Even casual observers of the goings-on in Big Law know the Great Resignation, as with the rest of America, has not spared the legal profession. That fact, combined with the surprising and continuing high demand for Big Law services, means that you couldn’t ask for a better job market if you are an associate seeking greener pastures. Here are a few tips when considering a Big Law job offer that seems too good to be true.
These are hardly exhaustive. Some may look familiar, but hopefully, the list contains one or two that you may have overlooked.
Don’t Let It Go to Your Head
Yes, I know you’re a good lawyer, but trust me, you are not as good as the potential new firm says you are. Big Law now needs anyone with half-decent credentials, a pulse, and the ability to bill and bill and bill. It’s good to be wanted, but don’t expect that feeling to last very long.
Who’s Da Boss?
Studies have shown that the most significant variable affecting job satisfaction is one’s boss. If you’re one of the unlucky associates who is stuck working for your department’s biggest jerk and you’ve exhausted all reasonable measures to escape their sphere of influence, get out. Life is too short to have to put up with that, especially now. Of course, I’m well aware that Big Law is littered with jerks.
But there are jerks, and there are JERKS. And the longer you work in Big Law, the more you know what I mean. Upon receiving an offer, do your best to determine who will likely be your bosses and then, as part of your due diligence, circle back to associates who work for the partners. Even better, find departed associates who worked for the partners and get a more honest assessment.
Don’t rely on a general reputation that “the firm” is great to work for. Your personal experience will be most affected by your direct boss, so try to find out as much information as you can about what it’s like to work for that person.
Like the rest of corporate America, Big Law has yet to figure this out. You should have learned a few things from how your present firm has handled the work-from-home issue. Did they listen to the concerns of both lawyers and staff before acting or pretty much act like a dictatorship? How has the firm answered questions about working from home? How much do you care? How important is eliminating a burdensome commute versus the theoretical loss of firm camaraderie when the world returns to normal?
Interrelated with WFH is the elusive work-life balance. Here the firms may differ overall, but once again, the partners you work for will override any firm commitment to the issue.
Please. If you believe large law firm cultures differ, I have some swampland to sell you. In many large firms, the partners compete more against each other than against the partners in the law firm across the street. Many are pretty cutthroat, but certainly, some are more so than others. In any event, don’t fall for the culture BS. They are all pretty much the same. The culture that should concern you most will be determined by the jerk factor of “da boss.”
Client Contact and Handling Your Own File
This may vary by firm, but here again, this will vary significantly by “da boss.” Are you seeing a theme?
Some firms have impressive lawyer training programs, and I’m not just talking about in-house CLEs. I’m talking about training in how to do tasks that lawyers actually do. Does the firm even have a professional development department? If yes, how large is it? The answer will be a good proxy to determine how much the firm cares about your development as an attorney.
If you’re one of those Harvard Law grads who, when meeting someone new for the first time, seems to get that fact into the conversation within five minutes, prestige is important to you. What kind of car do you drive? What’s your neighborhood? We’re all influenced by prestige to a certain extent. Just some are more than others. Acknowledge its importance when comparing jobs.
The Big Lie
No, I’m not talking about the 2020 election. I’m talking about the firms that tell you that “just do good work and get in your hours; don’t worry about getting clients.” They are LYING! It is the rare firm where some sort of minimal book of business is not needed for partnership. You’re very likely going to have to build a book on your own. Does the firm provide coaching to help you in your efforts, or is the firm like most, where you have to figure it out for yourself?
Diversity, Equity and Inclusion
If you care about DEI, it’s easy to see if the firm walks the talk. See how many diverse partners there are. After that, see how many people are paid only to deal with the issue. If the firm only has a committee led by a partner who regularly bills 2,000 hours, don’t expect too much here.
Last, but not least is the money, assuming you can find the time to spend it. If you already suspect that life as a lawyer in corporate America is not your overall career goal and paying off your school loans as promptly as possible is, another $20K to 30K here and another $20K to 30K there is not chump change. If you’re going to be miserable, you might as well be able to smile more when you look at your bank account. I wouldn’t necessarily call that the happiness we all know money can’t buy, but it doesn’t hurt.
However, if your goal is to be a successful lawyer at any large law firm, another $20,000 or $30,000 here and there should not sway you at this early stage in your career. “Da boss” factor takes on even more importance here. What you need is not only a reasonable partner boss, but also a mentor. Is that possible? What are the firm’s practice area strengths?
Every large firm website claims the firm does everything, but we all know they do some things far better than others.
- Is your practice area a firm strength or weakness?
- Would you prefer the challenge of enhancing a weak one or riding the coattails of a strong one?
- How old are the big rainmakers in your department?
Lots of risk and reward here. Possible risk that the rainmakers ride off into retirement sunset and make no effort to transition their book to anyone. Reward is the possibility of inheriting a portion of the book. This is especially likely if your boss is also your mentor.
I conclude with two very much related idioms. The first one is “the grass is always greener on the other side.” It isn’t. What the phrase really means is that other people’s situations always look better than your own. Before you go climbing the fence to get to the other side, talk to the people who are already there.
The second phrase is “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.”
Keep your expectations about the new firm very modest. If you do that, finding greener grass and a devil less devilish is a realistic possibility.
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