Making it to midlevel in Biglaw isn’t easy — especially in the wake of a pandemic. First, you had to break into Biglaw (which can be quite difficult, especially if you didn’t go to a top law school or earn top grades). Next, you had to survive the high stress and long hours. Then, 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). Finally, you had to avoid layoffs while dealing with the return to the office in a post-COVID world, and all of the shenanigans that came along with it.
Phew! That was no easy task, 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, “measures to right the balance sheet don’t have to kill associate morale when firm leaders are transparent and willing to shoulder some of the burden themselves.” He goes on to explain that unfortunately, that hasn’t exactly been the midlevel experience at all firms:
Law firms are hounding associates on billable hours and getting stingier about expenses. Stealth layoffs are going unacknowledged, breeding panic and resentment among associate ranks. Sensing a labor market advantage, firms are reneging on flexible work policies that helped them land talent and prompted associates’ cross-country moves. At firms where there’s a general sense that things are getting worse, a lack of transparency around these and other decisions only fans the flames.
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, firm culture is in the crosshairs, and billable hours expectations amid a “minor recession” are to blame. It seems that many top Biglaw firms aren’t “passing the vibe check.”
Some of the law firms that took the biggest dives in associate satisfaction compared to 2022 dealt with financial struggles as the economy turned in the middle of last year. At Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft, which fell from 20th place in associate satisfaction last year to 52nd this year, several associates said the vibes around the firm got worse as the deal spigot ran dry.
“The firm culture has changed as the continued ‘financial crisis’ slows work down. Every penny spent is scrutinized,” said one Cadwalader associate. “I understand that it’s about the billable hours, but ‘what happened to everything else you valued during the busy times?’ is a question I ask myself lately.”
Cooley took a dive in the rankings—dropping from 22nd to 55th—and received an earful in open-ended responses from associates who noted the stark change in morale as hours dried up and layoffs began rolling through the firm.
“We preach ‘Be Cooley’ but that only applies when times are good,” said a Cooley associate. “When work slows, partners turn from being these ‘cool, fun’ people into rude, dismissive, cruel people.” Another associate said the firm’s attitude shifted from “we appreciate you” to “you are lucky to be here” after mass layoffs in late 2022. The firm also chafed some associates by strongly encouraging a return to the office—which some associates took as a mandate amid layoffs—after previously allowing remote work.
Another big rea of concern for midlevels was office attendance mandates. Everyone continues to enjoy the flexibility of working from home, but being forced to work from the office really put a damper on midlevel associates’ experience. The call for associates to return to the office has been met with great displeasure — especially because it seems to be all sticks and not enough carrots:
Midlevels are coming to terms with increasing office attendance mandates, although most were adamant that three days per week was plenty of facetime with their coworkers. Rather, associates’ biggest complaints around returning to the office were directed at firms’ lack of effort in making the office worth the commute.
“If you’re going to implement return to office, invest in workplace culture (more than free food),” said one Cooley associate. “We need time outside of billable hours to build teams and do professional development.”
That said, free food was enough of a carrot for a surprising number of associates.
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:
- O’Melveny & Myers
- McDermott Will & Emery
- Morgan Lewis
- Blank Rome
- Gibson Dunn
- Baker & Hostetler
- Proskauer Rose
- Paul Hastings
- Manatt Phelps & Phillips
- Goulston & Storrs
- Clifford Chance
- Hughes Hubbard & Reed
- Snell & Wilmer
- Winston & Strawn
- Fried Frank
- Munger Tolles & Olson
- Akin Gump
- Ropes & Gray
- Cahill Gordon
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.
The 2023 Midlevel Associates Survey: The Rankings [American Lawyer]
How to Kill Your Culture in a Minor Recession, According to Midlevels [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 and Threads or connect with her on LinkedIn.