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Big Law associates are earning more than ever, so why all the bitching?
We’re barely a week into the new year, and you know what that means: almost 12 whole months without a raise for New York’s most beleaguered six-figurines, Big Law associates. Yet despite the jump to $160,000 a year for first-year grunts (and don’t forget those bonuses, kids!), a culture of complaint—and, sometimes, litigation—was the Big Law zeitgeist for 2007. Whence the whine wars?
As you plan your first dinner party of 2008, we round up this battle’s commanding officers, and consider whether you should have them over.
Claim to Fame: Charlene Morisseau took a big bite out of the hand that fed her in 2007. Ms. Morisseau, who is African-American, sued her former firm for race discrimination, alleging that the New York office of DLA Piper was a hostile work environment.
But according to the firm, which recently had the case dismissed on summary judgment, the hostility was all Ms. Morisseau’s. The firm claimed that Ms. Morisseau refused work and had bad hallway manners. As reported in New York Law Journal, “Morisseau did not respond to a hello by [her partner mentor] and, when the partner began to ask a question, the associate put her hand up in a stopping motion and said, ‘Heidi, goodbye.’”
Pro: Prominent death penalty lawyer Stephen Bright—for whom Ms. Morisseau once worked, and whom she’s also suing—submitted an affidavit in connection with her New York Bar application. According to Mr. Bright, Ms. Morisseau “appears unable to separate reality and fantasy.”
People with this special gift are the most entertaining of all party guests. Most of us need to get rip-roaring drunk before we can attain that blessed state.
Con: According to DLA Piper’s court filings, when a partner dropped by to discuss an e-mail exchange that Ms. Morisseau apparently found offensive, Ms. Morisseau allegedly ordered the partner to “back up” out of her office. Do you really want to be told to “back up” out of your own dining room? Can you even do that in New York?
Verdict: Invite. Who knows what might happen to you if you don’t.
Claim to Fame: In January, Mr. Charney—at the time a corporate associate at Sullivan & Cromwell—filed a lawsuit against the firm, claiming he was the victim of antigay discrimination. Charney alleged that a partner dropped a document on the floor and told him to “bend over and pick it up—I’m sure you like that.”
Pro: If you ply him with enough nice wine, maybe he’ll spill the beans about how much S&C paid him to settle his case.
Con: You open a bottle of champagne for aperitifs. The cork flies off and lands on the floor. You ask Charney to pick it up. You see where this is going.
Verdict: Invite. Gays are the life of every dinner party. See, e.g., Truman Capote, Oscar Wilde.
Claim to Fame: A purported student at Loyola Law School of Los Angeles started posting comments to numerous legal blogs, under the pseudonym “Loyola 2L,” complaining that his law school misled him about the job opportunities that would be available to him. He developed an Internet following—people who saw him as speaking truth to power, unmasking the dirty secrets of American legal education—as well as many detractors, who viewed him as annoying and whiny.
Loyola 2L is not a Big Law associate, of course—but he wants to be! L2L’s main complaint is that the lucrative law firm jobs that one constantly reads about in the news are, for the most part, only available to graduates of highly ranked law schools (i.e., not Loyola).
Pro: You can finally find out who Loyola 2L is—and whether he really exists. Some have speculated that “Loyola 2L” is actually a Spartacus-style collective. Also, L2L announced his official retirement from blogging last week, so his schedule is wide open.
Con: Endless whining. If you give an extra slice of prime rib to a friend who graduated from Columbia, expect to hear about it.
Verdict: Don’t invite. Anyone who spends this much time on the Internet probably doesn’t know how to use a fork.
IT SEEMS LIKE a motley crew: a character straight out of a David E. Kelley pilot; an M&A lawyer who may have watched Philadelphia one too many times; and a disaffected student at America’s 66th-ranked law school.
But they all share something in common: a sense of entitlement, and no shyness about flaunting it. All feel they didn’t get what they deserved—be it kid-glove treatment from partners or a law firm job with a $160,000 starting salary. Their critics would call them self-entitled and whiny; their defenders would call them committed to justice.
Let’s adopt, for the sake of argument, the whiny view. Associates received a pay raise in January 2007, followed by generous year-end and “special” bonuses in November and December. Yet they can’t stop complaining, around water coolers and on Internet message boards, about how they’re overworked and abused by partners—as well as due for another pay raise, with “NY to 190” as their rallying cry. Meanwhile, partners complain about their associates’ complaining—their sense of being owed something, their lack of a work ethic, and their obsession with pay and perks, rather than the craft of lawyering.
So what about 2008? Expect complaining to quickly become very 2007, when it was easy for lawyers to feel entitled to the sun, the moon, the stars and the pay raises (for associates; for partners, think seven-figure wire transfers from clients). But that was then, and this is now. A recession appears to be on the way, if it’s not here already. The lawyers who will best weather that storm will be those who can rack up billable hours, not headlines. Whiners need not apply.