Happy Associates? Say It Isn’t So

Deven Desai

Deven Desai is an associate professor of law and ethics at the Scheller College of Business, Georgia Institute of Technology. He was also the first, and to date, only Academic Research Counsel at Google, Inc., and a Visiting Fellow at Princeton University’s Center for Information Technology Policy. He is a graduate of U.C. Berkeley and the Yale Law School. Professor Desai’s scholarship examines how business interests, new technology, and economic theories shape privacy and intellectual property law and where those arguments explain productivity or where they fail to capture society’s interest in the free flow of information and development. His work has appeared in leading law reviews and journals including the Georgetown Law Journal, Minnesota Law Review, Notre Dame Law Review, Wisconsin Law Review, and U.C. Davis Law Review.

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3 Responses

  1. A.J. Sutter says:

    The pyramid model has been around for a long time. It was there when I began my career at a “big” (ca. 210-attorney) Wall Street firm in the early ’80s (late ’70s, if you count some time as a paralegal at the same firm before law school). One difference was that in the 1970s and 1980s, firm growth tended more often to be organic, rather than by M&A. So there was room to incorporate more of each entering class into the upper levels of the pyramid. At the same time, making a lateral move as an associate was difficult, since many hiring partners had the attitude that you should spend your whole career at one firm – after all, they had. Nonetheless, the philosophy was quite clear: during one interview, ca. 1987, when I asked why they were looking for a mid-level associate I was told by the partner (a Brit, whence his beautiful diction): “Well… to fill in the interstices of the pyramidal structure, of course.”

    With firms so much huger now, and the bases of the pyramids so much broader, obviously a larger absolute number of folks will need to exit. Moreover, free market culture has made partners more mobile and clients more portable, meaning that partner-level replenishment is less dependent on associate advancement than in the hoary days of old. It seems odd to blame associate mobility on associates’ attitudes when the structures determined by the partners necessitate it. Given the Gizah-like durability of the pyramid model, law firm hiring patterns seem well-tuned to it. If law firms would adopt a flatter profit-sharing structure, attorney populations at firms might be more stable (right). As it is, it’s wise of young attorneys to plan for life outside a firm after spending a few years acquiring some practical professional skills. I wish I’d been so forward-looking; it wouldn’t have taken me so long to discover how much more there was to life than being an equity partner.

  2. Deven says:

    A.J., thanks for the comment. To be clear I am not blaming associates for their attitudes or leaving. Rather, I find it interesting (and bit funny) that firms and the articles about them try to equate so-called happiness with retention at all levels. Yes, associates that are happy may stay longer to that allegedly golden point of high charge to client and lower cost to the firm. But as you point out (and I was saying) the pyramid structure of its nature means that firms will leave. Maybe the focus is not on making partner but the perception that mid-level movements cost the firms money. On that point there seem to be two possibilities: 1) mid-level laterals (and parnters) as you note are common, so one could see whether the associates are merely trading for a grass-is-greener and no one here knows me from my green attorney days place and 2) some are leaving earlier to find how much more in life matters than the firm. If the second is the case, then firms may still be making errors in the type of person they hire. But given the structure of the firm, too many folks who really want to be part of the firm forever will crash the system. All which is why I suggested that firms’ really do know that at least 50% of the people they hire are not people they care to see stay for a host of reasons.

  3. A.J. Sutter says:

    I think we agree on most points. What I was trying to express in my rambling way was *definitely* the firms know what they are doing, because they couldn’t survive without those bottom of the pyramid folks being there for a while, and they also couldn’t survive (in their current economic structure) without the eventual exodus of those associates either. The fact that some who leave might be motivated to look for saner lifestyles (your reason (2)), I do regard differently from you: from firms’ POV voluntary departure is a relief. Speaking from experience in multiple angles of this issue, lawyers at firms don’t enjoy having to lay off or fire people any more than anyone else does, and if anything tend to be wimpier about it than are major corporations. So I wouldn’t say they’re making hiring errors — by and large it works quite smoothly, at least from the partners’ viewpoint.