It’s time to talk about a part of Biglaw that truly exemplifies what is so problematic with the structure of the legal system and how it creates the toxic work environment of Biglaw firms.

Speaking from my own experience, one of the most maddening things about a Biglaw work environment and being a Biglaw associate is that no one is responsible for anything.

At the same time, everyone is responsible for everything. This is specific to those who supervise the associates, the partners. They have the power, but little accountability. 

Keep reading to learn more about the imbalance of responsibility and authority in a Biglaw work environment and how the system is fixed to burden Biglaw associates.  

Biglaw Work Environments Don’t Have General Managers

A Biglaw work environment is not like other industries, where a manager is overseeing how everyone is working, if something needs to improve, and how to do that. The only thing that matters is billable hours and how much money you’re bringing in.

No one is technically “your boss,” yet every partner can be your boss. Any one of them can ask you to do something. When you’re working on a case with a specific partner, they are your supervisor for that case, but they aren’t necessarily your “boss” for all things. Just for that case.

It creates this environment where people can direct your work, tell you what to do, be annoyed when you’re not doing what they want, et cetera. But they don’t have any responsibility to help or change the way things are going. 

Authority Vs Responsibility In A Biglaw Work Environment

An individual partner isn’t responsible for the complete professional development of every Biglaw associate at the firm or even in their department. Yes, you might have some formal mentoring relationships. But ultimately, you end up in a situation where partners have a lot of authority and not necessarily a lot of responsibility.

Let’s talk a little bit about the difference between authority and responsibility:

  • Authority is the ability to tell you, “I need you to do X or Y.” Obviously, it’s not complete and total, there are times you can say no. 
  • Responsibility is this more holistic, like a responsibility to this associate, to make sure they’re getting enough work to develop without getting totally crushed.” Something of that nature.

There may be individual partners who may back you up to a certain extent. For example, a partner may defend a Biglaw associate against a badly behaved partner. But a Biglaw work environment isn’t set up for that. The whole legal system isn’t set up for it.

There’s No Fellowship Between Partners and Associates

Let’s say you’re a Biglaw associate who doesn’t quite make your hours for whatever reason, and someone’s deciding if you should get a bonus or not because you didn’t quite make your hours. Some partners that you know may advocate, but they usually aren’t the people making the decisions about that sort of thing. 

Often, the people making that decision have no relationship with you. They know nothing about you or your circumstances. I have heard plenty of stories about partners and associates working beautifully together, then the higher-ups or another partner create a negative situation. 

So, the associate goes to their partner-friend, and they can’t help you; they simply don’t have the authority to influence any outcome. Or, if a partner chooses to defend a Biglaw associate, it may create a negative outcome for them, so they won’t.  

There’s nothing they can do because no one has responsibility for you or your well-being in that work environment. As a result, you’ll end up in a situation where you are overlooked, brushed to the side. 

You’re not being treated as a person, you’re only being treated as a widget who produces an outcome. So long as you’re producing to a certain level, nothing too terrible will happen to you. However, nothing particularly great will happen to you either.

Toxic Work Environments of Biglaw Lack Support For Associates:

You don’t have someone you can go to and say, “This is happening. It’s problematic.” You’re just having this negative experience. No one is responsible for it. No one oversees it or even knows that it’s happening.

In theory, there’s HR, but I’ve had many conversations with people in the last year about the role that HR does and doesn’t play, especially the toxic work environment of Biglaw. HR is a completely different department than the people who are the “supervisors”, the partners.

Unless an HR organization within the larger firm is very empowered, which is uncommon in most Biglaw work environments, the people in that department do not influence the people who ultimately have a say in what your day-to-day looks like.

I know there are so many people in positions in Biglaw where they feel like, “This is not a good experience. All this stuff is happening, but no one is responsible. There is no one I can even go to.” How would it even be fixed? It’s just this cluster that’s being caused by the fact that those in authority don’t have any responsibility.”

Changing The Toxic Work Environment of Biglaw

This is one of the many reasons why we need a better way to structure the work we’re doing. Another issue is that these problems are so intractable. When you attempt to resolve some of the broader issues, this embedded system becomes an obstacle. No one in authority has equal accountability.

In many ways, it’s designed to fail because no one is accountable. It cannot be that accountability only exists when things are bad. Like when you’re going to be sued or when you might be let go as a partner. Biglaw has to do better than that.

If you’re experiencing this, I just want you to know that you’re not crazy for thinking that things shouldn’t be that way. The legal profession really needs to think about how we can correct some of these asymmetries in power, responsibility, and authority within our Biglaw work environments, and organizations, to create a better workplace and profession for everyone who exists in it.

If you’re fed up with your toxic work environment of biglaw, and you’re looking for a way out, I invite you to download my free guide: First Steps to Leaving the Law. There, you’ll learn what you need to do to find a new career that you love!

 

Sarah Cottrell: Hi, and welcome to The Former Lawyer Podcast. I'm your host, Sarah Cottrell. On this show, I interview former lawyers to hear their inspiring stories about how they left law behind to find careers and lives that they love. Let's get right to the show

Hello everyone. This week on the podcast, I want to talk about something about Biglaw that really exemplifies what is so problematic with a structure and why the environment becomes so toxic. I don't know that this is even something that's just limited to Biglaw. It may very well be the case in all sorts of law firms. In this particular episode, I'm speaking from my own experience and the things that I've observed, but one of the things that is just maddening about the experience of working in Biglaw as an associate is that no one is responsible for anything, at the same time, everyone is responsible for everything. I mean this specifically with respect to the people who supervise you. Specifically with respect to partners. No one is technically “your boss,” yet every partner can be your boss, can ask you to do something. Every partner who you're working for in a particular case at a particular time or a particular deal, whatever, they are your supervisor for that deal or that case but they aren't necessarily like your “boss” for all things.

It creates this environment where people have the ability to direct your work, to tell you what to do, to be annoyed when you're not doing the thing that they want done on the timeline they want it, etc., whatever that is, and at the same time, they don't really have an ongoing responsibility to make sure that you are, for example, not being overloaded with work, getting the types of breaks that you need, developing as a lawyer in a well-rounded way. This isn't to say, “Oh yeah, because all partners are just horrible.” It's the system. It's the system that they exist in. Partners are incentivized to get people to do their work that they need done on the things that they're running. If they have lots of free time and energy beyond that, then sure, maybe they do have a lot of time to devote to mentoring or thinking about these bigger picture things but one, that's rarely the case of course, then on top of that, even if they do, an individual partner just logically, they're not responsible for the complete professional development of every associate at the firm or even every associate in their department.

Yes, you might have some formal mentoring relationships but ultimately, you end up in a situation where people in positions of authority, the partners in particular, have a lot of authority and not necessarily a lot of responsibility. Let me just talk a little bit about what I think the differences between those two things are. Authority would be like they have the ability to tell you, “I need you to do X or Y.” Obviously, it's not complete and total. There are times that you can say no, there are times that you can say, “I don't have the capacity to take this on etc.” But that's authority, then responsibility is this more holistic like, “Oh, I have a responsibility to this associate to make sure whatever.” Either that they're getting the work that they need to develop but not getting totally crushed. That they're not falling into some horrible spiral. That they're not being mistreated by someone else. Just all of these things. There may be individual partners who take on to the extent that they can, for example, the defense of an associate from a particularly badly behaved partner but the system isn't set up for that.

You end up in this situation where, let's say, you're an associate who doesn't quite make your hours for whatever reason and someone's making a decision about whether or not you should get a bonus if you didn't quite make your hours. All of the partners who are more closely associated with you may be in a position to say, “Hey this person is really great. There are all these extenuating circumstances. We should totally give them a bonus anyway.” But one, in a lot of cases, they aren't the people making the decisions about that thing. Often, it's people who have no relationship to you and know nothing about you. In addition, you end up in a situation where sometimes, it's like they could go to bat for you in a case like that but they might be spending a lot of their own internal political capital in order to do that. The structure of the firm is such that there has to be a calculus of like, “Is this something that is really worth potentially burning a bridge with a fellow partner because I push for something that is maybe slightly outside of the norm?”

I have heard plenty of stories from plenty of different people about experiences where the partner that they worked with the most really love their work, etc., then some negative thing happened that was orchestrated by some higher-ups or just like a different partner and even though there was that great relationship there, one, that doesn't necessarily mean that person actually has any ability to truly influence the outcomes for you as an associate but also, there's the reality that it is very easy in a super fast pace, just constant onslaught of work situation for someone who is in a position of authority like a partner to just be like, “Well, that just is how things go. I have these 72 other things that I need to work on,” and to just not really have to sit with any question of whether or not there is a responsibility there.

As an associate, you end up in this situation where you feel like, “I am responsible to everyone in the sense that I have to actively make sure that every partner is more or less happy with what I'm doing, who I am, and if I'm turning work down, it needs to be in a certain way, blah-blah-blah.” At the same time, basically, zero authority. On the flip side, partners have a lot of authority or the ability to wield authority, then very little responsibility going the other way. I think this imbalanced relationship is why you see some of the toxicity that we see in Biglaw firms and I'm assuming potentially in law firms of other types as well because the system, as it is, inherently does not really reward or judge the people who are given authority on whether they're also using their responsibility in a certain way.

As long as they get results—and results in Biglaw are pretty much as long as you get the billables, as long as you bring in the money, as long as you have a book of business—all of those other things are, in the final calculus, pretty much irrelevant. As a result, you end up in the situation where you can have associates being mistreated—mistreated maybe even is too strong a word—just like overlooked, brushed to the side, just not being seen, not being treated as a human person, just being treated as a widget who is producing. So long as you're producing to a certain level, nothing too terrible is going to happen to you but at the same time, nothing particularly great is going to happen to you. If some various indignity occurs, there really isn't anyone, in some cases, who even knows because it's this complex interplay of this person and that person, and their hours for this case, in that case, so you can end up in a situation where you're having a really negative experience that no one person is really responsible for. You don't have someone you can go to and say, “This is happening. It's problematic.” You're just having this not great experience. No one is responsible for it. There's no one who really oversees it, is overseeing it, or even knows that it's really happening.

Even if you wanted to go talk to someone and say like, “This is happening. This is not working,” Who would that be? There really isn't anyone. In theory, there's HR but I've had many conversations with people in the last year about the role that HR does and doesn't play, especially in Biglaw firms, and whether people really feel like they can get the support that they need. Because ultimately, HR is a completely different department than the people who are the “supervisors”, that is to say the partners. Unless an HR organization within the larger firm is very empowered, which is very uncommon in most Biglaw experiences, the people in that department do not have a lot of influence over the people who ultimately have a say in what your day-to-day looks like. Again, this is one of many issues. I don't think this is the only problem but I think this is an important thing to talk about because I know there are so many people in positions in Biglaw where they feel like, “This is not a good experience. All of this stuff is happening but no one is really responsible. There is no one I can even really go to.” Because how would it even be fixed because it's just this cluster that's being caused by the fact that the people who are in positions of authority do not have equal amounts of responsibility?

This is one of the many reasons that I think one, we need a better way to structure the work that we're doing in the legal profession, especially in private law firms, but two, that these problems are so intractable. Because when you go in and try to resolve some of the broader issues that we've talked about in terms of racism, sexism, and all of the other things that are at play in many Biglaw firms, the fact that you have this embedded system that is not really designed to create significant accountability for the people in it who have authority, it's in many ways designed to fail because you have to have the ability for there to be true accountability. It cannot be that the only accountability that exists is like if it's really, really bad to the point of where we think we're going to get sued, then you're probably going to get let go as a partner. In many law firms, that's pretty much where things are.

If you're listening to this and you're in a position where you're experiencing this, I just want you to know that it sucks. I'm sorry. You're not crazy for thinking that things shouldn't be that way. I think that the legal profession really needs to give some thought to how we can correct some of these asymmetries in power, responsibility, and authority within our workplaces and other environments, and organizations to create a better workplace and profession for everyone who exists in it. Thanks so much for joining me today. I will talk to you next week.

Thanks so much for listening. I absolutely love getting to share this podcast with you. If you haven't yet, I invite you to download my free guide: First Steps to Leaving the Law at formerlawyer.com/first. Until next time, have a great week.

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