Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Generation Gap

There is a pretty good article on this month's California Lawyer magazine about why women continue to leave large law firms even though there is gender equality in law schools these days. Unfortunately it is not free online or I would link to it.

While I agree that there is a gender gap and it is unlikely to go away any time soon, I think there is a bigger issue here and that law firms better start taking note sometime soon. I think that the generation gap between the work ethic of baby boomers and that of gen x'ers (and even more so gen y'ers) is going to require firms to step back from the Just Keep Upping The Billable Hours And Throw A Bonus At The Associates business model that has been in place for at least the last decade. When I started practicing in Dallas in 1997 the norm for hours requirements in big firms there was 1800, with several firms still around 1700. The partners changed that dramatically with the "Brobeck raises" in the late 1990's, and they've been trying to gradually increase hours ever since.

My hours requirement is now 2100 (100 of which may be creditable but non-billable hours). I have decided, reasonably I think, that I don't want to spend the rest of my life with pressure to make billable hours hanging over my head. Any vacation I take, I'm thinking about how I'll make up the hours. If I'm sick, I have to worry about making up the hours. Doctor's appointment? Gotta make up those hours.

To exacerbate the issue, law firms are hiring their efficiency consultants, who tell them that in order to maximize hours billed, they should hound their attorneys to always enter at least 8 hours a day. In theory, maybe a good idea, but in practice, absolutely horrible. The last thing that a transactional attorney who has been putting in 14 hour days for a couple of weeks on a big closing wants to hear is that the firm has "unaccounted hours" for them because the day after the closing they didn't enter some (fictitious?) 8 hours for that day. It is horrible for attorney morale and I'm not sure that firm management has a grasp on the way this sort of micromanagement of supposed professionals really alienates the younger generations.

I'm not sure what the right answer is. The California Lawyer article posits that one thing firms could do to retain gen x and gen y female attorneys is to set up real flex hours or part time schedules that are still partnership track and actually promote part-timers to partner. Under the current model though, that is really unlikely to happen. So instead, many of us will walk away. And the baby boomer partners who worked their way up with 1600 billable hour requirements and a more determined work ethic may never understand why they cannot retain younger generation associates who are being asked to bill 2100 hours per year and whose main priority in a healthy balance between work and personal life.

The last paragraph of the article nails it:
"It takes the baby boomers saying we don't have all the answers," says Arin N. Reeves, founder of the Athens Group based in Chicago, which studies generational issues in law firms. "You can't hold on to the way it's always been. If you want to hire people of the younger generation, you'll have to change the institution."


Anonymous said...

The problem is that in this business, the profit is all on the margin. And we're all competing for work with the freaks who don't mind working 2500+ hours/year.


Transplanted Lawyer said...

I think the wave of the future is flat-fee billing, at least at the level I'm working at. Big Law will change slower than boutiques, but there's no theoretical reason a big firm can't provide services for a flat fee and thereby reward efficiency and competence as the metrics of excellence instead of punctuality and endurance. But shifting the business model from hourly to project-based billing will require a significant amount of ground-up rethinking, which many managing partners lack the vision to do.

Anonymous said...

there's no theoretical reason a big firm can't provide services for a flat fee

No reason they can't, but they don't want to compete for commodity work. Then they're up against people working from their houses who don't have to recover the overhead of fancy downtown offices. They'll avoid the commodity work, and angle for the high-end stuff.


Anonymous said...

Another career option?