“Regional schools (such as Chicago Loyola) seem to be making partner at higher rates than the elite schools (such as Chicago).” So observes Indiana University Law Professor William D. Henderson in his March 17 post on The Legal Whiteboard. He continues:
“My good friend and provocateur Vivia Chen has posted a stir-the-pot column on the recent NLJ 250 Law School Hiring Survey. The title of the column, ‘Too Good for BigLaw,’ is classic Vivia, speaking to our fragile egos as people and lawyers. Reviewing the data on associates hired and partners promoted by law school, Vivia notes a significant shortfall in the number of elite law schools who become BigLaw partners. One theory, suggested by Vivia, is that elite law school grads must have better options. Regardless, the hierarchical nature of the legal profession may not be so neatly ordered after all.”
My perspective for the past 20 years has been that of sales coach to (mostly) AmLaw 200 partners. My long view is that Bill’s and Vivia’s discussion suggests that firms struggle with predictive capability, whether regarding lawyering skills or business-generation skills. They had zero success predicting which lawyers would respond to training, and it appears they haven’t done much better predicting which hires would succeed well enough to make partner.
I recall a conversation many years ago with the head of the associates committee at a top-15 NYC firm, who said, “I tell them the truth, i.e., statistically, any associate’s chances of making partner here are pretty slim, whether due to their decision or the firm’s. They should, therefore, consider this a place to get their ticket punched. If it turns out that they’re a great partner fit and want to be here, so much the better, but it’s not the way to bet.” This leader consciously urged a “Plan B” mentality because he felt that, statistically speaking, that was reality, and he’d be remiss not to.
From this and other exposure over 20 years, I conclude that BigLaw considered the high associate attrition rate acceptable. Despite some early development cost, firms were accustomed to having associates largely billable from a pretty early stage of career, and being hugely profitable from their 3rd or 4th years onward. If somebody left after 7-8 years, it was inconvenient, but not a disaster. After all, the firm had already made $3-4 million on each from the spread between billings and compensation. (Now that clients are no longer willing to finance associates’ early OJT, that attitude will likely shift.)
It seems that clients share firms’ law-school-brand bias. Otherwise, why would they ever have tolerated paying BigLaw rates for rookie lawyers who have no useful skills or experience? Clearly, they were betting on the come, i.e., that this Ivy-educated lawyer would some day grow up to be valuable to them. That would seem to make T14 associates inherently more billable, earlier. If you know you’re going to turn over 75% of associates within 6-7 years (or whatever the actual tenure-norms are), you want them billable as soon as possible. In such case, the benefit of the doubt goes to the T14 newbie.
BigLaw hiring- and development practices seem mired in a world that no longer exists, i.e., one in which firms and client relationships remain stable for decades, where one’s law school pedigree was as good a hiring criteria as any. Now, though, the “brushes with adversity” that Bill Henderson suggests elites lack, and the resiliency gained from such, may become very critical. The “BigLaw Lawyer” job description has changed a lot in the past four years, but nowhere near as radically as it’s yet to change as the “new normal” settles in. It appears that law schools, BigLaw hiring philosophy, and associate-management thinking all lag badly.
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