‘I Feel Like Just a Number’: Pa. Associates Balk at High Pay in Exchange for Big Law Grind

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Though largely content with their access to cutting-edge legal projects and top-of-market pay, some associates at Philadelphia’s Big Law firms are grappling with the lack of work-life balance that comes from having to meet a quota for billable hours, while others are anxious that a faltering economy will lead to layoffs last seen in the spring of 2020.

These concerns come from responses to this year’s Midlevel Associate Survey, in which many respondents also voiced a common refrain about the reality of Big Law work culture: mental health challenges aren’t native to their firm but to the legal industry more broadly, though the high pay serves to discourage them from seeking other work.

“I think the legal profession, especially Big Law, needs to recognize that throwing money at people is not always the way to solve a problem,” wrote a fourth-year associate in Philadelphia.

“As has long been the case, in an industry that calls for extremely long hours, mental health is often shunted to the side in favor of the all-mighty billable hour,” wrote another. “A realignment of priorities appears to be in process, but still the issue remains.”

A third-year associate in Philadelphia said their firm “faces the same challenge as all other firms,” which is to say, tempering a work culture that many associates find psychologically unhealthy.

“For most people, it is not healthy nor sustainable to work at the expected pace for more than just a handful of years,” they said. “Until law firms as a whole make that realization, they will have difficulty retaining associates.”

One pattern that emerged among responses from Pennsylvania-based associates is the tradeoff between free time and compensation. Those who reported having a better work-life balance also complained about lower pay while those who were pleased with their pay said they didn’t have as much time to themselves.

Asked what needs to change about the legal profession to improve mental health, a fifth-year associate offered a list of suggestions: fewer hours, more flexibility and setting “realistic client expectations so as to avoid non-emergency emergency work so there isn’t an unfair expectation of evening or weekend work when it is not actually necessary.”

Billable hour requirements have long been the target of disfavor by lawyers, and midlevel associates who responded to the survey were no different. According to the same fifth-year who offered the list of suggestions, “most people would accept a lower salary for a lower billable requirement.”

It doesn’t help the situation when firms assign time-consuming work that can’t be logged against these requirements, according to many respondents who suggested firms allow them to gain billable hour credit for some non-billable work.

A third-year associate lamented a “heavy focus on the billable hours requirement, because some associates are given non-billable work that doesn’t appreciably advance their careers from a billable hours perspective.”

Another associate commented on their firm’s use of an offsite administrative resource hub, which has become common among Big Law firms that have established remote sites in low-cost markets where legal assistants are tasked with firmwide administrative duties.

“I could probably bill an extra 45 to 60 minutes a day on average if we had onsite administrative assistants rather than having to send stuff to an assistant pool,” said the associate, a fourth-year.

Words for the Top Brass

Asked what message they would convey to their firm’s senior leadership, multiple associates said they feel like their individuality has been reduced to a number on a spreadsheet.

“Please do a better job of helping associates feel as though they have worth and value apart from being just a number of total billable hours on a spreadsheet,” said a fourth-year, who acknowledged general satisfaction over the ability to work on legal issues that are “cutting edge” and “complex.”

Echoing that sentiment, a different fourth-year associate said when they first started they felt like an individual, though this has changed in the intervening years.

“These days, I feel like just another number,” they said. “I need positive reinforcement for my good work, and the lack of merit-based compensation has the opposite effect.”

A fifth-year associate at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, who called the firm a collegial place to work full of supportive colleagues, nevertheless raised alarms about the demands placed on productivity and the impact of required non-billable work.

While the 2,000 hour requirement is manageable, the pressure to exceed that minimum is widely felt. “Constant big brother feelings that if anywhere close to the 2,000 mark (even if above it), you will be immediately pegged for additional work” are pervasive, the associate said.

“To that end, the firm needs to make more of an effort to assure associates that tracking at 2,000 is acceptable and hire additional help to make it so that people who do track at 2,000 are not going to be punished,” said the associate.

Morgan Lewis said via a spokesperson that work pressure was high in 2021 in certain practice areas at “premier firms” like itself because of the turbulent lateral market and short supply of legal talent.

“We are pleased that our active recruiting efforts have been successful in alleviating our most acute needs, and we continue to prioritize important programs supporting our associates’ professional development, well-being and inclusion,” the firm said.

Leaders at the global law firm said they are providing additional billable credit for Morgan Lewis’ “most intensive, in-person practice skills training and will be providing credit for time spent on DEI efforts. Our clients and we are grateful that the exceptional work of our associates is meaningful and substantive.”

Morgan Lewis isn’t the only firm that has responded to concerns voiced by associates in ALM’s annual survey.

In response to the question, “What can the firm do to retain associates?” multiple Blank Rome associates said that the firm should raise associate compensation. “You need to pay market rates if you want to retain talented associates,” one respondent said.

In a statement, Blank Rome’s firm leaders said they are always focused on feedback from associates and on being highly competitive on compensation. As part of its ongoing compensation review, the firm increased associate compensation for the second straight year in July.

A third-year associate at Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr said the looming threat of a recession is inducing flashbacks of firm layoffs in the months that followed COVID-19’s onset in the US The firm implemented salary reductions, temporary furloughs and layoffs, Law.com reported in 2020.

“As we’re preparing for a recession, we all remember the sudden layoffs at the beginning of COVID,” said the associate. “All of that anxiety is going to come rushing back, so please begin preparing associates for a recession economy.”

Asked to comment on the firm’s response to associates, a Saul Ewing spokesperson said the firm remains bullish in the current economic environment.

“We are confident that Saul Ewing is well-positioned to thrive in the face of financial headwinds due to our strong balance sheet, conservative fiscal management, diverse client base and comprehensive practice mix⁠—which includes counter-cyclical practice niches.”

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