Many people who choose the law as their career fantasize about working for the large, prestigious firms located in large cities throughout the country. They envision the luxuriant conference rooms where they will make powerhouse deals and the never-ending fast pace of being a rising star in the legal profession. They may realize that they might not start with the large corner office and private paraprofessional staff, but they assume it will one day be part of their rise to success.
All of the above, and more, are a part of what it is like to practice law in the largest and most exclusive firms. However, it isn't the whole story. Most of the reality of practicing Biglaw is the time spent between the corral of first-year associates and the march up the ladder to the coveted corner office. What is that time like, and is it worth the sacrifices you will have to make?
The appeal of Biglaw to attorneys
Mega-firms employ the most well-paid attorneys in the industry, and that is a massive draw for those who have chosen to make a career of practicing law. It is about more than just the number of zeros on your annual salary, though. Attorneys who are drawn to the concept of practicing Biglaw are also drawn to the prestige of working alongside the biggest names in the legal industry. There is an inherent draw to work in sleek, glamorous firms that draw some of the most challenging cases.
Attorneys also want the intellectual stimulation of working on the most challenging aspects of law, putting every ounce of their education and intelligence to the test. Though the practice of law does require education, skill, and training, much of the work can be mundane and tedious. Those seeking to practice in large firms hope they will eventually be able to delegate the more mundane tasks to those below them on the ladder, allowing them to focus on the areas of practice that hold the most appeal.
Striving to be recruited by the big names in law can also be part of a familial expectation, as the practice of law has strong generational ties. One study found that the children of lawyers are seventeen times more likely to become lawyers than those whose parents were not part of the legal profession.
Why attorneys stay in Biglaw
Large law firms offer access to mentorship programs, where young attorneys are paired with someone much further up the ladder of success, gaining knowledge and valuable insight into what it is like to practice law in the firm on a long-term basis. These mentorship programs have often been around for years, meaning they are well established, and the kinks have been worked out. These mentors often become friends, as well as valuable resources, as a new attorney progresses along their career path.
Biglaw firms have the resources to offer extensive ongoing training to associates and access to the most technologically up-to-date resources. Technology has grown in leaps and bounds and has had a profound impact on the practice of law. Artificial intelligence has revolutionized both document management and legal research, making both much less tedious, making the mundane parts of being an attorney much more efficient.
Attorneys in large, successful firms, almost always have another carrot before them. There is continuous room for growth and promotion, which are enormous motivators for those who are genuinely ambitious. Ambition lures attorneys into the practice of Biglaw and is one of the primary means of retaining top-talent in the firm.
Biglaw firms offer a diverse range of experiences for attorneys who may not have decided on an exact niche. The chance to work on parts of complex, high-profile cases, is exciting and helps attorneys gain a range of experience in a shorter time. While having a niche is becoming the norm in the practice of law, it can be detrimental to have too narrow a range of experience.
The darker side of Biglaw
For all the reasons attorneys are drawn to practice big law, there is an equal number of reasons to avoid it. Big firms, who employ over fifty attorneys, make up a tiny percentage of the career opportunities for lawyers. Mega firms, who employ over 100 attorneys, make up less than one percent of the practice of law.
Mega firms are highly selective in their hiring process, often choosing only top-tier students from the most prestigious law firms as new associates. Some firms go a step further, and only hire top students from a specific law school. These narrow standards make it exceptionally hard to break into the field of Biglaw. As a result, firms can have a significant lack of diversity among their associates.
The lack of a diverse and inclusive culture can be a deal-breaker for some of the best and brightest young legal minds. Large law firms are notorious for their stiff, formal culture that demands new associates not only to work insanely long hours but also to spend time networking and socializing within the firm. In firms where there is an utter lack of diversity, the unspoken requirement to spend social time with others from the firm can become tedious.
The lack of diversity often has a profound negative impact on the firm's culture, and many attorneys are choosing to avoid the practice of Biglaw because the culture of the firm does not fit their values. Large firms are notorious for being inflexible, and many have archaic expectations of how new associates will conduct themselves. Though these attitudes are slowly changing in some firms, there remains little doubt that these firms are not the best fit for those who value flexibility, diversity, and the freedom to do things differently.
Though many attorneys might be passionate about the practice of law, more and more are realizing that they also desire a life outside of work. Biglaw is notorious for leaving little room for a healthy work-life balance. Sixty to eighty-hour workweeks are not uncommon, work hours can be irregular depending on the needs of the firm, and newer associates are expected to be available at the drop of a hat. Little regard is given for vacation time or weekends, and some firms may unofficially penalize associates who take time off.
Success is no longer narrowly defined by a paycheck, the name of the firm you work for, or the material possessions you have. Success is better described as the meaningfulness of and passion for the work you do and the time to enjoy the fruits of your labor. As large and mega firms desperately hold on to the idea that your climb to partnership narrowly defines success, they are losing some of their best people to the desire to live a balanced life.