Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Why Associates Have More Stress Than Partners

The practice of law has become increasingly high-pressured in recent decades, as salaries have gone up and revolutions in communications have reduced the turnaround cycle for work. There is more money at stake, and less time to do the work. Plus, clients are less loyal to firms than they used to be, and associates hop from firm to firm. The result is that there is a real squeeze going on: more money, less loyalty, less time, less room for error.

I don't say this with any sense of nostalgia for the "good old days." I'm just stating facts. In a way, it's a function of reaping what you sow--big salaries are not free money.

Rather, what I want to talk about is why, in this high pressure market, associates tend to feel more stress than partners. Why is that?

It's not because they're trying to make partnership, really. At least not most of it, in my opinion. That's because many associates do not want to make partner anymore. (See my previous post on this.) And it's not because associates work harder than partners--they don't. The brass ring of partnership is not the big prize it used to be--it's a whole lot of work and pressure. Partners have to supervise existing clients, court new clients, help run firms, deal with associates, and manage projects. In fact, in my experience, a lot of partners work harder than the associates who work for them. The partners I worked with in practice certainly worked extremely hard.

So why are associates more stressed?

One reason: control.

Partners have to answer to their very demanding clients, but within those parameters they control what gets done, and when. So if they want to delay one client's project until the last minute and then stay all night to get it done, that's the partner's decision. But the associates who have to stay too? They have no choice, and no control. Absolutely none.

And that, my friends, is stressful. No control over your schedule, no control over when you get to leave work, not knowing until the very last minute whether you will make your kids' school play or be able to meet your family or friends for dinner as promised.

Do not underestimate the power of choice as a stress-reducer. I work every bit as hard as a professor as I did in practice--hour for hour. But the stress is a lot less, and that largely comes down to control over when I work. Which I never had as an associate.

What's an associate to do? Other than quit, that is? There are multiple things, but here's one simple piece of advice I received from a colleague in my early days of practice: you can control when you come to work, but you can never control when you leave. So come in as late as you can, and expect to be late--plan for dinner at 10:00 p.m.

I followed that advice as a junior corporate associate, and this single piece of advice reduced my stress enormously. I recommend it heartily.

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