Big Firm Burnout

Most non-profit general counsel are familiar with the term "big firm refugees." It describes the burnt-out lawyers from big law firms who give up the grind of law firm life for the challenging and rewarding legal jobs in non-profits. A good number of non-profit general counsel fit this description.

The phenomenon is widespread. While the big firm exodus remains a boon to the non-profit sector, it also indicates a serious problem confronting big law firms. As managing partners place unremitting pressure on their colleagues to increase profits per partner, many lawyers chafe at the negative effects the need to bill more hours has on the quality of their lives. This isn't a new gripe, but lately the complaints are getting more attention.

The ABA's Litigation Section recently created "Raise the Bar," a project that looks for ways law firms can help their lawyers achieve a sensible work-life balance without compromising the quality of their work or the profitability of their businesses.

Meanwhile non-profits continue to benefit from hiring the big firm burnouts. At a recent gathering of non-profit general counsel, one GC told of two lawyers on her staff who had ditched billable hour life despite their high incomes and professional success in law firms.

One of those attorneys had just made partner before quitting to move to a non-profit position, a move that resulted in a 50 percent pay cut. The GC suspected that lawyer had held out at the firm only long enough to make partner and pay off his law school loans. The other, an associate, was happy to take a one-third pay cut and move into the non-profit sector.

But none of the non-profit GCs at the gathering were gloating. Everyone agreed the refugees were excellent additions to their staffs because big firms provide excellent training, experience and discipline. Yet, one GC acknowledged that as good as the legal work might be in big firms, those firms seem to breed an "atmosphere of fear." Around the table heads nodded in agreement at this rather harsh observation.

Some of them were certainly thinking of their own experiences in private practice before they made their moves in-house to non-profit organizations. Even so, none regretted their stints at the big firms. Their time at the big firms gave them a wealth of experience and training, after all.

But they also felt they had dodged a career bullet by getting out early--before their firms required them to make too many compromises. And there was a genuine concern for the profession itself, that despite the wealth of talent it attracts, it has not yet figured out how to serve its clients without eating so many of its young.

Perhaps the Raise the Bar initiative will make a difference. Clearly, the worry is that the current trajectory of the profession is off kilter, perhaps even to the point that the business of law will overwhelm the practice of law.

No one thinks big law firms will wither away. That's the point. They will always be with us. The goal is to make them better places for lawyers who want to practice law, and particularly for the young people entering the profession who want to do something more than just increase their net worth.

Those of us in the non-profit sector can help. As clients of the big firms, we have a voice that will be heard if we choose to speak up. The ABA is seeking outside perspectives such as ours. We should offer it. Meanwhile non-profits will continue to benefit from hiring the big firm refugees, but that is hardly the solution the profession is looking for.

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