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Legal Authority BLOG

When Law Firms Turn Mean

A. Harrison Barnes

“When Law Firms Turn Mean”

At Legal Authority, some of our Employment Advocates are former legal recruiters and they look upon the current recession-like conditions in the legal community as nothing new.One of the more interesting aspects of the current slowdown in the legal market is the fact that many firms have become increasingly meaner to their associates and partners.This is not to say that all firms are mean—they are not all mean.It is to say, however, that attorneys need to be astute to the conditions within their law firms in order to evaluate them.As this article will demonstrate, firms that are doing well economically are often not mean.

In the Year 2008 there were numerous associate layoffs throughout the United States.This, of course, contrasts with the fact that there was a massive hiring binge at firms in the Years 2003 through the first part of 2008.It is interesting to contrast these two points in time to try and gain an understanding of why law firms turn mean.

When Firms Were Nice

During the time that firms were experiencing a hiring binge, most attorneys who worked in these firms did not believe the firms were mean at all.In fact, in order to try and get associates to stay so they could do all the work, firms tended to be extremely lenient in performance reviews.Interviews were often quite casual and not too stressful. Bonuses were large.Firm perks were abundant.For many associates practicing at large firms, their biggest complaint was often that they had far too much work to do.Nevertheless, associates with strong credentials could without too much difficulty switch firms if they thought their firms was not a pleasant place to work.

For associates working at nice firms during the period between 2003 and early 2008, they often believed they could do no wrong.When looking for positions, associates were often very arrogant about the number of opportunities they had.In associate interviews, many law students associates would often grill partners and associates about what the firm could do for them.Things were very good for associates.

When Firms Turned Mean

In the Year 2008, many large law firms became extremely unpleasant places to work in.Performance reviews suddenly turned into far from casual affairs.In fact, at many performance reviews associates were outright fired.Other associates were simply laid off. For many attorneys, such as corporate associates seeking to lateral into another law firm—in contrast to what occurred in the “boom years”—there were virtually no recruiter opportunities.With respect to the few interviews many of these associates received, the firms grilled them aggressively.Bonuses?At many firms there were no bonuses.Perks were cancelled or dramatically scaled back.And as for complaints about too much work, many associates were complaining about the exact opposite.

For many associates working in law firms since middle 2008, they often believed that they could do no right.Firms were not at all happy places to work for many associates.

“What the Mean vs. Nice Dichotomy Means”

The obvious meaning of all this is that, when times are good, associates can make firms a great deal of money and are treated well.When times are bad, associates may cost firms money.What all this means, then, is that economic forces beyond an attorney’s immediate control often shape their futures.

However, for all of the criticisms of firms during bad times, the fact of the matter is that attorneys at all levels working in law firms do have control over their destiny’s and how they can confront the situations the economy creates for them.For example, even during the worst of economic times there are firms which continue to do extremely well and post high profits.Many of these firms never turn mean.Even during the worst of times, there are firms that are aggressively hiring attorneys who approach them for positions.

When attorneys are in law school, they never really know what to look for in a firm.For example, during the boom years of 1988 to 2001 (another boom time) one of the most attractive law firms to many associates in the United States was Venture Law Group in Silicon Valley.This firm was one which essentially took one aspect of a law firm’s corporate department and built it into a law firm that does nothing but a certain type of corporate work.Conversely, a firm which has been around for over 100 years, such as New York’s Sullivan & Cromwell, has survived so long because it has numerous departments which complement each other and help sustain one another through good times and bad.Incidently, Venture Law Group is a firm that “became mean” during the economic slowdown.This firm eventually disappeared, of course.

The essence of becoming a client of Legal Authority is that it can give you the ability to distinguish good firms from the mean ones—especially in a bad economic climate.By allowing you to survey the market for all of the opportunities that match what you are seeking to do, Legal Authority empowers you to find firms which are hiring in a bad economic climate.If you are a corporate associate, or practicing in an area of the law that is not in demand in a good economic climate, then finding the firms that are hiring is an extremely significant thing: You have found a firm that is likely to be in even better shape when the economy turns around.


When firms turn mean, they usually do so based upon economic forces which are affecting them.Different firms are set up different ways and as they evolve make many economic decisions which will have a significant effect on them in both good and bad economies.Finding the firms that are set up to whether economic storms is no easy task.The firm could be a very large law firm, or it could just as easily be a smaller one.One of the essences of becoming a client of Legal Authority is that we can assist you in finding the firms that are set up to weather—and perhaps even prosper–in economic storms.By contacting all of the firms in a given city that match precisely what you are seeking to, you can identify those firms which are hiring and then speak with them.While results typically differ for many of Legal Authority clients, it is not uncommon for many of our clients.

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