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Today’s associates are a bunch of slackers. It’s a gripe we’ve heard countless times from law firm leaders. Associates work fewer hours than they did, they say. They’re less committed-most only expect to stay at firms long enough to pay off law school bills and accumulate a few entries on the resume. And they perpetually whine about wanting a better work-life balance. This year, as part of our annual associates survey, we asked a new question: “Some firm leaders have charged that today’s associates are slackers. What do you say?” There was little slack in the answers. They were colorful and occasionally expletive-laden. Some conceded that certain members of their generation are a little lazy: A few bad seeds believe they’re entitled to big paychecks as well as predictable nine-to-five schedules. But far more say the slacker label is unfair and simpleminded: Today’s associates are working just as hard and in a vastly different law firm landscape than their predecessors. “Stick it,” replies one incensed Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker associate. Associates’ billable numbers alone discredit the slacker label, he says. Respondents to this year’s survey billed an average of 2,072 hours in 2004, and reports of 2,300 or 2,400 hours were plentiful. Law firm leaders, in contrast, worked 1,800 hours or less when they ascended the ranks, say associates. American Lawyer data on associate hours would seem to agree. When we surveyed midlevels in 1986, associates reported billing only an average of 38 hours per week, 16 percent less than their counterparts today. Partners who suggest that their generation worked longer hours are simply delusional, say this year’s associates. “I’m sure they used to walk to school, barefoot, through ten-foot snowdrifts-uphill both ways,” sneers one associate at Bingham McCutchen. A straight comparison of hours also ignores the impact of technology on productivity, they say. E-mail, the Internet, and document scanners all make junior lawyers exponentially more efficient than their predecessors. Fixing an error in a company filing takes minutes on the computer instead of hours at the printer. Researching case filings now takes two hours on Westlaw versus three weeks of digging through law books. Midlevels say face time in the office isn’t a measure of total hours anyway. Cell phones, BlackBerrys, fax machines, and high-speed Internet connections allow junior attorneys to work from home or a vacation hotel room. So while partners moan about empty offices late at night, many associates are toiling at night and on weekends from other locations, says one Morrison & Foerster lawyer. While technology has made the job more portable, it has also obliterated the line between work and personal life, associates cry. Older partners had the luxury of occasionally leaving work at the office, while lawyers today are on call 24/7. Associates are no longer shackled to their desks, but they now sleep with their cell phones close at hand. “Technology makes it possible for [partners] to encroach on all of your time, whether you’re awake, asleep, or on vacation,” says one Shearman & Sterling associate. Last-minute weekend conference calls or research requests have become routine. “Their generation had genuine weekends and time off: When they weren’t at work, they weren’t at work. They weren’t sitting at the dinner table with their families and their BlackBerrys,” complains one associate at Cravath, Swaine & Moore. To be sure, partners today also suffer from this intrusion of technology: Clients can easily disrupt their weekends and vacations, too. But the additional work flows downhill, associates say. And technology means that junior lawyers are never far away from the whims of their clients or their partners. The scale of these demands has only gotten worse. The lightning-speed information age has compounded the day-to-day pressures on junior lawyers. Many report receiving hundreds of e-mails each day. Partners expect associates to turn around document revisions in a half hour instead of overnight, grumbles another Shearman & Sterling associate. They are also expected to be more thorough: Researching precedents on the Internet means checking every case in every district and county. “Twenty years ago, there were a lot of different ways [for associates] to hide behind inefficiencies that don’t exist today. [Now] you have to work harder because it’s so easy to point to the places that you’re not covering if you don’t cover everything,” says one Curtis, Mallet-Prevost, Colt & Mosle associate. Associates concede that they might have a different attitude toward work. But their commitment to a life outside of the office is a rational response to the modified stakes of a law firm career. Older partners were willing to dedicate their lives to all-night drafting sessions and mind-numbing document reviews because there was a realistic chance of claiming the partnership prize. But junior lawyers who responded to our survey now calculate the odds of partnership as a “crap shoot.” And partners aren’t giving their younger colleagues any incentive to work harder, associates say. Many treat their associate ranks as replaceable billing units, which are easily eliminated in a downturn, instead of as potential long-term members of the firm. “Why should we kill ourselves for you? We now know we are completely fungible,” asks one associate at Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr. Associates say partners pile on the assignments in a never-ending effort to boost profits per partner without a thought to giving younger colleagues direction, feedback, or guidance on their development as lawyers. Mentoring and communication about longer-term career prospects are largely absent, say many associates [see " Can You Hear Me Now?"]. What associates have learned from partners are the perils of abdicating a personal life for a fat paycheck and glory at the office. “Who wants this legacy: 2,500 billable hours a year; ten BMWs; three ex-spouses; and kids that want to have nothing to do with you?” asks one Jones Day associate. The value of a balanced life that includes family, involvement in the community, and pro bono work has become even more pronounced for many younger lawyers following the dot-com bust, 9/11, and the economic downturn that followed. “The lean times forced people to take a better look at themselves and what they were doing,” explains one O’Melveny & Myers associate. More time outside of the office is less of a luxury in today’s world than necessity, say associates. Many grapple with dual-career families where both spouses struggle to balance long hours at the office with cooking, cleaning, and child care at home. Older partners, who are predominantly male, had far fewer responsibilities outside of the office, say some. “They are still living in the 1950s [mind-set], when their wives stayed at home and took care of the kids, the house, etc.,” says one Quarles & Brady associate. Not everyone leading a law firm has these outdated expectations. Individual managing partners say they’re sensitive to the different pressures on this generation of associates. Most shy away from using the slacker label. “To suggest that members of this generation are slackers, from my experience here, is 180 degrees off,” says Sullivan & Cromwell chairman H. Rodgin Cohen. A managing partner at another top New York firm agrees: Associates’ increased commitment to a work-life balance doesn’t translate into an unwillingness to work hard. So is this generational conflict simply the invention of folks like us? Maybe not. “History shows every generation of law firm leadership complaining about the work ethic and sense of entitlement among their associates,” says Morrison & Foerster chairman Keith Wetmore. And though Wetmore and other leaders deny grumbling themselves, he agrees: “It was certainly said when I was an associate, and it’s probably being said by some [partners] today.” Perhaps associates shouldn’t take it personally. If history is a guide, they’ll be griping about associates someday, too. E-mail: [email protected] .

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