Every once in awhile, a piece of legal journalism–heck, we’re not grading on a curve here, folks–business and economics journalism with the legal industry as its subject–is so thorough, nuanced, and generously sourced that it demands a tip of the hat.
So with Kate Beioley’s FT “Big Read–Professional Services,” published in the 4 January 2022 print edition and online a day or two earlier. The sub-head of the article is
Junior lawyer burnout: M&A boom accelerates exit from elite firms: Heavy workloads and long hours have led a growing number of associates to quit, despite high salaries
Kate distinguishes herself by being non-assumptive and generally asking “the next” question. (So, Question A might be “Describe XYZ,” but Question B will be “Why? How did it get that way?”) These traits are rare.
The themes of her “Big Read” du jour are the unprecedented volumes of legal work, especially in the most elite, high-end, M&A and private-equity heavy law firms in New York and the City, and the toll the nonstop workloads and the torrent of deal flow are inflicting on human health and well-being. The focus of the article is primarily on BigLaw associates, but Goldman Sachs and other i-banks’ junior analysts and associates are noted as being in the same boat. And both are “enjoying” (if that’s even a concept when most interviewed are perilously sleep-deprived) boosts in their $$/£ £ incomes.
But let’s hear from the law firm associates, suffering and even wounded heroes of the piece, along with the i-bankers and others sentenced to hard time in the trenches.
Just a sampling of their reports from the front lines:
“I was suffering from chronic insomnia, constantly repeating my day in my head thinking what else I could have done,” says Charlène Gisèle, a 33-year-old former lawyer. “I thought the more work I produced the brighter I’d shine.”
In October a survey by Legal Cheek found lawyers’ working days had grown longer over the previous year. Kirkland & Ellis associates said they were clocking off at 11.28pm on average, up from 9.14pm, and Ropes & Gray lawyers reported finishing at almost 11pm.
James, not his real name, is a private equity lawyer in his twenties at Skadden Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom — where partners took home an average $4.3m in 2020. Members of his team have billed 400 hours in a month recently and before speaking to the Financial Times he was fresh from “three back-to-back 3am finishes”. He speaks rapidly: he cannot spare much time before his next call, he explains. “Every day this week I’ve woken up and I’m absolutely exhausted, but I know I’ve got to find a way of going again,” he says. “A late night for my non-lawyer friends is finishing at 7pm, but I don’t know if I’ll sleep tonight.”
Shall we admit forthwith that feeling sorry for highly educated and credentialed professionals at elite global firms who are making as much as $500,000/year–and who have a surfeit of attractive alternatives open to them–is hard to justify? Yes, we shall so admit, but a modicum of empathy, good will, and charity nevertheless must be extended. The paychecks may be real, but the suffering and toll on physical and mental health are as well. It would be inhumane to dismiss this with a “you asked for it” or “comes with the territory” brushoff.
In any event, the numbers of associates taking the “exit” door has never been higher. According to Leopard Solutions, which tracks such movements, the number of departing associates spiked almost 50% year on year in 2021 to the highest proportions ever recorded. And “attrition” is on the brain of every Managing Partner. Nor is there any end in sight to the historic levels of deal flow and concomitant client/market demand for high stakes M&A counsel. I offered my own thoughts on why this is so:
“The very high-end firms are working harder because there is so much investable capital sloshing around, coming out of the Middle East, China, [and] Greenwich, Connecticut [popular bases for US hedge funds],” says Bruce MacEwen, president of law firm consultancy Adam Smith, Esq. “Investors want it put to work.”
So what’s to be done?
“Members of his team have billed 400 hours in a month recently and before speaking to the Financial Times he was fresh from “three back-to-back 3am finishes”.”
The associate’s employer has taken to heart that venerable story about St. Peter congratulating a lawyer at the Pearly Gates for having lived 150 years, based on adding up the hours on his timesheets.
More seriously, if I were the general counsel at a very large corporation, I might perhaps wonder if the associates who were doing my work at 11:00 p.m. were alert enough at that hour to give me a product worth their hourly rates.
Hear, hear. 400 hours a month is the 1st Marine Division defense of Chosin Reservoir, not a sustainable or even very plausible level of effort.
Based on almost 50 years of professional services work, my experience is that anything over about 250 hours/month as billable time is very hard to defend in terms of quality of product or stewardship of one’s own organization and people.