The legal industry’s current strategy for hiring and keeping lawyers seems to be to throw more and more money at them, a strategy which has succeeded to date in producing unprecedented attrition and dissatisfaction rates.

Major law firms around the country just upped the ante for hiring a baby lawyer to $160,000 @ year, before bonuses, or roughly what seasoned federal judges in our country make.

Why more money?

Jack Nusbaum, Chairman of Willkie Farr & Gallagher, says "We expect our associates to work hard… maybe this will make them feel better about the Saturdays and Sundays."  

Has anyone taken note of the American Bar Association survey conducted just this past November?   Of the 2,377 respondents (most of whom were between 26 and 35 and had been practicing law for five years or less), 84.2 percent said they’d prefer to work fewer hours for less money.  More than 30 percent would like to work 20 percent less and said they’d give up between 25 and 30 percent of their pay in exchange.  The next largest group– 27.8%–would settle for a 10% cut in hours.  Did you get that?  Associates would prefer to give up proportionally more money for incrementally less work.

So are we paying these high salaries–surprise!–for the clients? To show them that our firm can attract the best players?  

"When I saw the announcement about the raises, I said ‘Oh God,” says Michael Roster, executive vice president of World Savings, a subsidiary of Wachovia Corp.  But maybe not for the reasons you would expect.  Salary raises mean law firms will put more pressure on associates to bill, but paying more for legal services, Roster says, is less bothersome to him than associate turnover.  He says he and other general counsel prefer to work with associates with whom he has a history and who know his business well.  "It hurts when firms can’t keep qualified people.”

“From my standpoint, I would view [lowering billable hour requirements] as a creative and enlightened way to reduce associate turnover and keep the best and brightest young lawyers,” says Barry Nagler, who chaired in 2006 the Association of Corporate Counsel’s board of directors.

Susan C. Robinson, associate dean for career services at Stanford Law School, also thinks that lowering billable-hour requirements could be a great recruiting tool, particularly for attracting lateral associates.

There is no question that firms are struggling with the phenomenon of associates not wanting to work as hard as generations past.  Many studies indicate, in fact, that partners often bill more hours than their associates, turning the law firm pyramid model topsy-turvy. 

And attracting and retaining associates over the next decade may be even harder. The standard characterization of “millennials”—those who graduated from high school after 2000 and will be graduating from law school starting in 2008–is that they are unwilling to compromise life and family for work.

The obvious hit from reducing billable hour requirements would be to partners’ bottom lines.  See our upcoming entry "The End of Profitability as We Know It?"  But there are some countervailing tactics that can help improve profitability.  Ida O. Abbott, former partner at Heller Ehrman White and McAuliffe, contends that billable-hour requirements could be lowered without cutting partner profits if the change involved more planning and better management.  And law firms have not yet even begun to explore the types of management strategies that have produced the super-sized profits recounted in the newly released Firms of Endearment: How World-Class Companies Profit from Passion and Purpose by Rajendra Sisodia, David Wolfe and Jagdish N. Sheth.  See our January 31, 2007 entry "Firms of Endearment."

Steve Susman, whose 85-lawyer Houston/New York litigation firm Susman Godfrey gave 2006 associate bonuses of up to $125,000, contends that "Any lawyer who is unhappy with their compensation should check into a mental institution."

Based on the adage about the mental state of people who keep doing the same thing but expecting a different result, there may be a few managing partners who should be joining those associates there.