The Declining Value of a Midlevel Associate

Matthew Richardson Columns, Lawyer 17 Comments

As a mediocre midlevel at a top law firm, I haven’t really considered plans for my “future.” I always sort of let the tide take me to this place of bitterness. However, many of my friends are starting to make “plans.” Actually, it seems like most of them have already mapped out their lives.

Of my closest 4 friends from law school: One moved to a small firm outside of NY because he’s married with kids (and therefore dead to me), two have moved to smaller firms in Miami because it’s a better life and they are from there and they are basically cheesy Miami dudes at heart (not dead to me, because I need a place to stay in Florida), and one works at a BigLaw firm in NYC, but he’s looking to get out asap. He’s the one that is actually causing me to stress out, because he just enlightened me to the devaluation of a midlevel scale.

The top of your game

According to him, the midlevel scale works like this: you basically have your highest value in your 5th year, because you are underpaid. In other words, in years 1-4, you are learning and are getting paid a lot of money to essentially assist more-seasoned lawyers in running deals while doing grunt work. But around year 5—give or take for smarter or dumber lawyers—-you are running the show and not getting paid more than you did when you knew jack shit. You are an efficient use of the firm’s resources. You are a self-sufficient machine that can close a deal with the help of a few underlings and the occasional guidance of a partner. You call upon partners to answer critical questions, but you are able to pretty much be the go-to guy for your clients.

He says you need to seize upon this critical time period where you’re a hot commodity. If you wanna jump ship to a better firm or in-house, this is your time to do so. You’re the equivalent of a hot 25 year old girl in NY; at 23, you’re too dumb to appreciate you’re value and you put out way too easily, but 27, you start getting slightly jaded and lose the youthful exuberance that made guys wanna be with you in the first place. After 5th year as an associate, your value declines quicker than a single girl approaching her 30s.

It’s all downhill after fifth year

In your 6th year, you’re still the hot, late-20s chick, but there are other newer, hotter chicks in the crop just below you. People start thinking “Wait a minute, if she isn’t engaged, maybe she has some flaws we didn’t notice. Hey, she’s not that hot after all.” This is your last good shot as a lawyer to make an upward move.

By your 7th year, if you know you’re not making partner (odds are highly against that happening), you are walking straight into the dreaded “of counsel” stigma for life if you stay at your firm. You may as well stop wearing suits, because no one respects you anymore. Worse yet, if you try to leave, you are already seen as suspect. Any firm who is even willing to interview you already assumes (a) that you’re not partner material and (b) that you are leaving because you’ve been quietly told to seek employment elsewhere. You’re basically that girl who just turned 30, and still looks sorta like she did at 25, but everyone knows there is something missing. She’s probably terrible in bed or too annoying to consider as wife material.

By 8th year, if you’re still at your firm and you’re not making partner, you’re totally screwed. Because when you try to go in-house, you realize that the people that left 3 years ago already took the job you were seeking—or worse, you get the in-house position but you end up working underneath someone you once made get you coffee during a closing when they were a 1st year. Essentially, you’re a mid-30’s single girl in NY, which means your options are to (a) settle for a much-worse guy than you thought you’d end up with (all the guys you thought you were too good for ended up marrying your friends and you’re now kicking yourself) or (b) go to another city where your perceived value is a lot higher and find yourself a guy who is impressed by your overuse of sarcasm to cover your massive insecurity. (Sidenote: I assume most mid 30s single girls who leave NY find happiness marrying successful eco-green entrepreneurs in Seattle or Denver, but they spent the rest of their days pondering what they did wrong to not have the life they really wanted in NY with the rest of their girlfriends who are now living on the Upper East Side and paying 20k to send their toddler to nursery school.)

Unethical and unmarketable

If what my friend claims is true, then I’m pretty much up shit’s creek. I have zero chance of making partner, due to my litany of shortcomings, both personal and professional. I also don’t have the requisite motivation to even seek work elsewhere. I already have one firm that was duped into hiring me. I’m sure I could pull it off, but the energy to jump through all of those hoops isn’t even in me. So I’m just gonna keep riding this out, even if that means I’m destined for a path similar to a mid 30s single chick in NY. I never really saw myself as that girl, but if I am, being of counsel at my firm doesn’t sound so bad actually. It beats moving to Seattle.


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  • Michelle Beth

    At least you still have a fat paycheck twice a month. If you have to do solo like I who have to hunt for every bit of crumbs and dupe the losers to hire me and pay however little they have. You don’t get any respect either being a TTT and doing family law. Life can be much worse.

  • Strenuous Objector

    So basically you’re going to be Law Firm 10. Life sucks for you.

  • MagicCircleJerk

    One of your most incisive posts. Jump ship btw 4 and 5 to make some real cash.

  • TK

    At least your in the big leagues. Tell me, does this structure apply to doc review too? If so, my value will be highest in a couple years and I need advice how to click my way to maximum value.

    • RHC2

      Ahahahaha! No.

  • Quadoz

    Doc review? Wow, I went to a CRAP tier school, but I would never do doc review. I’ll defend DUI’s and file bankruptcies. GOOD LUCK SIR

    City Cop by Midnight, Rookie Lawyer by Day

  • Guano Dubango

    I am even willing to take a chance with one of the once-hot female associates who is now up to age 33. I am told women of that age are still fertile, and I need one to bear me 3 issue, and at least one male heir.

    I will consider hot females between 24 and 33 who are willing to move home with me to my country and bear issue. No work is necessary other than child care and cooking for my Aunt Ooona. My Aunt Ooona lives in the main house but will not share our nubial home.

    • Michelle Beth

      Guano – I am 43. I am an American woman lawyer (JD from Marquette) from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. If I don’t mind your body odor, would you overlook my age? Maybe we can hook up? Michelle

      • Guano Dubango

        I have no foul odour about me. I shower each morning; and again before I have sex with a woman.

        But there is someone on this website who said she has teeth in her privates? For obvious reasons, if that is you I cannot take a chance going to make love, as I must be able to have a male heir. Are you capable of bearing issue? I need 3 and worry you will not be able to do so?

        • Undervalued asset

          Guano Dubango, I propose we get married. I get your country house with Aunt Ooona and you get your three heirs, including a male. Mergers and acquisitions, baby. I promise your heirs won’t be ugly and dumb. My mom always said mixed Asian babies were the cutest. Plus they’ll come with a pedigree – Berkeley undergrad, Columbia Law.

      • MagicCircleJerk

        What’s a Marquette? Isn’t it a basketball team? I didn’t know they also sold JDs.

        • Michelle Beth

          So what do you know? You are one dumb fuck.

          • MagicCircleJerk

            Dumb regarding flyover country TTTs? Oh yes. With pride.

  • Aunt Ooona

    Guano, you no bring that Michelle Beth home. She is foul mouthed American. You finda a nice American girl from a real law school to bring home. UCLA hasa nice girls with good brains and good bodies that makea good women. USC women nota as smart but will be good enough. The woman who got inot marquette she nota smart enough for you.

    • Ellen

      You are RIGHT. I would not marry Guano, but wish him well.

  • Craig

    Your stuff is consistently really good. Nailed this one too.

  • Kimpossible

    If you think some firm is going to pay you a six figure salary to coast through the last couple decades of your career as an Of Counsel, I’m afraid you’re in for some massive disappointment ar0und year 10 (if not sooner). Up or out is the order of the day.