Many first year law firm associates start today. Recently I read an article in the Dallas Morning News: Eleven firms in Texas hike first-year associate base pay to $180K. Three thoughts came to mind right away:

  1. How can anyone with no experience be unhappy when they are making that kind of money?
  2. What hourly rates do the firms charge for those first year lawyers?
  3. How do firm clients feel about paying them?

At a time when associate salaries have never been greater, law firm associates hold the most unhappy job in the United States. Check out a 2013 Forbes article: The Happiest And Unhappiest Jobs, referencing a survey that found law firm associate to be the most unhappy job.

Why are law firm associates so unhappy? For some, it is simply a misconception about what it means to be a lawyer. Others went to  law school  because they did not know what else to do with their philosophy, or political science degrees and they were pushed to go to law school by a well meaning relative.

Practicing law in big law firms for the last several years has been more stressful. First, the high salaries create pressure on reaching billable hour minimums and in some cases the young lawyers have little control over whether their practice group will have enough work for them to do.

Many decry the loss of professionalism and collegiality that used to exist in our profession. Clients merged or consolidated while the number of lawyers dramatically increased. That created intense competition among firms and lawyers.

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What is lost as a result of billable hour pressures on both partners and associates? I know first hand that training, shadowing and mentoring are not as valued as before.

I believe these points are supported by a September, 2015 Chicago Tribune Commentary:  Why lawyers are miserable.

What should law firms do about this problem? When I was responsible for attorney development at Jenkens & Gilchrist, I decided we should make an effort to focus our attorney training and development program on:

  1. Our lawyers taking responsibility for their careers,
  2. Figuring out what they want,
  3. Setting goals, developing a career plan and executing the plan.

I worked with senior lawyers to encourage associates to define what represents success for them. I spoke at our shareholders’ retreat on the importance of our attorney development program and how it would ultimately increase our profitability.

I conducted Career Development Workshops in each of our offices and shared with our associates what I had done and what I learned in my own career. I helped our associates prepare their Career Development Plan and set goals.

A firm cannot motivate the unmotivated, but focusing on attorney development can make a big difference to the substantial number of lawyers who want to become better lawyers and make a difference for their firm’s clients.