Big law firms get a terrible rap. When I was a student at Harvard Law School (I didn’t go to Harvard), we were constantly told by our peers that big firms were evil, though they paid well. We were told that we wouldn’t get any practical experience at the big firms, that all we would be doing was document review and cleaning the toilets for the first three years. We were told that they were sweat shops. We were told that they ground up associates and then spit them out. We were told that they would sneak into our rooms at night and kill us in our sleep.
At some point, it starts to sound like camp counselors telling spooky ghost stories around the campfire. Yet, this ghost story has persisted over the years: “And then, when the associate got out of the cab on his way home at 4 a.m., he found a BLOODY HOOK STILL ATTACHED TO THE DOOR HANDLE!”
[1st year law students screaming and crying]
But I am here to tell you, as a former big firm attorney (I really did work at a big firm), that much of these stories are bunk or that they are not stories that are limited to life at the mega firm. The following is a breakdown of many of the perceptions of big-firm life that attorneys and law students alike might want to take into account if they are considering joining a large law firm.
#1 You Will Work Crazy Hours
There can be long hours at big firms, yes. But there can also be super long hours at smaller firms too. Sadly, this is the nature of the business these days. For example, if you are working on a case that is going to trial, you are going to work long, grueling hours getting ready for it whether or not you work at a big or small firm. If you are a transactional attorney and you’re working on a really big deal? Same thing. And sometimes, at a small firm, because there are fewer attorneys who can bear the brunt of the case load, when it gets busy, it gets REALLY busy REALLY fast and there’s very little letup.
Furthermore, I have heard of plenty of tales of people who work at big firms and who maintain very good hours. They bill 2000 hours and are not punished for failing to bill 2400. The department you work in and the partners you work for will more likely affect your hours than the firm itself will.
Bottom line is that the practice of the law is a pretty tough life when you’re junior, whether you’re at a big firm or small one.
#2 You Won’t Get Any Practical Experience
Two main things determine how much hands-on experience you will get in your position if you work at a big firm: 1) your personality; and 2) who you end up working for. With regard to point number one, if you are the type of person who is inclined to try and ‘hide’ at the big firm, you probably will be able to stay away from getting real hands-on experience. And that, I suppose, is less stressful in the short run—if you are a ‘hider,’ that is. However, hiding is not good for your career and it’s not the fault of the firm that you chose to avoid getting your hands dirty. The most the big firm can be blamed for is providing a large enough biosphere in which you can successfully duck and cover. With respect to point #2—who you end up working for—well, that’s out of your control to a large degree. If you work for partners who want to lock away their associates doing document review for the first year at the firm, then you drew the short straw, I am sorry to say. At my former firm, I was lucky enough to be sent to court the day after I passed the bar and I never looked back (seriously, I never looked back—I have no idea what was behind me). I went to court hundreds of times in my career. But I was lucky—I worked for a great partner who really valued having associates who knew how to do stuff, so he made us do stuff (which is good, because I would probably have tended to be a ‘hider’). If, on the other hand, you have landed in a practice where they truly intend to keep the substantive work away from the young attorneys, then you really are in a bad situation (unless you are a ‘hider’, in which case you are working for a ‘hiding enabler’). However, again, this isn’t necessarily endemic to big firms—there are ‘hiding enablers’ at smaller firms too—the good news is that if you are at a big firm, you have a better chance of finding a different partner to work for because there are lots and lots of them there. They can’t all be hiding enablers. Use the size of the firm to your advantage.
There’s a point I am trying to make in here somewhere.
#3 It’s a Sweatshop
Sweatshops exist in third world countries and the people who work there barely make enough money to live. You will make enough money on your first day to buy yourself gold teeth. Knock it off with the ‘sweatshop’ comparisons.
#4 You’re Just a Cog in a Machine
People think that at a big firm, they will be dehumanized, that they will only evaluated as a set of numbers that appear in a gigantic spreadsheet. They think that if they don’t make their hours, they won’t be valued even if the work they do is outstanding. Conversely, they complain that the inefficient attorney who bills 2300 hours will be considered a superstar even though their work is junk.
OK. To some degree this is true. Evaluating people by the numbers is more likely to happen at any organization where they have to manage hundreds and, perhaps, thousands of employees. But doing high-volume, poor-quality work will only float for so long. Eventually the system catches the clunkers, it just may react a little slower than the system at a small firm. If you do good work and get good reviews, you will be recognized and rewarded.
Now, Let’s Talk Affirmatively About the Good Stuff
Don’t forget about all the good things that the big firm can provide that aren’t necessarily available at smaller firms. Big firms provide a ton of CLE training right in the confines of the office. There are experts from all over the firm who can provide amazing insight and guidance on a huge variety of subjects. There are support systems in place that run 24 hours a day because, let’s face it, no matter where you practice, you are going to have late nights from time to time. Better to have a whole staff of document specialists on hand to help you out when it gets super late. Need a thousand copies after hours? They’ve got you covered.
The benefits are usually great too. At some firms you will likely have vision, dental, health, 401k, 501k, and some sort of shark attack insurance (optional).
Then there’s the access to people. While I was at DLA, I was able to meet a Secretary of Defense, a couple of congressmen, Michael Jordan’s lawyer (Jordan came to the office himself once, but I missed it), Gandhi, and also God.
Pay is pretty good, too.
Long story short, there are a lot of benefits of working for the mega firm. Don’t let the camp counselors scare you.