Monday, August 09, 2004

Someone commented on the last post: "Seems like this is an easy problem to solve. Let them do meaningful work."

We CAN'T let them do meaningful work, because some of them will prove incompetent. And if the work is meaningful, then by definition we need to have competent people doing it. If we have them do meaningful work, we'll need to have an associate babysit until we're sure the work is going to get done right. And, frankly, some of the associates can barely do meaningful work themselves, so having them babysit a summer associate isn't going to turn out well.

We also can't let them do meaningful work because one of the few chips we have left at the end of the summer is that meaningful work is somehow different from the bottom-barrel assignments we've been giving them. We know that's not true, but they don't yet. And so we can tweak the reality a little bit, if someone's on the fence, and tell them they haven't really tasted true big law firm work yet. The intellectual challenge. The unyielding pace. The power to make or break the country's corporate giants. Maybe we can't go that far. But we can try. We can try and pretend that research with consequences is different from research without consequences, even if it mostly isn't. And maybe we get a few more summers to accept the offer and be our indentured servants for a few years. It's worth a try.

But we lose that sales pitch if we actually let them see what "meaningful" work looks like. As if there's such a thing anyway. As if all they want is meaningful work to begin with. At a hiring committee meeting a few years back, I suggested that we do more to show the summer associates that we value them individually, for their own unique skills and talents -- that they're not just interchangeable cogs on a legal form-filing assembly line. We couldn't figure out how to do that -- how to tailor assignments to people's strengths and weaknesses -- whether as summers or as associates. Because all of this work is fundamentally pretty much the same. There are "good writers" and "good diligence doers" but for the most part we just need warm bodies with hours to devote, not necessarily the unique combination of talents one particular attorney brings to the table. Maybe at the most senior levels, with courtroom antics or client development. But not for the first decade or more of practice.

The Army has done a great job pretending it can do this, with its advertising campaign, "An Army Of One." I'm floored that anyone finds this persuasive. Is there an organization that depends on individual talents more than just having a set of interchangeable parts *more* than the army? Maybe just us. An army of one can't win the war any more than a law firm of one can do document review in a large case involving a Fortune 500 company. "A Law Firm Of One." Maybe that can be next year's slogan. Or next year's summer class size.

Your summer associates can do meaningful work if you really wanted them to do it, but cannot be so probably because of the structure of your firm. You can't really afford to give up real billable hours to a summer associate because everyone else in the firm needs them to justify their existence. Small firms rely on law clerks to do a ton of work. The cost is that more time may have to be spent editing and critiquing what is produced, but they are getting really training and not just doing research projects. One my fellow classmates that worked in the big firm was surprised that I knew how to create a caption or draft simple discovery. She spent a summer not doing nothing of the sort. That I blindsided her by mentioning I acted as second chair at a trial, I of course didn't question a witness, but I did a lot of leg work. She got to attend a lot of neat social functions though and make more money. I preferred living cheap and learning my craft.
"She spent a summer not doing nothing of the sort." So much for learning your craft. You haven't even learned a few simple rules of grammar. It is awful convenient that you praise working at a small firm when it is likely you never had a chance to work at a large one.
If lower level attorneys are such interchangeable cogs why do you go through the trouble of having a nice summer associate program and paying large salaries to associates? Why not have zero summer associates, get low level associates from lower level schools at lower pay and just hire all-stars from other firms? Another way to put it is why do you have a farm system? For the lower level stuff does it really make a difference if someone is from Harvard v. Santa Clara? It may lead to disgruntled associates if none of them are ever made partner because they're all mediocre but who cares? By definition they're interchangeable so if they get mad and quit you can replace them easily. Just be like the Yankees. When someone displays all-star qualities, find them and recruit them. It may cost a little bit more to pay them, then the all-star associate that is homegrown but I think you'd still come out ahead based on the savings generated by paying most associates less.
I can buy the first excuse (we can't give real work to summers because they might stuff it up) to a certain extent. However, the risk of stuff-ups is a risk that you face with all lawyers, including senior partners. Also, at the big firms the summers are (or at least are held out to be) some of the brighest legal minds in the country - if they can't write a research opinion or draft a simple agreement then something is wrong.

The second excuse (associates will not want to stay if they find out what meaningful work is) seems less believable. True, when I was a junior junior associate at a big firm I did a lot of bullshit document work. However, from the second year on I was allowed to do so-called "meaningful" work, drafting agreements, negotiation, running small deals etc etc. This work did not make me want to leave. Rather, it made my job far more enjoyable.

When I think about it, this is possibly the point you are trying to make. Maybe, when compared to the hours of bullshit, the "meaningful" work seems far better than it actually is. Not sure. Sure sucked me in.
Everyone has a choice of where they want to work. Most summer clerks who are hired at nice firms, could probably work at a "less nice" firm if they wanted to, but of course they'd be paid less. Life is tough and people have to make their choices. You can't have one and also have the other. Do you want "meaningful work" at a smaller firm for less pay, or mindless work at a big firm for extra pay and prestige? Summer clerks do not have some God-given right to do meaningful work, and I have no idea where this sense of entitlement is coming from. Choose. Live with your choice. Enough with the whining, please.

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