Respect for Associates

Ben W. Heineman, Jr., and David B. Wilkins pen a must read article in the American Lawyer entitled "The Lost Generation?"  The authors present a compelling argument as to why, despite ever increasing associate salaries at big firms, retention rates are plummeting.  Among the factors they cite:

  • Too much drudge work
  • Large teams and too little individual responsibility
  • Little opportunity to see the big picture
  • Inadequate time for communication between partners and associates
  • Unwillingness of corporate clients to take risks

What caught my eye, however, was this observation:

    The answer is not late-night dinners from The Palm on silver servers. It is a stimulating, mind-expanding experience at the beginning of their professional careers that treats associates as adults, gives them responsibility, and, most of all, communicates the intellectual and practical excitement of confronting the significant issues that the best partners enjoy.

    At least according to these authors, it sounds like what may be missing is "Respect for People."  In other words, rather than being cultivated as professionals, associates are treated primarily as variables in the billable hours equation. Respect for people, of course is the fundamental philosophical foundation for any lean enterprise.

    Solutions? The authors recommend loaning of associates to corporate clients and public agencies, more time for pro bono work, and more focus on professional development.

    I would add that firms should ask themselves some uncomfortable questions. On important matters, how often are junior members given the opportunity to contribute meaningfully? How often are they part of transforming internal business processes?

    While law practice has the potential for drudgery, it's no worse than in manufacturing? If Toyota can retain line workers for their entire careers, surely law firms can find a way to keep associates satisfied and productive too.

    D. Mark Jackson

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