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How Big Law Firms Can Retain the ‘Lost Generation’ of Unhappy Associates

Posted Feb 29, 2008 7:36 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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Associates at large law firms are a “lost generation” who are given mostly drudge work, face unceasing pressure to produce, and are kept in the dark about firm finances and the broader strategies behind the matters they handle.

No wonder some firms are losing as many as half their associates, write former General Electric general counsel Ben Heineman Jr. and Harvard University law professor David Wilkins in Corporate Counsel magazine.

It doesn’t have to be that way, the authors write. Big law firms “must address the paradox of ever-higher associate compensation and ever-shorter tenure. The answer is not late-night dinners from The Palm on silver servers. It is a stimulating, mind-expanding experience.”

Getting down to specifics, the authors offer these suggestions:

--Law firms can charge corporations reduced rates for new associates to work on important matters.

--Law firms should send associates to important meetings and legal proceedings so they can observe what is happening, without billing for their time.

--Law firms can send associates with at least a year of experience to corporations to work and learn for a year. Corporations could pay the costs, but not the profit margin, for the employee.

--Law firms can send associates to public sector agencies for two to three years, paying their salaries and promising them a job on their return.

--Law firms should expand pro bono programs to give young lawyers more experience.

--Law firms should focus on professional development, using training materials, exposure to legal experiences, measurable milestones and feedback sessions.

--Partners need to create time for more communication with associates.

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