Traditionally, large firms are composed of attorneys that are divided into “associate” and “partner” roles. Over the past decade, there has been a breakaway from that model and more staff
attorneys (fellows, analysts, counsel, etc). While these labels may have had some negative connotations associated with them in the past, attorneys and firms are now rebranding them as alternative and flexible options that can accommodate a more diverse workforce.
Since the recession, BigLaw partners face increasing pressure to keep bills down from their clients. The number of law firms competing for business is massive, and the high billing rates for partners and associates require law firms to be creative about saving money for clients by using other members of their team. Additionally, certain practice areas are not booming enough to ensure a continual flow of work, but critical enough to keep a subject matter expert on board.
Enter: Staff Attorneys.
Many talented young lawyers enter large firms and enjoy the prestige, resources, and sophisticated matters. The pressure that comes from the “up or out” and partnership track often
leads to burnout, and has been cited as a factor that keeps a diverse array of talented attorneys from staying in BigLaw practice. Law firms and partners are under pressure to maintain and grow profits—but some attorneys just want to be attorneys. They might not want the increased rates and pressures, and may simply want to continue doing good work—which can dramatically help increase the profits per partner of law firms.
Staff attorneys are a way for firms to retain good and integrate people into its ecosystem it might not otherwise integrate and provide good service to its clients in the process. It also diversifies
career tracks for is younger associates who can try to find where they would be of greatest service to the firm. New attorneys and recent graduates are less traditional and bolder than their senior counterparts, and are entering the practice with requirements for flexibility, reasonable hours, and a better lifestyle (millennials in particular have valued lifestyle as more important than money or prestige). Firms that do not adapt may find that their talent will go elsewhere. Firms that incorporate staff attorney tracks, on the other hand, tend to have attorneys with the firepower to do work while offering them the benefit of lifestyle considerations.
Takeaway: consider what lifestyle needs you may have, and evaluate whether your legal career is aligned with it. It may be that a staff attorney role is right for you.