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Part of today’s recruiting pitch from big law firms competing for top graduates to fill their associate ranks is the promise of meaningful and important work once lawyers-to-be sign on. But those who have labored in the associate trenches say that law firms often don’t deliver on those recruiting promises. The big-firm sales talk frequently includes a cookie-cutter list of enticements to woo potential associates, such as assurances of strong firm culture, mentoring by key partners, diversity and pro bono opportunities. Also, a vital component to that list is a pledge to associates that they will enjoy high-caliber work and client contact if they sign up. But somebody has to do the grunt work, say critics, who contend that law firms continue to dump mostly mind-numbing tasks onto their newer associates, despite what their hiring partners represent at recruitment time. “I didn’t do anything at all that I found interesting,” said Karen Schiele. Now with New York’s Carter Ledyard & Milburn, Schiele said working as an associate at her previous firm, a New York operation with about 900 attorneys, was far from stimulating. The Columbia Law School graduate’s tasks during her two-year stint that started in 2000 focused on corporate tax work. “It was kind of like proofreading,” she said. Schiele took a pay cut when she joined Carter Ledyard in 2003, but she said the guidance and partner contact she has at the 120-attorney firm better suit her. Drudgery factor is up Recruitment spin aside, the sophistication level of work assigned to associates actually may have decreased in the last five years, said Altman Weil consultant Marci Krufka. During the technology boom in the late 1990s, many law firms were so busy that tasks beyond the usual research trickled down to the associate level, she said. But as that work dried up, partners reclaimed those kinds of duties, leaving associates with more of the drudgery. Krufka said it has become common for big firms, vying for top associate talent, to make assurances of hands-on work. They do so, she said, because associates, who have become more vocal about what they want from a job, like those assurances. “That’s what they think associates want to hear,” she said. And while pro bono work may be a way for associates to get litigation experience or client contact, associates typically struggle with finding the time to do it, she said. Jay Moffitt, now an associate at Delaware’s Morris, Nichols, Arsht & Tunnell, said that such pledges of important work were “part of the pitch” when he was interviewing with big firms in New York. He took a job with an 800-attorney firm after he graduated from Duke Law School and worked there for more than three years. He joined Morris Nichols in May. “There is definitely a push to convince young associates that you’ll get meaningful, fulfilling work,” he said. But Moffitt noted that most associates are not equipped to handle high-level tasks, and that getting “stuck with the boring tasks” is simply part of the learning curve. Adding to the letdown that some new attorneys feel is the difference between the summer associate experience and the day-to-day reality of full-time work. Firms spend much time and energy crafting summer programs that they hope enable law students-especially those whom they want eventually to hire full-time-to come away with a sense of accomplishment and contribution. In addition, firms often host dinners and other events to make the summer experience memorable. Schiele described her summer job at the 900-attorney New York firm as “cutting edge.” She helped work with a small team of lawyers on a tax question involving not-for-profit corporations. But once she was hired full-time, things changed. “They should just tell you that you won’t be doing work like that,” she said. One benefit of the job at the large firm, she explained, was that it helped her realize that corporate tax law was not for her. She practices trusts and estates work at Carter Ledyard. Part of the problem may stem from the accomplishments that top law schools and law firms increasingly are demanding from their candidates. Greenberg Traurig Chief Recruitment Officer Carol Allen said that firms and schools more than ever are looking for experiences beyond good grades and standardized test scores from applicants. And more and more applicants are able to demonstrate experiences that include good summer jobs while in high school, a strong undergraduate program at a solid university, an internship doing important work following attainment of a bachelor’s degree, a law degree from a great school and a summer associate program at a top firm. And those with strong full-time work experience fare even better. “They come out with a skill set and a belief that nobody but themselves will control their careers,” Allen said. “Baby boomers took a very different approach.” As a result, typical associate-level work can feel passionless for people who have spent a year in the Peace Corps or launched their own technology start-up before going to law school. A big part of Greenberg Traurig’s growth strategy, Allen said, includes keeping associates motivated to avoid the boredom factor. “It’s a constant topic of conversation,” she said. Malaise at large firms The malaise that new associates experience appears more acute at the large-firm level, said Joyce Sterling, a law professor at University of Denver Sturm College of Law. Sterling is the primary researcher for “After the JD: A Longitudinal Study of Lawyer Career Trajectories.” The study, established under the auspices of the American Bar Foundation and the NALP Foundation, is an ongoing project that will track for 10 years the careers of about 5,000 lawyers who graduated from law school in 2000. Results so far indicate that associates in firms with 250 or more attorneys are the least satisfied with the nature of their work, Sterling said. The study asks associates to identify the types of tasks they perform. Classifications, for example, include routine work, work that requires trust from the firm or work that requires independent thinking. All associates handle a certain amount of routine work, Sterling said. Moreover, the results so far show that new attorneys at smaller firms handle more routine work than their big-firm counterparts. But associates at those larger firms, most of whom come from top schools, appear to be the most dissatisfied with the kind of work they are doing, she said. “We’re thinking that the work isn’t quite what they thought it would be,” she said.

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