published June 20, 2020

Unlocking the Secrets of Biglaw

Unlocking the Secrets of Biglaw

There is no denying that there are significant benefits to landing a position in one of the premier Biglaw firms, including: With so many appealing benefits to working in Biglaw, why isn't it the goal of every law student? As with most things in life, there is another side to the story of a career spent in the hallowed halls of prestigious firms. Though they have the education and qualifications to work in big law, some attorneys still choose other avenues to success. Many do so because they know what they want to do, whether it is working in the public interest sector, or because they prefer the culture of a small firm. The practice of law tends to run in families, so many young attorneys go directly to work for a family member with an established legal practice.

Some walk away because of the darker side of practicing Biglaw. For all the benefits and opportunities, there is a price to be paid. Perhaps the most significant downside is that no matter how hard you worked or how much you shined in law school, in a large firm, you will be just another cog in the wheel.
 
The downside to Biglaw
  • Long work hours—Biglaw firms expect a substantial return on their investment, and new associates are expected to generate a brutal number of billable hours. Sixty-plus hour work weeks are the norm, and then there is the networking required to get ahead. An associate who plans to get ahead will put in brutal hours at work, then invest a significant amount of time building relationships that will benefit them on their climb to the top. Career demands leave little time for family life or personal pursuits outside the practice of law.
  • Competitive work environment—Biglaw firms hire top-tier young legal talent, and they are all competing for the best assignments, recognition, and promotions. It can become a harsh work environment that does not invite friendships, loyalty, or trust among colleagues.
  • Reduced chance of making partnership in the firm—with the amount of competition, and some lateral hires, the road to partnership can be much longer than it is in smaller firms. In large, elite firms, there are many levels to complete and hoops to jump through before ever being considered for partnership. The harsh truth is that being named a partner will require much more than talent and hard work. The larger the firm, the more complex the office politics. The threat of being passed over for the next rung on the ladder because you did not play the political game as well as your competition is an integral part of a career in big law. 
  • Being forced into a niche—Biglaw firms typically operate across a broad array of specialties. Still, as a new associate, you may not have much say in what your specialty becomes. It is easy to become forced into a niche you didn't choose, and hard to find your way out once forced into your niche. Overspecialization can lead to a lack of experience that will hinder you from reaching your ultimate goal. Firms will use new associates wherever they think they can provide the most benefit to the firm, so you can easily mistakenly catch a wave into a specific area of law where you never intended to specialize.
  • Paying your dues—in an elite firm, you can expect to spend an excessive amount of time "paying your dues" by putting in long hours completing mundane tasks.
  • Toxic culture—Every firm has a well-established culture of ideas, customs, and accepted norms of behavior. Culture has a profound influence on virtually everything that happens inside the firm, and though the firm culture might be a point of pride for the higher-ups, it can lead to toxicity in the lower ranks. The competition that we talked about earlier can become rife with backstabbing, gossip, and stealing credit. To further complicate the issue of toxic work culture, what is toxic for some people will be an environment where others thrive. Sadly, many associates dedicate years of their careers to a firm before they understand that the culture is toxic for them.  
The extensive list of pros and cons involved in working in Biglaw will depend on personal goals, expectations, and what is most important to each person in their career. Before accepting a position with a large firm, familiarize yourself with the nuts and bolts of how the firm operates. It can be overwhelmingly flattering to be recruited by prestigious law firms, but do not let that flattery influence or pressure you to work in an environment that does not suit your life goals.
 
There will always be associates who thrive on the never-ending hustle of chasing money, prestige, and the sheer challenge of excelling in a competitive environment. If that is you,  the large firms are probably the arena where you want to work. Many newly-minted attorneys strive to earn their place in the field of Biglaw and will have a gratifying career practicing law at the large firm where they have dreamed of working.
 
It is important to remember that your success as an attorney is not defined by the size of the firm where you work. Decide early in your career what your long-term goals are as an attorney, and choose the best path for you. Ultimately, success is defined by the passion and dedication you bring to your career, and how well you can maintain that same sense of passion in the years to come. Success is also an intangible balance between your goals for your personal life and goals for your career. The culture of Biglaw will never be for everyone, and loving what you do is far more important than where you do it.

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