible equity that shows the loyalty or appreciation of the firm.”


Jill Schachner Chanen, a lawyer, is a legal affairs writer for the ABA Journal.


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