Glass cages follow-up: The fungible billing unit

Posted by J Matthew Buchanan at October 31, 2005 12:08 PM

Doug had a great post this weekend about associate life at big law firms.  He commented on the BigLaw Associate blog and some of the ponderings over there about associates leaving big law firms.

BLA notes “…it looks to me like BigLaw is in a deepening crisis. … I keep hearing the same story: associate morale at a critical low with associates leaving at an alarming rate.”

I don’t think the so-called crisis is any worse than before.  Associate morale is always low…and they’re always leaving at an “alarming” rate.

After reading BLA’s observation, I was reminded of some of the best career advice I have ever been given.  The conversation went like this:

“Dude, never, ever forget, you’re just an FBU…”

an FBU? (my innocent reply and inquiry)

“Yeah, a Fungible Billing Unit.”

The advice came from a law school professor who, in a previous life, was a BigLaw partner.  He was giving me advice as a former BigLaw partner, not so much as a professor.  He knew.  He had been under the tent, so to speak.  (As an aside, the “dude” part of the quote is real)

I didn’t appreciate it at the time.  Now I do.  Here’s the take I have on that advice now:

Associates are billing units

We all know that. 

But, don’t forget the F!

Associates are also fungible.

(Google fungible here; wikipedia entry here)

Yep, that’s right, big firms view BLA’s as interchangeable.  Did you ever wonder why they admit 20, 30, even 50 new associates every year?  It’s because they’re building the base of the triangle behind the thinning-out that is occurring at higher levels…

If the thinning-out doesn’t occur, the model fails.

They expect you to leave.  They want you to leave.  They need you to leave.


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