Before starting my own practice over two and a half years ago, I worked at several law firms. Some of the firms were doing well financially, others struggled either because of lack of work, administrative issues, or both. Working at a large law firm that is struggling financially can be a weird experience, both because of the pressure that finances place on firm employees and because the experiences of attorneys and staff at such firms are different than at other shops.
Perhaps most obviously, attorneys and staff at law firms that are struggling financially often have far less work than they do during normal times. Since it often takes a while for law firms to perform layoffs or otherwise reorganize their operations during periods of financial stress, people can sit idle for weeks, and even months, before something is done. One time, I worked at a firm that lost a major portfolio of work. As a result, dozens of attorneys and staff sat idle while firm management decided what they were going to do.
Although many of us had little to do, we had to come to the office early, and leave normally, with little billable work. The office became basically one big social club, in which people took long lunches, sat in each others’ offices chatting for hours, and just passed their time with little work. If there wasn’t a sense of dread hanging in the air about whether there would be layoffs, it would not have been a really unpleasant situation to be in. Nevertheless, and ironically, spending your days with little useful work to perform can be more painful than being busy with work since the days are longer and more boring, and this aspect of working at a firm that was struggling financially was not something I expected.
There are also significant interruptions in workflow at law firms that are struggling financially. At many large law firms, senior partners give work to junior partners, who in turn give work to senior associates, who then give work to junior associates. There are usually certain discrete tasks that belong to partners, like attending depositions and court hearings, and junior attorneys often complete the grunt work like with researching and drafting memos and conducting doc review. Administrative tasks are usually handled by secretaries and paralegals so that attorneys can stay focused on completing legal tasks that can typically be billed to clients at a higher billable hour rate.
When there is less work to do in an office — the cause of many firm financial issues — this workflow is interrupted. Partners start to hog work for themselves so that they can stay busy, and associates at the bottom of the food chain have the least amount of work to do. In many instances, junior associates may end up completing administrative work that is usually handled by secretaries and paralegals because there is simply no other work left to complete. This inefficiency can lead to problems since partners may not be as good at completing legal research and similar tasks as junior associates, and junior associates are typically not as good at completing administrative tasks as administrative professionals. Law firms should therefore try to avoid this breakdown in the workflow even if a firm is struggling financially since higher billing because more expensive professionals are completing tasks can strain client relations and make the financial situation at a firm even worse.
Another issue of working at a large law firm that is struggling financially is that this very negatively impacts the environment of working at the shop. Morale is down, and people have a feeling of dread over what will happen to their jobs and the firm because of financial issues. In addition, associates have to compete for smaller amounts of work in the hopes that keeping busy will save their jobs, which requires more office politics and brownnosing than usual. In addition, with more time on their hands than normal, attorneys and staff have little else than to gossip about the situation at the firm.
Sometimes, there is a weird kind of forced optimism about the firm. Attorneys and staff may convince themselves into thinking that things aren’t as bad as they are, and that they may not lose their jobs or suffer other adverse consequences because of the firm’s finances. Management may try to convince everyone that earlier efforts to “right the ship” have paid off despite all indications showing that a firm is still in a bad place.
All told, some people may think it is not too bad to work in a firm that is struggling financially since attorneys and staff have less work and more free time to use as they wish. However, working at a law firm that is struggling financially can be a miserable experience. Not only do attorneys and staff need to deal with more office politics and other undesirable aspects of working at a law firm, but the sense of dread that predominates a firm that is struggling can sour anyone’s work experience.
Jordan Rothman is a partner of The Rothman Law Firm, a full-service New York and New Jersey law firm. He is also the founder of Student Debt Diaries, a website discussing how he paid off his student loans. You can reach Jordan through email at firstname.lastname@example.org.