Making it to midlevel in Biglaw isn’t easy — especially in the wake of a pandemic. First you had to break into Biglaw in the first place (which can be quite difficult, especially if you didn’t go to a top law school or earn top grades). Then you had to survive the high stress and long hours. Finally, you needed to endure and somehow persevere through the incredibly uncertain times COVID-19 brought upon the legal profession and the world at large (though we’re sure the special bonuses and pay raises had to have helped a little).
But if you did make it to your firm’s midlevel ranks during the past few years, it was arguably more difficult than ever — and these associates have simply had enough. The American Lawyer just released its midlevel associates survey, and as noted by Dan Roe, “They kept firms going, they made partners rich, and now they plan to reshape the profession in their image.” He goes on to explain that midlevel associates seem to be doing better than they were last year, but under the surface, trouble may be brewing. Here’s more:
On paper, Big Law midlevel associates are doing better than they were last year. In The American Lawyer’s 2022 Midlevel Associate Survey, the average associate gave their firm a score of 4.36 out of 5, up from 4.29 last year. Associates’ perceived likelihood of being at their firm in two years also rose slightly, and 32% said they felt morale was higher than last year (50% said it was the same). Talent shortages appear to have improved, too, with 10% fewer associates saying they felt their firm was too leanly staffed, compared to the previous year.
However, on other key metrics of personal and professional fulfillment, associate satisfaction is still moving in the wrong direction. The same number of associates said they felt depressed and anxious compared to 2021. As many firms push in-office work, more than half of associates said hybrid flexibility was decreasing their odds of burnout. Over three-quarters said their job at a law firm had significantly impacted their mental health, and 52% said they’d consider quitting for more work-life balance.
To come up with these results, Am Law asked midlevel associates to evaluate how satisfied they are with their firm on a variety of different questions: compensation and benefits; training and guidance; relations with partners and other associates; interest in and satisfaction level with the work; the firm’s policy on billable hours; and management’s openness about firm strategies and partnership chances. And what came up time and again in respondents’ answers? This year, work-life balance and mental health are in the crosshairs, and high billable hours expectations are to blame.
Asked what they would change about their firms and the profession as a whole, over 1,000 associates talked about the direct relationship between high billable hour expectations and poor physical and mental health. The more hours firms required associates to bill, the more the long hours and lack of boundaries made their lives worse.
“We can’t plan a workout, healthy meals, or even time off with friends when a client’s ‘emergency’ (nothing a corporate client needs is actually an emergency) could pop up unexpectedly and interrupt it,” said a Greenberg Traurig associate. “This leads to high stress, poor sleep, lack of exercise, and eating too much fast food and takeout. All those are going to have a negative impact on mental health, and no amount of wellness webinars or weekly emails with wellness tips are going to change that.”
Another area of concern for midlevels was the availability of hybrid or remote work arrangements. Of the 300 or so associates who raised this issue, almost all said that they enjoy the flexibility these opportunities offer, and many wanted even more flexibility. The call for associates to return to the office has been met with displeasure. Here’s just one example:
A McDermott Will & Emery associate remarked that the firm coincidentally stopped circulating a happiness survey at the time it started asking associates to return to the office. “Associate mental health is more important than trying to impress Jamie Dimon by forcing everyone back into the office,” the associate said. “You’re wasting our time and money, making us less productive and miserable, and there is no benefit to it.”
That said, let’s get down to the rankings. The full list is available here, but these are the firms that make the top 25 in terms of midlevel satisfaction:
- Paul Hastings
- McDermott Will & Emery
- Baker & Hostetler
- O’Melveny & Myers
- Gibson Dunn
- Snell & Wilmer
- Morgan Lewis
- Blank Rome
- Ropes & Gray
- Robins Kaplan
- Foley Hoag
- Clifford Chance
- Fried Frank
- Hughes Hubbard & Reed
- Winston & Strawn
- Akin Gump
- Goulston & Storrs
Congratulations to all the firms that made the list! And congratulations to the midlevels who have jobs they’re relatively happy with, all things considered.
Midlevels Dish on What Law Firms Are Getting Right—And Wrong [American Lawyer]
The 2022 Midlevel Associates Survey: The Rankings [American Lawyer]
Staci Zaretsky is a senior editor at Above the Law, where she’s worked since 2011. She’d love to hear from you, so please feel free to email her with any tips, questions, comments, or critiques. You can follow her on Twitter or connect with her on LinkedIn.