For Partners: A “Dear John” Letter

Dear John(s), Jane(s), and Others–

I didn’t want to be angry, but you deserve to know the reasons that I am.

I respected you a lot as individuals, and still do. With the few exceptions we all hear about, you are optimistic, kind, generally supportive people. You would not willingly kick puppies, insult mothers, or do other needlessly cruel or nasty things.

But you are screwing people over right now, perhaps without even realizing it. (And if you do realize it and are continuing, then you are rationalizing it away. Consider this your wake-up call.)

The respect I had for you as individuals was largely unrequited. I sacrificed time, energy, aspiration, vacations, evenings, romantic interludes, weekends, and my health to do the things you asked–and that I was told I needed to do in order to “succeed” and become one of you.

“Of course you were. That’s the same thing we ask of everyone. That’s what we did. That’s just how the game is played. There’s nothing wrong with doing that and asking others to do the same. And we pay a lot for you to do it.”

I don’t buy that, and someone trained to “think like a lawyer” looks at the facts, neither will they.

Here are the primary facts you’ve presented us with:

  • Only about 10% of the people you recruit will make it to your position. That means 90% will lose their jobs within 6-10 years. (Other euphemisms are bullshit. It isn’t “outplacement,” it’s losing your job.)
  • We are carrying huge loads of non-dischargeable debt. All of the people you recruit probably have somewhere north of $100,000 worth of debt. As a conservative estimate, about $1,000 per month likely goes to educational loans, over and above consumer loans (like mortgages and credit cards).

Looks bad already. This is hardly a recipe for creating a professional partnership where people can feel comfortable making a career. Associates are set up in a caged deathmatch from the start: set up to fight against others for survival, and forced to stay by shackles of debt.

But let’s look at the atmosphere that has created:

  • Billable hour “guidelines” are usually around 2,000, but we know that won’t get you into the 10%. The functional minimum if you want to keep your job as a career is closer to 2,300-2,400.
  • Most associates get no courtroom experience. The exception is pro bono work, which is usually disfavored: people who do “too much” are told to put their nose back to the grindstone.
  • Mentorship and training programs are dismal failures. Even the most vaunted training programs focus on things associates might be able to do someday (like take depositions or examine witnesses), not what they have to do every day. Some fortunate associates get “sherpas” who will help them through failures and go to bat for them. Most do not, so the (inevitable) early mistakes never get corrected–my guess is this is how the 90% gets picked.

So associates have to do more and more work, while getting little experience or training to learn how to do things right. And one failure, much less a string of small ones or a “slow start,” is nearly certain doom come review time.

Is this really the profession you entered? You had mentors, people who would go to bat for you even when you made your first inevitable mistakes. They would bring you along on deals or trials even if the client wouldn’t pay for it, because they knew that real-life experience was much better than being stuck in the file room. They instilled in you an admiration for what you do and forged the bonds of commitment that are represented by the term partner: “we’re in this together, from the first to the last, and we’ll all look out for each other.”

But this is the profession you created. We’re in this together, but we push 90% of partner-wannabes overboard before we bring them in. We look out for each other, and make sure everyone is making their billable hour targets–and more, because we expect greatness and excellence from people we don’t train to succeed.

Many people have said it, in many different ways, but it is time to stop deflecting blame to clients, law schools, or the associates themselves. This is a world you created, and it is hurting more people than you can imagine in deep, long-lasting ways. And remember: this is the future of your profession I am talking about, the next partners at your firm, not Blackacre.

As a token of respect (with no illusions that it will be reciprocated), I have a few suggestions to consider for reducing the damage you are doing. I won’t pretend these will ever be adopted, and I haven’t tested them through Monte Carlo simulations, so I don’t know if they will work. But perhaps they will give you signposts.

  • Loosen your grip, or retire. Much of the pressure creating the “90% overboard” problem is from senior partners who aren’t passing on their books of business and grooming mid-level partners to take over. With you not letting go, every level beneath you has to hold on to whatever they can to keep their numbers up, which is destructive all around.
  • Give credit to partners for mentoring. Real credit, not acrylic-plaque credit. Give them pro tanto credit in the professional development column for hours spent working with associates to revise a brief or memo. Perhaps even require partners to do exactly that before they can open a new client account.
  • Let associates participate. Take them to trials when the client won’t pay for it. Get them in on deals, even if they aren’t doing a lot of work on it. Bring them behind the velvet ropes and shantung silk curtains. Take it as a loss, expense it to business development, or even allocate a fund to each associate to cover these opportunities up to a certain amount, like a tech budget.
  • Suck it up and really train. Everybody knows neither law school nor the bar exam trains you for practicing law. But it has been this way for over half a century now–if the case method comes as a surprise to you, Dorian Grey, you need to wake up. A profession must be passed on from practitioner to practitioner. Firms must find a way to pay for young associates to learn everything they need to know (not just cool stuff like working with witnesses and depositions), even if that means taking it out of partner profits.

But to be honest, I’m not interested in what you do. I have no illusions that anything will change anytime soon. Law firms, especially the largest white-shoe firms, are conservative in the clearest sense of the word: they do not change rapidly.

I’m more interested in talking to the associates who are stuck in this world while you change it (or don’t). My aim is to get as many of the suffering ones out of the situation as possible. They’re the ones you don’t want anyway (but you haven’t told yet–string them along for a few more years), so you shouldn’t mind. Whether you see it as a caged deathmatch or a sinking ship, they don’t belong there, and need a way out.

You all deserve to know, and you have some free advice for how to fix things. Of course none of it is your individual responsibility–it never is. But you’ve created a sick world that is hurting people, and it’s time for that to end, one mind at a time.

Respectfully,

Justin

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