It can seem that the main mission of most attorneys is to simply stay employed.
This is why they have to work as hard as possible and bill as much as possible.
Essentially, this is how many lawyers go about their career.
How an attorney spends his or her day can also depend upon the size and prestige of the firm they work for.
Larger, more prestigious firms will have lots of work for new associates.
Smaller firms may have less work, which can also promote a better work-life balance.
Summary: What drives attorneys to work so hard in big law? How do law firms ensure attorneys continue to work hard throughout their careers? Find out in this article.
The entire law firm ecosystem is structured so that everyone inside of it—partners and associates alike—work as hard as they are capable of working, bill clients as much as possible, and do not stop working hard until they are fired, leave, die, go crazy, or retire.
Large Law Firms Have Clients Willing to Pay for Attorneys to Work Long Hours
Just about all large law firms have major corporate clients that are not as sensitive to large bills (and lots of hours) as smaller law firms. Smaller law firms typically will work for clients that are sensitive to bills.
The larger the law firm, the larger the clients.
The more prestigious the law firm is, the more rich and powerful the clients.
The more rich and powerful the clients, the more money they are willing to pay for legal services without batting an eye—through high hourly rates and lots of hours.
What all this means is that the largest, most prestigious law firms typically have more work from higher paying clients who can afford to have lots of legal work done. Some of the largest, most profitable companies have billions of dollars a year in revenue, pay bills promptly, and can afford to “turn on the tap” for lots of legal work. Whether it is associates writing endless memos, litigation that stretches on for years and years longer than it needs to for hundreds of thousands of dollars (or millions) per month, partners marking up countless drafts of deal documents—the large law firm will find work to be done.
Smaller companies cannot afford to “turn on the tap,” may not pay bills promptly, and are typically serviced by smaller law firms. These smaller law firms often cannot work as many hours on their matters and their associates and partners are not expected to bill as many hours—nor is there typically enough work for them to do so. These smaller law firms may not “overwork” matters, but may not get the best results for their clients either. This is how the system works. The richest get access to the best legal services (for which they pay a lot of money—often on work that is unnecessary), and those with less money and resources do not get the same level of service and more often than not get results that are not as good as the rich.
Associates, partners and others inside of the largest law firms that service the richest clients learn a system of work where they question every detail in transactions and litigation and create the best work product possible. This always takes more hours, and the attorneys are expected to put them in. Companies who pay top dollar for legal services expect this. The culture of the largest law firms abhors errors in reasoning, typos, and logic flaws that could have been fixed with more analysis, attention to detail, and hours. That said, the largest law firms can require excessive hours because they have clients willing to pay and they need to produce work product that is as close to perfect as possible to justify their outrageous hourly rates and the hours they spend on each matter.
Large companies do not pay these fees because they are stupid and wasteful, either. They are willing to pay these sorts of fees because the work that the attorneys do for them is often “high stakes.” A lawsuit may involve hundreds of millions of dollars. A transaction could be a merger of two billion-dollar companies or an initial public offering. A real estate matter could involve multiple large skyscrapers in a single portfolio.
Most associates and partners aspire to work on large matters for large corporate clients because the work is typically more important. The associates and partners also make more money when clients are willing to pay for more hours at a higher hourly rate.
The Large Law Firm Inculcates a Belief System in Its Attorneys That Forces Them to Work as Hard as They Can
Despite the existence of lots of work from large corporate clients, none of this would work if attorneys did not have a belief system that became part of them once they started working in the largest law firms. Other attorneys do not even need to tell attorneys how hard they need to work directly—it is simply understood.
The belief system has two levels: (1) what associates believe and (2) what partners believe. The first step is what I call the “brainwashing phase” and generally lasts between one and ten years. The second phase is the “zombie phase,” in which an attorney (often) becomes a partner, and in which his or her personality becomes unrecognizable to people the partner knew before he or she ever went to law school.
The brainwashing phase is where a whole set of beliefs start to be implanted in the attorney. The “gist” of the brainwashing phase is that by the end of it (it can take anywhere from three to twelve years), the attorney will feel completely worthless if he or she is not sitting in an office at a computer billing, developing business, or working in a conference room until at least 10:00 at night. The attorney’s entire self-worth is transformed from someone who may formerly have taken great joy in the outdoors and spending time with family and friends, to someone who feels most comfortable and “alive” when he or she is doing work-related activities that can be recorded in “billable hours.” Not everyone makes it through this phase—many fail to become brainwashed. In fact, the majority of attorneys who enter the law firm realize at some point they are being brainwashed and leave. If the attorney is successfully brainwashed, the attorney will become a zombie. Only true zombies can recognize other zombies, and an attorney can only become a partner if the attorney is a zombie.
Here are the beliefs that are implanted into young attorneys during the brainwashing phase.
If you work hard and do a great job, we’ll make you a partner!
During the brainwashing phase, the young attorney believes that if he or she is among the hardest working young associates, that he or she will be able to be partner. A young attorney often does not even understand what a partner means or how much is involved in being a partner. Regardless, young attorneys quickly get the message that to advance in any meaningful way they need to work as hard as they possibly can.
Consequently, attorneys throw themselves into their jobs and give their jobs everything they have. They are young and do not realize that they are “only young once” and give their time to the law firm with abandon without thinking through what they are doing. Whether it is multiple all-nighters in a row or countless weekends at the firm, they throw themselves into their jobs as if this is all going to lead somewhere positive and they are going to be rewarded for it.
The truth is that:
Most attorneys will never make partner at the large law firms where they are working—most will leave their firms voluntarily after working extreme hours for several years. The hours the attorney puts into the job when the attorney is new will rarely do much to help that attorney become a partner because becoming a partner inside of a major law firm has a lot more to do with other factors than how many hours the attorney billed when he or she was a young associate.
So many partners jump from firm to firm each year that the partners the young attorney works so hard for are unlikely even to be around when it comes time to consider the attorney for partnership.
Nevertheless, other than the quality of their work, young attorneys do not have much more to distinguish themselves when they are young than the number of hours they give to their firms. Hours and energy are what the attorneys have at that stage, and this is how they can distinguish themselves early on. They work these hours believing that it will help them become partners.
The young attorney who gets a job with a large, high paying law firm is also most likely to be someone who has always received lots of praise from teachers, schools, and others for doing good work. His or her self-esteem thus comes from always doing a good job and succeeding. If lots of hours are what is needed to receive this, the young attorney will work those hours to “succeed.” Law firms reinforce this belief system by most often giving the best reviews to the attorneys who bill the most hours.
An attorney is most marketable when that attorney is young. Law firms do not like to hire attorneys once they have more than five years of experience (unless the attorney has a book of business) because more senior attorneys are less likely to believe that hard work will have corresponding rewards—they wake up.
Large law firms will, however, hire an attorney with more than five years of experience if after much probing they can successfully ascertain that the attorney has been successfully “brainwashed” by another law firm and will still work crazy hours with abandon and no regard for his or her social life, family, personality, pasty skin tone, weight, teeth, or mental state. I meet brainwashed attorneys all the time. Many of the men have faces that look like I imagine a sailor or pirate would have looked from spending their days and nights on a schooner in the high seas 200 years ago—their teeth are dark, their skin is bad with pimples and inexplicable indentations, their hair is falling out in odd places—if they still have it—their clothes are ill fitting, and they often seem to give off alcohol vapors intermittently from the night before (or a few minutes ago?).
Nevertheless, as an attorney gets older, the attorney tends to be much more circumspect and far less likely to put in long, inhumane hours because the attorney by now believes there is very little point in doing so. The attorney, instead, snaps out of the hypnotic trance and looks for something else. Law firms do not like attorneys who are older because they know they are far less likely to be brainwashed. They like them young. Law firms also do not like attorneys who have left a law firm and wanted to come back. It takes years to properly brainwash an attorney and an absence of even a month or two will lead to the attorney often being banished from law firms for the rest of his or her life. The real world is just too real and attorneys exposed to the real world almost never are usable again because they often can never be brainwashed again.
The potential of the partnership is very important to young attorneys. The young attorney in the largest law firms has typically succeeded in virtually every important pursuit he or she has been involved with. The young attorney has done well on standardized tests, college and law school, and managed to get a position with a prestigious law firm. This historic level of achievement leads the young attorney to believe he or she also can be a partner. Being partner offers young attorneys the potential of added prestige and more income than they are currently making. Accustomed to high achievement, young attorneys will push themselves to do whatever it takes (through high hours) for as long as it takes until they realize (1) it makes no sense or (2) success is possible if they apply themselves.
The fear of making small errors drives the young attorney to work more hours.
A law firm will never tell a young attorney to work more hours than necessary on any assignment. This would be improper and unethical. Fortunately, the fear of making small errors is inculcated into the young attorney early on and this all but guarantees that the young attorney will be driven to work tons of hours on every assignment. This means young attorneys will be incredibly paranoid about making the slightest mistake lest they earn a frown, raised eyelids, or a negative remark from a partner. Law firm reviews of young attorneys often say things like “you need to be more thorough” or “pay more attention to detail.” This is law-firm-speak for “bill more hours on each assignment.”
If an attorney does not feel a young associate is billing lots of hours, all the attorney needs to do is write a review about “paying more attention to detail” and similar comments, and the associate will suddenly find him or herself sitting in a chair staring at documents 15 hours a day instead of ten. Each “pay more attention to detail” comment is worth at least an additional hour a day of the attorney’s time in the office over the next year. If a law firm expects the attorney to work 24 hours a day until the attorney dies of exhaustion, all the firm needs to do is say this no less than 15 times to the attorney over the course of a couple of months.
The sign of an attorney in the midst of being brainwashed is typically quite obvious. I see these young attorneys regularly when I am visiting partners in law firms around the country. An associate appears in the partner’s office and the partner stops talking with me and questions some small detail of the associate’s work. When the young attorney realizes that he or she may have made a small mistake, the attorney’s face immediately changes color, the attorney’s body straightens, the attorney may offer some excuse, and the attorney rushes off with a level of intensity to fix the error immediately—appearing with a sense of extreme seriousness in the partner’s office a short time later with a clean document. The attorney will be visibly upset about this error and realize that next time he or she needs to work harder, bill more hours, and put in more time to avoid such an inconsequential error. The partner dismisses the associate, expresses disappointment privately to me, and says something about how “kids these days do not care as much as they used to.” The reality is that I expect partners have always been saying this same thing about their young charges as long as there have been large law firms.
The “inconsequential error” is how partners can get associates to work even harder than necessary. Whether it is a single out-of-place comma in a memo or citation formatted incorrectly in a long brief (“go check all of your citations again”!), a good large law firm partner will become an expert in finding small errors. While these are errors, they also serve to induce a form of paranoia about work being perfect that means that each thing that is written will go through countless drafts and more and more hours will be billed. The largest clients and firms will review associates harshly for making small errors and will bring them up in reviews. This means that more and more hours will go into each assignment.
Attorneys who are already billing crazy hours rarely have inconsequential errors pointed out—they are usually so tired they can rarely talk, much less write. I was once working at a law firm with an associate who was billing well over 3,000 hours a year (he pulled all-nighters at least a few days a week) and the guy could barely write a page in a brief without at least a few glaring errors in it. I honestly could not believe he graduated from law school and it was puzzling that he had anything to do at all. If he had fewer hours, I am sure he would have been shown the door. Instead, he was given a talented paralegal who sat right outside his door in a secretary station to proofread every document he turned in. He billed so many hours to everything he did that no one seemed to care about his inability to write—in a job that was all about writing.
In most instances, the young attorney becomes paranoid about making any small errors and to avoid doing so will review, review again, and then review again and again every assignment before turning it in. A memo may take 20 hours to research and write and another 40 to 50 hours to polish with perfect citations and tighter language. Although the points made in the 20-hour memo are the same as they are in the 40 to 50-hour memo, the hours are not and the threat of getting criticized for a small error is not as well. In every assignment, the attorney’s self-esteem is on the line.
Most attorneys at large law firms know that the best way to keep their jobs is to work a lot of hours. When you bill a lot of hours, you are making the largest contribution to the firm in the only measurable monetary way you can—hours. Those who make the largest contribution are the ones the firm is most likely to keep around when things slow down—or even if they do not. Attorneys are expected to work as many hours as they can to keep their jobs.
If an attorney is not billing lots of hours, this will bring negative attention to the attorney and raise a host of concerns.
The attorney is lazy and not working hard. Law firms do not like attorneys who are lazy. There is no reason to keep an attorney like this around. The lazy attorney should not be given work because he or she will not bill the number of hours that could otherwise be billed to various assignments, costing the firm money.
No one is giving the attorney work because no one likes the attorney’s work. If no one likes the attorney’s work, this means the attorney may not follow directions, or simply may not be that good of an attorney. When a law firm takes a look at the hours that an attorney has billed over the course of a year, one logical conclusion the firm reaches is that the attorney is not billing lots of hours because the other attorneys do not want to give the attorney work.
The attorney is not aggressive enough in seeking out work. If the attorney is not aggressive about seeking out work, the attorney is not hungry enough, and if the attorney is not hungry enough, the attorney is not a billing machine and shows very little potential. An attorney who cannot get work from attorneys in his or her firm will certainly not be the type of attorney who ever brings in clients from outside the firm.
Attorneys know that if they do not work hard and bill the most hours, they are likely to lose their positions. More young attorneys are let go and laid off based on not having good hours than for any other reason. In my recruiting practice, when I speak with attorneys and ask them how their jobs are going, they very often respond with their hours: “Things are going GREAT! I billed 2,400 hours last year.” An attorney who is doing poorly will often say: “Not well… I only managed to bill 1,600 hours last year.” What is so humorous about the latter statement is that in a small law firm, an attorney who billed 1,600 hours would be doing very well. But in the largest law firms, 1,600 hours is cause for great concern, worry, and contemplation that it is likely time to look for another position.
Attorneys learn early on that not having good hours is likely to lead to them losing their jobs. Most see this happen—or hear about it happening—to other attorneys early in their careers.
You are lucky to be overwhelmed with work, and we only give lots of work to people we like.
Law firms make it clear that the only attorneys who have a lot of work are the ones they like. Billing 3,000 hours a year and working every day of the week? It’s because we like you! If we did not like you, we would not be giving you so much work. You are lucky and blessed to have so much work.
Because lots of work and hours are bestowed upon the most worthy associates, those without crushing workloads are made to feel left out and like losers. Partners give work to the people who do good work and bill lots of hours. They withhold work from those who do not do good work and do not bill lots of hours. The worst thing that can happen to an associate in a large law firm is not to be given work. If an associate receives lots of assignments frequently, the associate should consider him or herself blessed because this would not be happening if he or she were not pleasing partners and others in the firm.
Because of this odd dynamic that overloads the most promising associates, attorneys learn early on that the best thing they can do is to become as busy as humanly possible. The sign of “love” and “approval” in the largest law firm is giving associates as much work as they can do. Therefore, to feel loved, attorneys want to get as much work as they possibly can.
An attorney who is in the “midst” of being brainwashed—or already is—will have a visible glow, sense of importance, and contagious happiness (compared to other associates) when he or she is getting lots of work from multiple partners who request him or her specifically. These attorneys will find that they are envied by other associates and will believe they are “on the way up” in the firm. Other attorneys will aspire to be like them and get similar bragging rights and become busy as well.
You can make up for your mistakes by working harder.
If an attorney makes mistakes and is criticized in reviews (or otherwise), the attorney knows that he or she can often make up for these mistakes through even more effort and working even harder.
Many attorneys who are working extremely hard inside of law firms are doing so to make up for past mistakes. They may believe that they can prove themselves once and for all by putting in a massive effort, over an extended period, to ensure their survival. Because many young attorneys have never failed at anything in their lives, the last thing they want to do is fail, and they believe that if they put in a serious effort, they will make up for their past mistakes.
This is one of the more obvious reasons attorneys work so hard inside of law firms. If you are surrounded by all sorts of people who are working extremely hard, you start to quickly conclude that the most natural thing is for you to do the same as well. If you are not working hard, you feel out of place.
In the first firm I worked for, the entire law firm was almost always working there on Sundays. It was odd, but rather than work at home, most attorneys would show up at the office on Sundays and seat themselves in the library where they could all see each other working and would work together—presumably to show each other they were working.
There is a lot of peer pressure inside of law firms to work hard, and young attorneys are competitive with one another to show that they are all working the most. Most attorneys are from middle-class environments which, by nature, are very concerned with what their peers are doing and want to fit in. People are social and competitive animals (especially attorneys), and they will follow each other and bill lots of hours to show that they are all the same.
You will only be worthy of a good review and praise if you work extremely hard.
As mentioned previously, reviews often have more to do with the number of hours an attorney bills than they do with the quality of the work that the attorney does. The attorneys who bill the most hours typically receive the best reviews. If an attorney wants good reviews, the attorney typically will want to bill as many hours as possible.
Because an attorney’s self-worth often has a lot to do with the feedback he or she receives from superiors, once the attorney catches on that this is connected to the number of hours that he or she bills, the attorney will push him or herself harder and harder to bill as much as possible. Attorneys crave positive feedback and go to great lengths to get it.
You will lose your current lifestyle if you do not throw yourself into your work.
Once attorneys have been practicing a year or two, they will often start using the money they are earning to improve their lifestyles. In addition to student loans, attorneys may find themselves with a mortgage, car payment, and even a young family. These obligations provide the attorney less freedom to leave the law firm and may even put them in a position where they cannot afford to. Their survival will depend on staying at the law firm to pay their expenses. Once the attorney has sufficient expenses, there is no way for the attorney to leave his or her current position and the attorney will work as many hours as necessary to maintain a family, home, and car the attorney (ironically) rarely gets to see and enjoy.
You are not qualified to do anything else, so you better work hard.
Most attorneys go to law school because they do not know what else to do. Many are liberal arts majors who studied things like political science, English, and other disciplines that are completely useless in the job market. Young attorneys also realize early on that there is not much they can do that will pay even a fraction of what they are making inside of a large law firm. With no other marketable skills, the attorney has no choice but to throw his or herself into his or her job and bill lots of hours.
10. The attorney becomes a prestigious law firm snob.
One obvious option for most attorneys is that if they are not happy working crazy hours in a major law firm, they can go to a smaller one where the hours will not be as bad and where they will be working on matters for smaller clients. Most attorneys do not do this because they could not imagine working at a less prestigious law firm. Their professional identity (and in many cases their self-worth) becomes tied up with working for a law firm that gives them the most social-professional standing in the legal community.
All associates are expendable in the largest law firms.
There is no shortage of attorneys who want to work in the largest law firms. In fact, many of the largest and most prestigious law firms receive applicants practically every hour of every day. If an associate does not bill as many hours as possible, the associate knows that the firm can easily replace him or her with someone who will.
These promises are held out to young attorneys, and the attorneys throw themselves into their jobs (and are able to be exploited) based on their beliefs in these principles. Meanwhile, these attorneys are most often being sold a “bill of goods” that may not necessarily be true. There is the potential for major rewards from their work, but this is something that they often do not receive. This form of capitalist exploitation is amazing. The attorney is part of a capitalist cycle that uses not just money, but the attorney’s mind against them.
The attorney is under constant and never-ending pressure to give more hours, for less money, than people in other professions. When work slows down or goes away, the attorney can lose his or her job. The law firm always sends the message to its workers that the people who are most likely to be kept around are those who bill the most hours. Money, a belief system, and a need for prestige enslaves and brainwashes young attorneys.
After being successfully brainwashed, an attorney may become a zombie billing machine. In most cases, the zombie phase is terminal and continues for the rest of the attorney’s career. Zombies can be associates, or they can be partners—they are, however, most frequently partners. Zombies leave when they are unable to find sufficient work to feed them; however, if they can find work most stay.
Zombies are constantly thinking about billing their time and finding novel ways to do so.
Every phone call and interaction they have with another human being is something that they consider recording as billable time (or future billable time)—even time with their spouses may be recorded as “business development time” if the spouse has a relative who is the General Counsel of a large corporation.
Phone calls are answered if at all possible because, depending on how the law firm bills time, a 3-minute call can be recorded for as much as .25 of an hour (for firms that bill in quarter hour increments).
Getting large clients (billable hours), recruiting associates, and getting others to bill as much time to their clients as possible—all becomes a priority for zombies. For zombies, interaction with clients becomes about billing the time speaking with them as well as manufacturing reasons to bill them even more for new projects manufactured to work on during the conversation.
Party and social invitations are all accepted if there is the possibility that someone important with access to cash who can become a client and be billed will be present.
Ridiculous boards, nonprofits (“Let’s help the three-toed sloth!”), and other organizations are joined if they represent contacts that could lead to potential future business for the zombie.
Articles about boring topics (“Legislative Update: How Subrogation Policies Can be Written to Protect Nonbeneficiaries in the Event of Unanticipated Custodial Intervention” or “Latest Cases Dealing With How Companies Can Protect Against Global Warming Lawsuits from Saudi Arabian Nomads”) are penned in legal periodicals to act as “bait” for clients that may need someone to bill them $1,200 an hour to pontificate about a given non-issue.
Fellow partners who have a lot of work who are about as interesting as wet bricks between the first and second floors of a suburban house in Lima, Ohio are flattered, made to feel important, and extended lunch dates by zombies in the pursuit of more billable hours.
A law firm will pay its partners as little as it can for their business, the hours they bill, and the money they generate for the law firm. The partners will generate as much business and bill as many hours to the business they do have as they are capable of billing to their clients without risking losing those clients—if the attorney’s hours are low, however, the attorney may bill with abandon without fear of the client never using that attorney again.
Most law firms’ ability to hold onto partners is a function of how much they are willing to pay. Most partners end up at various points in their careers quite unhappy with their compensation and law firms want to pay attorneys as little as they possibly can for their work. More powerful partners always want the greatest share possible of other attorneys’ work. Unable to always agree how to pay each other, many attorneys just decide to spend big on their offices, staff, and other expenses. Many buy rare and expensive art, Persian and Oriental Rugs, and give each other huge budgets to decorate their offices with fine wood floors and strange wallpaper hand-painted by artists in small villages on islands off the coast of Italy.
There is a constant pressure for partners to get paid the amount of money they feel they are entitled to. Many do not carry their weight, and these partners become even more desperate for work. These attorneys often go in-house, into government, start all sorts of businesses, and many con other law firms into believing they have more business than they do to hire them. It is not uncommon for a zombie with $500,000 in business to tell new firms that he or she has over $2,000,000. Zombies remain in law firms and continue to bill lots of hours due to the following:
The zombie relies on the brand of the firm for prestige.
Zombies inside of large law firms get professional standing in the legal community based on the quality of the brand of their law firms. There is a whole pecking order of brands of law firms and their prestige. A lawyer partially measures his or her professional accomplishment based on the quality of the law firm he or she is at. If a zombie is with a very well-regarded law firm, the zombie will often feel privileged to be working at such a good firm and will work as hard as possible to justify working there. A zombie might never consider working in a less prestigious law firm.
When zombies are together, they frequently talk about the “incompetence” of smaller, less prestigious attorneys they are against on the other side of whatever they are working on. It is presumed that if their opposing attorney is at a smaller, less prestigious law firm, their opposing attorney must, of course, be less skilled than the big firm attorney. Because this is so often assumed, zombies loath doing anything other than practice with the most prestigious law firms they can so that they can talk negatively about attorneys at less prestigious law firms and feel good about themselves.
The mentality of zombies starts early in their careers, when they go to law school and go to the best one they can. They automatically assume they are smarter than people who attend less highly ranked law schools. They then assume that they are smarter than law students who go to less prestigious law firms in the summer and after graduation. Exposed to this mentality long enough, zombies become thoroughly convinced that they are smarter than people who did not go to as good a law school and are not working at as a good of a law firm.
If I call an attorney in his or her late 50s or early 60s with a realistically obtainable opportunity at a much more prestigious law firm, the majority of the attorneys I speak with are interested. To maintain their status in the legal community and remain employed, zombies continue to work extremely hard in their positions when they are working in the major, prestigious law firms because most (not all) get a sense of importance from the prestige of the firm they are working at.
The zombie relies on the brand of the firm to attract and keep clients.
For zombies to attract and keep their clients, they will be very dependent on the brand of the law firm. The largest and best clients want to use the law firms in the market with the best names and reputations. A law firm with a good reputation is attractive to the largest clients because opposing counsel will respect the brand of the firm and the brand of these firms reflects on them. Rather than strike out on their own, or work in a smaller, less prestigious environment, zombies stay with the large law firm because they believe it will make them more attractive to clients. Zombies will continue billing lots of hours because they feel the brand of the firm is necessary for them to keep their clients.
All firms have different types of reputations for how their attorneys behave and present themselves as well. These attorneys reflect this in their choice of dress, hobbies, speech, and how they interact with others. To my astonishment, I once visited a law firm where every other attorney was wearing a Hermes tie. I could give you multiple examples, but large law firm attorneys often have a reputation for certain types of dress and behavior, and they act in these ways when they are around each other.
A zombie will often have a sense of obligation to the zombies he or she is working with. After years (or often decades) of working with the same people, the zombie will be competitive with them to work hard and also feel a sense of obligation to contribute as much work and as many hours as the zombie can. These obligations keep zombies at their firms, and often make them feel indebted because their social and professional circles revolve around other zombies. Because of this, they continue working as hard as they can and billing as many hours as they can to various firm matters.
The zombie realizes there are large transaction costs if he or she moves.
Zombies will often be in a position where there will be large transaction costs if they move than if they remain in the firm. These transaction costs include such things as (1) potential loss of work from other zombies they work with, (2) loss of relationships with talented associates they work with, (3) inability to transition current clients to a new firm (due to conflicts, increased billing rates, and different reputations of the firm they are moving to), (4) uncertainty about the future of the firm they are moving to, and (5) uncertainty about the management of the new firm. Because the partner may be nervous about all of these transaction costs, the partner will often remain at his or her firm indefinitely.
There are transaction costs associated with other career paths as well. For example, if a zombie is considering going in-house, there will be transaction costs associated with this move as well. The zombie may be nervous about (1) walking away from clients that are a constant source of work and income, (2) not being able to return if things do not work out, (3) lost income, and (4) the potential insecurity of the in-house position.
Most zombies are replaceable in the best law firms.
The very best law firms typically do not have much difficulty finding good zombies. These law firms can use their brands to attract other zombies with more work and a desire to bill more hours. The reason this works is that most zombies are always interested in working in the best law firms that they can—this is one reason a zombie is a zombie, to begin with. If a well-respected, large law firm loses one zombie, the firm often can find other zombies to take his or her place fairly quickly.
Zombies risk losing their current lifestyle if they leave their firm.
If a zombie decides that the zombie no longer wants to be a zombie, the zombie risks losing the zombie’s current lifestyle—that the zombie may never get to enjoy anyway. A zombie will gradually take on more and more obligations (family, homes, cars and such) that will put the zombie in a position where he or she needs to continue billing lots of hours to stay above water. Zombies in these positions will often continue working in large law firms as long as they possibly can.
The reason that attorneys in large law firms work so hard and bill so many hours is because this is demanded of the attorneys who work in such firms, if they want to continue to work in such firms. Whether an attorney is in the brainwashing stage or the zombie stage, the attorney is programmed to believe that working extremely hard and billing as many hours as possible is the attorney’s only choice. In fact, in reality, it is true that this is often the attorney’s only choice if the attorney wants to keep working in a large law firm. But attorneys always have other choices, if they can or want to see them.
Is working long hours worth the prestige and money you receive from a big law firm? Do you prefer a big or a small law firm? What advice would you give about billing hours to attorneys just starting at a big law firm?