Law firm associates' job satisfaction down, survey finds

By Amanda Becker
Monday, September 13, 2010

Three reports released last week suggest that the law firm associates who managed to hold on to their six-figure paychecks during the downturn are unhappy, even as they bring in more money per hour for firms than ever before.

A survey of more than 5,000 third-, fourth- and fifth-year associates conducted by the American Lawyer revealed that the job satisfaction level of mid-level attorneys has dipped to its lowest point in the past six years. Of the associates surveyed at 124 firms, the satisfaction ratings at 109 dropped, with many associates citing less pay for more work in the post-recession environment.

Only 35 percent thought they had a long-term future at their firm -- a drop from the previous year, when about the same percentage of attorneys said they had "medium to high anxiety" about their position being eliminated and 9 percent more envisioned they would be at the same firm in five years.

Though associates cited lower compensation as one reason for their discontent -- likely attributable to dwindling bonuses -- the Association for Legal Career Professionals, in its annual survey of associate compensation, reported last week that entry-level law firm associate salaries, particularly those in large markets that included Washington, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, remained relatively stable between 2009 and 2010.

First-year associates at firms with more than 700 attorneys in those cities can still expect to bring home a median salary of $160,000 -- though there were some reports of firms dialing back compensation to $130,000 and $145,000 -- meaning entry-level paychecks will likely not surpass the record-breaking levels set in 2009 anytime soon.

Secondary legal markets, including Boston and San Francisco, were not able to sustain the salary jump associates received last year, and median annual compensation rests at $145,000.

As associate salaries skyrocketed, so did the rates at which firms bill their work out to clients, according to a report on billing rates during the economic downturn by CT TyMextrix and the Corporate Executive Board. Between 2007 and 2009, associate billing rates jumped 16.6 percent, compared with an 8.6 percent increase in the hourly rates partners charged clients. Among those associates, the rates of those with the least experience -- first- through third-year attorneys -- showed the highest increase, with hourly billing rates jumping 17.9 percent.

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