Midlevel Associates Are Content but Curious About Their Futures

Midlevel associates in Big Law are as happy as ever. It seems the only thing that could make them happier is a peek behind the curtain.

Associates in their third, fourth and fifth years gave an average composite score of 4.27 out of 5 on our annual Midlevel Associates Survey, a slight increase from 4.26 in 2017. That number has been on the rise for several years, though gains were incremental this year and last.

More than 5,000 associates from Am Law 200 and Global 100 firms completed this year’s survey. Associates gave scores of 1 to 5 in a dozen categories, and more than half of the category averages remained unchanged from 2017 to 2018. Midlevels continue to find their work interesting and satisfying, with average scores of 4.47 and 4.37 in those categories. And asked to score their workplace overall, they gave an average score of 4.37.

The category with the highest average score was associate relations, at 4.57, even though that was the only category where average associate satisfaction decreased, from 4.59 last year.

The greatest increase in associate satisfaction was in management openness, where the average score went from 4.02 to 4.07. Still, the average score for that category remains the second-lowest, next to communication about partnership, on which midlevels gave their firms an average score of 3.71.

“It used to be that if you just worked hard and you were a good citizen, you would make partner,” says Ru Bhatt, managing director of the associate practice group at Major, Lindsey & Africa. But now, other factors like the ability to develop business are a part of the equation, and that can be tricky for someone without the partner title.

Wanted: Clear Expectations

There’s another reason firms avoid providing a checklist for aspiring partners, Bhatt says: They don’t want to make any promises. If an associate were to follow all the steps and still come up short of partner, that would cause bigger problems, he says.

“Firms have to be somewhat murky in that process because obviously it’s opening up another can of worms,” Bhatt says.

Finding Balance in Big Law

In their plea for work-life balance, associates aren’t just asking to work less. What they really want is predictability in their schedules, Bhatt says. That’s difficult in a service-oriented business, he says, but something as simple as encouraging remote work can make a big difference.

“Associates understand they need to work very hard. The flexibility to do it from wherever they are is what they’re looking for,” Bhatt says.

Additionally, Bhatt notes, the current midlevel associates entered law school after the recession took hold, and are aware that law firms can and will cut jobs when economic conditions call for it. So they want more in life than their work, and they want their employers to understand that.

“I’ve had associates, when they were trying to decide between several firms, come to me and say, ‘I want Firm A because they were the only firm that asked me what I like to do outside the office,’” he says.

Investments in associate salaries and benefits are less about making midlevels happy than about recruiting top-notch law school graduates, Bhatt says.

“Law firm talent is always going to be created at the junior level. That’s where you can cultivate that talent and it needs to be nurtured,” he says.

Rates Up, and Hours Too

“The salaries have gone up quite a bit. Firms do have to recoup that cost. The higher billing rates do play into that,” Bhatt says.

In addition, firms are increasingly asking their associates to specialize earlier in their careers, Bhatt says. That allows them to charge more for the associates’ time.

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