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.