Thursday, January 12, 2006

Law Firms and the "Third Year Dilemma"

There's a great new column in the Wall Street Journal. It's called The FLaw (no, that's not a typo), and it is billed as "a new column about law-firm management, with a particular emphasis on the miscues, peculiarities and strange customs of law firms." In typical WSJ fashion it is well written and researched.

If you have worked in big firms as I have, The FLaw's first installment (January 4, 2006) won't tell you anything you don't already know. But if you haven't, well, it's a treasure trove of information. I am pleased to say that it is consistent with what I have been saying on this blog about law firms, partnership, mentoring, and so on. Check out my previous posts.

What The FLaw's debut column and my previous posts prove, yet again, is that money isn't everything. I have lived the big salary life, in which you tell yourself "I work hard; I deserve that expensive sportscoat/TV/car/etc." For some people, they may be working for the material acquisition, but for many, the spending just tends to increase with the salary. And if you are unhappy in your job, then spending helps you feel better, if only for a while.

Don't get me wrong. Money is great. And as a lawyer, I earned every penny of my high paycheck, so I do not feel bad about being well-paid. But money is not the end-all, be-all.

So what, specifically, are law firm associates usually looking for when they are unhappy?
  • More money? No. In fact, many are willing to take less pay for working fewer hours. (I will post on this trend soon.)
  • More interesting work? Sometimes, yes, but not always. In my own case, the projects I worked on were fascinating and intellectually challenging in the extreme. And with the digital revolution, small practitioners can compete with larger firms more easily, and that means big firm associates these days get less and less boring drudge work.
So what is the real problem? Why are associates not happy? I'll tell you what it is. People want to be part of something larger than themselves. My job in practice, for example, was intellectually satisfying, and yet I began to feel that I was not making my mark. I wanted purpose. I wanted to truly matter. As interesting as my job was, at the end of the day I was just another Fungible Billing Unit.

Here's an easy way for firms to solve this problem. First, treat people like you care about them as people. And second, mean it. Not all associates will stay, of course, but as a group they will feel more invested in your enterprise. When firms do this AND train their people, associate satisfaction will go up, and attrition rates will go down.

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