Large firms that employ one hundred attorneys or more, typically offer some of the most competitive pay and benefits in the legal industry. They recruit from prestigious law schools and are often the most sought after positions straight out of law school. The thinking, among those in the legal industry, is that if you can make a name for yourself in big law, then your career path is guaranteed an upward trajectory.
There is no denying that there are significant benefits to landing a position in one of the premier Biglaw firms, including:
- Prestige—there is an appeal, and let's be honest, bragging rights, to saying that you work for one of the top firms in the country. People will take your law career seriously when you have a powerhouse firm on your business card.
- Opportunity—some of the biggest money-makers in the practice of law, along with the most recognized names, come out of large firms. Though it is a tough road to make it out of the associate pool to having your name on the wall, that is the ultimate goal of new associates.
- High starting salaries—Biglaw firms pay up to 50% more for first-year associates, and promotions and bonuses tend to come at a predictable rate.
- Creative compensation packages—Biglaw firms have the resources to offer more than just nice starting salaries. There are usually other perks that come with working for a large law firm, such as premium health insurance, stock options, wellness plans, and things like on-site gyms, and memberships to clubs. For top-tier new associates, you might be able to negotiate things like a moving allowance, or a sign-on bonus.
- Superior experiences—Biglaw firms offer the opportunity to work on some of the country's most elite cases. They also can take on extensive, challenging class action suits that require a large pool of talented attorneys. The work offers intellectual stimulation, and the chance to acquire experience that might never come along in smaller firms.
- Access to extensive firm resources—Biglaw firms generally have access to sophisticated infrastructure such as cutting edge software, usually driven by artificial intelligence, that makes everything from legal research to e-filing much less arduous. Big law firms also offer a comprehensive array of talented support staff, such as paralegals, legal assistants, project managers, and documentation clerks. All of these resources free up more of an attorney's time to strictly focus on the law practice.
- Established training programs—mentoring and training new attorneys is a priority for most distinguished powerhouse firms. They realize it is critical to help initiate new hires into the firm's culture and provide the best opportunity for success.
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.
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.