Big Law Associates Don’t Have It Easy Despite Raises, Lower Hours


It’s true that Big Law associates have high salaries even as they billed fewer hours in 2023 than in previous years. But to say associates “never had it better than they do right now,” as a recent Bloomberg column argued, doesn’t tell the whole story. It’s like looking at the tip of an iceberg without contemplating what lies beneath.

Yes, average hours billed have fallen nearly 8% since 2021. What’s worth noting is that associate hours billed in 2021 were unhealthy and unsustainable—I’m aware of an associate who had a heart attack and returned to work four days later.

Last year’s average hours, a touch over 1,550, is low. However, it’s worth asking why. Is it because associates were slacking off or refusing work? There may be some cases where this happened, but the vast majority of associates I’ve spoken with were anxious to find more hours.

I’ve been an outspoken opponent of skyrocketing associate pay. By doing so, I’m arguing against my own commercial interest—as a recruiter who is paid a percentage of the compensation of the lawyers I place—because of the undue pressure placed on associates. Associates have told me they’re uncomfortable with the rising salaries as well, seeing them as a harbinger of more layoffs.

The raises themselves came from a broad social norming of firms after a first mover sets a new standard. Associates didn’t ask for them, they didn’t sit at the tables where firms decided, and they didn’t ask to be billed out at over $700 as first years. Imagine the intense stress that creates for them.

The premise seems to be that, because associates were billing fewer hours, they had fun extra time to ride their Pelotons and go to the movies. This completely ignores the profound stress associates were under as they saw their friends and colleagues being pink-slipped as they failed to make hours. This stress (and the general Type-A profile of many Big Law associates) led to many a late night and early morning plea to partners in their group for work, for more hours.

Associates, try as they might, are seldom able to bring in much work—and the onus isn’t on them to do so. For the most part, their contacts inside of companies aren’t senior enough to drive the company to switch law firms, and even those who are senior often work at companies that are too small and limited in budget to pay Big Law rack rates.

To suggest that associates worked less in 2023 also ignores the huge amount of non-billable work they did to try to stay in their firm’s good graces and not be asked to leave. It further ignores that associates—especially those at the junior end who went to Covid-impacted law schools—are desperate to build reputations in their field and to develop professionally.

The layoffs may not have been on the scale of what we saw in 2008 through 2010, but some firms are already on their third (quiet) round of them. Many of the associates impacted were those who failed the bar, and, painfully, those on immigration visas.For both of those groups, finding another job in this market is going to be exceedingly challenging.

Firms are simply not sponsoring visas unless there is some critical business reason, and those without the bar are going to lose the recruiting battle against someone who is still employed at their firm and has the bar.

Were lower associate hours in 2023 good for business? Absolutely not. Despite that, revenues increased 6% among 70 of the Am Law 100 firms. Profits per equity partner increased by more than 5%. Firms are doing just fine.

The suggestion that 2023 was a cakewalk for associates because of their high pay and low utilization is misleading, if not incorrect. Partners who have been begged for work will tell you that. And so would the associates who did everything right—graduating from top law schools, landing jobs at coveted Big Law firms—and yet who find themselves unemployed.


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