America's Young Corporate Lawyers Are More Miserable Than Ever

The relentless focus on profits at America’s biggest law firms is taking a huge toll on young lawyers, Steven Harper argues in his new book “The Lawyer Bubble.”

Harper points to a 2007 American Bar Association study finding lawyers at firms with more than 100 attorneys reported being the least satisfied with their work.

Another study called “After the JD” tracked 4,500 lawyers and found many big-firm lawyers from top 10 schools didn’t like what they were doing. After just two years on the job, 60% said they expected to leave within two years.

Here’s Harper’s theory on what might be making these lawyers so miserable.

Many people go to law school because they want to become high-power trial lawyers. But big corporate law firms have become so focused on profits they don’t take the time to train attorneys and give them a chance to step inside a courtroom.

Instead, new lawyers face intense pressure to log as much time as possible working for clients, which pay by the hour. (This “billable hour” pressure got a lot worse after The American Lawyer magazine started ranking Big Law firms in the 1980s, Harper says.)

The firms themselves often take on huge cases or deals that can be incredibly lucrative but soul-sucking for the legions of young lawyers working on them. From Harper’s book:

 As for their daily tasks, most big-firm attorneys spend the vast majority of their time on small slices of large cases or transactions. Those matters can be financially lucrative and professionally rewarding for the firm’s senior partners, but junior attorneys often feel little connection to an overall mission.

One first-year Big Law associate we interviewed described one of his primary tasks — document review — as “the most boring experience of your life, but strangely nervewracking.”

High pay — the biggest law firms still start associates at $160,000 — isn’t enough to make lawyers happy.

In fact, Harper writes, “a disturbingly large number” of young lawyers would acknowledge their money hadn’t bought happiness. He continues:

Some would relinquish a portion of their income to work less and achieve a more balanced life, if they thought that option was available to them. For many, their work remains a persistently depressing experience, largely because it seems unfulfilling, unrelenting, or both.

The ailing legal industry has made life even worse for some lawyers recently. While the industry has rebounded a bit since the recession, many law schools still have abysmal employment rates for new grads.

It’s just not as easy for lawyers to get jobs as it was before the recession. Those who are lucky enough to find a job might feel stuck there — even if going to work makes them sad.

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