Does earning a biglaw salary mean that there is no room for my voice in the discussion on work/life balance?

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.



In the last two or three years, as associate salaries increased dramatically (from $120k to $160k in BigLaw markets just while I was in law school), I often heard declining retention as one explanation. If parnters and management were in fact increasing salaries to increase retention, then I think that was unbelievably short-cited.
First, longer hours are required to justified larger paychecks, further infringing on personal life satisfaction.  Second, bigger paychecks, if saved, translate to even fewer years to pay down the mortgage, save for kids' college, etc.
I think many young people choose law school and BigLaw paychecks because they're not sure what else to do and the opportunity cost of experimenting elsewhere is too high. But no matter how high the paycheck, eventually many of those people will find other applications for their legal training which suit them better.  The number who pursue careers outside BigLaw will only increase as firms require that personal needs be valued below professional ones.
So in response to Peg's question: whether or not these partners decided to increase salaries in an effort to quiet work/life murmerings isn't the point, because to disregard those concerns more counterproductive than addressing them.


Interesting post, especially since I'm a student and I feel like what firm partners tell me is often sugarcoated. I commented on your post on my blog.


and it is short sighted!
Remember that when starting salaries rise so do the raises given  to the junior and middle ranks…where most of the attrition is. I would estimate from working at 3 top tier NYC law firms that most of the departures are by attorneys who were there 2-4 years. The point of the salary raises isn't so much to attract new hires with them, but to retain the mid-ranking lawyers who would otherwise leave but say "aw gee another $20K). I agree the number of mid-tier attorneys who are actually influenced by this is minimal and IT IS short sighted for 2 reasons:
1. it is mainly single men who are influenced by it and I would argue that the retention of women especially once they marry and have kids is the biggest retention problem in terms of numbers (think of the % of new hires who are women!) So even if it does work for single men attorneys that does not solve the attrition problem for the firm.
 2. it totally misses the point that many of us would actually take a PAY CUT to get better hours (with the trade off being a tough thing to negotiate given the power imbalance but still). What we need are unions (call them what you will) to negotiate for new hires a pay structure than has a built in optional track of fewer hours for less money AND so that this doesn't affect our career prospects we need to let the non-unionists free-ride. So once the bargain is struck ALL new hires get that option. You should not need firm permission, if a large % of attorneys take the lower salary fewer hours track then the firm can't complain, they have the resources in saved salaries to hire more people.
The problem is that law students don't think far enough ahead to think that they're going to need this kind of union.

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