Recently, the New York Times published an article called At Well-Paying Law Firms, a Low-Paid Corner. In short, the paper is reporting that some very well known firms are hiring lawyers at cut rate prices (less than half) of what associates on partner track are making at the firm. And these cheaper resources are performing the same services as their partner-track colleagues. This feels like a recipe for disaster to me.
I’ve known a few people who have positions like this at firms. Their names and the firms they work for will remain nameless, however in this post. In each case, the lack of transparency of how this arrangement really bothers me as a client.
First, how do the firms determine which work gets assigned to which group of associates? And does it differ depending on how busy the firm is? If I hire a firm to represent me in a financing, are the folks doing the diligence (which really is the most important part of a financing, not the documentation) sometimes partner-track folks and other times not? Do the clients have a right to decide?
And how are the firms billing out for these lower-cost resources? If they bill the same, it feels like I’m getting ripped off. If they bill less, then my bill will reflect that I’m be represented by the lower-paid people. While I think many junior associates aren’t worth what they are paid (but it catches up later), one does normally get what one pays for. I refuse to believe there is no quality difference in an associate making $160,000+ and one making $60,000.
I worry about mentorship and training, too. What incentive does a firm have to really train folks that aren’t on partner track and might not stick around long term?
Lastly, I would propose the theory that camaraderie is important to the concept of the law firm. Clients hire partners at law firms, but also the firms themselves. This includes the firm culture and the knowledge that client teams traditionally are near each other physically, not in outpost office where some lawyers are making less than have of their other colleagues.
While the reason for this shift was to help with escalating billing rates, I’m still perplexed why lawyers and accountants are the only professions that every year raise their rates. It doesn’t fit with the rest of the economy or their clients. Perhaps instead of creating a group of second-class citizens within the firm, they should pay attention to some of the things I prescribed in my law firm 2.0 series.