Does earning a biglaw salary mean that there is no room for my voice in the discussion on work/life balance?
By Peg Johnston • January 16, 2008•Firms and the Private Sector
I had the chance today to engage some law firm partners and others in a discussion about worklife balance. The focus of the discussion was whether or not law firm management should listen to the concerns of law students and young associates when determining business practices and trying to attract and retain women attorneys.
A funny thing happened. The partners kept bringing the discussion back to the fact that I, and others like me, now earn(ed) $160,000 as first year associates at big law firms. When I said to one person that I wasn't talking about money and that I didn't understand why the conversation had to keep returning to that issue she said to me, "it is what it is, associates make decisions about where to work based on money."
I understand that the business of law at firms is just that -- a business. I understand that partners are in it for the money and that the bottom line (or NIPP) is everything to big firms. However, what I think that they don't understand is that it is not all about money for everyone. Here are the facts for me and others like me: I accepted a summer position with my firm when the starting first year salary was $135K. They increased it to $145K before the summer even began. Then, they increased it to $160K before I graduated from law school. I got three raises before I even started!! Looked at in a vacuum, that doesn't make good business sense. However, when recruiting, retention, and reputation are factored into the highly-competitve environment within which law firm decisions are made, it makes a little more sense. The fact is that I would have gone to work for my firm if none of those raises came about. When I decided to summer there, my decision was also to go there after law school and stay for as long as they'll have me. Now, don't get me wrong -- I like the money. I only considered law firms at the top pay scale when looking in the first place. However, I do not think that the fact that the competitive nature of law firms forced my firm to raise starting salaries should be held against me when discussing the subject of work/life balance and the mission of increasing the representation of women in firm leadership.
The bigger issue is that women should not be excluded from the debate on work/life balance because of how much money they make. However, I am convinced that this is what's happened. Partners are so angry about that 160K number that they are unwilling to see associates as anything but money-hungry leeches. This mindset is keeping firm management from input from the very people that may have the desire, energy and incentive to fix the problem -- associates. I certainly don't think the existing partners/managers at firms, the ones that would view associate input as "whining", and the ones that made the decision to increase starting salaries to the "hush money" level, will be the ones to effect real change.