What the hell is BIGLAW?
June 28, 2008 8:15 AM   Subscribe

I'm a law student trying to figure out if BIGLAW, with all the big letters, is something worth pursuing.

I'm a rising 2L at a top 5 law school, and in a very short time we are expected to start interviewing with the big city law firms for our second summers and, potentially, our post-graduation jobs. I really know next to nothing about what working in a big law firm entails, and so can't decide whether I should interview or not.

I'm not generally clueless on what the law and legal work are about. I am passionate about the law, found my first year to be very interesting, and am aware of various legal jobs, outside of the big Vault firms, that I know I would enjoy.

The problem is that all I seem to hear about biglaw is (1) it pays an obscene amount of money, and (2) it is horribly boring and soul crushing. I figure that (2) can't actually be universally true, but I'm not familiar at all with what lawyers at these top firms actually do day to day. Thus, I can't really decide if it'd be something I hated or enjoyed.

I like working, as long as it's interesting. I have a fair amount of pre-law school work experience, and I've had both good and bad jobs. At the best of these, I worked 70+ hours with regularity and really enjoyed it. At the worst, 40 hours was excruciating. It all boiled down to how much I actually enjoyed the substance of the work. I just don't know what the substance of biglaw work is. I'm aware of the various fields people work in - M&A, transactional, litigation, securities, etc. - but beyond the bare basics I don't really know what this work entails.

This question arises because I didn't do quite as well this year as I hoped - I'm guessing I'm near the median, but they don't tell us - and so the jobs I really wanted, mostly with the federal government, might be slightly out of reach for the time being. Maybe not, and I'm still applying, but I need alternatives. Biglaw isn't the only one, of course, and I'm looking into others (indeed, I'm spending my summer working in a field I really enjoy). Still, I don't want to dismiss biglaw outright based on a skewed perception of what it is.

So, what does an attorney at a big city (e.g., NYC or DC) law firm do? Are there specific specialties that are more interesting? Eighty percent or so of the students from my school go to Vault 20 firms, so those are the firms I'm most curious about.

Thanks a lot.
posted by ecab to Law & Government (16 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I skipped the big firm route, but I know many people who didn't. But one thing I can say for relatively certain is that choosing a big law firm means that you will go many years without getting to take much responsibility or control over a case, no matter what area of practice you go into. By contrast, I'm only three years out and am basically running my own cases (with supervision at the appropriate points) at my 10-lawyer firm. I can't overstate how happy this makes me!
posted by footnote at 8:33 AM on June 28, 2008

I've said this more than once around here, I think. I went to a top 10 law school. I now work at a firm that is, I think, top 150ish?, in terms of size. In a mid-market. Our market is sort of unique in that it's dominated by large regional law firms -- none of the top firms have a serious presence here. I do lots of interesting work for lots of very large clients. Our billable hour goal is a reasonable 1800 and starting salaries for first years is low six figures. I get lots of responsibility, lots of client contact, and know that I'll make partner after being here seven or eight years.

I have lots of friends in the big markets. The degree to which they have responsibility and control varies a lot - some have only done document review. Some have a lot of responsibilities. Same with hours - some work like maniacs, and some don't.

I think the biggest differences are that I have a lot more flexibility -- I can go on a reduced hour schedule and stay on partner ship track; I can telecommute; I can take extra vacations. They don't seem to have that flexibility mostly because of the size of the place, I think. And, most don't have any degree of certainty that they will make partner, or even be around in 8 years. (At least one big firm I know has an outplacement company that helps put their attorneys in other positions when they get asked to leave -- comforting, if you know that you only want to stick around there for a while.)

If you don't need big law money to pay off loans, you might consider something else. But I really like my job, at least 80% of the time. MeMail if you have more specific quesitons.
posted by dpx.mfx at 8:46 AM on June 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

If you have average grades at a top 5 school, you can still get an excellent government job. If what you're mainly interested in is government, and if you were willing to do it for the federal government (making a lot less money than the people who work at the big law firms), then why wouldn't you want to transfer that interest to other government jobs?

Seems to me you should clearly pursue your actual general interest, not just switch to a big law firm job just because you might not get the exact job you were envisioning.

And that's assuming that going to a top 5 school with average grades puts you out of the running for a federal government job. Is that really true? It strikes me as implausible, but I don't know. Make sure you look into that -- contact your career office.

From looking at your profile, I noticed you said this in another thread in a different context: "Essentially, you measure success based on how realistic your goals are. It seems simple, but you have to first establish what your goals are." Well, what are your goals? In your whole question, you've never said, "I would really like to ______." You're in an incredibly luxurious position that most law students would love to be in -- take advantage of it by pursuing what you really want to do.

I was in a similar (though not exactly the same) position as you -- feel free to MefiMail me.
posted by Jaltcoh at 8:58 AM on June 28, 2008

Just to clarify, regarding what Jaltoch says, it's not that I'm abandoning my interest to go to something I don't want to do. I'm really just curious - this is an option, indeed a popular option - that is open to me, and so I don't want to be overly dismissive.

In fact, I've worked fairly extensively at the state government level and enjoyed it a great deal. Going back to do that work is not at all out of the question - it would just require me moving back somewhere I like but not necessarily where I want to be at this point in my life.

And as for the government job, I'm talking about the various honors programs, and my understanding is indeed that they are extremely competitive and that my grades might not be sufficient. Something I've heard previously suggested perhaps top third of the class, but I'm not really sure. In any case, I'm absolutely applying, I just can't do so with enough confidence to think I'll likely be successful.

And of course I realize I'm in a great position, and I am not meaning for anything said to sound like a complaint - it's truly not. Several paths that I might take sounds like they'd suit me quite well, I just prefer to be better informed about the paths I'm unfamiliar with.
posted by ecab at 9:31 AM on June 28, 2008

follow-up from someone who would prefer to remain anonymous
I spent eight years in the New York office of one of the biggest firms after graduating from one of the top two law schools. I do not regret for one minute having done so, but I am very, very happy to be pursuing a different path now.

To answer your question as to what a big-firm lawyer actually does, well, I often describe it as being a graduate student but with a lot more at stake financially. As a disputes lawyer, I did a number of things, but a lot of the time I was researching or writing. Some of what I wrote was heavily analytical, and some was more about reporting facts, but everything had to be incredibly precise. Just about everything went through many, many drafts. We would all - from junior associates to senior partners - end up having others proofread and edit each other's drafts. The work was not done until it was done: something might take half an hour or 72 hours, but it needed to be finished regardless. If I took a day off (which didn't happen much), the work just piled up. There were also plenty of meetings, hearings, depositions, etc. These also took a lot of preparation and required a lot of attention to detail. As I said before, all this could be incredibly interesting and stimulating, but it could also be incredibly draining, and not every matter was exciting.

I found a lot of the work that I did intellectually stimulating, and would really get engrossed in writing briefs and other papers. I enjoyed a lot of the research and writing, and worked on some matters that involved really interesting facts. Of course, I also worked on some matters that bored me to tears. I got to do some interesting things in court, and what I was doing at a fairly young age felt, at times, quite "big" and important. I also got to do some interesting travel. And the money was wonderful: after the first couple of years, I felt able to treat myself (and those close to me) to some very fun extravagances.

On the other hand, I rarely took a whole day -- even a weekend day -- off. Clients and colleagues would call or e-mail me any time of the day or night, and expect me to respond. On the rare occasions on which I took a few days of vacation, I would get urgent calls that I would be expected to cancel. I missed out on some events that were very important to me on a personal level. And even though I became very good at scheduling myself so that I could make it to events that mattered to me -- usually by working obscene hours before and after -- emergencies, client needs, court orders, etc., would often cause me to have to change my plans anyway. At the end of my time at the firm, I had a breathtaking view of midtown Manhattan from a beautiful office on a high-up floor of a very nice building. But I was seeing that view late into the night and on weekends, well aware of the fact that it would be better to be one of the people down there at street level enjoying life in the city.

The biggest factor in my quitting when I did, though, was office politics. They affected my life much more as I became more senior, and dealing with the many conflicting personalities was a huge drain, especially when the work itself already demanded a huge level of commitment. From what I can gather from friends, none of this was unique to my situation or my firm. And to my total shock -- because I really didn't believe that things were still like this among sophisticated, cosmopolitan lawyers -- my being female seemed to make a (negative) difference on the office politics front.

What does this mean for you? You might like the big law world and you might not. It is not as painful as some people make out, but it certainly has its downsides. But it also doesn't have to be forever, and it can open a lot of doors. If you genuinely find the law interesting, though, you should at least find the work quite interesting as well.
posted by jessamyn at 9:42 AM on June 28, 2008 [11 favorites]

Very helpful answer, Anonymous. Thanks.
posted by ecab at 10:03 AM on June 28, 2008

I wanted to add that you like working as long as it's interesting. FWIW, I thought the first couple years were very interesting, because I was learning so much about my area of the law (knowing nothing about it prior to starting work), my clients, and about how to practice in general. The next year or so was pretty boring because that leveled out for a while. But then, as I started to handle my own cases all the way through, things got more interesting. Some of the most interesting things have been pro bono cases -- mostly prisoner's rights stuff. the last six months or so have been excruciatingly boring. When it's boring, it's really, really boring. And that makes it hard to bill your hours.

There's nothing wrong with spending the summer at big law to cash in and then deciding not to take an offer if you aren't totally sure -- summers at some law firms give you an idea of what being an associate is like, but in a lot of firms, it won't - it'll be a lot more about getting to know people through events and lunches and whatever. That isn't bad, it just isn't a realistic picture of what being an associate is like.
posted by dpx.mfx at 11:04 AM on June 28, 2008

I agree with every sentence written by anonymous above. Working very hard nearly every day, under significant stress, is standard for many BIGLAW attorneys. It wears you down after a while.

The responsibility given to a new big law associate will vary depending on a lot of factors. Some new associates hit the ground running, quickly figuring out the "big picture" of litigation or deals or whatever they're working on. Others take a couple years to fit in, even if they're really smart and talented. You're less likely to end up doing endless document review if you pick up on the requirements of the job quickly, and that simultaneously makes lawyering more interesting and more stressful.

In general, I think new lawyers with significant prior work experience have an easier time fitting into big law, so you may have a greater chance than others of finding work that's engaging (even if you have to do it 80+ hours a week).
posted by pitseleh at 11:47 AM on June 28, 2008

if I took a day off (which didn't happen much), the work just piled up. There were also plenty of meetings, hearings, depositions, etc. These also took a lot of preparation and required a lot of attention to detail.

This is really just the practice of law. Doesn't matter what firm you are at. Plus I've been pitted against partners at Biglaw before and sometimes they are nowhere near as good as you might expect. Shocking, really.

The biggest factor in my quitting when I did, though, was office politics. They affected my life much more as I became more senior, and dealing with the many conflicting personalities was a huge drain, especially when the work itself already demanded a huge level of commitment.

This is also common to all law firms. However, at the bigger firms, I suspect there are more personalities and higher stakes. Plus insecure, highly talented people (not anon!) often fall into those jobs and fight hard for everything. You gotta take that into account.

As for the workload, I'm not working in Biglaw, and here I am at the office on a Saturday.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:15 PM on June 28, 2008

My two roommates and my brother are all 2nd year associates at Big Law as well as several other friend.

I can't really speak to their work, but they seem to be still in top Law school mode, which entails getting drunk 4 times a week.
posted by sandmanwv at 12:21 PM on June 28, 2008

Did I mention that lawyers have a higher rate of alcoholism than the general population?
posted by pitseleh at 12:32 PM on June 28, 2008

I work in one of the smaller practice groups (not litigation or corporate) at a large, New York firm.

  • Intellectually challenging work. I've never done anything like document review or due diligence. There's some fairly rote work now and then, but there's also a lot of really heavy thinking.
  • Smart, supportive colleagues. I work with and for a lot of really smart people, and I've learned a ridiculous amount from them.
  • Good balance of responsibility. I'm on the phone with clients and opposing/co counsel all the time, and it's great. At the same time, I generally don't feel in over my head. Also, I've always found that senior lawyers were willing to listen to what I had to say about a matter, and were willing to be convinced that I was right.
  • The money is good.
  • The offices are good. Good view, good administrative support, and all the supplies you want.
  • Intellectually challenging work. Sometimes you're feeling under the weather, lazy, etc. and just want to phone it in today. This can be hard to do.
  • Very little feedback about how you're doing.
  • Unpredictable, demanding hours sometimes (but I really don't work that much).
  • Frequently, I'll put in a lot of work on something that's rendered moot by circumstances. This can be frustrating.
I should note that I think I've had a better experience than my colleagues in larger practice groups. Feel free to mefi-mail me if you have specific questions.
posted by Mr. President Dr. Steve Elvis America at 1:02 PM on June 28, 2008

People who slam the slow progress in "responsibility" at BIGLAW either don't know what BIGLAW does or think what BIGLAW does is unimportant. If you know, and regard as socially and economically important, the kinds of deals and cases that BIGLAW handles, you will know that it takes a number of years of learning and experience to be able to run one properly, just like it takes many years of criminal experience to (for example) first chair a capital murder or a RICO case. Because of billing rates, among other things, BIGLAW is more narrowly focused and tends to lack the matters which are analogous to the misdemeanors and minor felonies which those in criminal practice can use to first chair early on. Or, to use another analogy, pediatricians are prescribing antibiotics from the first day of internship the day after they get their MD, while it's ten more years of internship, residency, fellowship, and clinical associateship before a surgeon is leading a transplant.

I also really want to nth what several people above said that much of what people complain about regarding BIGLAW stress apply to most high-level legal practice, and certainly near-all high-level practice in the junior years. (High-level lawyers who can control and limit their schedules typically bought that luxury with years of toil.)

It is the nature of clients and bosses to be demanding and of deadlines to be unmoved by your personal life. Also, the extremely steep learning curve for any particular case or deal, and for overall deal and case skills, makes it very difficult to parcel out work in low-stress and low-hours-a-week increments. (This is why you can't just hire more lawyers and cut the billable quota to 1500.)
posted by MattD at 2:41 PM on June 28, 2008

High-level lawyers who can control and limit their schedules typically bought that luxury with years of toil.

I just called my dad to ask if his experience jives with my outside memory of what Biglaw was like. My dad started law school the day I started high school. He went to a NYC law school and then to the litigation department of a top tier NYC Biglaw firm. For all intents and purposes, we did not see him for the first three years he was there. He concurs with this recollection. It eased up a little after that, but being an associate at that Biglaw is just long hours. The gym is just an excuse to have showers so you don't look like you're sleeping at the office. Which you are, at least at some of these firms.

He has now been a partner at a large Jersey firm for ten years. Except when he is at trial or travelling for depositions, he is around a whole lot more. He VPNs into the office from home, has the most bored secretary on the planet, and plays a decent amount of golf. He teaches once a week at a NYC law school and really enjoys that. Most of his working days, which can still be very long when a case is moving towards trial, are spent reviewing and writing briefs and documents. Except for trial schedules, he controls his own time, which isn't a bad outcome, especially given the money, for the ten years it took him to make partner.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:41 PM on June 28, 2008

(This is why you can't just hire more lawyers and cut the billable quota to 1500.)
Well, and because that would cut the profits of the partners in half. ;)

I think the previous comments cover most of the bases, but I'd note that there is BIGLAW and there is BIGLAW- if you're top five (and not top two like anonymous) odds are really good you're in Manhattan, which is the worst of the bunch. I'm out in Silicon Valley right now at a top-level BIGLAW firm, and while the experience is not exactly a bed of roses, it seems like a fairly far cry from the experiences of some of my Manhattan-based friends. Still very different from government or what have you, so not going to be for everyone, but possibly much more tolerable than, say, Manhattan or Chicago.
posted by louie at 8:36 PM on June 30, 2008

Try it. If you decide it's not for you it's far easier to go from a BIGLAW firm to another type of practice setting than vice versa.

Just try not to get too addicted to the $$$ if you can help it. I've known a lot of people who've gone that route and gotten 'trapped' because they can't bear/afford not making the BIGLAW salary. so they stay at a job they hate because doing what they love won't keep them in luxury cars.
posted by my_thai at 8:14 PM on July 3, 2008

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