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It's not easy being the little guy at a big law firm

They sit at their desks long after dark, reading magazines while waiting for a boss' "bedcheck." They worry about layoffs and rue the end of free doughnuts. They must type their own file labels and help assistants do research. Some even have to share an office.

They are highly paid junior lawyers at the nation's biggest law firms. But in a biennial survey by The American Lawyer magazine, many sounded more like jailhouse lawyers than corporate lawyers.

"When associates leave the firm, they are congratulated as if they just broke out of prison," reported one of the 3,200 third- and fourth-year associate partners who rated their firms on such criteria as training, hours, feedback and interest of work.

Law firms are owned and run by a limited number of partners, who hire less experienced lawyers as associates to do some of the work. While partners receive a share of profits, associates are salaried and usually leave if they aren't made a partner after six years.

A slump in the legal business helps explain a general decline in associate morale, according to Robert Safian, American Lawyer's executive editor.

"In the '80s, associates complained about having to work so many hours to make partner. Now they're working just as many hours just to keep their jobs. It's as if they've given up on making partner."

That certainly goes for the associate at a Chicago firm who wrote, "I have a better chance of winning the lottery."

But some gripes go deeper than dollars:

"My experience .


. has confirmed my fears that lawyers are not good people and I never really wanted to be one."

"Law firm practice slowly kills your spirit and your soul. I'll never practice in a firm again."

"We are well-paid slaves (who) are expected to drop everything in our lives to meet false deadlines and non-emergencies."

"To say I was treated as a galley slave would imply that partners actually thought about how to treat me."

The survey's success story was New York's Rosenman & Colin, which climbed from lowest-ranked firm in the nation four years ago to No. 1 this year.

The firm arranges luncheon talks by partners, pays tuition for outside legal lectures and _ now we're talking _ lets associates help plan the firm outing. Each associate also is assigned a "fairy godpartner" with whom gripes may be aired in confidence.

Firms were accused of all sorts of sins, including vampirism. One Boston firm "has a tendency to latch on to the "good' associates and seemingly draw the life out of them," wrote a lawyer. Associates at a New York outfit must "be willing to bleed for the firm," one wrote.

At another New York firm, some associates apparently stick around late reading magazines because some partners allegedly "roam the hallways at 7:30 performing bedchecks."

There is, of course, compensation for such misery. As a dissatisfied associate in New York put it, "I really feel this year that my bonus better be good."