The term “BigLaw” often evokes thoughts of grueling hours, demanding partners, and a roller-coaster schedule. As a former BigLaw associate, I have a much different perspective. Sure, the hours were long. But my colleagues became some of my closest friends, and the work opportunities were incredible. Sometimes, I even—gasp—miss BigLaw life. There is an intellectual rigor cultivated both by the sophisticated work and quality of attorneys that top firms attract that is difficult to match elsewhere. And the perks weren’t too bad either.
I also learned a lot about professionalism and how I wanted to shape my career while billing my days away in BigLaw. Perhaps one of my greatest take aways was the confidence I built through partners trusting me with substantive opportunities early in my career. And there’s no doubt that the work ethic and efficiency instilled in me through the billable hour continues to benefit me today.
In reflecting on my days in BigLaw, I wondered if others felt the same. I asked a group of former BigLaw associates some of their thoughts on law firm life, including what they wished they had known as a first year, their advice for associates leaving BigLaw, what they miss most, and tips on maximizing the BigLaw experience. Check out their thoughts below.
1. What do you wish you had known when you started as a first-year associate?
- “I wish I had known it was worth it to be going through the late nights, unreasonable demands, and grunt work of my first year of practice. It became clear to me in hindsight that no matter where you land later in your career, if it even tangentially touches the legal community, having the name of a recognizable BigLaw firm on your resume is worth it.”
- “Everything is confusing as first—it gets better and more interesting, the more you know.”
- “Being a first year often means a lot of document review, but being the person who has really reviewed the documents and has become a master of the facts is invaluable in a case. You will be called upon to provide summaries of what you have found, so really pay attention and try to put the documents you find into context. Tagging them is important but remembering and being able to summarize them is what will make you an important part of the team.”
- “There are other options other than being an associate at a firm starting out. If you would like to move in house later, select a subject area that is more conducive (e.g., IP or transactional work).”
- “Take charge of your own career path and take advantage of resources at the firm to help you navigate and develop it.”
2. What advice do you have for associates who want to leave BigLaw?
- “Make sure that any future opportunity is distinguishable in some way. This way, you can use each successive experience to narrow down, or identify, what type of role or work will be the most satisfying.”
- “Network as much as you can. Utilize your law school’s career services office for resume and career advice.”
- “Don’t be shy about letting people in your network—including a few trusted attorneys within your firm—know that you are considering leaving. The best opportunities usually come from people who know you rather than through online job posts that you apply to with the general public.
- “Think about what will fulfill you every day. For a lot of lawyers that means continuing your legal work in a place with a better work/life balance. Don’t stop practicing if you don’t want to, just find a place that is the right fit for you.”
- “Keep in touch with as many contacts as possible—high school and college friends, law school classmates, associates from any previous careers—because for many many jobs, having a connection to someone who can either (1) educate you about the field/company/position or (2) call over to the hiring department and get your resume moved from the massive pile of applications into the maybe-we'll-look-at-these pile can make all the difference. In addition, start looking way before you reach your breaking point, because it takes a lot of energy and can often can take much longer to find a job than you might think, so you don't want to wait until you're already at your wit's end.”
- “Take a good look at the way your client’s in-house counsel group is structured and think about how you might fit in at a big or small organization.”
- “Trust yourself that it will eventually work out. It’s scary to give up the big salary and big name. But, if you know you want to do something else—go for it.”
3. What do you miss about working in BigLaw?
- “The high-quality intellects. Most people you work with at a major law firm are pretty sharp, but that's not necessarily the case at other jobs, and that can be a source of frustration.”
- “The level of professionalism inside a law firm can be hard to match in other roles. Also, in other legal jobs, whether they’re public interest, in the government, or in house, you’re no longer a revenue producer, but rather a cost center. As a result, you’ll be working with fewer resources at your disposal. Enjoy the law firm librarians and copy centers while you can!”
- “The ability to spend large chunks of time on a dedicated project, deeply intellectual work, and being completely in a project from start to finish (as opposed to handing off to outside counsel!).”
- “Being wined and dined. Working with incredibly talented and smart people with the highest level of professionalism and client service.”
- “I really don’t miss anything!”
- “I really liked a lot of the work, especially meeting with witnesses and preparing them for one of the most stressful experiences of their lives (in my case testifying in a government investigation). I miss having the clients tell me that our preparation helped them navigate a difficult situation.”
4. How can associates maximize their BigLaw experience?
- “Learn from everyone you work with. One of the toughest law firm partners I worked for has become my gold standard for what I expect from outside counsel now that I’m in house.”
- “Make as many connections as possible, and take on a variety of work.”
- “Write! No matter your practice area, find a parter or senior associate who needs help with an article or some other piece of writing, and get your name on it too. Writing for various legal purposes is an invaluable learning experience, and it gives you something to point to when you are interviewing for your next job.”
- “Try to figure out as best you can the internal politics or unwritten rules or inefficiencies of your firm's work assignment system. Any insights you can gain that will help you have some input into the kinds of matters you work on or—better yet—that can help you learn the line between when you can gently push back on assignments and when you need to ‘take it’ can make a significant impact on the quality of your time at the firm. For example, how many hours do your friends at your level in your department tend to bill? You now know how your workload stacks up and whether you can genuinely say ‘I'm really busy’ when the next assignment comes down the pike. Or, if there is an assigning partner, does it seem like she picks out a specific associate for each assignment, or does she just run down her list when she needs to staff a case? If it's the latter, you can maybe delay returning a call when there is a particularly terrible assignment in the pipeline and save yourself some real grief. (Note: you can't use that trick too often!)”
- “Get to know people at your firm—in your department and outside of it, partners, staff, other associates. Have deep relationships that you can later call upon. Whenever possible get to know the lawyers at other firms, the government and clients. The associates you work with may one day be partners or clients and they will remember if you were someone they enjoyed working with.”