Seven Tips for the New Attorney Entering Big Law
by James Hardy
t’s graduation time, meaning several newly minted JDs are looking for work. Legal hiring has been abysmal the past few years—more lawyers seem to be losing their jobs than students gaining new ones. Meanwhile, law schools continue to pump out graduates in record numbers. Fortunately, there seems to be an uptick in legal hiring and a thawing in the freeze on entry-level hires. What, then, does a new graduate at a Big Law firm need to know?
1. Be grateful. In these thin times, few have your opportunity. And your employer knows it.
Be grateful for your good fortune and be humble among your peers who aren’t so lucky. In the current market, any law grad stepping into a job straight out of law school is fortunate—especially those stepping into a six-figure salary.
2. It’s All About the Hours. As a Big Law associate, your number one asset to your employer is your time. This is especially true of new associates, who have few skills and no clients to call their own.
Unless you were one of those students who left the law library only to shower, you are in for a lifestyle adjustment. Most Big Law firms demand 2,000 billable hours a year. This is much harder to achieve than it seems on its face.
I have gone on at some length on billable hours elsewhere (see The Colorado Lawyer, August 2010, "Point/Counterpoint: Kill the Billable Hour"). Here, I will simply leave you with the three things you most need to know about them.
First, it is likely you will work more than you want to or even thought yourself capable of. Do not tax yourself beyond the breaking point—but you should probably get close. This is what your employer expects. Draw a line across which you shall never cross—whether it’s for family, community, or yourself—and don’t ever breach this personal pact.
Second, pay excruciating attention to how you record your time. Many a new associate has been undone by pooh-poohing the importance of tracking every six minutes and cogently describing the tasks performed. Do not become write-off roadkill. More importantly, never inflate your hours.
Third, don’t get used to it. Do not allow "hours creep" to convince you this is the new normal. If you do, years from now you will regret the time and opportunities lost. It may seem counterintuitive to think you could become comfortable with too much work. It’s not. You are entering a business culture built on this principle. Work hard, but remain apart from those who live to work.
3. Know Yourself. Easier said than done when you are working 80-hour weeks, which is why you must know now, as you enter Big Law, exactly what you want out of it. Are you determined to make partner, accumulate financial and social rewards, and die at your desk with an overworked smile on your face? Are you instead on the two-year plan, trying to get a leg up on your student loans before you head to a more lifestyle-friendly job and gain experience and résumé prestige in the process? Or are you somewhere in between?
Whatever your goal, know what it is going in. The personal sacrifices you make will be justifiable to yourself and comprehensible to others only if you have a purpose behind them. Do not be blown in the wind, but also resist the pull to barrel ahead like a Denver driver on I-70 on a Saturday snow day, tailgating and impatiently passing all in his path. Be purposeful, but sane.
4. Know Who Your "Clients" Are. As a new associate, you have two different kinds of clients. There are the firm’s clients, whom you are unlikely to interact with much at first. Then, there are the clients you will do the majority of your work for—the partners and associates ahead of you in the hierarchy. You should be eager and willing to work for both. As you start your career, be particularly attentive to the second group.
In the big picture, you should focus on the actual clients. The service you provide and the relationships you forge may determine your long-term career path.
Big Law feeds in-house counsel jobs because Big Law clients like to hire the familiar and proven. Become familiar with them and prove yourself. This will create opportunities and give you value within your firm. Unsurprisingly, the associates valued (and recruited) by the firm’s clients are also the associates who are most valuable to the firm.
Opportunities will arise more frequently and with more responsibility attached if you establish a sterling reputation with your intrafirm clients. Always provide great client service, even if the "client" is a midlevel associate. Don’t forget that your intrafirm clients are just a step removed from the real thing.
5. Get Comfortable with Hierarchy ... but Treat your Support Staff like Royalty. In many ways, the new associate role is the toughest to negotiate. On the one hand, you are clearly at the bottom of the pyramid, with every lawyer in the firm ordering you about. On the other, there are paralegals, administrative assistants, and tech specialists seemingly at your disposal.
How do you integrate these disparate roles? The key is realizing that you work for all of them. It may seem that you are supposed to order around one group and take orders from the other, but it’s not so simple.
Get used to mixed messages and a lack of clarity from your nominal bosses. Never forget there is no such thing as autonomy in a Big Law firm. Even the managing partner takes orders from someone.
With respect to your support staff, you must recognize that they generally know more than you do, have been there much longer, and will likely still be there when you are gone. They understand the firm’s institutional history and culture in a way you will never comprehend. They know where the skeletons are buried.
To mix a metaphor, don’t become a skeleton yourself. To succeed in your relationships with support staff, you must treat them in a human and friendly way, not from a dictatorial stance.
Overuse "please" and "thank you." Treat support staff like royalty. This is the one bit of advice you must not ignore. Not only that, it’s the right thing to do.
6. Don’t Do it for the Lifestyle. Perhaps the biggest mistake Big Law lawyers make is taking the gig for the lifestyle it enables. Money is not lifestyle. When you look back, how you spent your time will be infinitely more important to you than how you spent your money.
If you can sustain the Big Law pace for an entire career, you’ll have few opportunities to enjoy the money. If you can’t sustain that pace, living a lavish lifestyle while you are in Big Law will waste valuable financial resources. Don’t assume you will always make the big bucks. Live like a student much longer than you need to. Your career will thank you with flexibility and opportunities that do not require a six-figure salary.
This is not to say a lawyer cannot have a long and satisfying career in Big Law, but if the sole, or even primary, motivation is money, it’s unlikely. The most successful Big Law lawyers have succeeded because they love the work, the clients, the culture, the big cases, opportunities to significantly impact the world, or all of these. The money, though never unimportant, is icing on the cake.
7. Don’t Take My Word for It. The best advice I ever received about the legal profession came from a law review article. When I read Patrick Schiltz’s "On Being a Happy, Healthy, and Ethical Member of an Unhappy, Unhealthy, and Unethical Profession" in the middle of my first year of Big Law practice, it confirmed my burgeoning suspicions. The author is neither a countercultural critic nor a complaining layabout. Rather, he’s a former Supreme Court clerk, big firm associate, law school professor, associate dean, and is now a federal district court judge. In his article, he penetrates the cultural and institutional realities that all lawyers who have spent any decent amount of time in Big Law understand but rarely discuss.
Do yourself a favor and read this now. It will help you navigate your Big Law career, whether it lasts for three years or 30.
With that, I bid you busy days and not too many nights and weekends. Good luck! D
James S. Hardy is a Deputy Colorado State Public Defender in the Appellate Division. Previously, he was a judicial clerk for Colorado Supreme Court Chief Justice Mary Mullarkey. He also spent close to five years as a litigation associate at two AmLaw 250 firms in New York and Denver, respectively. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.