So-Called Second-Tier Lawyers Relish New Options

They’re not paralegals or interns.  They’re not summer associates.  The new “second tier” lawyers work hard and, well, I guess you could say that they “play” hard–or have a full social or family life, too—now that they have more time, that is.   The newest group of lawyers in firms these days are full-fledged lawyers who’ve opted out of the fast-track to partnership and “first tier” pay.

These new lawyers are partly a reaction to the new legal landscape, and partly a response to the new generation of lawyers who seek to balance work and life with a little more equanimity.

The Law Blog in the Wall Street Journal a few days ago reported this trend, explaining how, for years, law firms had been trying to figure out a way to become more flexible with their pay and promotion structure for associates.   In a nutshell: “Why pay every associate $160,000 and higher to bill at least 2,500 hours when plenty of associates would be happy to make, say, $60,000 and work a more reasonable schedule, even if they have a nary a dream of making partner?”

And the movement seems to have caught on.  A New York Times piece today mentioned a “low-paid corner” at many of the nation’s well-paying law firms when referring to these positions. In addition to stripping second-tier lawyers of pay and prestige, these jobs don’t fall under the professional category of traditional associate jobs.

What happens is that many associates who can’t find regular jobs at large firms settle for the reduced pay—as much as half of what a traditional associate would be making.  Yet these second-tiers are making the most of such a position.   As one 29-year old who recently accepted a non-partner track position at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe said: “To me there’s not much of a difference between what I’m doing now and what I would be doing in a partner-track job.”

This lawyer felt he was doing “high level” type work, such as writing briefs, prepping witnesses for hearings and visiting client sites. He did, however, admit to keeping all options open.

This new lawyer is one of 37 at Orrick who were hired to participate in the new program.

The 50-year-old business model for top firms has shifted in an effort to economize while continuing to provide upscale legal services to esteemed clients.

One large benefit to this sort of work-style is that families can come first again in a lawyer’s life. “Besides making less, these associates work fewer hours and travel less than those on the grueling partner track, making these jobs more family-friendly,” notes the Times piece.

It’s been rumored, too, that this sort of arrangement has prevented jobs from going off-shore.

The downside?  Although the lucrative partner-track is not an option, these second-tier lawyers still have to cope with massive school debt. And it’s not inconceivable to believe that there might be some resentment among those who work alongside associates who do exactly what they’re doing, and make twice as much.

Supposedly the genus of this idea came about when firms did not want to back down from exorbitant billing rates. So they did what some manufacturers have done in a similar predicament (those with union contracts that stipulate certain pay for their workers). They created a new tier of lower-paid workers, and this lowered the rapidly escalating rates. These “career associates” or “permanent associates” still earn a good salary at $50,000 to $65,000, when you consider the cost of living where these positions are popping up.  “These nonglamorous jobs are going to nonglamorous cities,” we read in The Times.

According to one financial expert, such reduced posts could save a firm $6 million to $10 million annually.

The bottom line seems to be that it fills a need for both sides.  Ms. Boylan Clark, a graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law, was on a traditional Bigfirm lawyer path until she had her second child. After that, she changed tracks.  “I’m not killing myself to be hitting specific numbers of billable hours in any given year,” she says. “Now I’m always home for bedtime.”

To read more, go here:

http://blogs.wsj.com/law/2011/05/24/second-tier-associates-who-are-decidedly-not-second-tier/?KEYWORDS=Law+Firm+Billing  

and here:

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/24/business/24lawyers.html?pagewanted=2&_r=2&hp

-EM

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