“Women and children first.”

Most people would probably associate that phrase with the Titanic, where the men decided to save the women and children as the ship was heading straight into an iceberg. Law firms, however, facing the biggest iceberg in the history of the industry, appear to have turned that phrase on its head.

What is the “iceberg” law firms are facing? Clients balking at the outrageous billable hour rates that arise primarily from the staggering race to achieve the highest profits per partner. Logic would seem to dictate that large firms should change course and re-evaluate the traditional strategies that got them here so that they can avoid the iceberg. But logic isn’t the driver behind most decisions at large firms. Instead, firms have kept their arcane structures — large downtown office spaces; high associate salaries (particularly for first-year associates); rate increases on Jan. 1 for no apparent reason other than to mark the new year; and traditional billing structures — and instead taken a sword to their employee ranks. Thus, they act on their knee-jerk reaction to offload people in exchange for the immediate reward of a lower bottom line. And who goes first? Women and “law firm children,” otherwise known as associates.

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