When A Benefit Is Not Really a Benefit

A law firm employment benefit is something of value that is conferred on or available to an employee or firm member by an employer and is a term of employment — either at the beginning of employment or added at a later date. It typically is something that the employee or firm member otherwise could only get or would have to pay more for.

Think health insurance. Although the employee or firm member has to pay the health insurance premiums, the employee or firm member typically is part of a large group and, therefore, “benefits” from lower premiums than if that employee or firm member went out and shopped other healthcare plans.

Also think flexible work schedules. No one but your employer can give that to you, and it can confer a huge amount of value to an individual employee or firm member.

An article earlier this year in Above the Law announced a new “benefit” from a top Big Law firm. Here is how the benefit was described:

It’s now easier for those at the firm to save for future education costs. The firm recently announced a new benefit for employees, a 529 College Savings Plan which allows folks to start saving for those educational expenses through automatic payroll deductions.

Sounds good. But wait a minute. Is it really a “benefit”?

529 education savings plans are ubiquitous and are available through many state-sponsored programs. If you are not familiar with these plans, which are named for the section of the IRS code that enables them, you should Google it. People in all walks of life and varied circumstances are able to participate in these plans through their state governments.

So, unless I am mistaken, the “benefit” announced by this Big Law firm, a program that employees and firm members can use to save for their kids’ educations, provides nothing more than what employees and firm members already have available through similar programs. And any “benefit” conferred is simply an automatic payroll deduction. Not much of a benefit in the large scheme of things.

Do your homework. Get savvy. Do not be fooled by things that are labeled “benefits” and do not confer true value to you. And for sure do not accept those things in lieu of compensation. It is not apples for apples.

Labeling things as “benefits” can be a shell game, and you do not want to play.

Career Counselors, Law Firm Managers, Law Students, Lifestyle, Practice Advice, Pre-law, Young Lawyer | Comment

Two Ways to Look At End-of-Year Bonuses

End of year bonuses for associate lawyers are at an all time high right now. Many firms, mostly Biglaw, are celebrating what has been referred to as “stunning” profits in 2020 and sharing the largesse with associate lawyers in the form of bonuses. Some of those bonuses are far in excess of $25K, paid out in increments, and additional money is being thrown at newly hired laterals, who are able to introduce the firm to other interested and highly-credentialed associate lawyers who then also become lateral hires. One of the Biglaw firms reportedly is valuing that effort to the tune of $50K as a type of finder’s fee.

It is all part of a current war for talent and the resulting hiring frenzy at law firms. If this sounds like good news to young lawyers, I am not surprised. That kind of money gets everyone’s attention, especially associate lawyers with law school debt hanging over their heads.

But, I encourage you to see it for what it is. This is not just the generosity of law firms. This also is a way to keep associates at the firms where they are highly leveraged and producing significant income for the firms. There is an expectation at law firms that the high billables among associates during 2020 can be repeated again in 2021, and the ching-ching sound is very appealing to law firm management.

The “golden handcuffs” of high salaries for associate lawyers has been recognized for decades. The “gold” clearly is the compensation, and the “handcuffs” represent the constraints that accompany that level of compensation in terms of the lifestyle it enables. That lifestyle can include big home mortgages, expensive club memberships, and other trappings of wealth.

But it does not have to be that way. If you are one of the recipients of the big bonuses and/or finders fees, think about how you use that money. If you spend it all on expensive cars, boats and extravagant vacations, you will find yourself unable to leave the money behind and exercise your free will in the event that the Biglaw experience does not work out for you.

Be smart. Be strategic. Plan for your future. See things for what they really are.

For more information on the two sides to this particular coin, see this article recently published on Above The Law.

Career Counselors, Law Firm Managers, Law School Educators, Law Students, Lifestyle, Practice Advice, Pre-law, Young Lawyer | Comment

The Student Loan Forgiveness Program Works!

The substantial student loan debt that many law school graduates incur follows them a long time into their practices. It hangs over their heads like dark clouds, and it affects their life style options. Those options are not limited to expensive vacations and other choices that may seem extravagant. No, they include options for home ownership, education choices for children, and job flexibility. 

Some young lawyers have the ability to have their loans paid off by family members or other interested parties. That is indeed fortunate for them, although I always hope that those “pay-off” scenarios include leaving portions of the debt with the young lawyers. They need to have a financial stake in their futures.

But other young lawyers must look elsewhere for loan forgiveness, and the current federal program is the place to start until additional loan forgiveness becomes law — as is being promoted by the Biden administration and certain members of Congress. See this article on options for federal student loan forgiveness, and discover what might be available for you. 

The public service option for those employed by a U.S. federal, state, local, or tribal government or not-for-profit organization is a place to start for young lawyers. It is an especially good opportunity for those of you who think that you cannot take another day in private practice. Billable hours and representing the establishment do not appeal to everyone, but the high salaries keep them there. 

And for those who say it never will happen for them and that the effort for loan forgiveness is too weighty for a young lawyer with practice responsibilities, check out this success story

Is this a perfect fix? No. But hopefully you have learned by now not to sacrifice “good” on the altar of “perfect.” It is a dead end.

Career Counselors, Law Firm Managers, Law School Educators, Law Students, Lifestyle, Practice Advice, Pre-law, Young Lawyer | Comment

Women Lawyers Have a Lot to Think About

My thoughts this week are with the women lawyers. Not only was it Mother’s Day on Sunday, a day which always leads me to thoughts about the challenges for women lawyers with young children, but it also was a week when I took a first look at the results of the new ABA study, Practicing Law in the Pandemic and Moving Forward, which surveyed 4200 ABA members (54% men and 43% women) from September 30 to October 11, 2020 and found that the pandemic has been very hard on women lawyers. Read the specifics in this article from Bloomberg News.

Most of you know the issues. Lack of childcare or complicated childcare at best. Home schooling responsibilities when schools have been closed. Space issues as you and a mate both are working at home. And the list goes on.

But knowing the issues is different than knowing what you will do about it. And most of you know that Zoom is not the panacea. Even though it has been heralded as a benefit, it is hardly the answer to all workplace woes. Most people are zoomed out by this time.

As detailed in the Bloomberg News article, a McKinsey report on women in the workplace concludes that a third of women in the workforce with small children are contemplating scaling back on their careers or quitting entirely. That is of great concern.

So, before you join those ranks and do something precipitous and unwise, think about how you can change things in your practice and at your workplace. Discussions about flexible hours, working from home opportunities, and part-time pathways to partnership that will accommodate you and your employer are important to improving the legal profession for women lawyers.

Women want to see law firms invest in them, and law firms want to see women take realistic views of what the practice of law means. Although there are arguments to be made that face time all of the time is not necessary, the legal profession has operated on that basis for the last two hundred years. It is better to negotiate working from home part of the time if you really want to be successful.

I understand that billing hours in sweats is comfortable and low maintenance, but it is not “the fix”. It is far more likely that reasonable compromise will get you where you need to be if making mortgage payments and educating your children are important goals in your life.

In some cases it IS all about money and financial security. Finding a way to meet those goals and also have a satisfying career is the challenge.

Career Counselors, Law Firm Managers, Law School Educators, Law Students, Lifestyle, Practice Advice, Pre-law, Young Lawyer | Comment

Well-Being Week in Law

You probably were not aware of it, but this week is Well-Being Week in Law. I hope you always are focused on your well-being and especially this week. So much has happened in the last year during the pandemic to challenge our well-being, and it is essential that we are ever cognizant of where we stand on the spectrum of personal well-being and know how to combat signs of threats to our mental health from external forces.

This week of well-being observance for lawyers was launched in 2020 by the Institute for Well-Being in Law, a non-profit dedicated to advancing systemic change in the legal profession to promote well-being as a core component of personal and professional success. Prompted by the findings of the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being and the release in 2017 of its report, The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change, the focus of the Institute is addressing growing concerns about mental health, substance use and addiction, and stress affecting lawyers. The leadership of the Institute recognizes that it is imperative to create culture changes in how the profession prioritizes the well-being of its members.

The findings of the National Task Force do not exist in a vacuum. In a June 2020 report published by the Association of Corporate Counsel, results of a poll showed that 75 percent of respondents were experiencing moderate to very high levels of burnout, including sleep disorders, chronic fatigue and increasing use of controlled substances. And the American Bar Association has identified well-being as a major focus in its work during the last several years. The agreement among professionals is that the problems did not start with the pandemic but have been exacerbated by issues related to the pandemic, racial justice reckoning, and environmental disasters, which all have led to increased levels of stress and associated health problems.

If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms threatening personal well-being, please seek the help you need in the medical community, professional organizations, or on line at the Institute for Well-Being in Law.

Remember that you cannot be good for others if you are not good to yourself.

Career Counselors, Law Firm Managers, Law School Educators, Law Students, Lifestyle, Practice Advice, Pre-law, Young Lawyer | Comment

The Joys of Conservation

Tomorrow is Earth Day. It is always celebrated on April 22nd and has its roots in the student protests surrounding the US involvement in the Vietnam Conflict in the late 1960’s. It was conceived by Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, the great state of my birth, and it led to important US environmental legislation and a global recognition of Earth Day in the 1990’s.

Here are some Earth Day facts to share with your friends:

Senator Nelson founded Earth Day after witnessing a massive oil spill that leaked millions of gallons of oil off the coast of Santa Barbara, California in 1969.

The very first Earth Day sparked an environmental movement and led to the creation of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) later that year.

The observation of Earth Day was also influential in passing environmental legislation like the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, National Environmental Education Act, and more.

In 2009, the UN designated April 22 as International Mother Earth Day.

And it is estimated that over a billion people participate in Earth Day every year, making it the largest secular observance in the world.

Earth Day has become a special day of celebration for me. My family respected the environment and contributed to environmental causes like recycling and water conservation long before it was popular. As children we were taught the importance of these commitments and our responsibilities to get involved.

And concerns for the environment and protection of nature are still very important to me today. The volunteer work that I do as a board member of the Northern Virginia Conservation Trust has become a passion, and every acre of land that we protect with tools like conservation easements and fee acquisitions of pristine lands is a cause for celebration. Sometimes it is preservation of a large parcel of land in the Shenandoah Valley, often a farm that has been in a family for generations, and other times it is only a few acres that add to the enjoyment of nature in urban settings in the communities of Northern Virginia bordering Washington, DC. All of these opportunities improve the quality of life for residents of those areas and help reduce the effects of climate change.

Did you know that tree canopies reduce the carbon footprint? Did you know that trees take in carbon and emit oxygen. So every acre of natural forest that is saved is a benefit to climate control. Natural forests also benefit water quality, reduce erosion and provide homes for wild animals.

There is so much that all of us can do in the fight to preserve green spaces and reduce the effects of climate change. Lawyers are naturals for this work because of their advocacy training, knowledge of the legislative process, and understanding of land use issues. So, I encourage you to get involved!

Check out this link to the Northern Virginia Conservation Trust to see how your talents can be used there and in similar organizations throughout the country.

Happy Earth Day!

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What’s Happening in Law Firms Today?

Law firms are changing. The pandemic has changed just about everything in business, and law firms are no exception. So what are the big changes that law firms and their members are experiencing these days?

The biggest news involves bonuses. The Internet is jumping on an almost daily basis with news of the ongoing bonus war and one more BigLaw firm added to the big bonus list. Even big signing bonuses for associates, sometimes up to six figures.

All of this bonus activity has caused me to wonder what is driving it. After all, the law business has just come through a difficult year where most everyone is working remotely and the brick and mortar offices are sitting empty but very expensive for those firms with long-term leases. On the other hand, most firms are finding that there is no diminution of the quality of the work and profits look good. So it is a bad news, good news analysis.

The answer to this bonus activity appears to lie in the increased lateral movement in large law firms these days. The lateral movement is particularly significant among corporate transactions attorneys, and bonuses are a mechanism that firms use to retain talent and keep clients in place. According to one legal recruiter, “I definitely feel like corporate associate recruiting is the busiest I’ve seen since I’ve started my business.” Another source describes the lateral activity right now as “absolutely absurd.”

So there is that. But it’s hardly a panacea for the increase in mental health issues, stress and burnout in the legal profession during these trying pandemic times. The question will be whether money will solve these problems. My guess is that it will not, but it will keep people in place for the near future and it will be a significant factor in the competition for market leadership.

And there also are other changes in law firms related to the pandemic. With the success of remote practice in terms of law firm profitability and the convenience of working from home for many practicing lawyers, the next challenge I expect is whether the five-day-work-week at the office will survive. According to some sources, law firms are beginning to address the benefits of bringing everyone back to the office full-time. One source reports that offices are being reconfigured with the concept of telecommuting in mind and with a reduction in personal office space in lieu of more collaborative spaces.

And this is likely to create yet another bidding war. One that is about lifestyle not money.

Only time will tell.

Career Counselors, Law Firm Managers, Law School Educators, Law Students, Lifestyle, Practice Advice, Pre-law, Young Lawyer | Comment

The Student Loan Forgiveness Program Works!

The substantial student loan debt that many law school graduates incur follows them a long time into their practices. It hangs over their heads like dark clouds, and it affects their life style options. Those options are not limited to expensive vacations and other choices that may seem extravagant. No, they include options for home ownership, education choices for children, and job flexibility.

Some young lawyers have the ability to have their loans paid off by family members or other interested parties. That is indeed fortunate for them, although I always hope that those “pay-off” scenarios include leaving portions of the debt with the young lawyers. They need to have a financial stake in their futures.

But other young lawyers must look elsewhere for loan forgiveness, and the current federal program is the place to start until additional loan forgiveness becomes law — as is being promoted by the Biden administration and certain members of Congress. See this article on options for federal student loan forgiveness, and discover what might be available for you.

The public service option for those employed by a U.S. federal, state, local, or tribal government or not-for-profit organization is a place to start for young lawyers. It is an especially good opportunity for those of you who think that you cannot take another day in private practice. Billable hours and representing the establishment do not appeal to everyone, but the high salaries keep them there.

And for those who say it never will happen for them and that the effort for loan forgiveness is too weighty for a young lawyer with practice responsibilities, check out this success story.

Is this a perfect fix? No. But hopefully you have learned by now not to sacrifice “good” on the altar of “perfect.” It is a dead end.

Career Counselors, Law Firm Managers, Law School Educators, Law Students, Lifestyle, Practice Advice, Pre-law, Young Lawyer | Comment