Expect a Tough Few Years
The first few years of your corporate career can be tough and Biglaw is no exception. In fact, I’d argue that working at a law firm is one of the most demanding corporate jobs you can have (so demanding that it totally burned me out by the end of my tenure in Biglaw).
No matter what stage you are in, you will face challenges in your legal career, but the first few years in Biglaw are uniquely difficult. You’ll be thrown into a new environment that is not only challenging but also stressful and at times unforgiving.
There is no such thing as “easing into” Biglaw. After a few days of training (which mostly involves figuring out how to log onto your computer and use the firm’s resources), you will be staffed on an assignment. With that staffing, all of the sudden you have become someone’s lawyer. And that someone is a client who expects perfection and who is paying a lot of money for you to produce that perfection as efficiently and as quickly (i.e., cheaply) as possible.
The pressure in Biglaw is high and there is a steep learning curve. It is pretty well-known by this point that law school doesn’t actually prepare you for the real world, so you are inevitably going to go through an adjustment period when you begin your job. Everything will feel overwhelming and even a little out of control, but there are definitely things you can do to make your adjustment period go as smoothly as possible.
Top 9 Tips to Survive
I’ve come up with my top 9 tips on how to successfully transition from law student to junior associate. These are the things I wish I had been told my first week of Biglaw many years ago but wasn’t. Follow these 9 tips and I guarantee you will have a roadmap that will help you not only survive but also thrive during your first few years as an attorney.
Also remember to check out my post on the 10 signs or qualities that foreshadow a successful Biglaw career. If you read these two posts in tandem and follow all of the tips, you’ll be well on your way!
1. Be On Time.
The most simple tip of all – get to the office on time and stay for the whole day. While this sounds simple, many junior associates do not actually follow this practice. Biglaw is a notoriously tough environment to work in, but it is also a flexible one. That means that if you are not staffed on an active deal or case, nobody is going to question where you are if you are not in the office.
Days can go by where you are not billing hours to a client and that is totally fine. In fact, it is a normal part of Biglaw, where client work ebbs and flows and so do your billable hours. However, junior associates often mistake not being staffed on an active deal to mean they are able to come and go as they please.
There were juniors in my office who would consistently be missing for large chunks of the day to do things like walk their dog, get a haircut or run errands. While Biglaw affords you the flexibility to do this occasionally, do not be the junior associate who is never around. It will drive the more senior people in your office absolutely crazy if they consistently walk by your empty office. They will resent you, assume you don’t care about the job, and not want to staff you on any upcoming projects.
Similarly, don’t be the associate who strolls into the office at 11am because they “aren’t busy”. You probably aren’t busy because you are not around when people are looking for staffing help! Arrive at the office on time, at or before the opening of the business day, and stay through the end of the day, even if you have absolutely nothing to do.
During this time, find something productive to do, even if it is just reading legal blogs or organizing your files. There is always pro bono work to do, so try to do at least a little a day to keep your mind engaged. Trust me, if you follow this tip, you’ll be the first associate to be staffed when the next deal or case comes around because you will have been giving off the appearance that you are responsible and eager to get to work.
2. Respect the Hierarchy.
Biglaw is a really hierarchical place. Not just between partners and associates, but among all levels of associates and even among the partners themselves. In fact, it is among the partners that the biggest discrepancies often lie. Their compensation and relative power within the firm is based on who brings in the most work, who has the coolest, highest profile deals, and things like that.
As a junior associate, it can be hard to tell the nuances among the partners, because often times the loudest, most well-known ones are not actually the biggest rainmakers. Over time, you’ll figure it out. But it’s not really important, as no matter who the partner is, an associate is obviously below him or her on the totem pole.
What you will be able to tell from the get-go is the hierarchy among the associates. If you are a first year, you are at the absolute bottom of the ladder. Be eager to do anything that comes your way, including things that seem like administrative tasks. Never leave a more senior associate to send out a document late at night (unless you are specifically instructed otherwise), to prepare copies or to do anything of that nature. The more junior you are, the more likely those are your tasks and when in doubt, take the initiative and do them.
3. Get to Know Everyone – Not Just the Attorneys.
Some lawyers make the mistake of having an “us” and “them” mentality within the firm. They act as if there are the attorneys in the office, and then there is everyone else. Do not be this person. Aside from the fact that having a JD doesn’t make you special, a law firm wouldn’t be able to function without the support of the non-attorney staff as well.
So what does this mean for you? Beyond getting to know as many people in your office as you can since that’s the cordial thing to do, getting to know people in all departments will be beneficial to your career. Make friends with the on-site tech support team, the word processing ladies, and the guys in the copy department. This is common advice at any office, but it doesn’t hurt to repeat it here.
In Biglaw, you’re going to be under the gun to get things done under very tight deadlines, so having people in your corner who can help you out in a pinch and speed up every part of the process, even just a little bit, is going to be helpful, and possibly even a lifesaver.
4. Make a Habit of Taking Breaks.
Get in a daily habit of taking breaks and getting some fresh air, or you risk going stir crazy at the office. When you begin a Biglaw job, things are new and exciting. You’re probably going to go out to lunches with your new coworkers, take lots of coffee breaks and just generally find the time to take breaks to chat about all the new things you are learning and doing.
But as you and your new coworkers all get busier and busier, things like going out for lunch or even meeting up in the office cafeteria for 15 minutes will get harder and harder to coordinate. One Friday, you might find yourself sitting at your desk, eating lunch alone and with your door closed, for the fifth day in a row.
And if you often work late, it’s likely that you won’t ever be outside during the day other than the brief moments in the morning when you are in transit from your apartment to the subway and from the subway to the office. For some, this might be just a few short minutes!
To combat this, force yourself to get out for a quick walk during the day, every single day. Bonus points if you can get a coworker to join you, but this won’t always be possible. Remember that every little break and bit of fresh air will help to keep your mind focused and keep you sane in your Biglaw job.
5. Stay Away from Office Gossip.
Here’s a super short tip – avoid engaging in or listening to too much office gossip. This one is tough for many of us because there is a ton of gossip in a Biglaw firm.
A little bit of chatter with your friends is fine, but if you find yourself bonding with people over talking trash about other people in your office, take a step back and ask yourself if you really want to be that person. Do you really want to develop friendships based around talking about others? It’s never worth it, especially at work.
6. Avoid Comparison.
Don’t compare yourself to other associates. Whether you are making comparisons based on what deals people are staffed on, who everyone is working with or, the easiest metric to use for comparison purposes – how many hours everyone is working – don’t fall into that trap.
Your career is your own and while it is true that you’re competing with other associates for work and partner attention, the best way to succeed is to put your head down and do your absolute best work.
In fact, everyone works differently so it is really impossible to compare yourself, especially if you are comparing billable hours or time spent in the office. There are going to be some associates who are in the office for 18 hours a day no matter what. They are either working on an insane deal or case or they are not that efficient with their work. The bottom line is that it is impossible for Biglaw associates to compare themselves to others based on the number of hours worked, so don’t even try to do it.
7. Work Around Senior Attorneys’ Schedules.
Be flexible. And by this, I mean you should work around the more senior attorneys’ schedules. Adapt to their work hours and their work style, don’t force them to adapt to yours (because they won’t, and they won’t be happy with you for making them try). This all ties in with what I wrote about above – respecting the hierarchy, arriving at the office on time and being present.
Senior associates and partners are going to expect you to be available when they want you to be available. Sometimes this is going to be really difficult to deal with – either because the senior associate is a jerk and doesn’t respect your time (which, while it is not very common, could happen) or that person is going to be so busy they could ask you to work on something at basically any time.
At times, your first few years in Biglaw might feel as if you are constantly struggling to get up for air, because just when you think you are free, someone is going to pull you back under. That’s just the name of the game, and the sooner you accept it and don’t try to fight it, the more at peace with the Biglaw lifestyle you will be.
Something I discovered about a year into my career is that everyone in Biglaw is always at the beck and call of someone else. This makes sense because Biglaw is a client-service industry, but I didn’t realize it until I saw one of the most high-profile M&A partners at the firm responding to emails at 4am. Even the most powerful partners at the firm are subject to the whims of their clients.
8. Find Your People.
Finding your people is the key to long-term success in Biglaw. In order to succeed professionally, you need to find supportive partners to work for and high-quality associate teams to join. But you also need to find your people for your own sanity. These are the people you will vent to, have lunch with and to go out for drinks with.
My most valuable “resource” in Biglaw wasn’t a resource at all and it didn’t have anything to do with my corporate law career – it was my friends in litigation. We never worked together, but they provided a great sounding board and outlet for when work was tough.
9. Connect with Your Clients.
Early on in your career, work to make real, personal connections with your counterparts at your clients. Even junior associates get access to the clients from day one, so be sure to tap into this resource.
It’s unlikely (although not unheard of) for a junior associate to be communicating with a company’s general counsel or a bank’s executive director, but you will be speaking and working directly with someone who works for those people. And guess where today’s assistant general counsel and junior banker are going to be in 5, 10 years? They are going to rise up the ranks at their respective jobs at the same time as you are rising up the ranks at your firm.
In a few years, the junior people you worked with when you were a junior associate will be the decision-makers. Bringing in clients is a daunting prospect for many attorneys, until you realize that many times getting clients comes through the simple process of working with someone when you are both in junior positions, rising up the ranks together, and continuing to work together when you are both in decision-making positions.
Coming Soon – A Biglaw Survival Guide!
Interested in learning more, including getting in-depth advice on how to not only survive the first few years in Biglaw, but to really succeed? Do you want to know if you have what it takes to make it as an associate in Biglaw? Do you want the tools to figure out, before you’ve invested too much time in a career you don’t like, if you are meant for Biglaw or if Biglaw is not meant for you?
If so, stay tuned for my upcoming book!
Soon, I’ll be posting about how to purchase my Biglaw survival guide, in which I delve into 25 topics, tackling everything from taking control of your own career, to working with difficult personalities to handling stressful situations, all while giving real-life examples from my own career in Biglaw to illustrate what to do (and sometimes what not to do) to succeed.