The Trouble With First-Year Associates

Matthew Richardson Columns, Lawyer 7 Comments

A new Wall Street Journal article found a high number of corporate clients refusing to pay for first or second-year associate work. There were a couple of ideas thrown out as to how to solve this. One of them relating to adopting a UK-type apprenticeship program. I hate the British, and I don’t like the idea of us doing anything they do. Isn’t that why we drive on the right and put our door handles on the right?  I figured I’d throw my hat in the ring with a few foolproof ways to solve this problem. Yes, I agree it’s a problem. First-year associates are almost entirely worthless, except for the attractive ones.

1Cut first-year rates to something commensurate with skill level. If minimum wage at McDonalds is $6.00 an hour and first-year associates get billed out at $350 an hour, there’s gotta be a happy medium in there. Since a first-year at a big firm knows nothing more than a first-year at some crappy med mal shop—or worse a first-year document reviewer—maybe something like $100 an hour seems about right. Of course, partners will then take in less profit and cancel their country club memberships, so this is probably unrealistic.

2Bill these corporate clients more. If they want mid-level, they can have it, but it’s gonna cost them. By my calculations, on a month-long transaction, if you replaced two first-years with two fifth-years who bill out at $600 an hour instead of $350, that’s $250 extra per hour per person. So $500 an hour for the upgrade, multiplied by 200 billable hours for that deal (easily could be more). It’s an extra $100,000 dollars. Yay, corporate clients, you just got fleeced by your own law firm because you asked them to.

3Make the summer program less dining and more learning. I hate to say it (and I hate to agree with the Brits with their apprenticeship ideas) because I used to thrive on those fancy dinners and drunken female summers, but as firms, we are basically wasting a 10-week window with second and third-years where we could train the shit out of these eager beavers who are in full-on study mode. I’ve never understood this. The firms have all the leverage from day one, yet act like if we don’t show these summers the time of their life they are going to take their business elsewhere. Change the name to Summer Training Sweatshop program too so they all know what they’re getting into. Yes, they should only be paid minimum wage, too.

4For once, make partners teach us something. A lot of blame for this should be directed at lazy middle-aged partners who want nothing to do with first-years and leave all the direct contact to midlevels. Partners are the ones who know everything about deal structure. Hell, it comes easy to them. Midlevels like me have often bullshited their way to their current position and stammer their way through any explanation of how it all works. Partners can and should take a few hours a week sitting down with the first years and telling them what’s going on. It would also let first-years know you give a shit about them and perhaps create a better atmosphere at the firm. Nothing worse than being a first-year associate working your ass off on a deal and not having any idea what the actual deal is. “I just make the binders” is not exactly worth $350 an hour.

5Have the first-years go to the client after the deal is done—and be a free intern for a month. The law firm still pays the first-year associate but the corporate client gets to feel like it get its money’s worth. The client can teach them some corporate stuff or just make them get egg sandwiches for everyone. Or ride them around like donkeys until they feel they’ve worked off their debt. Problem solved.


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  • evil lawyer

    Partners have no intention of “teaching” indolent, over sexed, underworked associates how to do the deal the partner spent years learning. I suppose you want to know the best bars, scotches, clubs and the inside line on all the judges too? Hey why don’t I just move aside and let you sit in my office?

    Associates continue to “feel” they are entitled to learn the inside track in a plush conference room , over a catered lunch by partners as fecklessly indifferent to client deadlines as associates.

    There are stock traders like that: they won’t learn the market: they want to know the inside “secrets from a book or seminar, so they can hurry out to a bar. Never mind their own work.

    If you associates want to know how to get ahead,how to learn, how to by pass your indolent, lazy, coddled, moronic peers who think the EEOC has classified work aversion as a disability, here’s how: go offer to help without billing on a deal or case. Go right to the senior associate at lunch and ask questions. get copies of memos and motions and read them–on your own time. Ask to sit on on meetings–without billing. In other words LEARN, don’t wait to be taught. If you understand this, you don’t need more from me. If you don’t “get” what I am saying, you’re either not ready to learn or you’re a hopeless drone that will always be “waiting for an assignment.”

  • Alma Federer

    The main function of new female associates at large law firms, it now seems, is to provide a sexual / titillation outlet for the balding male partners. That is disgusting. One would think that with all of free cash being generated at the firms, the partners would go outside (i.e. to the local strip joints) to find women to have sex with. However, it seems these men really want the young pretty associates who would never look at them when they were in law school. So now, 30 years later, they are screwing women who are young enough to be their daughters, and in today’s world, the women do not mind letting this happen, as the job provides the kind of disposable income that permits them to live well in NYC. This is DISGUSTING.

    • Evil Lawyer

      Well duh, what is the proper function of a 20ish reasonably attractive female associate?

      (a), suck up money being hired and trained so just as they get useful, they marry and leave every other year on maternity leave? (b), bring in big clients impressed by her deal-making skills she learned in a sorority? Or (c), provide some eye candy for the working lawyers (and maybe an affair or two), till she leaves on maternity leave never to return?

      If you picked (c) you’re close.

      Balding male partners don’t want to have affairs with strippers: you can’t take them on business trips, to local hotels or have titillating encounters at the firm with a stripper. Young associates blend in perfectly on such trips.

      Besides, most balding partners like nice girls that dress well, don’t have large tats, can read and won’t show up at their home like a jilted stripper might. The young associates all took cotillion lessons and know that its not OK to show up uninvited.

      And yes, its our chance to enjoy the women who used to date losers that now wash our cars, mow our lawns and if theey’re lucky, get to be superintendent of the reserve copier room.

      Occassionally, we marry one of these nice girls because they are nice, well-spoken, show off well and make other women jealous. We’d marry them more often but we’re often already married. Our bad luck.

      Alma, get back to work, unbutton another button and better land one of those balding guys before they’re all taken.

  • MagicCircleJerk

    Matt- Solid suggestions. A UK apprentice model would be a good idea (though it would have to come with some type of loan deferral option if we’re going to have a salary hit along with it).

    Alma- STFU. You disgust me with your slavish drivel.

    • Guano Dubango

      She must be quite attractive – being hit upon by the men — otherwise why would she protest that much?

  • Mark Lyons

    Fine little column, but what happened to all the drinking, scheming, gambling and boning that used to be the focus of this column? Did I miss a Richardson re-boot column or something? Did you run out of stories? Anyway, I was a fan of that crap.

  • Barrister Bill

    An interesting take on things from a British lawyers point of view. Thanks for making me smile along with some sensible comment.