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The Small Firm Practitioner and the Large Firm Associate

Apr 1997

Are junior associates dissatisfied with their job? If so, what can be done?

How are the problems of small firm practitioners addressed by this Bar Association? This column discusses the Association's efforts to address the needs of these two different groups of lawyers and to give voice to their concerns.

The Small Firm Practitioner

More than 70% of the lawyers in this country, and this state, practice in firms of fewer than ten lawyers. Of the 21,000 members of this Association, almost 40% can be described as small firm practitioners.

The Association's Committee on Small Law Firm Management (Joseph J. Handlin, Chair) has as its specific mission assisting the solo and small firm practitioner in his or her day-to-day practice. On a regular basis the Committee sponsors programs relating to the management of small firms on topics such as accounting, marketing and networking. Moreover, many of the courses held in our state-of-the-art Technology Center relate to basic computer use and software applications, which are of particular benefit to lawyers in smaller firms.

In addition, the Association's Committee on Lawyers in Transition (Jennie L. Pettit, Chair) holds programs to assist those becoming sole practitioners. Recent programs have included: "Rainmaking for Lawyers," "Lawyering at Home," and "Starting Your Own Practice."

On a longer-term basis, the Committee on Small Law Firm Management is exploring the feasibility of creating a Small Law Firm Center to provide for expanded networking opportunities, where members of small firms might meet each other, find needed reference material and services, and deal with common problems.

The views of those in smaller law firms must be heard as the Association formulates its positions on public policy issues. Thus, every effort is made to ensure that small firm practitioners are represented in the leadership and on each of the Association's substantive committees. Five members of the Association's Executive Committee practice in small firms, and approximately 40 such persons serve as committee chairs. In addition, the Committee on Small Law Firm Management gives particular voice to the needs of the small firm lawyer within the greater New York legal community.

The Quality of Life of the Large Firm Associate

Large New York City law firms are an essential part of the fabric of both this Association and this city. Attorneys in these firms frequently are part of "cutting edge" litigation and deal-making, whose impacts are felt around the world. They, like other members of the profession, also make significant monetary contributions to legal services and other charitable organizations, and give of their time, both on a pro bono basis and by temporarily serving the city, state and federal governments. Despite this, there is a significant problem relating to one of the most valuable resources of large firms - junior associates. Many junior attorneys today are very unhappy and are not realizing the same level of job satisfaction from the practice of law as did I and many of my peers when we began our practice a generation ago.

The reasons behind this malaise are many: negative expectations of some beginning lawyers, who join firms (often with debt exceeding $100,000) anticipating being "exploited;" changing family and work patterns resulting in difficult child-care obligations; and huge and sometimes lengthy matters in which the beginning lawyer feels little excitement about, or responsibility for, the final product. These attorneys are often working more than 2,100 hours annually for paying clients, leaving little time for family, outside activities, pro bono cases, public service activities, or even reading a book or going to the theater. In exchange for these efforts they face a decreasing likelihood that at the end of eight or nine years this hard work will produce a partnership.

The solutions to these problems are not at all clear. Should firms offer to allow the associate to work fewer hours for less pay? Would increased opportunity to work pro bono ease the problem? Would sabbaticals? Are there any personnel or training policies that could be changed that would improve the quality of an associate's life?

The implications of deep-seated unhappiness among junior lawyers are significant. Too many bright and eager law students who begin the practice of law with large law firms emerge, four or five years later, with diminished career opportunities and in a disillusioned and cynical mood about the profession. While at the firm, unhappy associates fail to achieve their full potential at a cost to them, their firms, their clients and their families. Many quit their firms prematurely, resulting in undesirable and costly turnover.

In an effort to learn the extent of this problem, and to try to determine how to deal with it, we have created a Committee on Lawyers' Quality of Life (Margaret Berger, Chair). The Committee, composed of senior and junior partners, present and former law firm associates, and law professors, has two projects for the year. First, it is holding a panel discussion on May 17 - led by Anthony Kronman, Dean of the Yale Law School and author of The Lost Lawyer - that will kick off our in-depth examination of the issue.

Second, with the generous voluntary assistance of DecisionQuest, associates' attitudes will be explored in focus groups on an anonymous basis. The focus groups will discuss sources of associate dissatisfaction, the steps firms have taken in response, and the effectiveness of these measures, with the aim of identifying constructive and creative practices that make associates feel better about their work.

Hopefully, the Committee's ambitious efforts will result in a better understanding of why associate unhappiness exists, and what firms and individuals can do to improve the situation.

Your Thoughts

If you have suggestions of other projects that should be undertaken by the Committees on Small Law Firm Management or Lawyers' Quality of Life, please let me know.

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