We wanted to respond to an article published recently in The American Lawyer, “Do Associates Know What They’re Really Being Paid For?” While we agree with some of the skills that the author highlighted as crucial to law firm associates’ long-term success—including the importance of attention to detail, conscientiousness and taking ownership of your work—we disagree with her overarching framing of associates’ position and value to a firm. While her perspective of the associate role may have been accurate in the past, we find it’s simply not the case for today’s associates—and firms that subscribe to this viewpoint may be in danger of losing top talent.
In firms today, associates want to work on meaningful projects that require more than just basic legal skills. They also want to feel that their strategic thinking and contributions are truly valued by the firm and by the partners with whom they work. They need their firms to see their long-term potential; to help them develop more complex client-facing skills (such as commercial acumen and business problem-solving); and to be part of teams that are addressing important and interesting challenges.
Millennials’ attitudes toward work, and their overall priorities, differ markedly from prior generations, and this has only accelerated during the pandemic. While young lawyers love what they do, they don’t want their job to define their life. They’re also not solely focused on making partner. Many want to move in-house, work in government or the nonprofit sector, run their own firm or practice, go into academia, or any number of alternate career paths. Even for those who do want to make partner, they need to feel that they’re a valued member of a team that does high-quality work for their clients. Making partner isn’t their only motivator, and they don’t want to be viewed as just another cog in the wheel.
Furthermore, this shift in mindset is even more prevalent amongst the next generation of associates. In Major, Lindsey & Africa’s Gen Z survey, 60% of respondents said they would like to have a fully flexible schedule, and 52% would even take a pay cut for geographic flexibility. The present demand for associate talent has emphasized the increasingly important role that they play.
Given that firm dynamics are changing and evolving, associates and partners must find a way to meet in the middle and work together toward a mutually beneficial future. This will ensure firms continue to be successful and keep younger generations engaged in the legal profession. In order to do so, partners need to focus on developing a culture of collaboration— both in terms of providing more hands-on direction in the day-to-day work, as well as providing mentorship and support to associates in achieving their long-term goals, whether or not those include making partner.
Partners should strive to have an open mind, stepping away from assumptions about what associates want and instead engaging in open conversations about how they can meet their deliverables while also having the flexibility to manage their own time. Through the creation of an environment in which this sort of dialogue is encouraged, associates should feel comfortable and empowered to view partners as resources and advocates for their professional development, rather than merely the person above them in a purely hierarchical professional structure.
Ultimately, it’s a two-way street: Both partners and associates need to be candid with one another about responsibilities and expectations, and both groups need to consistently demonstrate their commitment to fulfilling them. In today’s firms, partners and associates are increasingly acting like a team—and while partners are the team leaders, associates must also be valued for their strategic thinking and other attributes they bring. In doing so, firms will be able to foster more productive, positive workplaces that achieve not only high-quality results for their clients, but also incentivize their top associate talent and retain their next generation of firm leaders.