Clues that explain the growing ranks of dissatisfied big law firm attorneys are everywhere, even on C-SPAN. I'd intended to watch a recently televised replay of a judicial conference panel discussion on C-SPAN2 for only a few minutes last week, but as the discussion unraveled, I remained captivated by the train wreck before me on the small screen.
The panel's participants included a large law firm managing partner, the general counsel of a Fortune 100 company, and a professor at a top law school.
There's no reason to name the law firm partner or his firm. His views are mainstream and reveal why attorney career dissatisfaction continues to increase more rapidly in large firms than elsewhere. Here's a synopsis of his comments:
1. Law schools should turn out project managers. That's what he and his clients really need because front line opportunities -- such as trials for litigators -- are disappearing.
2. In their first days at his firm, new associates learn about its finances: "They realize that our 35 percent profit margins are fragile. They understand the importance of billing their time. They know more about the firm's finances than I did as a first-year partner." He didn't mention Am Law's most recent report that his firm's average equity partner profits exceeded $1 million.
3. When asked whether associates today felt greater work-related pressures, he was adamant: "No. People today are nostalgic for a time that never existed. As an associate, I worked hundreds of hours a week reviewing documents. Today's associates don't work any harder; just differently. They leave the office, have dinner with their families, help put the kids to bed, and then work from their home computers. So they actually have it better than I did."
The client representative on the panel followed with a line that generated the day's biggest laugh: "I'm wondering how you billed hundreds of hours a week when there are only 168 hours in a week. But then I realized that you were talking about the bill you sent the client!"
No one asked the law firm partner an obvious and unsettling question: Your firm's NALP directory entry reports an associate minimum billable hours requirement of 2,000 yearly. What was the requirement in the early 1970s, when you were an associate? (Answer: There wasn't one. There also weren't cell phones and BlackBerrys that tether today's attorneys to their jobs 24/7.)
The law professor responded that law schools can't train project managers because they're not business schools. Besides, the law requires something different from such vocational-type training. He could have added that fewer than 15 percent of all attorneys comprise the NLJ 250, thereby prompting the obvious follow-up: Why should law schools tailor curriculum to satisfy such a small segment of the profession anyway?
"With highly paid starting positions in big firms disappearing," the professor concluded, "what am I supposed to tell incoming students they'll be getting for the $150,000 required to obtain a law degree?" No one suggested the truth -- that big law starting jobs are increasingly competitive and don't seem to produce career satisfaction for most attorneys who take them.
The general counsel disagreed with the law firm partner on a key point: "I don't hire lawyers to be project managers. I want their best judgments and special skills." The partner replied that perhaps the GC didn't really know what he wanted or needed.
The audience submitted written questions; the best came from a judge: "I didn't go to law school to become rich. Why is everything so focused on the money? Is professionalism gone and, if so, how do we recover it?"
When such panels include attorneys willing to speak truth to power we'll hear honest answers to those inquiries.
But who wants that?
Steven 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 thebellyofthebeast.wordpress.com
A version of the column above was first published on The Belly of the Beast.
This article first appeared on The Am Law Daily blog on AmericanLawyer.com.