A couple weeks ago, I had the privilege of attending the CodeX Future Law conference at Stanford. There were many highlights, but one depressing quote from Eddie Hartman’s talk on UK Alternative Business Structures (ABS) stuck with me:
“Associate attorneys are the unhappiest job in America.”
I am not a lawyer (or as described by some, I am a “non-lawyer”) but I still feel for the profession. So, why are associates so unhappy?
Perhaps we should begin with some context. In 2012, law firms across the country were cutting back on hiring while thousands of law graduates were unemployed, and stuck with six-figure student loan debt. Some students even sued their schools for misrepresentation when they were accepted into the profession.
A first year lawyer, lucky enough to land a job in a large New York law firm in 2012 described his experience to Business Insider.
“…you just don’t appreciate how boring it actually is…strangely nerve-wracking because you know you’re messing it up…And you’re probably going to mess it up even if you did care, so why even bother.”
The kinds of tasks assigned to associate lawyers, beginning their careers in large firms, were especially torturous in those years. Associate lawyers could have no real case authority. Much of their work might involve “document review.” In 2012, that work was largely done manually. Although the review of large volumes of documents is a main staple of the work of an associate attorney, when it is done by hand, many regard this work as grudging and irksome. In 2011, one young associate attorney described the situation this way.
“before you know it a year has passed and while you have amassed no late fees on your credit cards and no overdraft fees on your bank account, you have also amassed no new skills. You have made money at the expense of making money in the future…There is no actual lawyering involved in document review.”
A 2013 survey by CareerBliss found associate attorneys to be the least happy in their jobs (with a happiness rating of 2.89 out of 5). The associate attorneys were certainly more unhappy in their job than legal paraprofessionals, but also ranked well below Customer Service Associates, Clerks, and even Tech Support. The 2016 CareerBliss survey did not list associate attorneys.
For one thing, pessimism appears to correlate with success among lawyers. In 1990, the entire University of Virginia law school class was tested on an “optimism-pessimism test.” In contrast with other professions, pessimistic law students outperformed their optimistic peers on such factors as grades and law journal successes. Lawyers are trained to keep an eye out for the downside of things and to find every possible flaw, potential negative outcome, catastrophe and snare. Pessimism is associated with traits of prudence among lawyers. There is only so much positive emotion we can expect from them.
In recent years, technology has paved the way for greater happiness in an essentially unhappy profession. In many cases the carrels in which the bored young associate labored are gone. Often the kind of work law associates perform, can be done online, out of the office, and even at home. The hours are still long, but for many, the days of staying in the office until midnight are slowly being replaced by long hours at home - still terrible, but slightly less so.
An article in USA Today describes how one firm freed its staff by providing iPads that make document searching easier and allowing law associates the freedom to move around to complete document review. Changes like these are finally resulting in happier associate lawyers. A recent job satisfaction survey of 881 associate lawyers indicated that 80 percent of them were “highly satisfied” with their jobs.
Technology has moved the practice of law a long way since 2012. Often the work previously assigned to associates can be completed or aided in important ways by “virtual paralegals.” Virtual paralegals can make use of the power and collective intelligence of the internet, and complete projects remotely. Salaries for law associates in big law firms have also been significantly bumped up over the last few years.
Salary and Status
Entry level salaries are now averaging close to $70,000. Associates with five to ten years of experience can see salaries of $92,000 or more. With more than 10 years of experience, associate salaries can be over $100,000. The status of the associate lawyer has been substantially raised over the last several years. In addition to the availability of digital assistants to speed routine work, Many law firms are contracting out routine work, leaving associates free to find more interesting options.
The occupation of associate attorney in a large firm may always be an uncertain one, because of the nature of the legal profession and the brotherhood-like traditions that go with it. Of course, the employment of associates is still dependent on the collective wills of the partners. Although it is the goal of the associate to gain increasing responsibility in the firm, and eventually achieve partnership, it’s always a matter of developing relationships with those who make those choices. Many firms have an “up or out” policy. Associates who are repeatedly passed over for partnerships are eventually asked to resign. Other firms have “non-partner track” associates who may perform well, but will never be promoted to partner, for whatever reason.
The claustrophobic working environment associates were exposed to may be a thing of the past in most large law firms, but the heavy hand of tradition still hangs over the salaried lawyer. Increasingly, young lawyers are rejecting the old model and opening their own practices rather than following the tracked Big Law associate route. New practice lawyers can make considerable use of technology like Clio to manage their practices and are starting to apply analytics to accomplish many of the tasks that a staff of employed attorneys would have been required for before.
Transition away from Big Law
According to an NBC News report, the number of law graduates entering individual private practice has been steadily increasing by several percentage points a year. Law schools still mainly focus on placing graduates into large firms, even though hiring has dropped substantially over the last decade. While entirely anecdotal, my experience with lawyers we have engaged through UpCounsel, Rocket Lawyer, and Legal Zoom tells me there is likely some hope for high performing lawyers in working outside the regimented environment of Big Law.
A more competent lawyer?
Technology is increasingly becoming part of ethical standards for lawyers. There is a long, uphill battle of technology adoption, but many clients and even some regulators now demand competency in basics like word processing and eDiscovery. However, lawyers seem to adopt some technologies quite readily. It is now common for a private practitioner to set up their own website, and build their brand using inbound marketing and social media. Perhaps their enthusiasm for marketing and customer acquisition technology will carry over to technology that benefits clients?
On the Horizon
Legal technology today hardly lives up to the hype that many would have us believe. Still, in an industry with such historical entrenchment and resistance to change, even small things can have a significant impact for the 1.3 million lawyers in the US. However, as so eloquently put by Jim Sandman during his keynote at Future Law:
“The legal system is designed with the end user as the lawyer, not the client.”
Perhaps all of this talk about lawyers being unhappy should lead the profession to think of the actual end user of legal services: the rest of us “non-lawyers.” Maybe young lawyers are simply reflecting the abysmal user experience of law for the other 7 Billion humans on this planet. Are young lawyers happier when technology allows them to more directly help their clients?