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Morale problems 'proliferate' in Biglaw

Posted by: Laurence Simons 13/02/13

If a glut of recent reports are to be believed, many people with Biglaw lawyer jobs spend much of their working day with their chair balanced on its back two legs, staring at the wall with a slightly glazed expression and spinning their expensive pen around in their hand while thinking wistfully about the good old days, when major bonuses were de rigour and partners strode across the legal world like colossi.

According to research by the Centre for the Study of the Legal Profession at Georgetown University Law Centre and Thomson Reuters Peer Monitor, this melancholic nostalgia is misplaced - the current conditions afflicting the legal market in the US and globally need to be considered the 'new normal', with the situation unlikely ever to return to its pre-recession levels.

Partner profits grew by a mere 3.58 per cent last year among 130 mostly large law firms in the Peer Monitor database, while lawyer productivity is lacklustre and realisation rates have slumped to historic lows.

If that isn't enough to pour a glass of cold water down the back of lawyers dreaming of the good old days, the report indicated that morale problems could be on the up among partners as they buck against the new constraints being placed upon them by the chilly economic realities facing legal firms across the country.

"It has become increasingly obvious that many law firm partnerships have experienced mounting stress relating to compensation, the reductions in the ranks of equity partners, the treatment of lateral partners, and the management of partner expectations," the study added.

Like tropical fish, partners - especially those at prestigious Biglaw companies - require a very specific set of conditions to keep them happy and performing well. Unfortunately, the climate prevalent across the US legal market is likely to leave them floating upside down in the tank or hurling themselves from the tank on to the carpet and floundering there.

"The combination of all of these factors - coupled with a growing sense of disenfranchisement - has resulted in partner morale problems in many firms," the report concluded.

It is important that law firms differentiate themselves from their competitors and improve efficiency processes if they are to stand out from the mire, according to the study.

On the bright side, lawyers considering a move to an in-house legal job in the US could find the shift easier thanks to a change in the American Bar Association's regulations over foreign workers.