To Bridge the Gap Between Partners and Associates, These Aspects of Law Firm Culture Are Critical


To anyone who has worked in a law firm, it likely comes as no surprise that partners and associates have a difference of opinion on a range of workplace issues. The data backs this up and shows some of these variances to be very striking, indicating that some traits – like transparency, work-life balance, and succession planning – are not just mere differences of opinion for firms to monitor. In fact, according to Major, Lindsey & Africa’s 2023 Law Firm Culture Survey, 74% of attorneys who made a move said the culture of their new firm is more aligned with their personal values. Therefore, in order to retain their top talent, firms need to be proactive about building a culture that their entire team can get behind.


According to the results of Major, Lindsey & Africa’s 2022 and 2023 Law Firm Culture Surveys, the subjects of transparency, well-being/work-life balance, profit mindedness and success planning are four aspects of law firm culture about which partners and associates have notably different perceptions.




While associates generally feel positively about transparency, their level of positivity did not come close to that of partners. Since associate compensation levels are well-known, with the standard set annually by prominent firms, it stands to reason that this discrepancy may stem from the fact that compensation is low on the priority list for associates, who tend to focus more on work-life balance. When it comes to a matter of priority, associates are more focused on the firm having policies that support their personal well-being.


One possible avenue firms could explore to keep tabs on emerging issues among associates is an internal associates’ committee, where associates can meet to discuss issues and views on matters within the firm and the process to partnership. Concerns raised within these committees — once understood, discussed and ripened — could be presented to management for redress. Another possibility might be to host periodic town halls, or special town halls whenever management anticipates an adverse event or adverse business conditions might lead to layoffs at some point. Finally, firms should make sure they are fostering active mentoring relationships. A good mentor can offer management’s perspective to the mentee associate and share with fellow partners issues percolating amongst the associates that they may not yet have heard about, putting management in a position to be proactive and to develop and have an appropriate reaction.


Well-being and work-life balance


In the 2023 survey, 60% of associates (but only 32% of partners) ranked having policies that support well-being and work-life balance as something they would like to see more prominently reflected. This discrepancy results from the different positions and perspectives of partners and associates. Partners, through years of experience, in good times and bad, know what it takes to successfully service clients, build, or extend a reputation/brand, in a highly competitive environment and generate the level of profitability needed to achieve their goals. Moreover, as stakeholders in the firm, partners have a vested interest in the firm’s long-term growth and success.


Associates, on the other hand, have no long-term attachment to their firms. And history and recent surveys make clear that many associates don’t aspire to become partners in their firms or even stick around beyond the time it takes to pay off student loans or accomplish other near-term financial priorities. Partners know this. And while partners and law firms usually seek to do good by their associates, doing good sometimes has to take a backseat to doing excellent client work.


It is not that partners don’t value their associates or their self-care needs, but more that successful lawyers and law firms understand the competitive landscape. Thus aware, they don’t like to risk hard won client relationships because, once lost, the relationship may be gone forever (and the firm’s reputation diminished as a result).


To cushion the impact of inevitable stress and extended hours (nights and weekends) on lawyers’ physical and mental well-being, firms could offer benefits or rewards that help to reduce stress and induce relaxation. In several recent articles, associates underscored the importance of the simple act of acknowledging them as individuals with varied interests, not just grunts doing a job. In this regard, partners can express empathy on occasions where a planned vacation or family event is suddenly cast into doubt by a crunch deadline. And, where possible, partners should make every effort to avoid these crunches when they’re aware of an associate’s personal plans. A policy limiting after-hours and weekend communications, as one major AmLaw firm has adopted, could also afford associates space to detach and decompress a bit from the constant buzz of work-related issues. And the old-fashioned act of taking a favorite associate or mentee, or several of them, to lunch on occasion is still a great way to reaffirm the common bond and sense of community, particularly in this era or remote work.


Profit-mindedness and succession planning


When it comes to firms being profit-minded, partners rank this trait higher in priority than associates do. While law firm profit-mindedness may be the culture trait about which respondents feel most negatively, it is something every lawyer thinks about. Case in point: In response to a question in Major, Lindsey & Africa’s 2023 Gen-Z survey that asked, “What would make you stay in BigLaw long term?” respondents indicated the top two factors would be highest market salary and opportunities for advancement. In other words, Gen-Z lawyers want to increase their status and be well paid.


Interestingly, the data also indicates that succession planning is a topic that inspires more negative feelings among associates than partners – a notable data point given that succession typically occurs between partners. The number of recent layoffs we’ve seen may play a role here: Many junior attorneys have not had a proper amount of time to develop their practice or opportunity to enhance their skillset. Firms that are profit-minded saw this as a cost saving initiative to give more work to the associates that survived the layoffs, and partners saw it as a way to better ensure the development of the surviving associates. However, now there are even fewer associates in line with the opportunity to rise in ranks, prove themselves, and inherit the future workload, and oftentimes those associates express low morale.


Furthermore, associates, now more than ever, are less loyal to the idea of going to a firm early on in their career and staying put all the way until they make partner. Regardless, they still want to be respected and well compensated for their work. But associates have explained that if they were to express their views on not wanting to make partner, the current junior or senior partners may think they take their work less seriously, even though the quality of their work product remains high. Associates may be prioritizing family life and personal wellness, but this does not affect their quality of work. Regardless, those who express a desire to become a partner are more likely to naturally inherit work or clients from a current partner.


Another reason for associate concerns with succession planning could be that they may not see it happening at their firm, meaning the most senior lawyers aren’t moving on or retiring. This may create some frustration among associates who want to take on more responsibility but are unable to do so.


The trap firms should avoid here is fostering the impression that there is only one way to do things. Current associates understand there are many ways to be successful and not all of them require the level of sacrifice the path to partnership sometimes entails. To show the firm’s sensitivity to the issue, a firm could periodically profile partners who’ve ascended from non-traditional paths (i.e., other than partners who joined the firm out of law school and rose through the ranks). This would communicate that the firm welcomes and values (and that clients benefit from) partners from a variety of backgrounds.


There is no uniform solution to getting partners and associates on the same page about big-picture issues. But the data shows that there are certain issues that stand out more prominently as showing a serious difference of opinion among these two groups. Recognition of these areas, and creative and proactive problem-solving on how to narrow the divide on them, will be critical in making sure that firms are able to maintain a vibrant culture that keeps their best attorneys satisfied, happy, and engaged with their work.

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