Recovering from the Law Firm






Whose Obligation is it to Insure Compliance within the Law Firm of the Fundamental Values of the Legal Profession?

I apologize in advance because this article, while somewhat revised, is not completely timely. Much of it is current but it was written in 1997 and does not take into account the extreme number of layoffs of partners and associates taking place currently. I expect to update the article soon either here or in a post in my blog.

For the moment, however, I need to at least note that this article is being written at a time of unprecedented numbers of layoffs of partners and associates in law firms. My concern is that these layoff decisions may be being made unilaterally. Who decides whether and who should be “fired”. Are there any associate representatives involved in the decision-making? Are there discussions about possibly reducing partner distributions and associate salaries to prevent layoffs? What rights do associates have in general and, in particular, to be rehired?

In the MacCrate Report an ABA Task Force of prominent lawyers, judges, and professors stated that one of the four fundamental values of the legal profession is Professional Self-Development - the obligation of a lawyer as a member of a learned profession to select employment which allows the lawyer to develop his or her personal values and professional goals. It is absolutely critically important that lawyers first recognize their values and the fundamental values of the profession and decide not to violate them. What are your non-negotiable values and goals? What are the fundamental values of the legal profession? Does your legal degree promise you a workplace in which you gain knowledge of a craft, have intellectual stimulation, autonomy, are treated with respect, have reasonable income and the opportunity to provide a meaningful service to others?

For forty-five years I have heard about situations where lawyers are working in firms where they have little autonomy, receive no meaningful training, have little responsibility, are given work that is boring and intellectually unstimulating, have almost no potential for advancement, dislike their colleagues and are treated not only disrespectfully but abusively. They complain about the lack of time for family and friends, their loss of control over their lives, their lost dreams and their longing to do "something that matters".

Attached to this article is a survey I helped develop which was used in a consultation to a law firm to ascertain the causes and the level of dissatisfaction of lawyers in the law firm. I encourage you to complete this survey.

I vividly recall the deep concern of Gray Thoron, the former dean of Cornell Law School about the positions then (in the early 90's) being taken by the schools graduates. He thought that many of them were going to large institutions where they were not enjoying the privileges that come with being a lawyer and a professional - autonomy and the opportunity to provide a service to others.

A lawyer wrote and asked "Is it really possible for an associate attorney to have a say in the hours they work? A friend of mine is an associate in a big downtown Chicago firm and has been since graduation '93. She works at least 14 hours a day, 7 days a week. Her reviews are good and she has gotten several raises. This March she asked her boss if she could work only 6 days a week to have one full day with her family. Her boss pointed to a stack of resumes on his desk and informed her that if she didn't want the job, he could replace her in a snap." I responded and suggested: The question is not what the partner said to your friend in the big firm in Chicago but what your friend did next.

Is there any excuse for a professional treating another professional (on anyone) this way? Why should the associate who is being mistreated have to choose between accepting such treatment and leaving if it is the partner who is violating the fundamental values of the profession?

Does your present work situation require you to act contrary to your long held beliefs and contrary to what you understand are the obligations, duties and privileges of a lawyer? If so, what should you do within your law firm and who else has an obligation to help you? Should you first find out whether other associates and partners share your views? Do they have similar stories about such treatment? Should you hold a meeting of associates, form a Women's Committee, plan a retreat, hire consultants? Should you draft a list of issues and present them to the partnership and request that the partners uphold the fundamental values of the legal profession?

Are partners bound to carry out the fundamental values of our profession - to treat others with dignity, to help lawyers develop as professionals and to improve the profession? The second of the four MacCrate Fundamental Values of the Legal Profession is the Obligation to Strive to Improve the Profession by Assisting in the Training of New Lawyers and Ridding the Profession of Bias Based on Race, Religion, Ethnic Origin, Gender, Sexual Orientation, Age, or Disability. Is it unethical and unprofessional for partners (or associates) of a law firm not to provide training or responsibility for associates or to treat anyone disrespectfully or abusively?

A consultant/educator, trainer and mediator asked "Can you have a professional environment without the environment supporting your core values." I would add to that that you cannot have it without an environment that supports the legal profession's core values, especially Professional Self-Development. Is the environments described by the lawyer above only outrageous or does it amount to unethical and unprofessional conduct?

Why does this situation continue to exist? Is no one willing or able to change it? Whose obligation is it to ensure that there is an environment in the law firm that supports these values? Whose obligation is it to enforce compliance with these values?

  1. The associate who is mistreated?
  2. The other associates?
  3. The partner who is acting unprofessionally?
  4. The partner who is aware of this behavior?
  5. The managing partner?
  6. The local bar association which hears complaints from its members?
  7. The law school career services director who hears complaints from students and alumni/ae about unfair treatment?
  8. The career planning professionals whose obligation is to help lawyers find positions consistent with their goals and values.?
  9. The appropriate state and federal agencies?

Is anyone aware of a case where a law firm partner has retaliated against an associate who expressed directly or indirectly his or her workplace dissatisfaction based on such factors as abusive treatment, meaningless work, and unreasonable time demands? Do we believe that such an atmosphere should be allowed to prevail in our profession? Would such an act of retaliation be acceptable?

If we continue to allow such behavior within the law firm environment, as professionals must we then recognize our collective responsibility for the widespread lawyer dissatisfaction?

There is also some evidence that there are lawyers in law firms who find this behavior unacceptable but fear recognition or retaliation if they respond in a public way. In one online seminar in which I participated, an anonymous message was posted by a sixth year associate in a large (220 lawyer) firm "I can tell you that we are lurking here. However, there is a substantial and justified fear of getting caught posting in a forum like this. Most of the lawyers at my level hate their jobs. The hours are too long, the demands are too high, the work in large cases is dull. Most of us, however - including me - don't know how to get out of it." Is the fear of recognition, of retaliation, for anyone participating in a Forum or a Chat discussion a reality? Were it true, what does that say about our profession if we as lawyers are not prepared to speak out when lawyers are abused and when the fundamental values of our profession are betrayed?

One lawyer suggested that there be an associates union. Is that unrealistic or inappropriate? Why? Another commented about unethical billing and suggested that the federal government regulate law firms the same way it regulated bakeries and meat packers in an earlier era. What do you think about this exhortation of his "Try to organize your fellow associates, and take your demands to the firm management? Quit acting like a serf, and stand up for the profession."

Survey of Satisfaction of Lawyers in A Law Firm

Please Indicate By A "D" (Descriptive) or An "N" (Not Descriptive)

Whether These Phrases Describe Your Current Work Environment

  • ____The atmosphere is warm and personal.
  • ____The firm is a special place, an enjoyable place to work.
  • ____My advancement is determined more by quality than quantity.
  • ____I am respected and treated as a colleague by my peers.
  • ____I am respected and treated as a colleague by my superiors.
  • ____Political intrigue and backbiting is almost nonexistent.
  • ____The firm is an attractive option to a smaller firm.
  • ____I have considerable control over the selection of my cases/matters.
  • ____The opportunity for professional development is very good.
  • ____I have considerable input into policy and management decisions.
  • ____The intellectual challenge of my work is great.
  • ____The financial rewards are great.
  • ____There is an atmosphere of teamwork, cooperation and support.
  • ____There is substantial, competent paralegal and clerical assistance.
  • ____The firm provides a stable secure environment.
  • ____I have professional autonomy and independence.
  • ____I have enough time for myself and to spend with family.
  • ____The level of pressure/tension on the job is acceptable.
  • ____The pressures from clients re cost of services is acceptable.
  • ____There is good training but I get an appropriate amount of responsibility.
  • ____I get feedback on my work.
  • ____I have a mentor who provides support and encouragement.
  • ____Few associates leave the firm voluntarily.
  • ____Few law students or laterals have rejected offers in the last few years.
  • ____I expect to remain here for the foreseeable future.

Lawyer Satisfaction Blog - Law School Failings