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