It may sound like a tall tale, but not too long ago many Am Law 200 firms were worried about associate attrition. Billables were also a source of anxiety for many associates.
In the war for talent, partners wooed law students, junior associates were paid lavishly and the best and the brightest among the senior associates were shown the bread crumbs to the partnership. Today's midlevel associates, the third-, fourth- and fifth-years, remember those days all too well. Now, as thousands have been laid off, and the survivors' bonuses, salaries and basic perks -- such as a stipend for their BlackBerrys -- have been cut, the associates left behind are anxious and frustrated.
As one midlevel lawyer at Katten Muchin Rosenman (which has laid off more than 40 lawyers in the last 12 months) puts it, firms "should value [their] associates on what they have done, can do, and likely will do again -- not based solely on what they have done for you in the last 12 or, heaven forbid, three months."
Our 2009 annual survey of midlevels found that across the country, associates shared these concerns. We asked approximately 80 questions, including our standard queries about billable hours and the path to partnership, but what stood out from the 6,101 respondents was their unhappiness. Associate morale plummeted to the lowest level in five years (since we started asking about it). It fell from a rating of 3.1 last year, on a scale of 1 to 5, to 2.7. The drop is clearly related to job insecurity. Eighty-three percent of our respondents reported medium or high anxiety about losing their jobs. The midlevels had good reason to be concerned. Sixty-one percent said that their firms had layoffs. And, for those who kept their jobs, there wasn't enough to do. As early as last year, one-third of associates saw a drop-off in their workload, and this year 46 percent said it had decreased.
Many survey respondents were also disappointed with their firms' pay cuts, reduced or nonexistent bonuses and decreased benefits. They were also troubled by what they saw as a lack of transparency on financial issues and layoffs. White & Case's layoff "decisions were unclear to most associates," said one midlevel associate. (The firm slashed 270 associate jobs in the last year and had the lowest score for associate satisfaction on our survey.)
In contrast, being candid about finances and layoffs and putting associates' welfare first helped some firms climb in our rankings. Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease rose in our overall survey ranks from 156th to seventh this year -- the biggest jump of any firm -- by freezing legal fees without freezing associate pay, even though partners saw a 4.5 percent drop in their profits. As a result, the Columbus firm rose from 151st to second on the question of whether associates expect they will be at the firm in two years, and from 81st to second on associate morale. (Vorys says it hasn't had any economic-related layoffs.) "There's certainly an effect on the bottom line when we don't raise our rates," says managing partner Russell Gertmenian. "But we haven't chosen to cut associate pay to make that money back."