Second-Class Lawyers: Why Staff Attorneys Are Treated Unfairly At Some Firms

Second-Class Lawyers: Why Staff Attorneys Are Treated Unfairly At Some Firms

By now, many lawyers who’ve worked at law firms in the past decade or so know that being a staff attorney at a major firm can be tough—whether it’s long hours of billable work, managing junior associates, and/or doing tasks not directly related to your practice area.

But what many attorneys might not realize is that some firms also treat their staff attorneys as second-class lawyers. Not only are they paid less than their peers, but they’re often given fewer opportunities to advance their careers in ways that other attorneys who came into the firm as associates enjoy.

The Good Lawyers

While staff attorneys may not be able to become equity partners in a law firm, they are still valuable assets. They work long hours and handle caseloads that would be too much for an equity partner.

These attorneys also manage the day-to-day legal needs of the firm’s clients so that an equity partner can focus on matters that only they can manage. Equity partners and staff attorneys also share responsibilities in office management such as managing budgets, supervising lower ranking staff members, keeping track of client information, and overseeing any other administrative tasks required to keep the firm running smoothly.

The Bad Lawyers

Staff attorneys, who are some of the most educated and experienced lawyers in a firm, are often treated as second-class lawyers. In many firms, staff attorneys must wait around on projects for six months or more before their work is actually used by the client. And even when the work is completed and accepted by the client, they may not be acknowledged.

This makes sense because firms often try to put an associate attorney’s name on all legal opinions or pleadings authored by staff attorneys–even though associates did nothing more than show up to ask questions to a senior lawyer or proofread a draft once in a while.

We all know that small firms–where associates and partners alike do actual work instead of only billing hours–tend to be more efficient. So why are staff attorneys treated like second-class lawyers in many large firms? The simple reason is that most law firm management styles rely on billable hours as a way to measure a lawyer’s worth and performance.

This is understandable, but it forces law firms to treat staff attorneys differently from their partner and associate colleagues because there’s no benefit in putting their names on legal opinions or pleadings when they’re not going to get billed for it.

The Ugly Lawyers

Staff attorneys are traditionally viewed as a means to an end for law firms, handling the grunt work and absorbing cases that no one else wants. They’re not always trained in the finer points of law, leading them to rely on research assistants, or paralegals.

One staffer said she was told by a managing partner that she should feel lucky that her salary was three times what they paid new lawyers after they were hired on staff. The lack of respect can lead to burnout and early departure from the industry altogether.

Good firms will be looking to keep their staffers satisfied and working with them for as long as possible. They’ll have mentors, encourage them to attend educational programs and events, and provide raises based on merit rather than seniority. It’s also a good idea to look at practice areas in which you might enjoy working. For example, if you love intellectual property law but want a more corporate setting, you may want to find a firm that does IP work for large companies.

Where to start

If you’ve been a law student, there’s a chance that you have been told about the job market for lawyers is growing. That’s true and over the past decade, more and more law schools are adding additional seats to train students to take the bar exam.

However, if you’re a lawyer that practices at some firms – especially those who predominantly staff their practice with attorneys who come from temp agencies, not with law graduates – then you might be part of the second class of lawyers in some firms.

Staff attorneys are generally treated differently than partners or associates because they usually don’t have their own office.

They are sometimes not informed about important matters that arise in their practice area and they may be paid less for doing similar work as partners or associates. It’s even been reported that many new lawyers working at firms have to start at a pay scale below what they expected, even if they had prior experience. Even further, some of these law firms may force staff attorneys to take on tasks unrelated to practicing law – taking depositions, drafting memoranda and general paper work.

As a result, after paying off student debt, which has grown considerably in recent years, second class lawyers are earning just enough to make ends meet.

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