In ‘After Times’, junior lawyers find an unexpected new power
Hiring emails started arriving in Allison Skager’s inbox the first week of her first job after graduating from law school.
Today, more than a year after she started as an associate in Crowell & Moring’s Los Angeles office, the inbox deluge still shapes her morning routine. When Skager logs on to start her work day from her apartment, she first suppresses a slew of headhunter inquiries.
Skager, who works in Crowell’s corporate and government contracts group, said she wasn’t really tempted, even though LinkedIn shows friends from other companies jumping from post to post. Yet the constant reminder of opportunity and the distance created by the pandemic made it hard not to question his choices.
“Am I in the best position for a career, for a future? Skager said. “Am I stupid not to consider more money, more prestige, or the promise of anything – mentoring, different areas of work?”
Skager’s situation reflects the unique position in which second-year partners at major law firms find themselves – who graduated from law school just months after the pandemic hit.
Many newbie lawyers are not just surviving the change caused by remote working, they are also making more money than ever, thanks to booming business demand and a booming recruiting market. A second-year associate at a large firm can now expect to earn up to a quarter of a million dollars in annual salary and bonuses.
Partners are using the leverage traditionally not afforded to lawyers at their level to raise their expectations of firms. Not just in terms of compensation, but also flexible working hours and work-life balance.
“Things are so competitive right now that companies would hurt themselves by forcing people back,” said Andrew Lang, a legal recruiter in Washington, DC.
“A new paradigm”
The past two years have ushered in a massive increase in corporate work in Big Law and sparked a feeding frenzy for talent at all levels.
There’s a lot of talk about the “big resignation,” but in Big Law, “it’s the opposite,” said Adam Oliver of law firm intelligence platform Firm Prospects. “People don’t quit because they burn out – companies throw money at them.”
“In the past, companies were less interested in hiring people in their first year,” Lang said. “It was taboo: if you couldn’t spend a few years in the company before deciding it was right for you, that was a bad sign. Demands have forced companies to be more flexible, so there’s more willingness to hire first-year students, as opposed to fourth- or fifth-year students.
Many companies rushed to match pay rises announced by Wall Street law firm Milbank in January, raising the salary of second-year associates to $225,000 under the new scale. They also handed out several rounds of bonuses, reaching $24,000 for second-year associates at big companies like Davis Polk and Cravath Swaine & Moore last year.
The influx of money leaves associates looking for other incentives to decide whether to stay or go, such as flexible work arrangements.
“I don’t want to dismiss all the horrible things that are going on, but we’re so lucky to start in a new paradigm of associates,” Skager said. “Right now, we’re not expected to be in the office five days a week, coming in at nine o’clock and leaving when the partners do. We start our careers with flexibility, control and a different approach to face-to-face time.
The partners told Bloomberg Law in interviews that they don’t necessarily want to be completely remote or completely in the office.
The lack of informal interpersonal interactions has been particularly frustrating, said Roy Abernathy, a Crowell associate at DC who works in the company’s antitrust and media groups and is a self-proclaimed extrovert. The company has taken steps to bring people together: Associates meet regularly with day one partners, and mentors and various employee groups take special note of new hires, he said.
For Abernathy, who recently moved from Gastonia, North Carolina, his peers in Crowell have become some of his first and closest local friends. Going to the office “feels like a treat”, he said, as he mostly works from home.
In 2020, Grace Fernandez graduated from Berkeley Law, passed the bar exam, and started a new job as an associate at Fenwick & West, all from her childhood bedroom in Phoenix. Now a second-year associate for Fenwick in Northern California, she said the learning curve has steepened during the pandemic. Without direct person-to-person interactions, even getting the answer to a simple question required more time and effort.
It can be particularly nerve-wracking to reach out to co-workers about remote mentoring and advice, where social cues and connections are clunky and hard to read, said Megan Hirsch, business litigation partner at the office. of Boies Schiller Flexner in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Some networking opportunities, however, have been easier. Skager said one of her practice groups is based in DC, and without remote work she would feel disconnected from the rest of the office. But with everyone in line, she arrived feeling no fear of missing out on what she expected.
“There’s no way to dress it up: we can’t have natural interactions,” Skager said. “Everything should be an Outlook invitation, researched, scheduled, and emailed.”
The disconnect from working remotely, coupled with high-stress work and general anxiety related to the pandemic, has made associates more aware of developing relationships in their company and taking time to unplug and relax, have they stated.
Its not always easy.
“When your work computer is entirely your home office, it’s hard not to immediately respond to emails when you see them,” Skager said. Before, maybe I had an automatic barrier when I left the office, but how can we get it? »
Associates said their companies are not ignorant of stress and burnout. But while the companies offer everything from resource groups to happy hours and virtual escape room events, they have provided few details on concrete steps to get associates to unplug when asked for specifics.
Crowell & Moring sent out an FAQ aimed at senior associates and partners with information and advice on best practices for working remotely and how to avoid associate burnout, Skager said. Fenwick & West and Boies Schiller also offered a variety of more casual team engagements, like virtual escape rooms, magic shows and cross-disciplinary luncheons, Fernandez and Hirsch said.
Socializing hasn’t really been a problem for Pablo Hernandez-Romero, a business law partner at Goodwin in Boston. There has been near-constant construction going on at his apartment recently, so going to the office a few days a week throughout the fall was a no-brainer, he said. He saw the office space come back to life, little by little.
“It’s fun to see things change in the office, to see people come back,” he said.
This transition taught him a valuable lesson: show up, whether on Zoom or in person.
“That means showing up to events, group zooms, trainings, town halls, coffee breaks, water cooler times, trivia parties,” Hernandez Romero said. “I’ve been lucky to have opportunities presented to me just by showing up. It opens doors.”
Is the money enough?
It is unclear whether these initiatives are sufficient for companies to retain sought-after associates.
“There are no personal ties that hold people back in companies,” said Firm Prospects’ Oliver. “When Kirkland says ‘hey, join us, we’ll write you a check for $150,000,’ it’s hard to say ‘no’ to that.”
Julian Sarafian is a former associate of Wilson Sonsini who left Big Law in December 2020 after his mental health plummeted during the pandemic.
Since then, he has become a mental health advocate, amassing a massive following on social media. Sarafian has been widely critical of Big Law for its treatment of employees, citing overwork and lack of boundaries as key issues leading up to the pandemic.
He said efforts like those cited by the associates are a good start, but also called them “a band-aid for the real structural changes that need to take place,” like real billable hour limits and clearer delineations between work and free time.
“What holds mental health hostage is professional expectations,” Sarafian said. “You can have as many happy hours as you want, but if you don’t have the mental capacity to pause and disconnect, and if you don’t have a ton of passion or connection with the business, which businesses don’t do well with – people will burn out.
Sarafian agreed that associates seem to have more power than ever before, but he wondered if that would lead to meaningful adjustments to the system.
The greater power of associates just means they have options as to where they would like to run out, he said.