Associates and the bad table

The opening words to a sporty 60-second video montage at Cadwalader’s US student recruitment site are: “Make no mistake about it. A career at Cadwalader is not for the faint of heart.” So it would seem, following news that the firm cut 96 lawyers on Thursday, an astounding purge that surpasses Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal‘s recent 37-lawyer, 100-staff cut, and comes several months after Cadwalader’s January move to drop 35 lawyers.

The most recent pink slips were handed out largely in the firm’s formerly high-flying capital markets and global finance groups, which have been brought low by the real estate finance and securitization market’s struggles, and were given almost entirely to associates.There’s no small amount of schadenfruede about Cadawalader’s position to be found in the blawgosphere at the moment, much of it based on this February 2007 article in the New York Law Journal, with the built-for-irony title: “Does the future belong to Cadwalader?”

But “layoffs” (read: you’re fired, but it’s not your fault) are likely to become more frequent at the largest firms (DLA Piper announced a few in London this morning) for the totally understandable reason that the really hot parts of the economy that powered these firms over the last few years have gone really cold.

What’s funny, though, is that during these hot streaks, when associates were so hard to find and cost so much, I quite clearly remember many law firms ruing their decisions to chop associates the last time an overheated economy tanked. All those associates we fired, they said, shaking their heads, if we’d held on to them, would be able to help us now. Perfectly right, of course — and yet, now that the short-term pain of lower profits looms again, the long-term gain of associate investment apparently becomes hard to remember.

Coincidentally, today also saw the release of the American Lawyer‘s midlevel associate survey, which paints a bleak but familiar picture of associates’ waning interest in partnership or indeed any long-term law firm goals. Interestingly, though, the fear of layoffs hasn’t much to do with this, nor do issues of salary or even “work-life balance” (a term I intend to put “in quotes” until it goes away). What’s driving associates away from firms is that the work stinks.

Here’s a great stat unearthed by the surveyors: the correlation of the answers, on a 1-to-5 scale, to “interest level of your work” and “likelihood you’ll be there two years from now” (apologies for the formatting — this is the best I can do in WordPress):

Interesting work<—>Still there in 2 yrs






This is a serious problem for law firms, because it isn’t something they can solve simply by giving the associates interesting work, for two reasons. First, the interesting work is what the partners are doing — not all the time, but enough — and they’ve earned first crack at that work by virtue of being partners. Secondly, the uninteresting, dull, backbreaking work needs to get done by somebody, because that’s where the bulk of billable hours come from; it’s the foundation of the firms’ profit model. So associates are the ones stuck with it.

Seth Godin has a great analogy to this situation, in a post about the bad table in restaurants — there’s always one, as you know, near the kitchen or under an air vent or next to a glaring light bulb. The question he poses is: who gets the bad table? Your regular customer, who feels she deserves better treatment than that in return for her loyalty? Or the new customer, whom you want to impress and turn into a regular?

Sorry, says Seth, trick question: the answer is, you can’t have a bad table. Give the people at the bad table special menus, or a visit from the chef, or something else that actually makes the bad table a good table, maybe even the best one.

In modern law firms, bad tables are everywhere, and associates are constantly being seated there with the promise that years and years from now, they’ll get a better one. The answer, of course, is to get rid of the bad tables — automate, process or offshore the dullest work and get your incredibly bright young lawyers engaged in something that matters. But the damage that would do to the business model is incalculable, and it’s not going to happen anytime soon.

So: associates get the worst work, hour after hour, year after year, and if the economy dips or a key client stalls out, they’re the first ones out the door. And some law firms still wonder why they have such trouble satisfying and retaining these associates — also forgetting, apparently, the old saying about the definition of insanity.


  1. Tybalt

    Having been working on rather a lot of the dull work today (on a Friday before a long weekend), I can with 100% conviction say that this is the best piece you’ve done yet, Jordan.

  2. halosecretarialservices

    Great post – but I have to ask, why the dislike of the term “work-life balance”? Is there better terminology or do you just prefer the concept of living life?! I use the term work-life balance a fair bit, mostly meant to describe the challenge of having an interesting career and giving enough time to my family (husband and three kiddos).

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