Law in Contemporary Society

Why is life at Big Law notoriously bad?

Talks with Big Law attorneys left me concerned about Big Law quality of life. This discussion centers on some factors which affect associates’ quality of life—especially women associates.

-- By SylvieRampal - 21 Feb 2008

  • It's not a discussion. Nothing gets discussed, just summarized.

The realized billable hour

Young associates are inexperienced and inefficient, this is why their time is cheaper. What a senior associate accomplishes in 30-40 minutes, may take a first year 3-4 hours. Increasingly savvy clients are aware of this and demand either the work of senior associates and partners or a cost reduction. The realized billable hour is the amount of time a client actually pays for. 1 Whether a firm counts pro bono work, recruitment efforts, business development, nominal or realized billable hours significantly affects quality of life.


Associates are paid a percentage of revenue earnings, the rest is applied to generalized business expenses i.e. overhead or becomes partner profit. Leverage is the ratio of associates to partners; more associates equals more partner profit. Big Law firms are generally highly leveraged (3 or more associates per partner). 2 Associates who become equity-sharing partners get big shares of firm revenue. But high leverage ratios also indicate increased difficulty in making partner at a firm (of ever earning more than roughly 1/3 of the revenue an associate brings into the firm) and potentially, less time for mentoring young associates (which means less or no actual training).

Long hours

As first year salaries rose—the choice was to either “decrease partner profits or to raise associates’ work load” . 3 (Guess which option won out?)

The intensely competitive environment, the varied options for legal services meant raising prices was not an option. In a contest between you and the partners, you lose.

Increases in first year salaries have a spiral effect on senior associate and partner salaries. In ‘On Being a Happy, Healthy, and Ethical Member of an Unhappy, Unhealthy, and Unethical Profession’, Schiltz states “Increases in starting salaries for first year associates lead to increases in the salaries and workloads of all lawyers.” 4 Thus, you pay for first year, senior associate and partner pay raises.

  • Surely all three of these points could have been consolidated in two sentences: law firms sell associates' time at variable rates, by the hour, but pay fixed salaries. The incentives to overwork associates and to evaluate their work according to what their salaries actually return in revenue are obvious.

Gendered Differences

Some of my interactions with women attorneys have been disheartening: One female attorney said since she and her husband were attorneys she had to sacrifice her career or her marriage. The statement seems hyperbolic, but society still expects career women to be primary care givers. Large numbers of associates (leveraging) are good for the firm, so women are a lucrative addition to the labor force but law firms have not adapted to their entry. 5 Women are easily relegated to the Mommy Track where working less than 60 hours a week is considered part-time. (Part-time is negatively correlated with making partner.)

The Hagan-Kay study identified that women are more likely to be depressed when they have less policy-making opportunities and or when they perceive childbearing as a negative determinant of occupational success. Men and women fear having children results in “loss of seniority, delay in promotion …unreasonable work load following parental leave, to test their commitment to work, loss of clients…and loss of income.” 6

  • This too is essentially obvious. If you weren't previously aware of the information, merely retelling it serves a purpose, to be sure, but it would be good to go further.

Reduced life expectancy

The profession is plagued with high levels of depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsiveness, social alienation and isolation, hostility, paranoia, alcoholism and drug abuse. Lawyers are prone to suicidal ideation and more likely to be lethal in suicide attempts. 7

Lawyers get divorced more often. Divorce is “only slightly less harmful… than smoking a pack or more of cigarettes per day”; it has been correlated with higher rates of cancer, heart disease, respiratory and digestive illnesses. 8

  • "More often" than what? Correlation is not causation.

Changing the Traditional Employment Scheme

Big Law is resistant to truly flexible work schedules. After learning of the heavy demands Big Law makes on one’s personal life, I asked Big Law partners why firms have not instituted flex days or limited hours for associates willing to take significant pay cuts. (I got some interesting looks.) Basically, stressing the importance of a personal life to Big Law translates as a negligible work ethic and a lack of commitment to the firm. Apparently, the pay raise is a form of remuneration everyone can agree on—not everyone wants more vacation time, sleep, increased parental leave.

  • And it would hardly make sense to run law firms at the size and scale now currently fashionable on individuated work arrangements.

What now?

Despite all this I intend to begin my legal career at Big Law: The cachet of Big Law speaks volumes long after you have left the firm, some of the top legal career paths in government and industry regulation prefer the transactional expertise that Big Law provides, and top boutique firms generally make lateral hires (wooing Big Law associates once they have gained experience and a specialization).

  • The point was to ignore the data you collected? The reasons you give for working at such a firm are all, to put it politely, nonsense. This isn't discussion, analysis, or even thought: it's rote recapitulation of someone else's unverified marketing claims.

To me being a lawyer means financial security, autonomy, prestige, intellectual challenge, social and political influence—so I want more than financial security.

  • Most of those are unattainable within the context of large law firm practice. All the more reason not to have undertaken the concerted effort to ignore the data you already collected.

To ensure that I keep my promises to myself, I will: Make clear what my professional and life goals are, and what I am willing to sacrifice personally to achieve professionally. Memorialize my preferences with people who care enough to force me to answer for deviating from these stated preferences.

  • I can't remember whether I've heard this 16,487 times in my career or 18,346. The outcome was usually bad.


Specialization translates into a lucrative knowledge-base that facilitates the move to in-house, banking, management, consulting, insurance or government regulatory positions.

Trusts & Estates--> Banking-->small pay cut, regular hours

Insurance Compliance/ Litigation-->Insurance--> regular hours

Bankruptcy, Tax, Mergers & Acquisitions--> In-house, Regulation, Consultancy--> salary varies

Ex. Securities and Exchange Commission Staff Attorneys have policy-making, advisory, investigative accountancy, and appellate advocacy roles. 9

Entry-level $70,000 to $89,000

1 yr legal experience $84,000 to $107,000

2 yr legal experience $99,000 to $127,000

Senior/Supervisory positions $114,000 to $177,000

  • It's not clear what this little diagram was supposed to explain.

References 1. Patrick J. Schiltz, On Being a Happy, Healthy, and Ethical Member of an Unhappy, Unhealthy, and Unethical Profession, 52 Vanderbilt L. REV. 871, 898 (1999).

  • Who taught Pat? Now Judge Pat, I might add. Did you find yourself agreeing with this reactionary right-wing totally anti-abortion Minnesota Catholic former Scalia clerk about what happiness and ethics are? I would have expected you two to have rather little in common.

2. 2007-2008 NALP Directory of Legal Employers. NALP Press Release “Law Firm Leverage Drops to Levels Last Seen 10 Years Ago”. 3. Deborah L. Rhode, The Professionalism Problem, 39 WM. & MARY L. REV. 283, 308-10 (1998). 4. Patrick J. Schiltz, On Being a Happy, Healthy, and Ethical Member of an Unhappy, Unhealthy, and Unethical Profession, 52 Vanderbilt L. REV. 871, 898 (1999). 5. John Hagan, Fiona Kay, Even Lawyers Get the Blues: Gender, Depression and Job Satisfaction in Legal Practice, 41 Law and Society Review, 51-75 (2007). 6. Id at 61. 7. Patrick J. Schiltz, On Being a Happy, Healthy, and Ethical Member of an Unhappy, Unhealthy, and Unethical Profession, 52 Vanderbilt L. REV. 871, 874 (1999). 8. David B. Larson, et al., The Costly Consequences of Divorce: Asessing the Clinical, Economic, and Public Health Impact of Marital Disruption in the United States 1 (1995); Lee A. Lillard; Linda J. Waite. 'Til Death Do Us Part: Marital Disruption and Mortality. The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 100, No. 5. (Mar., 1995), pp. 1131-1156. 9. U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

  • I think it is admirable for you to go after the big problem in your own career planning. But I don't know why you bother with all the repetitive footnotes and the machinery of being data driven when you are determined in advance to ignore what you learn. The piece bills itself as discussion, but it really isn't. You don't offer multiple points of view, unless you count assertively disagreeing (on the basis of scant reasons) with your own evidence. There isn't any thesis for the essay, and no path along which the reader can travel to deeper understanding. Data is conveyed, but no new idea is offered with respect to the data adduced, except that if you ignore it perhaps it will go away.


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r7 - 12 Jan 2009 - 23:08:08 - IanSullivan
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