Law Firms

Partners Should Be Evaluated Based on Associate Satisfaction, Prof Suggests

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A former law firm partner who teaches at Northwestern has noted a curious fact.

When Steven Harper invites lawyers to speak to his undergrads, the attorneys are inevitably asked about their happiest time in the profession. And they will identify the future—or the past.

Senior associates complain about billable hours and hope to make partner, Harper writes for the Am Law Daily. Nonequity partners yearn for their days as an associate and hope to make equity partner. Equity partners complain about the pressure to bring in clients and say they never realized how good they had it as an associate.

Not all lawyers at big firms are unhappy, notes Harper, a former partner at Kirkland & Ellis. “Even so, as the large law firm business model has provided some of its attorneys with a lot more money than their predecessors, has it provided career satisfaction that contributes to overall happiness?” he writes. “I’m just asking.”

Harper offers one “modest suggestion” to improve the lives of associates, and maybe the lawyers who supervise them. He notes a recent survey showing associate satisfaction is at its lowest level since 2004. Firms that did poorly should develop a way to evaluate partners, he writes. The firms could look at the categories used to measure associate satisfaction and craft their evaluations to take account of those categories.

“At the end of this process, thoughtful leaders might find that they’ve improved their own lives along the way, too,” he says.

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