Image [cc] Grand Canyon NPS

My posts have subsided a bit lately as I felt an echo chamber growing and started questioning a lot of stuff I was reading as either echoes or reiterations of prior statements. Some of these echoes are new angles on old subjects, but they merely restate the basic premise: BigLaw is broken and doomed. I feel lately, the echos are drowning out critical thinking.

And now I shall unfairly pick on my good friend Jordan Furlong.*

His recent post on “The decline of the associate and the rise of the employee lawyer” struck a nerve with me. It started with this phrase:

We’re now on the verge of entire associate classes whose only purpose and value is to generate leveraged work. They are not meant to be future partners: they are temporary employees meant to sustain the practices of current partners for as long as those partners need them.

The unstated presumption here is that the proper purpose of an associate class is being on a path to partnership. From my point of view the presumption that all workers should be on a path to ownership is nuts. Which is not to say that generating profit is the workers’ “only purpose”. Quite the contrary, I think their purpose should be providing value to clients. But that effort needs to be profitable or a firm will soon go out of business.

What is wrong with hiring talented lawyers to be valued, potentially long-term employees and not future owners? True – firms need to nurture future owners, but doing it under a false pretense that every associate could or should some day be an owner is part of the problem. The history of this approach has shown that not many make it to that level. And it appears that even fewer may make it in the future. But is that bad?

I don’t think so. With any business, some talent is suited for working and some is suited for business development. Do we pick at clients for hiring in-house lawyers as employees who are “generating leveraged work?” I think not. I recently heard about one BigLaw firm that created a non-partner track for associates, thinking they would have to go outside to fill this track. So far they have not. What this tells me is that many associates “just want to practice law” and not be under pressure to become an owner. This up-or-out pressure turns a lot of excellent lawyers out or away from law firms. Why can’t a talented lawyer become a world expert on a legal subject without aspiring to be an owner?

Another echo chamber comment I read recently had to do with how bad the billable hour is – since it encourages associates to bill time. Say what? Last time I checked, most employers encourage their workers to … work. And the more they work, the better the employer likes it. Some employers even pay bonuses for putting in extra effort. It’s not the billable hour, but instead the lack of management oversight reigning in effort that doesn’t deliver value to clients that is the problem.  Bashing BigLaw for rewarding extra effort seems misplaced to me. But it is very easy to do. I think it is more appropriate to bash BigLaw for rewarding poor effort. If associates are bringing value with every hour they work – I don’t see a problem in rewarding that effort.

And now back to the Echo …

* We have a history of trading barbs.