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Monday, April 27, 2015

Advice on Biglaw

Recently, I have been approached by several students who are at the beginning of careers in large law firms.  Apart from talking to them about the actual work, I find myself offering (sometimes unsolicited) more general career and even life advice.  This is no doubt colored by my experience, which was a really positive one.  I was fortunate to spend several years at Munger Tolles & Olson, a firm in Los Angeles (along with Tung Yin, a fellow Prawfsblawg guest blogger).  It was a pretty unique place, where at the time I started, I believe no associate had ever left for another law firm.  That changed pretty quickly after I started, but it was (and I believe still is) a place where associates were valued as professionals and the expectation was that they would succeed.  Most of what I suggest is gleaned from keeping up with my fellow associates, classmates, and former students.

The following has become my standard pitch.  I am a realist - none of these are things that can or should happen immediately, and all require work and even sacrifice.  

  • Find Mentors – it is really, really important to develop relationships with senior people in the firm who care about your career and about you as a person.  This isn’t necessarily easy, and no doubt some firm cultures foster this more than others, but these people will be incredibly important not just to your advancement in the firm, but also career opportunities down the line.  Our profession is one that has centers of power and influence, and people that are willing to spend their political capital in the legal profession on you will be invaluable. 
  • Try to develop a reputation for something outside of your core work area.  Get involved in your community, or any community.  For many young lawyers, this can be in the pro bono area.  That has the benefit of usually being enjoyable and something you can and should feel good about.  But even if not, becoming known as someone with an interest in something outside of the core work you do makes you more interesting and even valued within the firm, and creates opportunities should you decide to leave. If you do look to leave the firm to transition into something else, it helps if you have a larger story to tell than being associate # 17, even at an elite law firm.
  • At first, try to live like a law student – more or less.  Even amongst those lucky enough to start with large law firm salaries, heavy student loans will remain a factor for a not insignificant chunk of their legal careers.  Too many junior lawyers spend up to their salary levels, and before long, find themselves in a lifestyle that even if they want to leave, becomes difficult.  More career options are available if they do not need a big firm salary year in and year out.  But by all means, go out to a really nice dinner every once in a while.  Just not every night. 
  • Keep mental space to think about what is next.  The day in and day out will be hard, especially at first.  I spent the better part of my first few years constantly worried I was making some major mistake (and occasionally, I did).  This can be exhausting.  But especially after the first year or two, you do need to create time and space to evaluate if you are feeling like this is what you want to be doing for the next few years.  And if not, you need to invest precious time and energy in figuring out what the next thing is.  If you don’t prioritize this, it will never make it to the top of the list.
  • Leave when you can.  Not the firm, and not necessarily for good – just leaving the office on any given day.  As a litigator, there are peaks and valleys.  When preliminary injunctions loom, or big motions, or trial, you will be working really hard.  But there should be times that are not quite as busy.  (My transactional friends tell me the same applies to their practices).  When that happens, you should look for ways to leave.  Get out.  Enjoy the day.  Exercise.  Do laundry.  Whatever.  If the firm culture is such that you need to be there just to be perceived as being there, that is a red flag.
  • If you ever find yourself really unhappy for a significant period of time, it is time to find something else.  This seems obvious, but people do not always listen to that inner voice in their head.  You may not be happy every minute of every day, but sustained unhappiness is something different and no way to live.  Conversely, if you are happy, that is great.  I always admired, and was probably somewhat envious of, law firm partners I worked with who were very satisfied with what they were doing.  They get to be happy and incredibly well compensated. 

What comes before any of this is trying to be grateful - graduates going into Biglaw have an opportunity other students would kill for.  Anyway, just my thoughts.  I am curious what others would add to the list.

Posted by Michael Waterstone on April 27, 2015 at 11:52 AM | Permalink


And the first person they will lay off is the person who types "law people off"....

Posted by: JayA | Apr 27, 2015 11:21:10 PM

(1) Face time matters, not just your total hours billed.

This really sucks if you're a morning person. I found it a lot easier to be productive early in the morning when the office was quieter and there were fewer distractions. But, no one sees you putting in the work. If you leave at 6pm, other people will note that you're leaving early, and they have no idea that you just ended a 12 hour day.

Of course, someone will see your final work product and the hours you billed, but that person isn't necessarily going to be the person who controls the next step of your future.

(2) If, during a recession, the firm holds a meeting and announces increasing revenues and PPP, and insists they won't need to lay people off, they're definitely going to law people off.

Posted by: Derek Tokaz | Apr 27, 2015 3:43:54 PM

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