Law Practice Management

An alternative to the BigLaw 'Hunger Games'? Some say associate residencies are the answer

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Corrected: The idea of associate residencies—where lawyers are paid less but learn more—is being touted in opinion articles and being tried by a few law firms.

A Forbes op-ed likens the BigLaw associates’ plight to a “quasi Hunger Game” in which high-caliber lawyers spend a brutal eight years trying to make partner. Some firms seeking to retain and leverage their talent have developed new later-stage positions short of full equity partnership, such as special counsel of nonequity partner.

The next stage, Forbes says, involves changes to traditional associate programs. One option being tried by Greenberg Traurig is a new residency program for associates who aren’t recruited in traditional on-campus interviews. The positions last for a year and pay less, but new lawyers in the program can spend up to a third of their billable hours in training. At the end of the trial period, the residency associates may have to leave the firm, may become a regular associate, or may become a “practice group attorney,” a new position for nonshareholder lawyers.

Another firm, Duval & Stachenfeld, began its “Opportunity Associate Program” 11 years ago. Associates in this program are paid $70,000 during a nine-month probationary period, Forbes says. If they do well, they become either a “principal associate” on the partnership track or they join the “alternative track program.”

Also endorsing associate residencies is Kelli Dunaway, the professional development manager at Bryan Cave. Writing for herself (not the law firm) in the National Law Journal, she says law firms are overpaying their new associates.

New lawyers could be paid about half of their traditional salaries, she says, during a two-year residency program. Law firms could “sweeten the deal” with loan repayment assistance.

During this probationary time period, associates could rotate through several practice groups while getting full billable credit for training and pro bono, Dunaway writes. At the end of the program, some associates would not be offered a job with the firm, some would be offered traditional associate positions, and some would be offered staff attorney positions.

Law firms that don’t try the residency option could take “a credible first step,” she says, by “tackling the untenable associate compensation model.”

Corrected on Nov. 2 to state that Duval & Stachenfeld began its program 11 years ago.

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