How To Survive BigLaw

Law FirmsCongratulations new attorney! You’ve studied for countless exams, drafted epic outlines, and can, after weeks of bar study, finally tell the difference between contingent remainders and executory interests (you’ll forget soon enough). And now you’ve reached the high holy ground, a BigLaw job. No more Ramen noodles for you, my friend. You’ve made it.

Now let’s try to keep you there. This post will talk about the crucial things to do in your first few weeks of law firm life to ensure you succeed. While my advice is based on my personal experience in BigLaw, much of this advice is equally applicable to any type of legal organization.

One tip to start: if you ever feel like BigLaw is too much for you, call me and we can grab a coffee. I’ll tell you about my start in BigLaw. My first day of work was September 29, 2008, in New York City, at the law firm of Latham & Watkins. If you’re at all familiar with the legal market in the past six years, you’ll know why that date, place, and law firm are significant. I survived that layoff season. Many of my friends did not. You have a job and it is not, nor will it ever be, 2008 again. Thank goodness for that.

So here we go, how to survive, and succeed in, your first year of BigLaw.

1. Learn Your Passions. Many people dislike being a BigLaw associate. It’s a fact. So before you even walk through those revolving doors, answer this question: what are you passionate about? For some it’s easy. “I am passionate about environmental law so I will work with the environmental law group.” For the rest of you, ask these questions: What do you like to do? What are your hobbies? What are your interests? Learn those answers for two reasons. First, to help you find work that is at least tangentially related to your interests. Second, to help you find people to work with who share your interests.

Before I started at Latham, I had spent much of my life living and working overseas. Since there was an abundance of pro bono opportunities those first few months, I spent a great deal of time working on pro bono projects with associates and partners for international organizations. After work picked up, I stayed working for many of those same associates and partners. It was easier to work with people who knew my work product and with whom I had some interests in common. But there are no pro bono opportunities, you say. Then look at interests. If you wanted to be baseball player, form a BigLaw softball team. If you love the Natural History Museum, go meet the partner who sits on that board. If you’re interested in fashion design, find the IP associate who is as well. Feed your passions; it will make those long, difficult days (and nights) that much easier.

2. Actively Seek Out Work. Until you forge relationships with senior associates and partners, assignments will only come either when you’re given them or when you find them. Many law firms start by handing out assignments to new associates. Do not get used to that system. Knock on doors, send emails, talk to the department head, and seriously, pick up your phone. When partners know you’re good at what you do, they will seek you out. Until then, you eat what you kill. Welcome to BigLaw.

3. Who Are Those Lovely People Sitting Outside Your Office? Why, they’re the staff and they will be some of the most helpful people you will meet in your BigLaw tenure. Want to know what time the partner will be available to talk? Ask his legal secretary. Have to file a motion and have no idea what to do? The docket specialist does. Need to make 50 bound copies at 11pm at night? Wouldn’t it be nice if you were friends with the copy room clerks? They are called support staff for a reason. They will support you. Get to know them.

4. Bill Properly. Billing is not a complex process. Start timer, stop timer, enter description. But it is essential that you bill properly because failing to do so can get you in a great deal of trouble. Don’t make the accountant or a partner or far worse, the client’s general counsel, have to call you up to find out how on earth you spent 14.25 hours redlining a three-page merger agreement. Speaking of money . . .

5. Ask the Money Questions Upfront. How much time can I spend on this project? Should I use Lexis? Should I use the library? May I use a paralegal? Ask these questions as soon as you get your assignment. Again, you don’t want to explain why you spent 14.25 hours doing a task that could have been completed more efficiently.

6. Find The Key Partners. There are key partners who have key clients, who are on key committees, and who can hold your future in their key recommendation. Find out who they are and work for them.

7. Earn Your Work-Life Fit. Realistically speaking, much of associate work can be done remotely. But if you want to take that Thursday/Friday at home, you will have to earn it. Show the partners with whom you will work that you are diligent enough to work from home. Keep in mind that there are senior partners out there for whom this concept is alien.

8. Learn the Rules. You are being measured, judged and reviewed from the day you arrive. Find a more senior associate to explain to you what forms the basis of these reviews. What are they looking for and judging on? Learn what it is and excel at it. You can’t succeed if you don’t know the rules of the game, which leads to my next point . . .

9. Get A Mentor. This may happen with concerted effort or it may happen organically. Inevitably, you will find a more senior attorney with whom you simply click. He or she will give you work, offer you career advice and likely sponsor your success at the firm. Most importantly, that person will stay a friend and mentor throughout your career. Our entire profession is based on the relationships we cultivate. BigLaw is a perfect place to start.

10. Pay Off Your Debt and Enjoy Your Life. Finally, make an ambitious plan to pay off your debt as quickly as possible. That said, ensure that you carve time out of your BigLaw life to enjoy your real life. If you’re a typical first year associate, you are likely in your mid-20s. Enjoy those years; you will never get them back. Don’t neglect your friends, your family or yourself. It’s easy to say, harder to do, but worth trying your very best to achieve.

There you have it. Ten pieces of advice that I hope you take to heart. Good luck, new BigLaw Associate. And if you ever need a coffee break, give me a call.


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