In an eat-what-you-kill law firm culture, associates are the appetizer. They might keep us from starving, but when’s the last time you made a decision where to eat based on the appetizer?

Most associates are viewed as disposable by the big firms and are churned in and out. The leveraging required to make the numbers work will prevent most associates from joining the partnership track. The high cost and salaries of the associates requires that they be seen as valuable from day one; they’re just too expensive to “wait and see” if they’ll develop from students to lawyers. I remember a time when associates were given a couple tries at passing the bar. Not anymore. You’d better pass it the first time, or you’re out.

Yet, time and again we read in surveys how associates want “work-life balance,” interesting work, mentors, a pathway to partnership, etc. However, when there are good alternatives presented, associates are still lured away by the prospects of the $165k firm.

The National Law Journal has an article on local Southern California IP firm Knobbe Marten and their business model. Buried towards the end of the story is the impact the system has on the firm culture and associates:

[Washington, DC managing partner William] Zimmerman, who joined the firm out of law school in 1998, said its short partnership track has the added benefit of giving more responsibility to younger lawyers, such as taking depositions and participating in trials.

Most of the firm’s hires are first-year associates who stand a good chance of making partner within five years, [managing partner Steven] Nataupsky said.

Knobbe Martens has hired more than two dozen associates in the past year.

The firm boasts a more relaxed culture; most attorneys work, on average, seven hours a day and bill about 1,640 hours a year.

The catch: associate salaries of $150,000, which are below market rates. Some former associates, speaking on condition of anonymity, said pay was a factor in their decision to leave.

Granted, if I was 25-years old and $100,000 in debt I’d care what the other firm pays, but a few thousand here or there will not impact your life 10-15 years from now as much as your firm culture. And while Knobbe’s PPEP at $475,000 doesn’t begin to rival the AmLaw 25, you have to admit it’s not a bad living for a 35-hour work week.