Every year American Lawyer conducts a Midlevel Survey finding out exactly what’s on the minds of third through fifth year associates in Biglaw. According to this breakdown of the results, they received *hundreds* of complaints about the toxic partners in Biglaw.
And even at firms where most of the partners were good to work for, the risk of a bad boss really impacts associates’ overall experience. Take a look at what some folks wrote about firms:
One Weil, Gotshal & Manges associate said the firm’s rotating assignment system means associates live in fear of being staffed on matters with bad partners. “When I am staffed with good managers I genuinely like my firm; it’s not perfect but the good people are amazing,” the associate said. “When you get a bad manager, it poisons everything. I was not prepared for the extent that a manager’s whims can dictate your life.”
“The excellent partners and other attorneys who are role models, mentors, and decent human beings do not cancel out or compensate for the partners who are terrible to work with,” said one Morgan, Lewis & Bockius associate. “The rotten few ruin what would otherwise be a great place to work.”
“Ropes & Gray is fantastic as an institution; however, the culture does not encourage partners to invest in associates and, as a consequence, we feel fungible and like we have no future at the firm, particularly when we don’t get timely, constructive feedback,” said one associate. “When we have no chance of becoming partner and are not getting good, informal training and professional development, it can be hard to justify staying.”
Alas, industry experts are report that firms by and large think those eye-popping lateral bonuses they’ve been dishing out mean they’ve already paid associates enough to deal with the bullshit:
“What I’ve been told by some senior partners at some big firms is that there’s a dire need for high-quality corporate associates and they’re paying to get them, so they’re not worried about the issue of whether the partners are too harsh with them,” said Dr. Larry Richard, who studies the psychology of lawyers and advises large firms on talent issues. “If they’re paying you a $100,000 signing bonus, firm leaders think that that should cover the harshness. That’s not the answer I’d like to hear or how I would counsel them, but that’s what I’m hearing from them.”
And even for firms trying to remedy their toxic partners, that work is not always visible to associates:
“It might be that the firm doesn’t value its associates very much, or it could be that they’re coaching the partner and continuing to hold out hope that the person will remedy their bad behavior,” [Law firm management consultant and former Orrick leader Ralph Baxter] said. “There’s an answer somewhere between the firm doesn’t care, they’re working on it and they haven’t been successful yet, and the partner has an offsetting benefit that causes the firm to tolerate their behavior.”
But the truth remains, toxic partners continue to be seen as a feature, not a bug at Biglaw firms. If firms are serious about keeping valuable associates, that’s something they need to work on.
Kathryn Rubino is a Senior Editor at Above the Law, host of The Jabot podcast, and co-host of Thinking Like A Lawyer. AtL tipsters are the best, so please connect with her. Feel free to email her with any tips, questions, or comments and follow her on Twitter (@Kathryn1).