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Leaving Biglaw? Leave These Things Behind, Too
Biglaw is a very particular place that teaches its lawyers invaluable skills. The longer you spend in Biglaw, the more ingrained these skills become. Many of these skills will take you from the law to your next job and help you immensely (check out this post on three valuable legal skills to take to your next career).
Some skills, however, are better left behind when you leave Biglaw. This could mean either when you leave the office for the night, the weekend or vacation, or when you, like me, leave your Biglaw office for good and don’t plan on stepping back in.
Here are the top five skills or habits that serve you well in Biglaw, but do not serve you well in your real life. Most likely, you will have to consciously work to train yourself to think and act another way if you want to make a change to any of these, since they become second nature for so many of us in Biglaw.
Skills and Habits to Kick to the Curb After Leaving Biglaw
1. Moving Heaven and Earth for the Client
From day one in Biglaw, you are taught that the client is king. Generally speaking, associates and partners alike will make anything a client requests happen, whether that means drafting a 200-page document overnight or working straight through multiple days, nights and weekends to get a deal closed.
This pressure to get things done and done well, on a crazy time crunch, is part of the rush of Biglaw. It might be inconvenient (or even soul-crushing) at times, but when it’s over, you feel a sense of pride for accomplishing something so difficult. Some people thrive on this (or at least do so for a while), while others do not.
Those client demands and Biglaw’s ability to meet those demands mean that Biglaw associates quickly adopt the mindset that moving heaven and earth for the client is normal. You will do anything in your power to grant a client’s wish.
You will also strive to make the client’s life as easy as possible, because they are usually working hard during this time, too (but probably not as hard as you). You might spend extra hours that you do not have synthesizing the document into an easy to digest, bullet-pointed list so the client does not have to read the whole thing. Or perhaps you are extra enthusiastic and nice when talking to them because you know they are stressed. Or maybe you agree to a conference call in another time zone that is convenient for them, but in the middle of the night for your team.
All of these things are ways Biglaw caters to the needs of its clients, and rightfully so, as this is what the job demands. In Biglaw, you get used to putting the client first and making their lives easier and trying never, ever to demand something that would inconvenience them.
Guess what happens when you leave Biglaw? You aren’t at the beck and call of the client anymore! So you can drop this mentality, which, of course, is easier said than done. Here’s how it recently came up for me.
I’ve been working with a wedding planner from afar to plan a destination wedding. We communicate mostly over email or through a task-management app. Before every call with her, I would make sure I had perfectly laid out all of my questions, set the agenda, and had given her multiple windows of time that I was available to chat. When we did speak, I also tried to make sure my questions were as brief as possible so I didn’t take up too much of her time.
Until I realized one day, “wait, I am the client here!” I am paying her, so I am the one that should be catered to. Now, this did not change much (I still obsessively write out my questions, organize them in bulleted lists and am always on time for our calls – thanks, Biglaw, for those super valuable skills that are ingrained in me forever!), but I did feel a slight shift in my attitude after this realization, which has helped me immensely.
By realizing that I am the client, I was able to let go of a little bit of the stress I put on myself when I didn’t want to take up too much of her time or was always trying not to inconvenience her. Turns out, I am entitled to her time, and she is very happy to give it
When you are not in the Biglaw environment, it can be easy to forget that you are not always the service provider. Sometimes you are the client and you can and should act like that.
2. Obsessive Attention to Detail
Biglaw takes perfectionism to a whole new level. The expectation is near-perfect work product at all times, which makes sense, considering how much clients pay for Biglaw services! What happens, though, when you step out of work, either for good or for the evening or weekend?
In some ways, the obsessive attention to detail and perfectionist tendencies that are cultivated at work are helpful in your life outside of work. The problem arises when you obsess over every.single.detail in every aspect of your life.
Cut yourself some slack when you are preparing your kid’s birthday party decorations or the Christmas cookies you plan to bring to a cookie exchange – neither warrant the level of perfectionism or attention to detail that Biglaw work does. If you don’t let some of those high expectations on yourself go (trust me, this is way easier said than done and I struggle with this a ton – even two years after leaving the Biglaw environment. Not that I can blame it all on Biglaw – by the time you reach Biglaw, most of you have already finely honed your perfectionist tendencies; Biglaw just enhances them) you might find yourself enjoying life just a little bit less.
The first time I realized how much of a hold Biglaw perfectionism had on me was years ago when I was preparing an e-vite to send out for a friend’s baby shower. I think I reviewed that thing 100 times before sending it to about twenty people. Sure, the e-vite was “perfect” but did it really have to be reviewed that many times? Probably not. I would have saved myself some unnecessary stress and time if I’d just let go of my perfectionist tendencies just a bit.
3. Formality in Emails
The first time or two that you send an email to a new person, whether it’s a client, opposing counsel or someone within your own firm or company with whom you’ve never met or interacted, it’s probably best to be overly formal. After that, however, most lawyers would be better served by ditching the super formal tone in emails and just be…normal.
What do I mean by this? Well, when I was a first-year associate, I was staffed on a deal with an associate just one year above me. Despite only being one year my senior, she insisted on reviewing all of my emails before I sent them out and making changes. I would have been ok with this if her changes were substantive, but mostly she just changed things like making me start all emails with “Dear X” and sign them “Best regards, Marissa” no matter who I was sending it to.
An email at 2am to a twenty-three-year-old investment banker who usually responded with one-word answers? Had to be formal. The partner we were working with and interacting with multiple times a day, in person, on the phone, and by email? That was formal, too. Luckily after that deal was done I realized she was the extreme case. Still, there are some lawyers who just can’t let the formal tone (and lack of personality) go.
If this is or was you, consider changing your tone once in a while. Your building manager doesn’t need a formal email whenever you submit a request for him to fix your sink and your sister-in-law doesn’t need a formal email when you’re asking her when she’s coming over to visit. It might take a little bit of focus to change your style, but the rest of the world doesn’t operate the same as Biglaw. Relax and let a little bit of “you” shine through!
4. Obsessively Checking Your Phone
Just. Put. It. Away. I’m going to be brief on this one because the title says it all. How often you feel the need to check your email while working in Biglaw depends on your practice area and your personality. If it makes you feel better to know whether there is something going on at all times, you’re probably going to check your email more than necessary. If you have a more laissez-faire attitude towards work, you might be able to go a few hours or an entire weekend day without checking your phone. Most of us fall somewhere in between.
Once you leave Biglaw, however, you can put the phone down. This was one of the hardest things for me to break. I know there’s hardly anything in my email or text messages that is urgent, but yet I still check my messages all of the time. This is one habit that basically every Biglaw lawyer (and probably most other corporate workers…and teenagers) picks up immediately, and it’s one of the hardest ones to drop because it becomes so automatic.
This habit is also probably the worst Biglaw habit to keep once you’ve left the law behind, so do whatever you can do let it go. Consider yourself lucky there is nobody at the other end of your phone desperate for your attention at all hours of the day!
5. Expecting Excellence from the Wrong People or Places
As I wrote above, perfect work-product is expected out of Biglaw associates. Which means, Biglaw associates grow to expect that from everyone they work with, too. You will get used to people responding when they say they will, providing quality work, and being available to work no matter the hour or the request. That, however, is because they, too, are working in Biglaw.
There is a time and a place to expect excellence. That time and place is at work and from your colleagues, but it isn’t from everyone in your life.
When you leave Biglaw, leave your high expectations behind and evaluate whether you are expecting too much from someone. Whether it is your first-grader and the quality of his math homework or the teenage kid at FedEx who is moving too slowly for your liking, step back and assess your expectations. Sometimes it would do us all a little bit of good to lower our expectations and relax a bit.
Have You Left Biglaw? What Did You Leave Behind and What Skills Still Linger?
Have you left Biglaw, another type of legal job, or another high-stress career? If so, have you found any skills or habits that you can’t seem to shake, but you probably should? Let us know in the comments if there are other skills (good or bad) that still linger from a past career in your new life!