Find Satisfaction in Law: The New Associates

Recently, large firm partners have been asking what it takes to recruit and retain what they regard as the "best" students. Although they rely on planned attrition, they are understandably disappointed when the "keepers" defect. As a law school career counselor who works extensively with students and young associates, I though I'd share with you some observations on the concerns and expectations of the newest generation coming into the profession. It does not describe all young associates, and it is not a comprehensive analysis of associate concerns, but it does touch on factors that cause new recruits to experience ambivalence about the law and careers in large firms.

Current students and new associates have a growing suspicion that they are falling behind in a race to reach a goal which may prove to be illusory. When they compare themselves to their parents, or even to those who have proceeded them by as little as a decade (and that would include most partners), they wonder if they stand as good a chance of achieving the good life, the very definition of which becomes increasingly uncertain to them.

Several factors account for this doubt and uncertainty. For one, as you well know, they graduate with mushrooming debt. Not only does this debt distort their job decisions, it threatens their socio-economic economic status. For some, it means that the cost of remaining middle class has increased for them even faster than it has for their parents. They do not see how they can duplicate their parents' achievements in income and lifestyle. They see educational costs threatening to undermine their families' security, and this despite the fact that their families sometimes have resources they cannot imagine accumulating. This despair is most frequently expressed with respect to housing. How, they say, " will I ever afford a house like the one I grew up in, which my parents paid off, and then re-mortgaged to send me to law school?" This is middle class angst. For the upwardly mobile, the debt burden feels even more crushing.

When it comes to work/family balance, this generation of new associates is sometimes accused of wanting to eat their cake, and have it too. What we forget, is that they often come from families that have struggled, with varying success, to do just that. They come from a transitional generation of parents who tried to maintain family life while pursuing dual careers and outside pursuits. Some families succeeded, albeit at the cost of some tensions, while others compromised and lapsed back into more traditional family roles. In either case, this crop of law school graduates may be the last to remember regular family meals, or the presence of both parents at a school play. It is an ideal they cherish, but doubt that it can be realized in the future. Some of them think they need tremendous affluence to achieve family security and a personal life; and they are afraid that achieving affluence will destroy what they seek to secure.

This means they come to law school with heightened sensitivities compared to previous generations of students. One group of students is almost prematurely aware of changing markets and delivery systems in the legal profession, and of broader developments in the economy. Their decision to attend law school does not involve a precise commitment to practice law so much as an attempt to place themselves in a competitive position in the business economy. They see law as a powerful tool in an array of survival skills, and view a law degree as potentially more versatile than a business degree. They are aware of a business culture dominated by frequent job changes, downsizing and short-term obligations between employers and employees. Many of these students are of an entrepreneurial frame of mind, interested in opportunities in investment banking, high tech startups, the Internet, consulting and accounting firms. (This whole mindset has its equivalent, by the way, in some public interest oriented students, who may be characterized as public interest entrepreneurs.) All of these students are concerned with the duration and difficulty of making partner in the large firms, and with the hierarchical structures of those firms. Ten or twenty years ago, they would have aspired to be you; now, they are not so sure.

Another group of students looks at the Darwinian struggle of nature raw in tooth and claw in business, and hopes to find in private practice a somewhat protected place to participate in the struggle. They know that the profession is changing, but they are drawn to the older ideal of private practice, perhaps what many law firms were a generation ago. They stubbornly hold that it should be possible to lead a moderately affluent, balanced life while practicing law. In the crucible of modern practice, however, this attitude leads to a certain reserve, or disengagement. They will render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, but they will not compromise other values. Because law firms do not really have, or respect a middle management, these students are apt to become associates who feel fungible and exploited, while their employers think of them as uncommitted and disengaged.

As a result of these concerns, students graduate with a predictable cluster of attitudes. They are intensely ambivalent about money, needing it and fearing it. They are dominated by short-term, strategic perspectives, seeking immediate benefits in training and experience that are transferable in case of emergency --- portable skills are to them what portable clients are to partners. This prudent attitude extends to their choosing employers for their status and name-recognition in other markets. These students are impatient, wanting to be rewarded for their present achievements, and to have early responsibility. At the same time, they fear responsibility without training, which they see as a draconian form of selection and evaluation designed to eliminate the inevitable surplus of associates. Consequently, they don't know whether they can succeed or want to succeed in the large firm culture. Both groups of students, those preoccupied with personal advancement and those preoccupied with life-style issues, are apt to see their interests as potentially in competition with those of their employers.

The most ambitious and driven associates identify with the partners whom they perceive to be most like them. Unless they feel recognized and valued by those whom they perceive to be the power brokers, they begin to feel their interests lie elsewhere. Moreover, in their admiration for the hard driving, they are not always able to distinguish between those who sacrifice for the advancement of the firm, and those who sacrifice for purely personal advancement.

The problem is reciprocal, I might add, for their mentors sometimes fail to distinguish between these qualities in associates or fellow partners. I know personally of one firm which hired a number of laterals (impatient young Turks) to pursue a more aggressive marketing strategy, and then watched them fight each other to secure resources for their own domains, abuse the associates and try to topple the senior partners. You might say that the managing partners had purchased watch dogs who proceeded to attack them and their children. This firm's recruitment declined with their new reputation. (However, in fairness to the laterals, I should add that some of them were honestly persuaded that they were saving the firm from itself, and had to destroy it to save it.)

Those young associates who are preoccupied with work/personal balance issues in the race to the top are also apt to fall into an attitude of me versus them. The way to advancement seems doubly problematic, because not only are those who succeed rare, but they seem to pay too great a price for their advancement. These associates also identify with the partners who seem most like them, people who struggle to lead balanced lives; however, they watch their role models carefully for signs of stress, and they look to see how much respect and power they have within the firm. If they see these partners as marginalized, then they lose hope of being equally respected for their professional and personal commitments.

How these students and associates resolve the tension between unrealistic expectations and premature cynicism depends a good deal upon how you, their role-models, accomplish the same task in the face of challenges mounted by changes in the profession. The students want to know, what values must be privileged for a large firm to survive? What is the difference between greed and sacrifice for the good of the firm? What are the real and truly inevitable limitations on outside commitments imposed by the goals of large firm practice , and how does one recognize good faith efforts to mitigate those limitations? What constitutes competence, and what qualities are consciously or unconsciously most valued in large firm practice?

Since you struggle with these questions yourselves, in retreats and day to day in your practice, you should be aware that present and future associates will follow the dialogue closely. They are not unlike teenagers watching conflict within a marriage. The parents who paper over conflicts, and the parents who give no quarter, are equally discouraging as advocates for the institution of marriage. The children appreciate candor about differences, but they need to see that differences can exist within common goals the marriage is designed to further.

Consequently partners need to provide more explicit, candid definitions of their own goals, and of what they consider to be a valuable attorney. I would make a careful study of what those valued attorneys live for, and the sacrifices they deem most worthy. The law firm's culture is defined by those values, and if they are made explicit, the firm will secure lasting commitments from the associates most likely to thrive in that culture. They are interested in why you as partners stayed with this firm, in the face of the many reasons you might have chosen to leave.

Which brings me to a value I haven't mentioned yet, but which probably constitutes the underlying goal of the marriage that private practice represents. This is the intellectual love for a craft that cannot be pursued in the quite the same form any place else. This love is expressed by associates and partners who also yearn for better work/family balance; it is expressed by ambitious associates and partners who recognize that they could make more in other settings. They all say they really love what they do, and will tolerate any number of sacrifices, friction and frustrations, so long as the firm supports their desire for challenging work, and makes them proud to be in the profession and in private practice. This is basically a traditional craft ethic, which refuses to die in all the professions, and which still appeals to many students and young associates. All the research shows that intellectual challenge is still the prime factor in work satisfaction among attorneys. It is the main bulwark against negatives such as life style concerns and worries about compensation. The "best" law students are as intellectually intense as they ever were, no matter what their other values. Show them that you love what you do, support them in their professional development, even at some cost to the bottom line, and they will be motivated and respectful, as long as they are with you. And some will stay for a long time.

By Mark L. Byers, Ph.D.