It takes more than lawyers to build a great law firm.
In my experience of working at law firms for the past 20 years, there has always been a class difference in law firms between its administrative team (often called “staff” – a term we collectively do not like) and its lawyers as well as how they treat staff attorneys.
I worked at one firm where staff was supposed to sit at certain tables in the cafeteria while lawyers sat at others. I remember on my first day of work, my colleagues took me on an office tour and warned me that I could never sit at a circular table. Those were reserved for lawyers I was told. It sounded preposterous and wrong, but I didn’t question it.
With all of the changes that have come about as a result of the pandemic and working from home, it’s a good time to revisit this issue which has been prevalent at law firms for many years.
Some firms have staff attorney positions or nonpartnership track associates who are not treated the same way as associates. Staff attorneys typically make far less money than traditional associates and have fewer benefits. They also don’t have access to the same professional development programs or networking opportunities that law firms offer their associates.
While this doesn’t pertain to every law firm and things have gotten better over time, working with many law firms during my career has shown me that law firm administrative employees and staff attorneys are just not treated the same as associates, counsel and partners.
A partner with whom I worked once told that I was a “cost center” versus a “profit center.” He said I should be working harder to prove my value because I could not be billed out. I thought I brought value but to him, I was an expense that he said “came out of his pocket.”
I remember at one firm being told that I was not allowed to have a laptop because I was not an attorney. The work that I was doing was incredibly important – or at least I thought so. So why couldn’t I have a piece of technology that would make my life easier? They said if they gave one to me they would have to give it to other “staff.” The logic was flawed.
I also remember being told that staff was not allowed to work from home but lawyers were. Now this was of course pre-pandemic, but the same flexibility and benefits were just not extended to law firm staff.
At some firms, the professional team doesn’t accumulate the same amount of vacation and paid time off as well as maternity leave.
Why do some law firms offer more paid leave to lawyers than to staff? Or better benefits when it comes to childcare, technology and education?
At the end of the day a lot of firms offer those kinds of benefits to their lawyers because they are in competition with each other for talent.
A lot of us bristle at the term “staff” by the way. It diminishes our contributions and brings that class difference and law firm hierarchy to the forefront. I love working at and with law firms, but I have never loved this aspect of it.
Are law firm staff second class citizens? When will that finally change? Even with all of the innovating due to Covid, it doesn’t seem like we’ve innovated enough to treat everyone the same at law firms.
The talent market is incredibly competitive right now, and if law firms don’t treat all of their employees the same way, they will not retain and recruit top people anymore. They will have a harder time proving that they are supportive place to work that provides professional development opportunities for all of its people.
In addition, your employees now have many online forums to voice their grievances, including Glassdoor. So if you’re not treating your people well, they will make sure that others know about it.
I don’t want to suggest that you should treat your employees equitably because you’re worried about online negative reviews, but I hope it helps in terms of making sure that law firms know that their reputation can be at stake.
Treating your employees well just the right thing to do. And I’m not saying that all law firms have a hierarchy, but there are elements of this class system at most firms.
Just because I don’t have a law degree doesn’t mean that I am worth any less in terms of valuing my time with my family, my maternity leave, the technology I use or my professional development.
Some food for thought for all of the law firms out there. I know that law firms can do better. They can extend the same benefits and perks to all employees, and make every person feel valued.