Why LA Attorneys Are Smiling
Law360, August 17, 2015

By Kat Greene

LOS ANGELES — Lawyers in Los Angeles are happier at work than their East Coast counterparts, according to a survey conducted by Law360, and experts point to lighter billable hours requirements and greater opportunities for associates to work with clients early on as reasons for the marked difference in job satisfaction.

Attorneys in Los Angeles reported they were 10 percent more satisfied with their job than their New York-based peers and 16 percent less likely to look for a new job in the next year, according to Law360’s 2015 Lawyer Satisfaction Survey released Monday.

LA attorneys said they were nearly 20 percent more satisfied with their firm’s billable hour requirements than New York attorneys and 13 percent more satisfied than all non-LA lawyers, the survey of 300 lawyers in a diverse array of practices and law firms found.

Andrea Hartwell of Swan Legal Search, a California-based recruiter, said law firms in California seem to recognize that attorneys here care less about money and more about balance. Firms have created alternative tracks and lightened billable-hour loads, which may be driving lawyer contentment, she said.

"There are some firms that are now thinking outside the box," Hartwell said. "They've realized that people are willing to have a tradeoff, to make a little bit less to have a slightly lower requirement.”

And the clients that do business with Los Angeles firms may be a factor in attorney happiness, in part because they tend to be middle-market or startup companies with big ideas and many opportunities for associates to get directly involved in the work, rather than dealing with a disembodied stack of paperwork, she said.

"There's higher satisfaction because associates feel more connected to the work. They get to talk to the CEO,” Hartwell said. "I speak to candidates all day long. People say the top things that make them happy are mentorship, connection to the clients and feeling like they're part of something."

The sense that one's work is meaningful was also cited by employment attorneys as a main reason theirs is the happiest practice area.

David Cruickshank of consulting shop Edge International said Gibson Dunn, for example, allows its associates to choose which partners they work for. That amount of power gives associates the opportunity to escape from under the thumb of a partner who may not be a good team leader, which in turns leads to greater satisfaction at work, he said.

“It’s certainly been a positive practice in [Gibson Dunn’s] LA offices, and it’s something I do not see in other firms’ New York offices at all,” Cruickshank said. “There, work is allocated by partner need.”

Cruickshank said the closeness of Manhattan law offices may also contribute to discontent in an unexpected way: The attorneys tend to socialize across firms, complaining about work at happy hour, he said.

“I think it increases cynicism about law firms, and that in turn leads to dissatisfactions,” Cruickshank said. “It’s kind of the groove into which you are thrown when you’re at these events.”

The survey showed that LA attorneys were 15 percent more satisfied than New York-based counterparts with opportunities for advancement at their firms. Of the respondents in LA who completed the survey, 59 percent were associates or senior associates, according to the data.

And New York attorneys were 7 percent less satisfied than the overall average with opportunities for advancement, while those basking in the California sunshine were 10 percent more satisfied than the average, the survey found.

Susan Agopian, director of the partner practice group at Major Lindsey & Africa, listed “sunshine, beaches and the Mediterranean climate” as a factor in lawyer happiness in LA.

“The cultural attitude of LA generally and its law firms is more open-minded and informal than elsewhere, which leads to ... a supportive attitude about lateral movement and the pursuit of new opportunities,” Agopian said.

People in California — clients and lawyers alike — also tend to seek a life outside of work, said Paige Drewelow, managing director at Kinney Recruiting LLC. She said she recently moved an attorney from a major New York law firm to a West Coast job, and he reported back six months later that he was thrilled to be able to come home at 8 p.m. and spend time with his family, rather than the much-later hours he was working in Manhattan.

“The pace of life in New York and the pace of life in LA is much different. People make an effort to take advantage of the things you do outside of work,” Drewelow said. “It sounds silly, right? But I think the weather does have a lot to do with it.”

Make no mistake, though, Drewelow warned. Attorneys in California still work hard, but the environment is less intense, she said.

“The big clients are there, the big deals are there,” she said, “but a little bit of the edge is off.”

Methodology: Law360 conducted an anonymous survey of attorneys’ satisfaction with their law firm and received 300 responses. The survey was conducted between July 9 and Aug. 6 of this year. Survey participants were asked about their satisfaction with their law firm in five categories: 1) compensation; 2) benefits; 3) firm leadership; 4) opportunities for advancement; and 5) billable hour requirements. They were also asked about their likelihood to look for a new job in the next year.

Editing by Jeremy Barker
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