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Key Qualities and Skills for Success

Just because Biglaw was not for me (I explain a little bit of why here: About Me), I don’t want to dissuade anyone from a career in Biglaw if that is what you want.  For some of you out there, Biglaw is going to be a great place to work and a place where you can thrive and build a long-term career that you are happy at.

I’ve thought a lot about what qualities a person who would be the ideal Biglaw associate would have.  And while you don’t have to embody all of these qualities, having as many of them as possible will surely be nothing but an asset in having a long and successful Biglaw career…if that is what you want.

1. Grace Under FireYou not only handle stress well, you thrive on it and you actually like it.

The world of Biglaw is an extremely stressful place. While the dollar stakes are certainly very high, often times people act as if the work is a matter of life or death. I always saw it as unnecessary to add so much extra stress to an already stressful job, but when that’s the environment you’re in, it is impossible not to get swept up in that feeling.

To some – in fact, to the most successful Biglaw attorneys – this high-stress environment is not only tolerable but what makes them excel. If you can handle the high-stress, high-pressure environment, be motivated by it and feed off of that energy, you just might be in the right place in Biglaw.

2. Boundaries: You can compartmentalize and separate your work life from your home life.

You are going to be spending the majority of your waking hours at your Biglaw job. Most of them will be in the office, but some of them will be working while at home, on vacation or at your parents’ house over Thanksgiving. That’s just the nature of the job and there is no avoiding it.

However, what you can avoid is letting work creep into every single moment of your life. Work is going to take up enough time as it is, so the key to a successful career is not to let it consume every part of your life.  

If you can set a boundary between work and home and essentially “turn off” your brain with respect to work when you are actually off the clock, you are going to be able to recharge much better than the person in the office next to yours who might work the exact same number of hours, but who feels like she is spending more time working because she is always thinking about work.

3. Friendships: You have friends or a support network outside of your firm.

Most people have plenty of friends going into Biglaw, but the key is to have strong friendships and bonds, and to keep them. It can be difficult to maintain friendships in Biglaw, either because your friends have more time than you do and don’t understand why you are never able to hang out with them anymore or why you cancel plans all of the time, or because your friends are in Biglaw too, so they are just as busy as you are.

If you are the type of person who works hard to keep in touch with people, you’ll be the kind of person who keeps friendships while in Biglaw. If you are used to people planning around you, inviting you to things and reaching out to you, you might find that your friendships drop away. 

An often-overlooked key to keeping your sanity and surviving in Biglaw is to maintain those outside friendships (and therefore, outside perspectives) with those who are not in Biglaw.

4. Sleep (or lack thereof): You don’t need a lot of sleep.

This might sound like a joke, but it is extremely helpful if you only need a few hours of sleep a night in order to function at your highest level. Apparently, these people exist! I always felt like a drunk and cranky 3-year-old after too many sleepless nights (or nights with very little sleep), but not everybody is like this.

There are supposedly people who can function on four hours of sleep just like the rest of us function on eight or nine hours. If you’re one of these people, I am jealous of your super ability. You’ll find this skill (if that’s what it can be called) will help you immensely in your Biglaw career.

If you are looking for ways to improve your performance when you’re stuck at the office super late or are faced with a daunting all-nighter, check out my post here: Tips to Survive a Late Night at the Office.  It is filled with tons of tips on how to help you survive those late nights.

5. Problem Solver: You like to solve other people’s problems.

Everything about working in the law is about the clients and you are paid a huge amount of money to fix their problems. Often times at the junior associate level you won’t really have much interaction with the clients, but you still need to be motivated to solve their problems and issues anyways.

Some people need real interaction and a real bond with a client or task to have the motivation to get things done, whereas others do not. The ones who succeed the most in Biglaw are those who, if a problem is presented to you and you can solve it, you want to use every last molecule of your energy and every last moment of your day to solve it, no matter who you are solving it for and how much (or little) of a connection you feel towards that person or client.

6. Thick Skin: You have thick skin and can take a lot of criticism without it bruising your ego.

If you can handle criticism and quickly move on without letting it eat away at you or get to you for longer than a moment, you’ll do great in Biglaw. The people who stew and dwell on every little criticism or every little mistake, or who break down if they are not consistently praised, are not going to find a home in Biglaw.

If you can take a client yelling at you without breaking down in tears, Biglaw might just be the place for you.

7. Brains: By all conventional standards, you’re really smart. And you’re also really “Biglaw smart” too.

If you got the Biglaw job, it means you passed countless tests over the course of your life on your path to get there, so you’re obviously very intelligent. But “Biglaw smart” takes a particular kind of intelligence – not only do you have to be conventionally smart, you have to be quick and be able to pick up new things very easily. You have to be a fast processor who can juggle many things at once. 

If you can work fast and not make mistakes, you are basically everything a client dreams of (and pays for). Perfection, of course, is never going to be achieved, but some people are closer to it than others.

8. Schmoozing: You like socializing at firm and client events.

Does the idea of drunk bowling or riding around on a booze cruise sound appealing to you? How about a three hour cocktail party at a rooftop bar in NYC?  If so, Biglaw might be a good place for you.

I am actually not kidding here – liking and participating in these things will help you in your Biglaw career.  You don’t have to drink alcohol, but you do have to tolerate being at these events (which, depending on the event, may or may not be tolerable without a drink or two) so that you can really get to know your colleagues and clients. 

They say deals are done after hours, and while I never found that to be true at the associate levels, it is true that bonds are formed after hours and it is important for your long-term career that you participate in these events.

9. Adaptability: You are able to juggle many things at once and work with many personality types.

Especially in the beginning, Biglaw is going to throw so many things at you at once that it is going to feel like you are juggling way too many balls in the air. You’ll get through those first few months and things will settle a bit, but you’ll realize that you’re still juggling the same amount, it just feels a bit easier.

Are you able to adapt easily to new situations so that whatever is thrown at you does not seem like the end of the world? Then Biglaw might be a good fit for you.  Aside from adapting to different work tasks, another very important aspect of adaptability is whether or not you are able to work with many personality types.

Biglaw has some interesting and demanding characters, and no two are the same.  You have to always be on your toes, ready for what is going to be thrown at you next, whether that is a new task or a new colleague.

10. Play the Game: You understand that Biglaw is a game, you want to play the game, and you’re good at the game.

This one is harder to explain, but you will know it when you’re in it. In addition to providing excellent legal work, succeeding in Biglaw also requires a bit of social and political maneuvering. 

For example, there are certain partners who hold more powerful positions in the firm than others, and the associates who work with them therefore have more standing at the firm. There are certain senior associates who everyone knows are never going to make partner, and so they are less respected and work on less important deals. There are practice assistants who gossip all day long and if you get on their bad side, they’ll gossip about you.

There are certain firm committees that are good to be a part of and that might bring you into high standing throughout the firm, others not so much. There are firm charity events that are the pet projects of powerful partners, some of which make sense for your career to participate in. The list goes on and on. 

Some of what I just wrote might sound disingenuous to you.  If it does, Biglaw probably is not a place for you. But if you understand that in order to advance and make partner one day, you need to be aware of the internal politics and play the game. If you don’t play, things might work out for you.

But remember that there is nothing that Biglaw partners like more than the prestige of being a Biglaw partner, and letting a person into their fold who does not feel the same way about the job and the firm is very unlikely to happen.

The Million Dollar Question: Are You Still a Good Fit for Biglaw?

When you look over this list, do you see yourself in any of these ten traits? How many of them? Or do you read this list and think the qualities all describe someone entirely different from who you currently are? 

As you spend more time in Biglaw, you can adapt (if you’re adaptable!) and develop some of these traits, but many are innate qualities.  I’d advise you to take a good look at yourself (or discuss with a friend who knows you well) early on in your career as a Biglaw associate and consider whether you think you’re a good fit for this career before diving all-in.

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