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September 12, 2010 3:00 PM

A Metric that Holds Partners Accountable for Associate Satisfaction?

Posted by Ed Shanahan

By Steven Harper

The American Lawyer's most recent midlevel associates survey reports the lowest overall level of associate satisfaction since 2004.

The firms faring poorly will make excuses: response rates are low and negatively biased; the poll captures attitudes from a generation of young attorneys who feel entitled, and...you know the list. Lawyers specialize in explaining away bad facts, and sometimes the critique is valid.

But before lower-ranked firms throw their results into a sea of self-serving rationalizations, they should consider the criteria by which others did quite well: relations with partners and other associates, interest in and satisfaction level of the work, training and guidance, policy on billable hours, management's openness about firm strategies and partnership chances, the respondents' inclination to stay at their firms for at least two more years, and more.

Now correlate these factors to the metrics that dominate today's large law firm business models--billings, billable hours, and associate/partner leverage ratios, all of which produce equity partner profits. For too many, the relationship is inverse. The absence of a metric by which firms hold partners accountable for associate satisfaction means that it gets ignored. From there, it's a short step to the unhappiness that this year's survey results capture.

What's the solution? Pay associates more money? They won't object, but according to a recent survey published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, additional income beyond $75,000 a year doesn't increase happiness.

How about just telling the young lawyers to suck it up and push through to a better day? Doesn't time cure all ills? Another NAS study suggests that our sense of global well-being is U-shaped. We start at a high point around age 18, move down until 50, and take a major upward turn until 85. So maybe the solution is to hang in there. But half a century seems like a long wait.

So to speed up the process, I offer this modest suggestion for those who care. Firms that fared poorly in associate satisfaction should pretend that there's a cost associated with young attorney dissatisfaction that their short-term profit-maximizing metrics aren't capturing. Then they should look at the categories by which associates measure their satisfaction. Finally, they should develop a mechanism for evaluating partner behavior that takes those categories into account--and rewards or penalizes partners accordingly. At the end of this process, thoughtful leaders might find that they've improved their own lives along the way, too.

In support of that final possibility, I offer the following. When I've invited lawyers of different ages and stages of their careers to make guest appearances in my undergraduate course on the profession, big-law attorneys have spoken enthusiastically about tackling cutting-edge legal problems. Then they inevitably are asked this question:

"What has been your happiest time as a lawyer?"

Here are some answers:

A twentysomething senior associate: "Certainly not now. My life is not my own. I’m billing long hours in the hope of becoming a partner. Then I’ll gain more autonomy and control."

A thirtysomething nonequity partner: "Life was easier when I was an associate. But I work hard now because I think things will get better if I make equity partner. Of course, that’s a big 'if"."

A fortysomething equity partner: "I never realized how good I had it as an associate. Now I feel pressure to bring in clients so I can justify my equity compensation; that process never ends. You think that becoming an equity partner means you’ve crossed some finish line, but that’s when the race really begins."

A fiftysomething equity partner: "I don't know what I’ll do when I’m not a partner in my firm anymore. I haven’t had time to think about what’s next for me. Now, when I consider that prospect, the future becomes a source of anxiety."

There is no need for melodrama or hyperbole. Many big-firm lawyers of all ages have fulfilling careers and lead satisfying lives. Generalizations are always treacherous. Within and among firms, there are always exceptions to whatever is typical or predominant. 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? I'm just asking.

 

Steven J. Harper is an adjunct professor at Northwestern University. He recently retired as a partner at Kirkland & Ellis, after 30 years in private practice. His blog about the legal profession, The Belly of the Beast, can be found at www.thebellyofthebeast.wordpress.com. A version of the column above was first published on The Belly of the Beast.

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As someone who conducts law firm upward and 360 degree reviews, I can tell you that measuring this behavior does shape it positively. When top performers are rewarded and lower performers are coached (and see consequences), behavior changes accordingly.

Professor Harper correctly addressed a subject, which too many law firms currently do not adequately view as a matter of conseqence, given, among other things, the fact that there is an enormous pool of unemployed and underemployed associates. The fact remains that job law firm job satisfaction or dissatisfaction firectly affects profitabity.

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