There’s an interesting online discussion between late-Gen-X Adrian Dayton and Boomer Scott Greenfield. Adrian, in Get Out of My Face, says, “Generation Y wants their life to mean something. They want to handle work that is significant, and they certainly don’t want to crank out the billable hours reviewing non-urgent documents on a Saturday afternoon just to line the pockets of the otherwise wealthy partners.” Scott, in
Get Off My Yard reply, says:
Contrary to Adrian’s understanding, law firms do not exist to provide jobs for young lawyers. They exist to provide legal services to clients. They hire associates in order to perform some of the work needed to provide these services, subject to the overview and approval of the partners of the firm. In the course of billing out the services of the employees, the partners seek to recover not just the salaries paid to these fine young men and women, but the fixed and variable
costs associated with the provision of services.”
They’re both wrong.* The law firm—by which I mean the law firm that Adrian and Scott are discussing, the firm that bills out its associates services by the hour—is not there to give young associates jobs, and it’s not there to provide legal services to clients. The law firm exists to make money for its principals. Providing legal services is a means to this end, but if it became possible for the partners to make money without providing services, they would. In this concern, the partners are management, so what are the young associates? The associates are not, as you might guess, labor, but rather capital—the oxen that drive the mill. The firm exists to turn the minutes of young lawyers’ lives into money.
Rule of thumb: associates are billed out at three times their salary divided by their expected billable hours. A new associate billing hourly works (approximately) a third of the year for himself, a third for his overhead, and a third for his partners. So, young lawyer, if you want to work at a firm that bills hourly for your time, and you want to reduce your work by a reasonable 1/3 (from 2100 billable hours a year to 1400, say), unless you find an “otherwise wealthy partner” willing to fund your lifestyle by taking a pay cut of her own pay you’re going to have to be willing to work for free. Even if you figure out a way to do a job in a third less time, your partners make less money, so you’d better be ready to be given fifty percent more work. Oxen live to work, so they don’t have much bargaining power. Especially not when management is perfectly happy to reduce capital (as on the self-indulgently named “Black Thursday“).
Adrian says, on behalf of Generation Y, that they’re not scared of management:
We can start our own firm, build our own company, or go work for someone that knows how to motivate us.
I approve of the first part. Starting my own firm (well, okay, “practice”; it was a couple years before it was an actual “firm”) is exactly what I did.
Build your own company? That’s great, but did you need law school to do that? Or did you just waste three precious years of your life?
Go work for someone that knows how to motivate you? I hate to break it to you, but if you don’t motivate yourself you’re going to be capital forever.
You want work/life balance, with an emphasis on “life”—working to live, not living to work. I get that. I’m a big advocate of lawyers being better lawyers by living balanced lives.
But you also wanted it handed to you on a silver platter, with a salary and benefits. That’s not likely to happen. So why subject yourselves to the whims of management? If you think you have what it takes, don’t threaten (threatening—”if you don’t hire me on my terms, I’ll just start my own firm!”—is so childish), just do. Go ahead, Generation Y lawyers, hang out a shingle.
Scott might say it can’t be done, that there is no way for anyone fresh out of law school to competently represent people. I’ll agree that at best it’s a tough row to hoe—much harder than the safe route of salaried employment. But things worth doing are not often easy or safe. I was able to do it, but I had certain necessary . . . endowments that most of you don’t share (and I’m not talking about money, though that helps too).
So most of you are doomed to fail miserably, leaving a trail of ruined lives along the way; many of you to succeed financially while selling your souls by destroying your clients’ lives; some of you to slog along for decades working too many hours trying to scrape out a living. Only a very few of you will find yourselves doing what you love, working for a boss who knows how to motivate you, helping people, making as much money as your family needs while having time to indulge your non-legal passions.
I did it; so can you (no, not you . . . you over there . . . no, in the next row . . . no, right next to you . . . yes, you!).
Then, once you’re there—once you’ve got the practice running right—you could create a work environment in which young lawyers like you once were can have the work/life balance they crave while you take on the extra work of running the show and making sure that everyone has enough work, and the extra responsibility of making sure that everyone else’s salary and overhead gets paid, while motivating them properly.
But why would you want to?
*You knew I was going to say that, right?