This week we welcome guest writer Alexis Storey, Law School Toolbox tutor, to talk about the ins and outs of BigLaw.
Like many students who go to law school, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with a law degree. I was generally interested in trying to “help people” but I didn’t have a clear idea of how to go about doing that. When asked, I would tell people I had no desire to work in BigLaw. (I am the type of person who turns into a monster on less than 9 hours of sleep, so I wanted to stay clear of billable hour requirements!) But then I got my 1L grades, I was pleasantly surprised to see I had done well enough to put myself in the running for summer associate positions at BigLaw firms, and figured “why not upload a resume to a database and see what happens?” I put as little effort into the process as possible, only applying to firms that did not require a cover letter. And with that first click to upload my resume, I stepped onto the conveyer belt to BigLaw.
My story is by no means unique: this is how many (perhaps even most) people end up as associates at BigLaw firms. While I don’t necessarily regret my decision, I wish I had been more proactive in learning about what I was getting myself into before I uploaded that first resume. Here are a few things I wish I had known:
Let’s be honest: most of you reading this blog post and considering applying to BigLaw are thinking about the obscene salary you earn as a BigLaw associate. Money certainly was a factor I considered: I figured collecting a summer associate salary for 10 weeks while eating fancy lunches every day was a good investment in my financial future. With each passing year after that first summer, I came up with a new justification for why the money made staying in BigLaw worth it (down payment for a house; fully paid maternity leave; money for expensive child care; etc.).
Those justifications kept me going for 7 years, but it never made me actually enjoy the work. Don’t get me wrong: there were times in BigLaw that I liked the work; but during those times, I didn’t think about the money. The only time I thought about the money was when I was unhappy with the work, and during those times I was usually muttering to myself “you don’t pay me enough for this!”
In my experience, the money in BigLaw is only worth it for two types of people:
- The person who goes into BigLaw with a hard deadline for getting out and uses the money as a useful tool for achieving a specific goal. I had a co-worker who graduated from a top-10 law school with over $200k in student loan debt. She went into BigLaw with a concrete goal of paying off her loans in 2 years. She was one of the smartest, hardest working associates at the firm who managed to maintain a good attitude. After 2 years, she made her last student loan payment and—much to the surprise of the firm—quit. Her experience in BigLaw was a lot of hard work, but it ultimately paid off (literally) and left her with no feelings of discontent or regret. The BigLaw salary was merely a means to an end (of student loans) so that she could go out and work the (lower-paying) job she really wanted.
- The person who is truly motivated by money. The only other people I saw who thrived in BigLaw because of the money were the rare folks who truly did find fulfillment from money. Members of this group were few and far between—most people I worked with used money merely as a justification for staying in jobs they disliked. But there were a few who truly thrived on the number shown on their annual compensation statement. Those people were typically highly competitive and extraordinarily driven—in the mold of extreme athletes who thrive on shaving 1 minute off of their fastest ultramarathon time.
I don’t fall into either of these categories, so the BigLaw money never made the job worth the sacrifices.
When you apply to law firms, most of the partners you meet during the interview process will tell you they are looking for smart people with a strong work ethic and superb writing and oral argument abilities. Candidates with these skills, they say, are the people who succeed at BigLaw firms.
What these partners don’t tell you is that while these may be the skills you need to succeed as an associate at a law firm, they are not the skills you need to succeed as a partner. And since at most firms you cannot remain an associate forever, honing your skills as an associate oftentimes means you are working towards a dead end.
A successful associate is one who is wholly devoted to her job, willing to do any task no matter how tedious, who can churn out quality work product efficiently and repeatedly for 2000+ hours a year. These skills will carry you through until about year 5, when the partners start asking you about your business development plan for partnership. At that point, the partners want you to continue to be an excellent associate, but also demonstrate the ability to network and bring in clients. The problem is that networking and bringing in clients takes time away from the reading and writing that is the bread and butter of associate work. I worked for partners who spent very little time doing actual legal work because they were terrible writers and could not argue coherently in front of a judge. But they were excellent performers at business meetings and cocktail parties (or merely had the good fortune of being college roommates with an executive at a Fortune 500 corporation), so they brought in a lot of business to the firm.
Had I known and understood this dichotomy before I started working in BigLaw, I would have had more perspective about my role and made some more conscious decisions about how to spend my time and what skills to focus on developing.
TV has taught us all to believe that law firm work is exciting court room theater or intense negotiations with opposing counsel (thanks, Suits). Not surprisingly, that is not the reality at all. Most BigLaw work is done while sitting at one’s desk for long hours, staring at a computer screen. It’s largely mundane and repetitive. Even if you’re on a big, exciting case that’s covered in the news media, the behind-the-scenes work is still likely to be tedious. Presenting evidence at a trial can be fun and exciting; but preparing to present evidence at a trial involves hundreds of hours of monotonous tasks like document review, deposition prep, and discovery request drafting.
That being said, BigLaw work teaches you how to develop an eye for detail. That skill will serve you well in life, but it will also likely annoy the heck out of anybody who has to live with you!
At the end of the day, like any job, BigLaw jobs have pros and cons. But if you do your research and develop a better understanding of those pros and cons before you decide to take a BigLaw job, you will hopefully feel better about your decision.
Whether you decide to pursue a BigLaw position or to take a different path, be sure to check out our website for more information about job searching: