WSJ Blog takes on work/life balance; will salary bump stem associate attrition?

In early December, the Wall Street Journal started a new blog, The Juggle, dedicated to work/life balance issues.  The tag line limits the discussion to “choices and tradeoffs people make as they juggle work and family,” and I’ll be curious to see whether the posts will continue on that line or whether they’ll broaden out to entertain other reasons for a juggling act.

One of the most interesting posts so far is More Money, Fewer Problems.  A first-year associate at a New York firm, who’s also the mother of a 16-month old child, apparently wrote the blog recently to share the effects of the recent bump in her salary to $160K: “That salary bump has significantly affected my thinking as to how long I will really stay at this job. It also, interestingly, for better or worse, made me feel better about getting home late last night. I felt that at least I was getting paid for it. And when I heard the news of the raise, my first thought was, OK — now preschool won’t be such a struggle to pay for.”  At the time of this writing, the post had generated 82 comments, many of which (not too surprisingly) criticize the “greedy associate” mentality.  Put on your seatbelt for this read.

The news about the salary escalation prompted me to wonder about its effect on associate retention.  No question that salary increases are necessary to keep large firms on a level playing field, and no question that associates benefit in some ways from those increases.  (I still remember my delight in making X in June 1999, X+11K in early January 2000, and X+11K+20K in mid-January!)  But I question whether money alone is sufficient to keep associates.

After all, if the pay is competitive among firms, wouldn’t an economically rational lawyer jump from one firm to another to retain the same pay (or to get the bump that often comes with a new position) and to search for a good fit?  (This assumes that the attrition stats, such as NALP’s report that 37% of BigLaw associates leave a firm by the end of the third year in practice, are valid and that the attrition isn’t driven solely by associates seeking more money.)  That leaves the associate in the same economic position (or, depending on perspective, with a new pair of golden handcuffs)  and the firms with significant attrition and the attendant costs.  I’ll be curious to see how this plays out, but I don’t think increasing salaries will promote retention, particularly given the increased expectations that firms will place on associates to fund the pay bump.

On this point, visit the Up to PAR blog for commentary about a recent ABA Journal article that reported “overwhelming” associate feedback that they’d take a pay cut to work fewer hours.  The post, titled Associates v. Partners v. Clients, effectively skewers those who argue that associates who bill fewer hours are less committed than those who work more.  (PAR’s rebuttal: “You have to be extremely committed to the law to try to be a lawyer while also meeting obligations outside the office.”)  Interesting ABA article, and PAR’s examination is even more interesting.

I have to note, though, that I don’t believe any one initiative will promote associate retention.  After all, not all lawyers do want to work fewer hours — and there’s certainly a tension even among those who’d prefer fewer hours when considering how much pay is necessary to maintain the desired standard of living.  So if the solution isn’t money or reduced hours, what is it?  Practicing law is unlikely to be a one-size-fits-all endeavor, and law firms may be hard-pressed to find ways to focus on client service and remain profitable while retaining associate “talent.”  Perhaps the future will allow firms and associates to cut individually-based deals that benefit both sides.  This is a trend that seems to be bubbling up now; if it’s successful, it could change the way firms operate.   More on this another day.

One final thought about The Juggle: I’m surprised that a couple of posts describing the experience of a professional caring for a parent (blog author Sara Schaefer Muñoz’s grandfather) attracted no comments.  I find it hard to believe that blog readers aren’t members of the sandwich generation, and I’m curious that this post, at least, didn’t stir up some reaction.

2 replies
  1. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    Currently four of my coaching clients are attorneys or “attorney related.” One new client is a workaholic attorney, single, who is uncomfortable being “home alone.” It stems from childhood issues but nevertheless plays out in his adult life. 36, works late into the evenings and on weekends as his office brings him a sense of “emotional holding”, a place he feels and says gives him a sense of worth and value, whereas at home he feels worthless and valueless and aimless. So, his office is his cocoon, his “home” in a way. He’s had alcohol issues, insomnia issues, relationship issues….his work-life issues.

    A second, 34, is driven to succeed. His family history includes lawyers and he is driven by this self-image that he has to be “super-lawyer” to please his family’s expectations. He admits that he is being self-destructive and is on the way to burnout or rustout. He’s looking to change employers and be more conscious about work-life balance.

    Both of the others (44 and 49) are married, with children, and are in unhealthy relationships with their spouses. Both just plain hate being home (for varied “reasons”?) and so they choose to spend more time at work. One is tending toward divorce. The other is working toward creating a healthier relationship.

    None of these folks says “money” is their primary motivator for the work lifestyle they have chosen.

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