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How To Keep a Job in a Large Law Firm

published May 12, 2022

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Big law firms are extremely competitive. Only the best attorneys can get into major law firms, and there is always a queue of new people waiting for someone to make a mistake and replace them. And while everyone makes mistakes, they can cost you your career in the legal profession. In this article, you can find the most common mistakes that can ruin your big law career and tips on how to avoid making them.

The Reality of Working in Large Law Firms


Large competitive firms employ young, energetic attorneys who are willing to work a lot. Most attorneys who can get employed in this type of law firm at the beginning of their legal career never earn as much money or work in a firm as prestigious as this ever again in their life. Senior attorneys with more than ten years of experience do not generally earn as much as younger associates, and lawyers in other practice settings, like in-house counsel, public interest jobs, or the government, often earn only half of what young associates do.

When it comes to switching between firms, many attorneys can switch to a law firm of similar prestige once or twice after their first large law firm job. However, it becomes almost impossible to stay in law firms of the same caliber, so most of these attorneys end up in smaller law firms with lower salaries and less sophisticated work. Many lawyers rather choose to quit practicing law altogether and go into different industries than accept that they cannot work in big law firms again.

In light of these facts, it is clear that not everyone can survive in the environment of large law firms. However, many good attorneys leave the legal world and cannot return because of how the system works. That is why it is essential to avoid making the biggest fatal mistakes attorneys often make and try to stay in a large law firm environment as long as possible if that is where you want your legal career to be.

Mistakes That Cost Attorneys Their Jobs in Large Law Firms


Leaving or Getting Fired Because of Getting Too Nervous or Worried


There are many things and situations in law firms that can psych attorneys out into leaving a law firm on their own or affect their work and performance so much that they are let go. Those who can stay in large law firms long-term are attorneys who can persist and overcome situations other attorneys struggle with.

One of the things many attorneys get stressed out about is performance reviews. Attorneys who get into prestigious law firms are generally among the most intelligent people in the industry who excelled throughout their education and ended up among the top law students in their law school. That means they are usually not used to hearing negative feedback, so it can be a real hit on their confidence the first time it happens in their law firm. Some even choose to leave the firm because they get paranoid that they will get fired anyway when getting negative feedback.

However, the truth is that reviews are not always what they seem. Junior associates are not very profitable for the firm, so superiors are not afraid of handing out negative reviews even when the mistakes are not that serious. It helps them "weed out" the weaker attorneys. The most profitable attorneys are mid-level associates because the firm wants to keep these at all costs. Most attorneys in mid-level positions get extremely positive reviews regardless of how well they are doing. Leaving because of negative reviews is just not worth risking your career. Receiving a bonus that is not as big as they expected is also why many attorneys get paranoid that the firm is not satisfied with their work and can stress them out into leaving.

Some attorneys leave their law firms because they do not like the client they are working with or the legal matter. They might get scared because of how the client deals with them. They might not like that they are working on a matter that requires them to travel a lot or stay in a hotel somewhere away from home for a few months. Or they might not be getting the work they wanted. All of these are why some attorneys get restless and leave their big law firm positions to try to get hired somewhere where all of their requirements are fulfilled. However, clients and cases change, so it is a shame to risk a whole career because of a few months of work.

Attorneys also sometimes leave their law firms because there is something they are not completely happy about, such as having to bill too many hours, being too stressed and not having enough free time, or not having the best relationship with colleagues, and they believe that it will be different in another law firm.

Some attorneys get stressed and paranoid when they make a mistake. It could be a small mistake that does not have that big impact, like forgetting to send an email or turning in a task a day later, or something more serious, like losing a case. Younger attorneys can sometimes get psyched out from the smallest mistake and make it out to be career-ending.

An important part of the company environment is how superiors act toward those under them. While some lawyers can get over being screamed at, others are more sensitive to things like this. It can make people feel unwelcomed, so any indication of being unfavored can stress attorneys out enough to leave the firm. The key is not to get fazed by things like this. Lawyers have to have thick skin because they never know what type of client or opponent they will get.

These are by far not all situations that stress people out into leaving. Some attorneys get too paranoid when they do not have enough work to do or are not the most qualified in their cohort. Those who want will find any reason to get psyched out and let it ruin their career. However, if you want to stay in law firms of this size as long as possible, you cannot let it get to you and affect your work.

They Are Not Billing Enough Hours


Law firms are businesses like any other, which means that their main goal is earning money. The main way how a law firm can earn money is when its attorneys bill hours and collect money from their clients. Attorneys who bill more hours are more valuable to firms, and they have some employment stability, while those who do not bill enough hours are usually at risk of losing their job.

Large law firms usually require attorneys to bill at least 2,000 hours a year. Anything less than that puts the attorney at risk, so if the attorney wants to be in the clear, they should aim to bill more than that. Of course, several factors influence how many hours an attorney can bill.

Attorneys who bill more hours are more profitable for the firm. Some people are just willing to work more than others. Firms and superiors will always prefer lawyers willing to bill as many hours as humanly possible and fire those who are not as highly motivated to bill thousands of hours to keep up with those who do.

Junior associates or someone at the mid-level get work assigned by partners and senior attorneys. They decide who gets assignments and who does not. If an attorney exceeds their expectations or at least fulfills the tasks to their satisfaction, they will not have a problem getting new assignments from them. If associates bill as many hours on the tasks they are assigned as is expected, they will have no problems getting new tasks. However, if the work they turn in is not of high quality, is riddled with mistakes, or is done in fewer hours than expected (thus bringing in less money), these attorneys will have problems with getting enough work assigned and, as a result, will not bill enough hours.

However, those who bill the most hours are not simply waiting to get tasks assigned. They usually can convince others to give them work and are also so enthusiastic about getting work that other attorneys want to provide them with more of it. They have the people skills to make clients and partners like them and want to give them work. They can use their personality, skills, and motivation to get the tasks and bill more hours than others. Those who cannot do it are at risk of not being profitable enough for the firm and losing their job.

They Have Started in a Branch Office That Is New


While there are successful branch offices, and some even become more successful than the main offices, the general rule is that the most important people, clients, and legal matters stay in the main office. New branch offices are still very sensitive and not yet established in the legal market, so it is risky to start there.

Attorneys in the main office can network with the partners, get to know the important clients, and get to the most sophisticated work, making it easier for them to bill more hours and advance in the firm. This is difficult in a branch office.

Moreover, branch offices are sometimes open to suit one or two big clients. This puts them in a dangerous position because if the client decides to leave or wants to keep working with the main office, all of the attorneys working in the branch are left to search for a new job.

They Had Relationships With Superiors

Whether it is a serious relationship or just having fun, it is never a good idea to start having intimate relations with superiors from the office. In most cases, these relationships do not last, and when they end, the attorney in the more junior position is usually the one paying the price. Even if the relationship did not end badly enough for the superior to find a reason to fire them, the junior attorney would probably want to leave on their own to avoid seeing the other person every day.

They Started Working as a Contract Attorney


It is better to work as a contract attorney than to not work at all; however, large law firms are not too fond of employing contract attorneys. Most law firms of this size want only the best attorneys, so they get immediately suspicious when they come across an attorney willing to work for an hourly rate nowhere near what associates in law firms get paid.

They start to wonder what is the reason why the attorney is not employed in another law firm in a full-time position. They might have doubts about the attorney's performance, skills, attitude, or work ethic. Contract attorneys often work on simple, routine cases, and most large employers start to doubt whether contract attorneys retained their skills to deal with more complex issues.

They Took a Long Leave of Absence


There are situations in everyone's life that push them to take a break in their work. Whether it is because of (mental) health reasons, having a child, taking care of a family member, or just needing some time off to recharge, most people experience something like this throughout their legal careers when they decide to take time off, and many firms will understand that to some extent. However, when the time off lasts several weeks, the firm will start to wonder.

Big law firms only want to employ legal professionals who are extremely committed to law and invest all of their time in it. Most of the attorneys who can succeed professionally in a prestigious law firm have sacrificed their personal lives and worked long hours for decades to get to the top. Many of them ended up divorced or could not attend important family events because they were working. And they are okay with that because their work is their top priority. However, they also expect the same drive and commitment from other lawyers, and if they are not getting it, they do not like that.

They Left a Law Firm Before Having an Offer From Another One

Many legal professionals conclude that at some point the best thing they can do for their legal career is to switch firms. They might realize that they will probably not be offered a partnership in their firm, or they might believe that their future will be much better somewhere else. However, if an attorney leaves their current position without a job offer from another big firm, their career is in trouble.

The chances of finding a position in a prestigious law firm without currently working in one are pretty low, so if an attorney chooses to leave their current position before having another one lined up, they can only get hired in smaller firms. Once a lawyer works in a mid-sized or small law firm or a different practice setting, they can almost forget about getting back into the big law world.

Major firms are exclusive and only want to hire "their own." Part of that is that the environment, people working there, and work requirements are very similar in most firms. The firm management thinks that if an attorney left the environment once because they could not handle it, they would do it again. They also might believe that the lawyer has done something bad and was fired to end up in such a situation, and they want to protect their name, so they will not hire someone like that.

It does not matter whether you left the large firm because of your own decision or were fired. Neither of these situations does play in your favor. Either future employers will think that you are not committed enough or are not capable enough to hire you, which is not good.

They Have Lied and Have Been Caught


It does not matter whether it is lying about something major or something completely small. If an attorney is caught lying, they will get fired, negatively affecting their legal career. If the law firm cannot trust the attorney in something small, they cannot trust them, and it does not make sense to continue the collaboration. Firms also usually do not try to hide the information like this and warn other law firms, so the attorney's reputation of who lies gets destroyed. It is just not worth it.

They Have Slandered Their Superiors

You should never talk negatively about people who employ you and give you work. Even if you have a serious reason not to like them, gossiping and slandering them can only hurt you. Biglaw associates talk like any other people, so it will get back to them when you speak badly about the superiors, and you will have to suffer consequences. If you want to keep your job, keep the negative things to yourself and only put out the positive things you think about them.

They Have Not Been in the Office In-Person Enough


Although the world is shifting toward being virtual and everything can be done online. Face time is essential in the legal industry. Unfortunately, many associates do not understand that and underestimate the amount of time they need to spend in the office for the partners to accept them as serious attorneys. BigLaw associates are expected to be always available, and they should be in the office whenever partners are there.

Although it might sound excessive, when you look at it from the partners' perspective, it is not. Every partner has experienced the same thing. From the time they were working in a summer associate program still as a law student in their law school, through billing thousands of hours as a junior or senior associate, they got their partnership role. They only expect the same determination from other legal professionals.


Staying employed in large firms is not easy. The environment is extremely competitive and stressful, and there are dozens of candidates applying to the firm hoping to get recruited at all times. In a situation like this, every mistake an attorney in the firm makes can cost them their spot. If an attorney wants to stay employed in a firm like that, they have to be careful not to cross some of the most important lines in this environment. The biggest mistakes can be followed as a set of rules about what not to do if you want to stay in the world of large law firms for as long as possible. That is the best way to keep working in big law on the most sophisticated cases and earning the high salaries only large firm attorneys do.

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