(Photo by Maggie Soladay)

Just what are they smoking? I ask because I find the sky-high scores in The American Lawyer’s Midlevel Associates Survey to be baffling. Those third-, fourth- and fifth-year asso­ciates seem abnormally giddy about their jobs: They gave their firms a satisfaction score of 4.23 out of 5. That’s practically an “A,” an unbelievable grade for any job, much less one fraught with stress and uncertainty.

And they continue the praise in their comments to our survey. “Amazing work, brilliant partners and awesome clients” sums up many of them. Associates also brag that firms really, really care about work-life balance. When asked what they would tell managers, some responded: “Thank you!” One gushes, “Just keep doing what you’re doing!”

Maybe I’m just allergic to brown-nosing, but I find it unfathomable that so many of these red-blooded Big Law associates think that everything is hunky-dory. Has the dark cloud hanging over the legal market in recent years been lifted, replaced by little rays of sunshine?

“I don’t know where the optimism is coming from,” says an Am Law 100 third-year associate, who works in Washington, D.C. “I know a lot of people staring down at empty partnership prospects.”

Indeed, it’s hard to reconcile the high satisfaction scores with the reality that few associates will ever make partner. Though an astonishing 73.5 percent of associates surveyed claim that they’re on the partnership track, their comments paint a different picture. “Lack of transparency,” “opaqueness” and “politics” often pop up when they describe their frustration with the elevation process at firms.

Scratch the surface of the declarations of bliss, and you detect a substratum of insecurity. One Mayer Brown asso­ciate who describes himself as “very happy” writes plaintively, “I would like to be an equity partner, and have it communicated to me as early as possible in my career.” An Akin Gump associate is similarly concerned, noting the lack of “meaningful performance reviews about partnership.”

But even for those who don’t aspire to partnership, there’s anxiety about how much money they’ll take home in the short run. Although associates are thrilled about the recent bump in pay, some are worried about the impact on their bonuses. “What will our bonuses look like in January, given that the firm took a big hit to raise the salaries now?” muses an Am Law 100 associate.

Gripes about money often hint at deeper dissatisfaction. Many express resentment that the bar for bonuses is set too high or that bonuses are based on a rigid formula. “The bonus structure needs to be revised,” writes an associate at Reed Smith, noting that it’s entirely dependent on billable hours without regard to the level or complexity of work.

Some associates show little faith that managers know what they’re doing. “I’m very confused about the strategic direction of the firm,” writes an associate at Cahill Gordon & Reindel, noting that the litigation group is “dominated by competing and hostile silos.” (The word “silo” pops up frequently in comments about how partners hog clients.) A fifth-year DLA associate is shocked at “how little business acumen matters to being a successful partner.”

Lousy partnership prospects, resentment about pay, dysfunctional management—these are just some of the tensions I’m seeing in the comments and in my conversations with associates. So what’s with the high satisfaction scores?

Compared with years past, when the pay was stagnant and the lateral market dead, associates finally feel wanted. “My work is pretty interesting. I’m being well-paid,” says a fourth-year associate at Boies Schiller, adding, “Money is 
a large part of [the good morale].”

Which all means that associates are on a high at the moment. OK, so enjoy it. Because, like all highs, it won’t last.

Email: vchen@alm.com.