Young Associates in Trouble

21 Pages Posted: 22 Jan 2007 Last revised: 27 Jun 2013

See all articles by David T. Zaring

David T. Zaring

University of Pennsylvania - Legal Studies Department

William D. Henderson

Indiana University Maurer School of Law


Two recent novels portray the substantively unhappy and morally unfulfilling lives of young associates who work long hours in large, elite law firms. As it turns out, their search for love, happiness, and moral purpose is largely in vain. In the rarefied atmosphere of both fictitious firms, the best and the brightest while away their best years doing document reviews, drafting due diligence memoranda that no one will read, and otherwise presiding over legal matters with lots of zeros but precious little intrinsic interest. If this is what large law firm practice is like, the reader is bound to ask why large law firm jobs are so coveted. Is it really all about money?

In this review essay, we compare Kermit Roosevelt's and Nick Laird's bleak portrayals with findings from a unique dataset on law firm profitability, prestige, hours worked, and various measures of several associate satisfactions. We also mine the findings of several empirical studies that track the experience of lawyers over time. We observe that higher firm profitability is associated with higher salaries, bonuses, and prestige. Yet, higher profits also have a statistically significant relationship with longer hours, a less family-friendly workplace, less interesting work, less opportunity to work with partners, less associate training, less communication regarding partnership, and a higher reported likelihood of leaving the firm within the next two years. Nonetheless, graduates from the nation's most elite law schools tend to gravitate toward the most profitable and prestigious (and most grueling) law firms. The attraction of the most elite firms may be superior outplacement options. Or perhaps, as both novels intimate, it may stem from a reluctance to make hard life choices.

The available empirical evidence suggests that success within the elite law firm environment often entails a difficult array of personal and professional trade-offs. Although we find our empirical data to be informative, the novel may be a particularly effective vehicle for examining the rather existential nature of these choices. Thus, we suspect that the accounts drawn by Roosevelt and Laird will resonate with many elite, large law firm lawyers.

In the Shadow of the Law. By Kermit Roosevelt. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2005. Pp. 346. $24.

Utterly Monkey: A Novel. By Nick Laird. London & New York: Harper Perennial. 2005. Pp. 344. $13.95.

Keywords: Law firms, Am Law 100, Am Law 200, Partnerships, Roosevelt, Laird

JEL Classification: D20, D80, D90, J21, J23, J24, J30, J44, L84

Suggested Citation

Zaring, David T. and Henderson, William D., Young Associates in Trouble. 105 Mich. L. Rev. 1087 (2007), Indiana Legal Studies Research Paper No. 67, Washington & Lee Legal Studies Paper No. 67/2007, Available at SSRN:

David T. Zaring (Contact Author)

University of Pennsylvania - Legal Studies Department ( email )

3730 Walnut Street
Suite 600
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6365
United States

William D. Henderson

Indiana University Maurer School of Law ( email )

211 S. Indiana Avenue
Bloomington, IN 47405
United States
812-856-1788 (Phone)
812-855-0555 (Fax)

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