BigLaw Associates "are overworked and underpaid" (You Gotta Be Kidding Me!) – Updated!

When I saw that quote at PrawfsBlawg I couldn’t believe it was real. But there it was staring at me in all its bizarre glory from prof Eric Johnson (via ABAJournal):

“Associates at big law firms are perfectly suited to unionize. They are overworked and underpaid. And partners utterly depend on them. If associates actually used their latent collective bargaining power, it seems to me they could extract huge concessions from partners.”

I haven’t visited the issue of BigLaw salaries in awhile. After all, with associates being laid off by the thousands it didn’t seem right to rub it in. What they need are tips on interviewing or resume writing, and here is a law professor stating that they should unionize to demand more?

Two years ago I noted that starting associates were starting at $160,000, plus giant bonuses, and lots of holiday swag, and then went on to $180K, and were thus clobbering the salaries of New York state judges who remained stuck at $136K and federal judges who were getting $162K (without a juicy bonus). (And last year former Chief Judge Judith Kaye finally brought a lawsuit over the fact that NY judges were actually going backwards, since they don’t even get a cost of living increase.)

And starting associates, of course, can’t even do much. The first year of practicing law might as well be called an apprenticeship. Who would trust a first year with any real project for a big corporate client unless there was significant (read “time-intensive”) oversight? Pretty much the same is true for many second years. How many first or second year “litigators,” for example, are trusted to take the deposition of anyone higher than a mail clerk?

Back in December 2007 Scott Greenfield wrote:

First year associates are near useless as lawyers. They are incapable of producing useful legal work, and at best churn out wasteful hours of memos stating the obvious at great length in order to produce the requisite number of hours. Sure, they think they’re doing a bang-up job, but that’s only because they have no clue of the utility of their efforts.

Still, somebody is paying for this time. Hour by hour, there is a client being billed somewhere for some kid to carry a briefcase around the hallway. It must be just fine with Biglaw clients to pay some top partner $1000+ an hour on top of a posse of kids following her around, nipping at her heels, fetching coffee and taking notes, so that every hour of actual legal work ends up costing the Biglaw clients $3,750.

BigLaw was getting the BigBucks because General Counsels figured no one would ever blame them for losing a case if they paid top dollar.

And what happened to BigLaw with the oodles of money and perks they were throwing around? A big-time contraction. Their clients, it seems, decided that in a Great Recession it might be wise to watch the bottom line, and shelling out piles of dough to BigLaw so they could bill out young associates at ridiculous hourly rates no longer seemed like such a hot idea.

And Johnson thinks they are underpaid? If by underpaid he meant outrageously overpaid, he might have a point, though that point is likely lost on those lining up for unemployment. I’m guessing there aren’t too many judges, for example, who would think a first year associate that still has his or her job at BigLaw is underpaid. Nor any of the millions in jeopardy of losing homes to foreclosure. Does there exist some constitutional right to be paid $200+K per year while still being carried in a Snugli?

BigLaw, it seems, had overpaid its associates in a big, bad way while those firms suckled at the beautiful towers of corporate giants. But now reality is setting in, the teat’s been covered, and associates are being told in 50 different ways to leave. If they were underpaid, why are so many desperate to hold on to those positions?

It would be a fairly safe theory to say that one reason for the massive contraction in BigLaw today is that they had overpaid for the legal talent they hired and were too late to realize it. Many of us — the practitioners of law as opposed to the ivory towerists — had already known that. It sure is an odd time to suggest to BigLaw associates terrified of discharge that this would be a good time to put the screws to the boss and demand more money.

The safe cocoon of academia must feel very nice. End rant.

Update! OK, that rant felt good. But I just noticed that the bit was written in February 2008, not 2009. D’oh! Nevertheless, the fact remains that BigLaw associates aren’t exactly an exploited class working under treacherous conditions, though I suppose heart disease from long stressful hours and and take-out food could be a dangerous workplace environment. Of course, they’d get that anyway if they hung their own shingles.

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5 Responses Leave a comment

  • Comments 2010.6.21 at 01:19 | Quote

    Wow – even the BigLaw associates I know don’t think they’re underpaid. Most people in this country would still kill to get paid that much, even with the hours as they are.
    # posted by Anonymous CD : March 12, 2009 10:33 AM

  • Comments 2010.6.21 at 01:19 | Quote

    I was thinking the posting was a joke, but it isn’t April 1.
    # posted by Blogger Eric Turkewitz : March 12, 2009 11:39 AM

  • Comments 2010.6.21 at 01:19 | Quote

    “Hour by hour, there is a client being billed somewhere for some kid to carry a briefcase around the hallway. It must be just fine with Biglaw clients to pay some top partner $1000+ an hour on top of a posse of kids following her around, nipping at her heels, fetching coffee and taking notes, so that every hour of actual legal work ends up costing the Biglaw clients $3,750.”

    In medicine that kind of behavior is called fraud. Of course a first year resident makes closer to 35 K. But there is nothing wrong with the legal system right eric?
    # posted by Anonymous Anonymous : March 16, 2009 2:21 PM

  • Comments 2010.6.21 at 01:19 | Quote

    But there is nothing wrong with the legal system right eric?

    I’m puzzled by your comment. I think that the conduct that I quoted is horrible. That’s why I quoted it.

    The idea that those rookie associates were underpaid was ludicrous.

    The recession, of course, may fix some of those types of overbilling practices.
    # posted by Blogger Eric Turkewitz : March 16, 2009 2:31 PM

  • Mike O’Horo 2011.11.4 at 18:08 | Quote

    Clients could fix all this in a heartbeat by recognizing that they are the fiddlers and the law firms are the dancers. Call the tune, e.g., “No more hourly billing. Period. Act like a real business and quote us a price. And that price had better not enable you to make more money than we make.”

    Why clients are behaving so timidly is beyond my comprehension. They whine and bitch about outside counsel, but do nothing, despite having the absolute power to change the entire industry by fiat.

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