Every summer I look forward to squirreling away a few hours to read the open-ended questions on our Midlevel Associates Survey. There’s always something entertaining and enlightening in the responses by this well-educated and articulate group. This spring, 5,748 third-, fourth-, and fifth-year associates anonymously answered our 2013 scoring questions as well as the three open-ended ones: Tell the managing partner one thing. What would you change about your firm? What most surprised you about working at your current firm?
Perennial complaints persisted: Why won’t firms shine more light on the path to making partner? Why aren’t firms more transparent about their financials? (And the never-ending refrain: Why aren’t I being paid market rates?) Some of the comments could have been written anytime in the last few years: One New York–based associate at an international firm criticized the culture at his/her workplace: “Make hours or no bonus (and it’s your fault), but don’t bill too many hours for X, Y, and Z [clients]. . . . Training is important . . . but no you can’t sit in on this call/meeting/etc. because we don’t want you billing for it.” Another associate in Washington, D.C. wrote, “I’ve been here three years and never met with a client, taken a deposition, or witnessed a hearing.”
But what struck me this year (especially after Weil, Gotshal & Manges laid off approximately 7 percent of its associates in June) is that some midlevel lawyers are not that busy—and it bothers them. The overall scores on our workload question showed a slight decline in work: This year 28 percent of respondents reported that their workload last year was heavier than it is today. On the 2012 survey it was just 25 percent. Citi Private Bank’s 2013 first-quarter flash survey of 146 law firms also shows that associate productivity was down 2.7 percent earlier this year, compared to the same time period the year before.
Dotted among the open-ended responses are comments that reflect this slack. One Boston lawyer was most surprised about “how quiet it is and how not busy most of the people in this office have been for the [time] I’ve been working here.” A New York lawyer at an international firm noted that he/she would change “the lack of work in my firm. There isn’t enough to go around.” For recession-scarred young people, it’s understandable that they are concerned about having too much downtime. Not only is there the short-term risk of a lower bonus, there’s also the more existential questions about whether their practice area will get busier soon, whether the lack of work will derail them from a partner track, and whether the slowdown they are seeing reflects more macroeconomic concerns about the firm’s financial health.
It would be nice to tell these young people to try to enjoy their downtime. See your friends. Get some exercise. Call your grandmother. Find a pro bono assignment that fulfills you, so you find something more worthwhile to do than follow the New York mayoral race. But when you’ve come of age as a lawyer during the worst economy in decades, a quiet phone and empty in-box aren’t a temporary respite, but something more frightening.
Sparkman is The American Lawyer’s editor in chief