Top Law Firms Create New Kind of Lawyer

Stand before a group of first-year law students and tell them that when they complete their studies, they are going to work for a top law firm in a major city; however, they will remain associates their entire careers and work for half the pay of partner-track associates. There was a time when such a statement would have fallen on incredulous ears, but not for these students. It's an all-too-possible and even attractive future. Introducing: a new kind of lawyer.

By Harrison Howe

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Jack (The Lawyer) is No Longer a Dull Boy

We're all familiar with Stephen King's warning, 'All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy'. This could easily apply to those in the legal profession, where young lawyers work long hours and carry huge workloads while visions of making partner dance in their heads. But as legendary singer-songwriter Bob Dylan would attest, the times they are a-changin'.

A growing number of law firms across the United States are adopting a program that allows those young lawyers to work more reasonable hours, travel less and be home more. And, of course, to make less. But for many, that's just fine. The work is still engaging, the pressure of hitting a specific number of billable hours is removed and, best of all, there's more time to spend with family.

These new kinds of lawyers are referred to as 'second-tier lawyers', 'career associates' or 'permanent associates', but no matter the title, they are all the same: a step above paralegals, a step below (at least in terms of pay and workload) partner-track associates. It's not, according to many, a bad place to be.

David Perry, a 2009 graduate of the Northwestern University School of Law and a current career associate, enjoys the lifestyle his job provides him. And Heather Boylan Clark worked as a partner-track associate for seven years before giving birth to her second child. A career associate position has afforded her the flexible schedule she needs. 'Now I'm always home for bedtime,' she said in a May 23rd article in The New York Times.

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Second-Tier Does Not Mean Second-Class

Top law firms employing career associates are quick to stress that clients are still getting the level of representation they expect when they seek counsel from a reputable firm. Career associates should not, they say, be compared to ad-hoc staff attorneys used by many firms in past years.

Some might be quick to assume these kinds of lawyers are, at best, second-class because of the locations in which they work. Some large firms are putting career associates in offices in smaller and more economically-depressed cities as a way to provide high-end service for those who cannot typically afford the rates of top law firms.

But within the firms themselves, career associates are not viewed as less-important or second-class employees. 'There are no second-class citizens at Orrick,' says Ralph Baxter, chief executive of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, a large firm with 1,100 lawyers and 23 officers around the world. Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe currently has 37 lawyers participating in its career associate program.

A Win-Win Situation

Are there drawbacks to this new program? A few, of course. For one, lesser salaries might seem unattractive to recent law school grads saddled with large loan debt. And in some cases, career associates might feel resentment toward potential partners, who are doing basically the same work for a lot more pay.

But for the most part, the increased freedom and decreased pressure surely seem to balance the negatives out. And the associates are not the only ones who benefit. Paying these second-tier lawyers less than half the salary of traditional partner-track associates and operating offices in less-expensive areas can save potentially millions of dollars a year for large firms.

In short, the career associate program being tried out by several firms across the country is simply a way of economizing. Other businesses have done what they need to do, including downsizing and cutting salaries, to survive the tough economic times of recent years; now, too, must the legal world.

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