First: Can this really be fixed once and for all under the current system?

Most unlikely.

So long as the billable hour is the coin of the realm, expect nothing to change.  It’s rational beyond shadow of a doubt for firms to hand out “combat pay” to lawyers racking up massive levels of billable time.  How so?  Explicit bonuses for achieving more than X- or  Y-thousand hours in a year have been around for a long time, and so has their evil twin: Associates who can’t clear the (often unspoken rule but one with razor blade danger) of a minimum number of hours will be on their way out in short order. One unidentified “London managing partner” baldly confesses as much, saying that in the second part of 2021 “we have stopped talking so much about chargeable hours because people said it was making them anxious” but that the pressure to pile on the time is unabated.  In a welcome spasm of candor, he adds, “if you’ve had a less productive day it’s very evident. It’s the way we measure people.”

Both human nature and rational management principles reinforce a dynamic whereby the harder an associate is working, the more work they are likely to be assigned.  Even if all they have to go on is what they’ve absorbed through osmosis, partners understand who’s going to get the job done reliably and with minimal writeoffs for inefficiency or ineptitude.  Those people get more work, and the associates without a seat at the table cannot earn one.  Oh, and good luck designing and implementing an assignment to assure fair and equitable distribution of the workload; partners will route around it so fast that you can spare yourself the bother.

Candor from associates (“complaints?”) about how they’re stretched to the max and beyond are sure to be unavailing, or worse.  An example from the trenches:

“We have a system of work allocation where you fill out a form in an email once a week to say how much time [your work] will take. There was a point last year where I was repeatedly ticking the box saying I was over capacity and needed help — my comments were getting increasingly desperate. Eventually I called HR and asked if anyone was reading it, and they said ‘no’. “When you tell partners you’re overloaded,” she adds, “they just say ‘OK but can you do it anyway?’”

Second: How are firms responding?

Per the usual.

Law firms have reached for their favorite (only?) play in their dog-eared playbook:  Throwing money at associates.  Base salaries, normal-and-ordinary-course and extraordinary bonuses alike have never been higher.  This is well and good, financially and economically logical and thoroughly justified, but fundamentally uninteresting.  Firms should do it, they are doing it, it’s the right thing to do, and it must be done.  But there’s not much more to discuss on that front.

Third: Get serious–commit–to supporting your professionals

“Wellness” and other 360° human being support programs, for all the verbiage being spilled on them, remain perfunctory, case-by-case, reflexive and not institutionalized, or marginalized.  This will not do.  Many target the “sick” individuals, are deemed (articulated or not) as “fluffy,” catering to the small cohort of delicate and wounded flowers, or are, as the FT article notes, “tick box” exercises.  Get serious.

Programs are out there that are time-tested in Corporate Land, thoughtfully developed, comprehensive, and more.  They are:

  • Confidential–management and HR do not know and cannot find out who might be using them.
  • Include proven advanced medical diagnostics such as “executive physicals,” thorough mental health evaluations, and even genomic mapping.
  • Provided by name brand institutions such as the Mayo Clinic.
  • And purpose-built to get out in front of the problem, providing “guardrails at the top of the cliff” rather than “911 at the bottom.”

We know some of the top providers in this area.  Let us know if you’d like to get in touch with some. (There’s nothing in it for us other than advancing the sanity and medical security of your professionals.)

The question newly posed, or at least posed with urgency as never before, is “What else?”

Finally: What’s missing?


Cross-industry and cross-cultural studies demonstrate time and time again that compensation in and of itself is not the primary motivator for people (certainly not very privileged white collar professional people) at work.  Indeed, it’s rarely in the top five.

Rather, what people seek are components of their work experience and profession that include:

  • Autonomy
  • Independence and self-guidance
  • Respect from their colleagues and in turn
  • Colleagues they respect
  • Intrinsically interesting work
  • Intellectually and emotionally challenging activities–the sense of growing and expanding in capability and mastery
  • Pursuing goals they deem worthy, whether economically, socially, ethically, or simply intellectually
  • The conviction that they’re contributing to a larger goal beyond themselves
  • The conviction that their firm is fundamentally  doing good in the world.

Now, to be sure, compensation has to be market-competitive, flexible and merit-based, and above all fair.  But it’s not why people get up in the morning and work as hard as they do.

What this means for all of you in positions of firm leadership is self-evident:  Articulate your firm’s vision and communicate communicate communicate.  In short, be inspiring.  If you believe your firm is distinctive and matters, live that faith.  On your sleeve.  It is not about the Benjamins.

We give the final word to Studs Terkel, masterful cultural anthropologist, oral historian, and student of the workplace, whose 1974 classic, Working, includes this distilled gem:

“Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.”

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