A picture of a young businessman practicing yoga over white background
(Kamil Macniak)

Have big firm lawyers been getting a bum rap all these years?

As we all know, they’re often typecast as amoral, narcissistic hired guns. That’s easy to do. From my own experience as an associate, I remember plenty of partners and partner-wannabees who more or less fit the type. Many weren’t that nice, interesting or even remotely generous.

But after carefully reading Major Lindsey & Africa’s lateral partner satisfaction survey, I’m beginning to think there might have been more to them. Instead of being money-obsessed, egotistical jerks, big firm laterals come off in the survey as much more sensitive and cuddly—like lost puppies looking for a nice home.

You might think that’s a stretch, but the MLA report offers some fascinating insights into the psychology of big firm partners:

- They just wanna be loved. Contrary to stereotype, lawyers don’t place a high priority on money. Lateral partners cite firm culture as their top reason for leaving their firm and going to a new one. Compensation, in fact, was rated as one of the bottom reasons for switching firms.

“It is exceedingly rare for someone to say that I want to go to a place where I can make the most money.” says Jon Lindsey, a founder of MLA. “They say they want to go where they can be happy.”

To repeat: Lawyers don’t flock to the highest bidder. They value “culture” and “happiness”—all those fuzzy wuzzy virtues.

- They are as loyal as lapdogs. Despite reports about lawyers being free agents these days, the survey finds that partners in the lateral pool are quite faithful.The majority of laterals—64 percent—had changed firms only once in their careers; and only 24 percent had changed twice.

- But they repress the real reason they want to leave. I wish I had a nickel every time a partner tells me that s/he made a move because the new firm offers a better platform. Or how the client base at the new place offers “synergy” for their practice. According to the survey, the new firm’s “national or international presence” and “client base” rank at the bottom as factors for choosing a new firm.

My take: Partners change firms because they often can’t stand the people—but few will openly admit they are moving for such “soft” reasons.

- They are trusting—ridiculously so. The shocker in the report is that only 36.6 percent of lateral partners reviewed the financial statements, leases or loan documents before joining the new firm. For a profession that takes pride in being anal-retentive, this lack of basic due diligence about their own careers is stupefying.

So what are these poor pups relying on to make their big career decision? “I’ve had people say, ‘I just look at The American Lawyer…it’s published data,’ ” says Lindsey. “ Or they’ll say, ‘the chairman says we’re good.’ “

As someone who works on the Am Law numbers, please, please review the official firm financials. I’ll sleep better if you do.

Change is good for the soul. The bottom line is that partners who changed firms ended up being much happier. Over 96.3 percent of partners who moved laterally say they would do it again, though 16.3 percent of that group wished they had gone to a different firm.

“Those who moved felt it was by far the best thing to do—even if they felt that the firm they moved to was not ideal,” says Jeff Lowe, the leader of MLA’s law firm practice group and one of the report’s authors.

I don’t know if that means switching firms actually improved their careers or they were just relieved they took action. But it suggests that those who changed firms felt more empowered. In other words, it is better to have experienced change than not to have changed at all. Or something like that.

Anyway, my takeaway from the study is that big firm partners—like the rest of humanity—just want a modicum of happiness.

Sweet, isn’t it?