Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Why US lawyers don't want their boss's job

Two weeks ago I spent 3 days in New York City interviewing candidates for the position of the FT's first in-house US attorney.  It was an eye opening experience into the state of the US legal market and the sentiment of young attorneys who represent it's future.

We barely advertised the position and certainly didn't pay for advertising nor use a recruitment consultant.  We used a combination of the FT's "Careers at the FT" website, a few Tweets and LinkedIn notices and word of mouth.  Nevertheless we received well over 100 applications in an approximate 3 week period.  

We interviewed 13 of those candidates once, and four of them a second time.  We have been fortunate to meet a range of very high quality applicants and it has been very tough deciding who to take through to second interview, harder still who to hire.

The demand for the position illustrates that the GFC has had a major adverse impact on the US legal market, certainly compared to the UK market.  I know there have been job losses in UK firms over the last two years but my sense is that they have been nothing like the scale seen in the US, or at least on Wall Street.

I don't know the US legal market well enough to surmise why it may have been harder on that side of the pond, but one thing I have learnt during the course of this interview process is the sense of disenfranchisement many young US attorneys have with the private practice model in the US.  And I'm not talking here about jobless candidates who may not have cut it in the US juggernaut firms.  I'm talking about quality candidates who either still are in situ at those firms or who have done reasonable stints there before moving on to good in-house roles, okay, yes, in some cases because they were "let go", but in others because they chose to leave.

Of course the fact that young US attorneys seek to move from practice to inhouse does not distinguish the US market from the UK.  But what does, I think, is the way in which those attorneys articulate and rationalise their decision in a more informed and thought through way than their UK counterparts.  Or maybe that's the wrong distinction, perhaps New York attorneys are just happier to tell it like it is without an affliction of British reserve.  Or maybe US attorneys genuinely are less happy than UK associates.

When I interview candidates in the UK and ask those practising in firms why they want to move inhouse, the answer is invariably the same: "I want to get closer to the business side of things".  A fair if predictable answer, I expect I gave it myself in 2000 when I made the move.  And whilst this was an answer given in the US, it was invariably supplemented with some commentary as to why the US private practice model is, in the words of one candidate, "broken".

Broken.  That's a fairly emotive word and clearly not entirely accurate, at least in terms of profitability and ability to provide first class legal services.  But why did the people I met think that the private practice model was breaking, if not broken?  Well, these were the reasons they gave me:

1. The hours.  I came across none of the faux-macho lunch is for wimps aggression you might expect from young, ambitious lawyers.  These attorneys were, simply, fed up of working their long long hours.  Of post-midnight taxi rides being the norm, not the exception.  Of the devotion required to "the firm".  Resigned to the fact that it isn't worth getting to work until 10am because work goes on all day and all night whatever time you arrive.  And I want to impress that those we interviewed were nothing else than model professionals, not workshy law school drop outs.

2. The work is abstract.  The more junior associates are so far away from the deal and the client ("you're always six questions away from the client" one interviewee memorably put it) they cannot see that their work is delivering anything tangible.  Another spoke as being "removed" from the client.  Those that had experienced the panacea of client contact spoke of the fact that they were allowed to meet clients as a source of real pride rather than something that should be the norm.

3. The work is boring at junior associate level.  Much of the work is processing of standard forms and filling in blanks, "paper shuffling" as one of the candidates said.

4. Reaching partnership isn't what it used to be.  The pressures do not ease after the race to the top, they get worse because partners have to maintain their position at the top of the pyramid, and that does not necessarily engender a team spirit.

5. A lack of role models.  Or as one candidate succinctly put it, "I don't want my boss's job".

One interviewee said that succeeding in a Manhattan law firm is not so much an intellectual challenge, but a physical endurance test.

Whether these perceptions are true I don't know.  It's over 10 years since I left private practice and I've never worked in a US practice, so I'm not qualified to say.  But it doesn't matter if the perceptions themselves are true.  What matters is that the perceptions exist at all, and certainly with the level of commonality that I found.

Of course, the arguments exist that no-one goes to work in a Manhattan law firm without knowing the sacrifices that will be involved; that lawyers straight out of law school don't get paid $150,000 upwards for working 9 to 5; that lawyers are in the service industry and clients demand the level of service they pay for; that the nature of legal work is such that deadlines exist and documents have to be drafted; and yes, that Manhattan lawyering is not for the faint hearted, there are egos at play.

But do these arguments justify making associates miserable or disenfranchised about the places they work?  No, of course not.

Why do I care about this?

I'm not an inhouser who is an anti-outhouser. On the contrary.  Inhousers in small to mid size teams like mine need to partner effectively with outhousers to deliver a full service internally.  I can deliver a better service by working when I need to with my outhouse cousins.  I want to see private practice thrive (with the footnote, as long as it's not thriving solely for the benefit of partners at the expense of clients!  That’s for another post).  And therefore, I think the most troubling issues are numbers four and five above.  The lure of partnership just 'aint there for many.  As clients, do we want the future leaders of the law firms we work with to be those individuals who succeeded the physical endurance test of being an associate and sacrificed anything even remotely resembling a normal personal life in order to get there?  I'm not sure I do, I'd rather be doing business with real people.  Law firms will not be well rounded environments if they only employ those who can "hack it" or " take their medicine" at the expense of a more balanced existence.

I also care, because I think it is a shame if associates are leaving their firms in droves because they are unhappy.  It's a shame that the debts they incurred at law school, which are substantial in the US, were incurred all to chase some false idea of practising law.  I care because unhappy lawyers make bad lawyers. Because unhappy lawyers make tired lawyers.  Because unhappy and tired lawyers make even worse lawyers.

Three more anecdotes in support of the case for the prosecution.  Three Christmases ago a partner at a US firm rang my mobile on Boxing Day chasing my payment of a bill.  Last Christmas Day I received 2 or 3 emails from a different US firm regarding a transaction we were working on - these were substantive emails attaching revised transaction documents, not two-liners pinged from a Blackberry for the sake of appearing busy.  And in the late summer of this year, a Manhattan firm partner I know told me had only taken 4 days holiday in the last year.  Now, even accounting for the fact that the US does not recognise Boxing Day and that the lawyers who emailed me on Christmas Day may have recognised different religious festivals, I think these anecdotes go some way to explaining the perceptions held by the attorneys we interviewed.

I need to caveat some of this.  First, I know that 17 meetings with 13 people doesn't make me an expert on the US legal market.  Second, I know that it's impossible to reach firm conclusions based on such a small amount of research.  And third, I'm privileged to know some successful US attorneys happily working in US firms who not only manage to be great lawyers but are also great people.  So I'm not arrogant or stupid enough to think that any firm should make any decisions based on my musings.

But what would be nice, is if one, two or even three partners in large US firms (or even UK firms) read this, stopped for a minute (come on, write the lost billing unit off to pro bono or client development or something) and asked themselves the question: "if I worked for me, would I want my boss's job?".  If the answer is "no" (or for the more radical, anything other than an unequivocal "yes") I'd suggest it is time for a good hard look at the firm's structure and culture.  Any comments below are welcome, particularly from associates or partners in US firms - have I called this right or wrong?  Let me know.....

Thanks for reading.  Now go feed the fish at the end of the page, they're hungry.


  1. One of the interesting things about this is the way in which it shows a fracturing of the market for legal talent. Those unwilling to inflict the slings and arrows of the partnership tournament opt out of the 'fast' track and take other positions, either as 'back office' or cheaper non-Blue Ribbon work or non-partner track associates or in-house. It's not a new trend, of course, but it may be an accelerating one. The elite firms risk damaging their reputation for having and being led by the best if they continue to allow partnership to be both so difficult to get and (increasingly) difficult to hold onto. Will be interesting to see if ABS models teach firms to change their reward structures and also allow greater specialisation so equity partners do not have to try and do it all.

  2. Biglaw lawyers (non-partners and to a lesser extent partners) are relatively well-compensated not because they are expected to work hard, but because of they engage in a line of work that is hazardous to their intellectual health. Biglaw associates, with few exceptions, are expected to and are rewarded for functioning like automatons, rather than as professionals engaged in "brain work". Seldom are creativity and entrepreneurship perpetuated or rewarded by Biglaw (lipservice aside). This, perhaps, is due in part to the structure of large law firms, which pressurizes its economic units (i.e., the lawyers) to appear to be, rather than be, “productive”, a term that has a peculiar meaning in Biglaw. Productivity means billing, (by any means and with inadequate regard for efficiency and mentoring), a required number of hours (at minimum); giving face time, and generally conforming to cultural expectations that are outdated and inapt in the modern environment. The general lack of creativity within and among large law firms has resulted in their failure to anticipate or even catch-up with many of the business trends that are being led by the very clients they serve (or aspire to serve). Biglaw is fundamentally insular and reactionary. Some large law firms appreciate that the Biglaw model is flawed, but fail to understand why, or how to fix the problem (see examples of firms that have called on brand name consultants (e.g., McKinsey) to orchestrate restructurings borrowed from incongruous business models and superimposed, with unsurprisingly adverse consequences). In short, the Biglaw lawyers leave their firms because, over time, they become alienated from their labor. A sad truth in a profession that exists to provide intellect-based services.

  3. I wonder whether lawyers " trained" to manipulate securities documents or do other remote-from-the-client paper pushing have any of the skills needed to be an in-house counsel, let alone a sole one. Hopefully you found some with sufficient initiative and drive left to step up to the challenge.
    I suspect that your role would have a strong candidate-attracting cachet even in a better market for lawyers. I am sure you would have had 1000 candidates if you'd advertised more thoroughly.

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