“Biglaw is a marathon, not a sprint.” I’m sure you’ve heard this common refrain before. Have you heard it related to Biglaw (because many people say it when giving advice to law students and junior associates)? I might have even said it myself in the past (cringe).
The message comes from a good place. It’s telling junior lawyers that they shouldn’t work so hard that they burnout before the race is over.
But it’s not the right message, because Biglaw is a sprint sometimes. In fact, Biglaw is a sprint, a jog, a fun run, a 5-K, a 10-K, a half-marathon, a marathon, and an ultra-marathon all rolled into one. Let me explain.
The Two Races Every Biglaw Lawyer Runs Over and Over Again During Their Careers: The Sprint and the Jog
Everyone participates in the Biglaw sprint. You can’t opt-out of this one.
Here’s what it looks like: the client calls the partner at 5 p.m. with an urgent request. You better believe all hands will be on deck sprinting to deliver whatever was asked. It doesn’t matter that this probably means dropping everything else and working until the wee hours of the morning.
I see a lot of people talking about boundaries. I agree it is so important to set them, even in Biglaw. But I also think it’s disingenuous to tell associates just starting out that they can somehow opt-out of this type of race by doing things like signing off every night at 6 p.m. or telling a partner “no” when given an assignment at the last minute (there are exceptions, of course, but you can’t consistently say “no” to assignments and expect to be respected at work and to last there).
In my experience, telling someone they can somehow avoid these late nights or intense work periods is not helpful. If you work in Biglaw, you cannot avoid the sprint (unless you decide to opt-out of Biglaw entirely) – it’s an integral part of the job.
Disclaimer: again, I feel the need to point out that I’m writing from my experience – someone who worked as a transactional attorney in the NYC office of a major international law firm. I recognize that not everyone has/had my same intense experience. If you don’t or didn’t – great! I’m happy for you because you probably have a much better work/life balance than I did.
Sometimes, Biglaw lets you chill out and jog it out for a while. This might be between cases or deals, or over the holidays (for the unlucky ones, though, the end of the year can be the most intense time). Or you might be staffed on only one matter while you’re usually on three, so you have some more time to get your work done and aren’t feeling rushed or being pulled in multiple directions.
Enjoy this time! Get all of your personal things done during it. See your friends and family, etc., because it’s hard to predict when this time will end or come around again.
The Races You’ll Run by Class Year and Seniority
Now, on to the types of running you’ll be doing as you progress throughout your Biglaw career. Biglaw is only a marathon if you stick it out until partnership. If not, it’s a much shorter race.
The Fun Run
Your introduction to Biglaw likely came from working as a summer associate. This is equivalent to running a Fun Run or a Turkey Trot. Sure, you’ll get some exercise (i.e., work) out of it, but that’s not the main purpose of the race.
The main purpose of the summer associate program is to introduce law students to the firm, give them a sense of the people and the work, and treat them well so they’ll come back as full associates after graduation. Mostly, it’s a fun time that lets you dip your toe in the waters of Biglaw when the stakes are low and the fun levels are high.
Once you officially start at the firm as a first-year associate, it’s go-time. You’ve entered your first official race – the 5-K. Depending on your preparation (prior job experience, maturity level, etc.), this could be a breeze or it could be very difficult.
Your 5-K race lasts from your first day through the end of your second year. It’s the traditional junior associate years where you learn the ropes and adjust to life as a Biglaw lawyer. Some people leave Biglaw during this time. For them, Biglaw was by no means a marathon but rather a much shorter distance.
Side note: don’t believe anyone who says you shouldn’t leave until you’ve spent at least X number of years at the firm (usually three is the number given) – this isn’t true. Many people leave in the first year or two and are happier and more fulfilled than they would have been if they’d stayed. If you don’t think Biglaw is for you, sure, give it a chance, but if you know for sure that it’s not your path, get out as soon as you can. There’s no shame in leaving mid-race.
Your 10-K takes place during associate years three and four. At this point, you’ve proven that you can do the job and do it well, and you’ll gradually be getting more responsibility and more work.
A 10-K is a legit running distance. Not many people can just go out and run one without training. Hopefully, during your first couple of years, you received the training needed to succeed during these years. If not, it might be time to move on to another firm that will provide you the training (i.e., put you on the right matters and with the right people who are willing to invest in you) or to another job.
There’s a big jump between life as a third- or fourth-year associate and a fifth- or sixth-year associate. This is the real stuff now, and you’ve graduated to half-marathon running.
At this point in your career, clients will start to call you with questions before calling the partner. You’ll be responsible for running matters on your own with little senior support (until you need it).
By this time, your summer associate class will probably have been cut down by half. Not that many people survive this many years in Biglaw because it’s intense, just like not many people can run a half-marathon.
The Full Marathon
If you thought a half-marathon was intense, wait until years seven and eight (and beyond as an associate), when it’s full marathon time. The phrase “Biglaw is a marathon, not a sprint” becomes true when you stick it out for this long.
At this point in your career, it’s time to decide the ultimate question in anyone’s Biglaw career: could you make partner at your firm? Do you want to make partner at your firm? If the answers to those questions are yes, it’s time to go for it and push through for that last little (often painful) bit.
By year seven or eight, you’ll likely be acting and working almost as if you were already a partner, because the firm will want to confirm you have the skills to do that if and when they do choose to elect you to the partnership. That means lots of responsibility and work to prove that you have both the skills and the dedication to make it.
On a personal note, if a marathon is 26.2 miles long, I quit at about mile 25. I was that close to partnership and I decided to leave it all behind (well, not all of it, I guess, since look at what I’m writing about here!). Again, no shame in quitting any of these races if it’s not what you want.
The Ultra-Marathon and Beyond
Lastly, there’s partnership. This is the ultra-marathon – those races of insanely long distances. Depending on the race, they might be 100 kilometers or 100 miles long, or more or less, but what they all have in common is that they are extreme.
If you make it this far, you’ve fully committed to the firm. It’s a fantastic accomplishment. And if it’s what you want and what makes you happy, then it can be worth all the sacrifices it takes to get there.
(Oh, and then there are those ultra, ultra-races, too – the ones that people run in the desert or the snow for days and days. Those are the races firm management runs. Or those 80-year-old partners who still show up to work – yes, they exist. The ones who are all in on the firm and make it their entire life.)
Run Your Own Race
As you can see, Biglaw is more than just a marathon, and it’s more than just a sprint. It’s all of these sometimes hellish, sometimes rewarding, sometimes intense, occasionally laid-back races all rolled into one job.
What I think is more important than finishing all of these races is finishing the ones that you want to finish, and only those. Give your all to the races you decide to enter, and bow out when your time in Biglaw has run its course.
Which Biglaw races are you signing up for? Besides the sprint and the jog, which everyone partakes in, you have a lot of options. No matter what distance you choose, make sure to choose. And make it your own choice. Nobody else’s expectations of what you “should” do should dictate your Biglaw trajectory.
The mistake so many junior associates make is not making this choice for themselves. They start the Biglaw race but they have no idea which race they’re running.
I want to help you with this! It’s never too early to think about what you want out of your Biglaw career. Don’t let the sprint and the craziness of that first 5-K race prevent you from thinking about your long-term career. You should always be thinking about where you want to be at least one year from now. Is it in Biglaw or is it somewhere else? If you’d like to chat about your Biglaw career trajectory and aspirations, I’m all ears (click here to schedule a session with me).