The decline of the associate and the rise of the law firm employee

Earlier this month, Greenberg Traurig became the latest large US firm to take a new approach to its legal talent. Rather than firing secretaries or de-equitizing partners, however, as is all the rage elsewhere, Greenberg proposed something different and potentially groundbreaking: the introduction of a “residency” program for new associates. Here’s how the Am Law Daily describes it:

Join the firm as an associate, but only if you’re willing to spend a third of your time training rather than churning out billable work. The catch? Those who sign on will be paid considerably less than the typical starting associate, will bill at a much lower hourly rate—and may wind up only sticking with the firm for a year.

The offer is the basis of what Greenberg is billing as a new residency program that is being rolled out across its 29 U.S. offices. Firm leaders envision the program as a way of recruiting talented associates it wouldn’t have hired during the traditional on-campus interview process for one reason or another. It will also allow the firm to assign junior lawyers to client matters without billing their work at the usual cringe-inducing hourly rates.

Greenberg is simultaneously creating a new non-shareholder-track position, practice group attorney, that is akin to similar jobs created by Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton; Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe; and others that have moved beyond the up-or-out structure typically employed by large law firms. …

[C]lients have been eager to use the junior lawyers, who cost less than a typical associate, and have allowed them to sit in on meetings and calls—at no cost to the client—as part of their training. The rest of the training, MacCullough says, comes via online courses with the Practising Law Institute, the professional development courses the firm offers all associates, and extra “hands-on learning” with partners without concern about billing for the time.

This initiative emerged from Greenberg Traurig’s Fort Lauderdale office, where new graduates are offered the chance to be “fellows” who resemble associates, but are paid less, bill less, and spend more time training. This innovation has now spread firm-wide. “Once the initial one-year period ends,” the Am Law Daily reports, “residents will either become a regular-track associate, take on the new practice group attorney title, or leave the firm.” (This reminds me of the old college football coach’s admonition against the passing game: “Only three things can happen when you throw the football, and two of them are bad.”) [do_widget id=”text-7″ title=false]

Response to Greenberg’s program has been generally positive, and I can understand why. Anything that offers even partial employment opportunities to new law graduates these days has to be considered a good thing. The “residency” approach contains echoes of the “apprenticeship” programs that firms like Drinker Biddle, Strasburger, Ford & Harrison, Frost Brown Todd, and Howrey pioneered about 3-4 years ago and that I thought might herald a whole new approach to associate training. (They haven’t.) And Greenberg’s residents bear a close resemblance to Canada’s articling students, whose one-year apprenticeship in a law firm is a widely admired (although increasingly flawed) way to introduce new lawyers to practice.

Yet something still seems off. By crafting the position of “practice group attorney,” Greenberg has joined many firms in creating a class of associates who aren’t going to be partners; by introducing “residents,” Greenberg appears to be creating a class of lawyers who, most likely, aren’t even going to be associates. What’s not clear is why either of these new groups of lawyers are inside the firm at all. If what you’re looking for are low-cost, non-essential generators of legal work, why not talk to Axiom or The Posse List or any LPO with offices in Mumbai, Manila, or Minneapolis? Why introduce and maintain yet another costly group of lawyers who aren’t here for the long term?

One possible reason is that the whole point of the residents is to eventually replace the associates altogether. Lower salaries? Essential for continued partner profitability, and more reflective of actual associate value. Lower billing rates? Clients aren’t paying the higher rates anyway, so you might as well find a rate that they will pay. Lower billing targets? There isn’t enough work available for partners to make their targets, let alone new lawyers. As the article makes clear, these are really the only differences between a “resident” and an “associate.” Which of these two classes do you think the firm will want to sustain?

The law firm associate market is way overdue for a serious compensation correction: $160,000 starting salaries were and are ridiculous, relative to both the availability and value of new associates. New lawyers can’t and shouldn’t be expected to bill 1,900 legitimate hours a year, and a system that required them to do so was impractical and unwise at best, improper and unethical at worst. Something had to replace that system, and this may be the replacement.

Greenberg’s model is obviously still in its formative stages, and there’s not much point in exploring it further with such limited data. But it’s possible that it might be part of the next stage, maybe the final stage, in the decline of the law firm associate and the rise of the lawyer employee.

Go back several decades to the emergence of the Cravath model, which originally viewed a small class of salaried associates as future partners who could nonetheless generate profits through leveraged work along the way. The distortion of that model, over time, led to much larger and more profitable associate classes, of which only a few members would make partner — but all the same, the firm and its clients still treated those associates as professionals with potential long-term value. We’re now on the verge of entire associate classes whose only purpose and value is to generate leveraged work. They are not meant to be future partners: they are temporary employees meant to sustain the practices of current partners for as long as those partners need them. [do_widget id=”text-8″ title=false]

You might object that that’s not a good long-term stratagem. But a lot of law firms these days aren’t being managed for the long term, and there’s nothing more long-term than associate development: the investment of serious time and money in hopes of producing future partners. Many firms are employing fewer new lawyers than ever, and they have little incentive to invest heavily in the long-term development of the ones they do. They don’t need more equity partners — many firms are busily culling their own ranks — and if they do, they’ll get experienced, plug-and-play veterans with books of business via lateral acquisitions in the free-agent market. (Where laterally trained partners will come from in future, if firms no longer commit to investing in new classes of associates today, is not firms’ leading concern at the moment.)

It’s therefore possible that the era of the “law firm associate” — the partner in training — is now coming to an end, as I suggested back in 2009. Replacing it might be the era of the “lawyer employee” — here today, gone tomorrow, with a completely different set of expectations on each side about the nature of the relationship. It’s true that at several firms, the transition I mentioned above has long since taken place: most associates are essentially revenue generators. But the title of “associate” has a lengthy history and carries powerful expectations: “associateship” has been the precursor to “partnership,” just as adolescence has been the precursor to adulthood. Take away the title of “associate” and replace it with something smaller and poorer — “intern,” “resident,” “employee” — and the impact is profound.

This must surely be an attractive route for many law firms eager to reduce salary costs, minimize training expenses, and boost partner profits. But there’s a risk to the law firm that trades associates for employees straight-up, that diverts resources from internal development to external acquisition: it might permanently lose its capacity to develop any lawyers at all.

The ability to onboard a new lawyer, bring her into the firm’s cultural and structural orbit, develop her capacity to produce higher value over the course of time — this is an organizational skill, no different than any other a firm might possess. A firm that ceases to take internal development seriously will see that skill atrophy: it will become a muscle rarely exercised, with predictable results. PD professionals may leave the firm for better environments elsewhere; partners may lose whatever remaining interest they might have had in bringing along new lawyers; potential recruits may regard the firm as a dead end. These outcomes might not matter to the firm today. I guarantee that they’ll matter down the road.

Once a law firm switches off its lawyer development engine, it’s not easy to rev it back up again — and if you intend for your firm to be operating more than five years from now, it’s an engine you will desperately need to work at some point. That’s the tradeoff, whether they realize it or not, that some law firms now seem poised to make.

There’s another risk to this development, by the way — a threat to the continuing development of the legal profession itself. But that’s for another post.

[Here’s the next instalment in this series: “Reinventing the associate.”]

Jordan Furlong delivers dynamic and thought-provoking presentations to law firms and legal organizations throughout North America on how to survive and profit from the extraordinary changes underway in the legal services marketplace. He is a partner with Edge International and a senior consultant with Stem Legal Web Enterprises.  



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