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BigLaw Dreams: Still as Shining to Fresh Grads?

published January 04, 2022

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It is the age-old question on every law student's mind: BigLaw or Small Firm? The answer to this question has been debated back and forth for quite some time, but fresh law grads today still consider a big firm as their top employment choice after graduation. As far as Harvard Law School is concerned, at least 50% of their fresh law grads from 2018-2020 chose a law firm with a size of 501+. The allure of big law remains, yet, is big law the best option for so many fresh graduates?
 

This article explores the factors fresh law graduates consider in choosing their top employment choice after graduation. It delves deep into the underlying reasons why new law grads pick Big Law and whether these still make sense today. Big Law may be appealing to any law student there can be, but with the ever-changing perceptions, is the allure still magnifying? Succinctly put, is it still worth the risk?


Understanding these aspects may help any budding lawyer whose life and career are based on the current state of BigLaw.
 

The 'BigLaw' Model


Any discussion on BigLaw must begin with what it is. Generally, it refers to the largest firms in the US, typically belonging to Am Law 100 and 200. Others classify it based on firm revenue, while others on the number of attorneys under its employ spread across different practice areas. What, then, is common to all of these characterizations of BigLaw? You got it correct; it is big.

The are many benefits to big law: large salaries, top-tier training and mentorship, prestige, and the opportunity for partnership down the line. Associates at big firms typically work long hours, but they are also into some of the best work in their field. A big firm can afford to stock its halls with the best and brightest, and with its resources, these attorneys can tackle any risk and legal challenges.
 

Money Talks and Student Loans


For many law students, getting into BigLaw is the end-all-be-all. Top law schools gear their services to investing most of their efforts in these firms and the number of alumni they have working at big firms serves as their portfolio. Law students have united in the stance that BigLaw is the only path to a successful life to pay sky-rocketing student loans.
 

Graduates are drawn to big firms for many reasons, and the promise of a big salary tops it all. Associates can make big money of $205,000 per year while senior associates earn more. In addition to high salaries, a large law firm offers an opportunity for significant bonuses often exceeding $500,000 and can go up to millions. Indeed, that is a better way to pay off student loans in just a matter of time. Aptly put, the goal is to dive right into the salary game, stack themselves with extra money, allow for payments to debt, build their emergency fund, and in the long run, save for retirement.

Clearly, the great promise of salary serves as the best advice any college or university can give. But more than payments of loans, a closer look at this reason shows that these are founded on outdated, oversimplified, and often inaccurate conceptions.
 

The Recruitment Phase in Law Schools

 

BigLaw firms typically recruit associates from top-of-the-class graduates of top-tier law schools and attract them with over-the-top salaries. Of course, these schools offer the best education but starting with the period of the 2008 economic recession, most law firms eliminated first-year classes and offers for summer and first-year associates. In the same period, summer or first-year associates who were once a part of the valued office workforce became a luxury a firm could afford. The corporate and legal world then took investing in lateral hiring and mergers as the dominant tools to ride off the recession. However, the practice soon took off again in the industry as more firms tend to prefer "home-grown" associates.

Nevertheless, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought about a more competitive lateral hiring as associates leave BigLaw firms. New research confirms a greater demand for associates who clamor for a better work-life balance and find money no longer the biggest motivator.

The reality is that BigLaw recruitment has evolved significantly in recent years, but it still dictates many hiring decisions for fresh graduates each year.
 

The Partnership Glory


The prospect of partnership is another reason why attorneys tend to join a big firm. Partnerships create opportunities for lawyers to become a part of an elite group that controls significant resources and profits.
 

Associates who can bring in business are seen as valuable assets and are often rewarded with a partnership for their services. If an associate can make it through years of long hours and hard work, they will be a great example that colleagues must emulate.

Partners earn more money than any other employee in a big law firm and research dictates that equity partners make up less than half of the partnership. Aspiring lawyers are usually drawn with this allure but realize that they will hardly ever become part of the elite group as it requires years or decades. On top of having the finest education, it would take enormous efforts to reach the partnership position, and these realities tend to ward associates away.
 

BigLaw Firms: The Ticket to Prestige


The common perception among students is that one will be working on high-profile cases and clients upon entering a big firm. Their top-tier education from the best school should have prepared them for this, and they will be set up for high income and successful careers. This classic glorified example is depicted in movies and television shows.
 

While some lawyers may be involved in high-profile cases, many work on routine transactions and often get underutilized, which dampens their morale and motivation over time. The company would soon find that its lawyers are already looking for other companies to work with. The legal industry is not immune to the changing aspirations of young attorneys, and these explain why they are willing to risk a high-profile career for more time with their families.

Candidates must have the correct expectations and proper guidance regarding what a BigLaw firm can offer them, so they will not be disappointed in their potential and abilities when the going gets tough. It is a matter decided not by what legal jobs had to offer in the short run but a holistic approach to pursue law.
 

The Reality of BigLaw


While there are major changes in BigLaw firms' recruiting strategy, fresh graduates' thirst to join these large firms remain unperturbed. However, with an increasing number of reports that explain a different picture of BigLaw – one where long hours, inflexible work culture, and lack of diversity are rampant – it is important to question if these firms still hold the same appeal they once did. Gone were the days where BigLaw decided from Day 1 that promises of good income, payment of a debt, and better retirement plans would bring about longer tenure from its associates.

Associates are free to leave their firms at short notice and find work at other law firms much more accessible than ever before. With the demand of associates going more competitive, companies must focus on sustainable human resource practices as an employer. Ultimately, it is the lawyers that make their free and informed consent on whether they should pursue a career in BigLaw.
 

The Rise of Small Firms


While a fresh graduate needs to take stock of the realities of big law firms, he should also remember that other companies are still a viable option for his legal career.

In an age where more information and open perceptions are available, new graduates look at smaller law practices as viable alternatives. A small firm also offers a more intimate work culture and more opportunities for mentorship. Lawyers here often have a chance to take on a variety of cases, something which is not always available in a larger firm. This arrangement is something that a firm should take note of as a sign of a more satisfied workforce and decrease the turnover rates.

Small firms often show and write their commitment to diversity, pro bono work, and community involvement on their website. These values enable fresh attorneys to keep an open mind about their legal career and not just focus on the glamour that a big firm presents. Many opportunities are awaiting them at different types of companies. All they need is the willingness to affirm their consent and explore the legal world on their terms.

More than what fresh attorneys write in their resumes, their experiences and personal values would define their careers. After all, it is not just about the money and the glamour, but also to find a job that brings them professional satisfaction as well as true happiness.
 

A Fresh Approach


These organizations may not tend to offer big money, but with the clamor for better work-life balance, many find that the trade-off is worth it. Graduates must recognize that there is more to life than a big firm, and they must choose with informed consent all that is aligned with their personal goals and interests.

The BigLaw world still has the same appeal, but it would be wiser for new graduates to not take too much stock in the status quo and explore other options. With a more open approach and an eye for diversity in companies, graduates can find their niche with smaller firms and have more time for personal endeavors.

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