Biglaw Associate Burnout In 2021: Why Biglaw Is Failing

Biglaw associate burnout is rampant in 2021. The burnout that we’re seeing in Biglaw associates in 2021 was completely avoidable . . .

But that would require Biglaw firms to be even remotely forward thinking. In this post I’m sharing what I’m hearing from Biglaw associates in 2021—and why Biglaw firms have totally dropped the ball. 

(Would you rather watch than read? Click below to watch Biglaw Associate Burnout (What I’m Seeing In 2021 & Why It Matters).)

Biglaw Associate Burnout In The News

We’ve all seen the recent headlines about Biglaw associate burnout in 2021.

Here’s one example: Biglaw Associates Share their Pandemic Burnout Stories.

And here’s another: Bonuses May Not Be Enough to Solve BigLaw’s Associate Problem.


And yet another: BigLaw’s Burnout Spree Fails to Curtail Risk of Associate Burnout.

Some people see Biglaw associate burnout as just another result of the pandemic… and I’m certainly not arguing that the pandemic hasn’t made things worse.

But anyone who has been paying attention knows that the kinds of complaints Biglaw associates are voicing in 2021 are no different from the complaints that have been leveled at Biglaw firms for decades.

The pandemic has simply further revealed the toxicity of Biglaw.

Why Biglaw Was So Poorly Positioned For The Pandemic

I started my legal career in 2008 as a Biglaw litigator right as the US was heading into the Great Recession. Firms everywhere slashed and burned through associates with wave upon wave of layoffs, ostensibly because they were financially suffering. (Although many posted record profits per partner.) 

Keep in mind that Biglaw firms are structured to function as a pyramid, with lots of associates at the bottom, and then fewer and fewer associates as you move up the ranks, and a small group of partners at the top. These associate layoffs during the Great Recession gutted the bottom of these Biglaw structures between 2008 to 2010, and then hiring never really returned to pre-2007 levels. 

Fast forward 10+ years from the time that I graduated law school, and 2020 hits. Biglaw firms that were already operating with basically zero bandwidth and wringing their associates dry, now had to operate in the pandemic environment. That meant even more stress and anxiety, and the blurring of the lines between work and home. 

Because of their inherently unsustainable structure, which maximizes profits per partner, Biglaw firms just didn’t have the capacity to flex, not even a little bit. 

Biglaw Associate Burnout Is A Feature, Not A Bug

The worst part about all of this?

What has been happening to Biglaw associates in 2021 was all completely predictable. From the time that Biglaw gutted their structures, didn’t rebuild, kept piling on more and more work, expecting more and more hours, and chasing greater and greater profits per partner, a crisis of associate burnout has been ongoing. 

This is the real kicker.

Associate burnout isn’t a bug in the otherwise operational system that is Biglaw. (In 2021 or any other time.)

Associate burnout is a feature of Biglaw.

There’s a reason Biglaw can’t fix its associate burnout problem by just giving associates more money. And associates know that the system is designed to burn them out. 

Biglaw has to do better, but I’m not sure that it’s capable of it. 

If you’re a burnt-out Biglaw associate and you need to get out, a great place to start is by downloading my free guide, First Steps To Leaving The Law

For information about 1:1 coaching with Sarah for Biglaw lawyers, click here.