Free the Baby Lawyers!

Deprogramming the associates at Clifford Chance.

One of the strangest and most wonderful things about young associates at big law firms is their seemingly infinite capacity for unhappiness. In exchange for starting salaries of $125,000 a year, they put in 17-hour days, work weekends, and leave jackets on their chair backs on Friday at midnight so it looks like they haven’t gone home. They toil away on extravagantly complex cases that are, for the most part, uninteresting to them, and they do all this without complaint. They know what they bargained for, and they unfailingly uphold their end of the deal.

This is why the whimpers coming out of the New York office of Clifford Chance last week are so incredible. The prisoners are unhappy. They have, it would seem, some issues. Clifford Chance, a British law firm, is the largest in the world. Its U.S. offices ranked dead last in almost every category in an associate survey conducted by the American Lawyer this month, so partners held a big “town hall meeting.” (“Town hall meeting” is law-school-speak for “Someone is about to bleat at you about Feelings, but the bagels are free.”) The partners requested that the associates draft a memorandum detailing the problems at the firm. Six associates promptly promulgated a 13-page document detailing the indignities of a baby lawyer’s life at Clifford Chance.

News accounts have seized on the associates’ principal complaints, including: their staggering 2,420 annual billable hours requirement to qualify for a bonus (even the sweatshops among the New York firms ask for only 2,000 hours a year); allegations that the partners “hate” the associates and “resent” paying their salaries and bonuses; allegations of “favoritism” (i.e., “If the assignment system isn’t corrupt, ask yourself: Why aren’t attractive female associates ever out of work?”). For the most part, this week’s big news has been the firm’s frantic efforts to reassure the public (and New York clients including AOL Time Warner, General Electric, and JP Morgan Chase) that associate claims notwithstanding, no one at Clifford Chance was being encouraged to “pad” bills to meet the 2,420 billable-hour requirement.

But all this seems to overlook the real story—the psychological tragedy embodied by the memo itself. A close reading of the document reveals it to be a cry for help. These are sad and desperate associates. What they really need is a lot more than reduced billables. What they need is deprogramming.

First of all, the harrowing evidence of Stockholm Syndrome: The memo is drafted in perfect outline form, with each section Roman-numeraled, lettered, and numbered for easy reference. It features numerous examples of formal, legal sillyisms. It is rife with “id”s and “see below”s. It uses the word “putative” for no reason. It is written, in other words, in the tongue of the oppressor.

But even more perplexing than the creepy legalism of the memo is its astonishing naiveté: Associates propound the crazy Communist theory that, when it comes to bonuses, “this is one firm and that all should be treated equally.” Others suggest reducing the numbers of billable hours to 1,900-2,000. Another complains that “[t]he firm feels like a fiefdom.” (And this is a surprise?) Many complain that partners are mean. One is “yelled at” and told “we own you.” In another instance, an “associate was invited to a partner’s party, then asked by that same partner what he was doing there.” In its saddest manifestation of chronic battered-child syndrome, the memo pleads: “Allegedly, partners have a monthly budget for socializing with associates. We call on all partners to spend it. If you choose to do one thing to improve partner-associate relations, at least say ‘hello’ in the hallways. It sounds like a small thing, but simply talk to us. Get to know the associates; you might even like a few.”

Associates in law firms knowingly sign away their health, leisure time, and relationships for a monstrous salary and hefty bonuses. This is not news. What is news is that the associates at Clifford Chance ask for both too much and too little. They want law firm life to be about more than just the commodification of their time, even when it is. And yet faced with an opportunity to reclaim their lives, they are willing to settle for a “hi” in the hallways and a better-appointed cage. Consider their final suggestions for improving quality of life at their firm:

  • “Put plates and utensils in the pantries, so that people working late can avoid eating out of containers”
  • “Get an online food delivery system … so that people working late can order food easily”
  • “Set up a recreation room with a TV”
  • “Get concierge service for things like dry cleaning”
  • “Free shoeshines”
  • “Give out corporate accessories and toys”

Do these people even understand that one could eat dinner, watch television, or shine one’s shoes at home? And wouldn’t it be fun for them to socialize with real people instead of malevolent bosses? The absurdity of the Clifford Chase memo isn’t that these associates regret their Faustian bargain. It is that they just want shiny shoes for their troubles.