October 24, 2012

Every year I take a few weeks to focus on law firms and law firm management issues for one of the publications I update for West and this gives me a chance to read various surveys that are conducted among associates and partners, primarily at larger firms, regarding the state of industry and their day-to-day lives as attorneys. I wanted to share what I have been finding in a couple of posts, beginning with this one.

I suspect that many of you follow The American Lawyer and one survey that caught my eye actually appeared last September—the 2010 annual survey of attitudes among mid-level associates—attorneys in their third, fourth and fifth years of practice—at AmLaw 200 firms. I realize that large law firms are a different environment than smaller firms; however, the following responses were interesting:

    • While 83% of the respondents in 2009 expressed concerns about the possibility of being laid off by the time of the 2010 survey 80% of the respondents were comfortable with their situations and not worried about the possibility of a “pink slip” and instead focusing on developing their skills.

    • A large percentage of the associates—nearly 37%–reported that their workloads were heavier in 2010 than they were in 2009 and 15% of the respondents complained that their workload in 2010 was too heavy (8% of the respondents in 2008 registered that complaint). Some associates claimed that the reductions in their ranks over the last few years had led to expectations that those remaining will handle the same or greater workloads and complained that partners didn’t understand how difficult it was for associates to balance the demands of three or four partners at one time. Partners responded by explaining that lean staffing was normal to expose associates to multiple matters and give them more responsibilities.

    • Many associates also complained about the impact of recent reductions in staffing levels including the loss of paralegal, administrative personnel and other office support. In some cases associates railed about having to do “paralegal work” and pleaded with their firms to bring back night secretaries. The response from firms was measured and it is clear that conservatism has set in regarding increases in personnel at any level.

Other topics covered in the survey included compensation and training and promotion, a subject that I’ll cover in a future post. The items above were interesting to me since they each focused on some aspect of topics we’ll be covering in our workshops. For example, it’s fine to focus on developing skills; however, just how do you do that and what skills should be first in line given limitations on your time. Another difficult challenge is balancing the competing priorities, and personalities, of the senior partners who have a large say about whether you’ll be with the firm in the future and what you’ll be doing. Finally, staffing reductions are here to stay and smart associates just “deal with it” and look for ways to be more efficient in the practice habits.