Summary: Avoid these common mistakes made by many attorneys and you can stay in big law.
Getting and keeping a job with a large law firm is extremely competitive. For the majority of attorneys, entering a large law firm after law school is the culmination of years of study, achievement and sacrifice.
The fact that the future for most large law firm attorneys holds (1) less money, (2) less prestige, (3) less important work and (4) the strong possibility they may even stop practicing law says something. Big firm life is not for everyone; however, I sincerely believe that many people who should be in large law firms are not because they do not understand how to keep those jobs.
Do you prefer big or small law firms? Why? Share your thoughts in the comments below the article.
This article is about how to keep a job in a large law firm. There are major benefits to staying employed with a large law firm. There is the income, the prestige and other benefits that will result from this commitment. The most important and challenging legal work is done inside of law firms. When a large company has a serious issue to work on, they do not do it in-house. They use an outside law firm.
If you want to keep your position inside of a law firm, you need to understand the rules. Here are the biggest mistakes most attorneys make in large law firms that individually (and cumulatively) end their careers:
1. Getting Psyched Out. When I was practicing at the law firm Dewey Ballantine, I was at a cocktail party one evening, and one of the mid-level associates was joking around with a partner in the firm about how no one had made partner in the firm for 12+ years. “That’s because you all leave!” he told the mid-level associate.
There is a lot of truth to this. People leave for a variety of reasons; however, it is generally the people who are able to “stick it out” who succeed in the long run. When I look back at the people who are successful partners in the firms I was a part of when I was young, for the most part, they were people who kept their heads down, worked hard, did not gossip and would not think of working in another firm.
Law firms feel a sense of loyalty to people who were summer associates and joined them right out of law school. For the morale of the firm, it is important that there is a hierarchy that allows people to rise. The more time you are at a law firm, the more political capital you get.
Have you seen an attorney get psyched out (or have you had that experience)? Share your experience anonymously in the comments.
People leave law firms because they get “psyched out” for a variety of reasons.
2. Not Billing Enough Hours. Your job inside of a large law firm is to bill as many hours as you possibly can. If it is a large law firm, you are going to need to bill at least 2,000 hours. Employment security (outside of New York) is more and more guaranteed the closer you get to 2,500. If you are interested in making partner and really standing out, you want to bill more than 2,500 hours.
If you do this and nothing more, your odds of survival are very good.
If you bill less than 2,000 hours your job is in jeopardy.
Generally, the more hours an attorney bills the better their reviews will be and the less likely they will be to lose their jobs.
Even in the most severe recession, there are associates in law firms who manage to stay busy because everyone is preferentially giving them work. When the law firm goes to lay off people, they see who is busy and who is not. That is why it is so difficult for unemployed attorneys to get jobs. Future employers know they were not “the best” at their former firms and probably were not given work.
There are lots of metrics to measure an attorney by such as: social skills, punctuality, treatment of peers and subordinates, looks, writing ability, competence, drive, and negotiation ability. But when it comes right down to it, there is generally one factor your superiors will look at—how many hours you billed. That is what makes the firm money, and that is the one thing that really matters. Arguably, all other components of your performance are overshadowed by your billable hour totals.
What are your firm's billable hour requirements? Do you feel the requirements are fair? Why or why not?
How could any group of people be so shallow? Well, it is a business. How many hours you bill tells the firm you are working. Here is what the firm learns from this number:
How important is making sure you reach the required billable hours for your firm to you? Share your answer in the comments below.
3. Joining a New Branch Office. There are good and bad branch offices. Developing branch offices, though, can be particularly dangerous. The reason for this is due to the fact that the main office of the law firm where decision-makers reside will generally “protect its own” (i.e., the attorneys in the main office) and let go or fire people from the branch office first.
Think about this for a second. If you are in a New York law firm, you form relationships with your co-workers by going to lunch, socializing, and working with the same people every day. The attorneys in an office 1,000 miles away are not that important to you. Leaders in the main office of a law firm are going to be under tremendous pressure to protect their own people and will cut expenses and let people go in branch offices before making cuts at their own location.
There is also generally more work in the main office than in a branch office. Main offices generally have a variety of clients and a branch office may have literally been started to serve just one or a few clients. If the work dries up in the branch office, it may just shut down (this happens often). It is generally harder to bill a lot of hours in a branch office than it is in the main office.
For the same reasons attorneys are more likely to get laid off in branch offices, they are less likely to make partner while working in a branch office. How can firm management make you a partner if they do not even know you? I have seen associates in branch offices who have gone a decade or more without ever making partner.
The young branch office is the most dangerous of them all. If Skadden Arps had a client like General Motors threaten to jump ship, they might do something insane like open a branch office in Detroit. However, once these Detroit attorneys discovered that things like golf during the workday and weekends off were simply not tolerated, all sorts of turmoil would ensue. Realizing that these local Detroit attorneys expected New York salaries with Detroit hours, Skadden might quickly pull the plug on the entire operation and throw out all the young associates.
“You were making $275,000 as an eighth-year associate?” a seventh-year associate might be asked weeks later in an interview with one of the larger Detroit firms.
“Yes, but I do not need that much. I would settle for $250,000.”
“Most of our partners do not make that much. We do not pay New York salaries in Detroit.”
“Yes, of course. I understand perfectly. But I have a mortgage, two car payments and my children’s elementary school tuition is $40,000 a year. I’m just asking for what I need.”
Meanwhile, General Motors will be wooed by Skadden: “You can trust those local guys with your multi-billion dollar business if you like (if their cell phones are working on the golf course), but we have over 1,000 attorneys and will be more available for you in New York than those guys ever were in Detroit.”
If this sounds far-fetched it is not. I see this sort of thing play out with regularity, and it has been going on for decades.
What happens to the local attorneys? They end up starting a small law firm and taking a bunch of crappy pictures to put on the law firm website where they look all pissed off. I can show you several of these websites—there are tons of them out there, and they are amusing.
If you were a part of a branch office of a big firm that failed, what happened? Share your experience below.
4. Sleeping with Superiors in the Office. I hate to put this one in here, but I have to. For whatever reason, I’ve seen this more times than I can remember. This is not a good idea for the simple reason that the majority of relationships do not last. If a relationship gets sufficiently serious and then shuts down, both parties may have a very difficult time working together in the future. The more “junior” one usually ends up leaving—or finding a reason to leave so he or she does not have to see their former love interest.
When a woman sleeps with a partner at a firm (sorry, this is usually what happens), word generally gets out about this. This creates a difficult time for the woman because everything that happens with her is immediately suspect—a good assignment must be because she slept with so and so. There are all sorts of problems this can create (too numerous to list here) but the point is that it should not occur. Do whatever you want outside the office, but leave your personal relationships out there.
Have you seen this happen before at a firm you worked at? What happened? Share your experience below in the comments.
5. Working as a Contract Attorney. People need to make a living, and I understand this. Unfortunately, the perception of a large law firm is this:
How has working as a contract attorney affected your legal career? Share your answer in the comments below.
6. Taking Too Much Time Off. While there is nothing wrong with having a child, getting sick, or any other absences from the office, if you take too much time off, you are going to be seen as lacking drive and commitment and will come back from your absence to find that no one is willing to give you work.
I once saw an attorney get fired for taking a vacation. He had a legitimately bad review (he had not been doing good work) and was told he needed to improve immediately. He took a vacation a few weeks later, and it did not go over well at all.
“We are sorry to inform you we are going to have to let you go for taking a vacation…”
“Are you kidding?”
“No, we do not think you take your job seriously…”
Few attorneys are likely to lose their jobs over a vacation, but if you take too much time off, you will lose your job.
One of my absolute favorite reasons for taking an extended absence is “paternity leave.” Most firms have an “on-the-books policy” that allows male associates to take something called paternity leave when their child is born. At the recruiting firm I work for, attorneys regularly contact us after having returned to their law firms after taking a multi-week paternity leave.
“I cannot figure it out. I’ve never billed less than 2,400 hours. I’ve been back in the office two months now, and no one has given me anything to do,” the associate might tell me in a confused tone.
“Where were you?”
“I took six weeks of paternity leave.”
“They are never going to give you anything to do again. My advice—never tell anyone you took paternity leave for the rest of your life. Your career is over with your current law firm. Let’s talk about the future.”
If you take paternity leave, the odds are low that work will be waiting for you when you return. There are probably partners in your own firm who were busy doing deals and were not even in the same city, much less the hospital, when some of their children were born. What kind of man do you think they think takes paternity leave?
Moreover, the female partner who lives alone with her cats because she never has had time for kids is not going to be too enthusiastic about your paternity leave.
If you take too much time off, or pull some crap like paternity leave, you are going to be in trouble.
When I was in my 20s and working in a large law firm, I informed the partners that I would be taking a one-week honeymoon. I was getting married on a Saturday in New York and then flying to Hawaii from there. On Thursday afternoon, a partner walked into my office and told me he wanted me to report to Texaco’s office in Los Angeles on Monday morning because they needed someone to do a small trial for a case that was coming up. Texaco was eliminating their in-house legal department in Los Angeles.
I said, “Yes!”
“Call me Friday afternoon when you get to New York. We just need to finalize the arrangements.”
You always need to be available in a large law firm—even when you are getting married. It does not matter.
Have you seen an attorney lose out on work after taking leave (or has it happened to you)? Share your experience in the comments below.
See The #1 Attorney Career Killer That Attorneys Are Never Taught for more information.
7. Leaving without Another Big Firm Job Lined Up. Leaving a law firm is often an excellent career strategy—and moving to another large law firm is often necessary to remain at the same level in your career. Leaving a large firm to go to a small firm or work in another setting is the problem.
If you are considering leaving a large law firm, you should think this through very carefully. Large law firms are like a “fraternity” of sorts and once you leave, you generally cannot come back. Once you go to a smaller law firm, or take a job in a different environment (in-house, public interest, government) the odds of you being able to return to a large law firm are very slim indeed. While it is not completely impossible, it is next to impossible.
Why? Because the perception of large law firms is that they are so great that the only reason anyone would ever leave for something else is (1) if they do not have the nerves and balls for the large law firm, or (2) if they are fired. Unfortunately, the latter perception is the more common one. More firms are likely to presume you were fired if you are no longer with a large firm than that you simply left of your own volition.
Even if you did leave because of your own choice, law firms and the people in them are also smart enough to realize that if you leave once, you are likely to leave again. That’s true. Law firms rarely rehire anyone because they almost always leave again (with all the requisite issues creating poor morale on the way out).
Understand that once you leave a large law firm environment your odds of ever working in one in the future are highly unlikely.
What advice would you give to an attorney that wants to make a move to another big firm without looking like they will leave again? Share your answer below.
8. Being Dishonest. One of the more incredible events in my career came when I saw a tenth-year associate get fired and blackballed in the State of California for telling a minor lie. The associate had been working in a major law firm and was asked to send a simple letter consisting of a few lines. The next day, a partner asked him if he had sent the letter, and he said, “Yes.”
The associate had not. Instead of sending the letter, the associate went to his work computer, wrote it, and sent it. He did this within a few minutes of leaving the partner’s office.
Unfortunately, the partner had known he had not sent the letter when he asked him about it. The partner came into the associate’s office and asked him why he lied. The associate denied lying and produced the backdated letter.
The partner called the law firm’s IT people to determine the exact time the letter had been written. Despite having worked at the law firm for years and being weeks away from being made partner, the associate was escorted out of the building by security and never worked in California again. He was blackballed, and the law firm was more than happy to share with anyone who would listen how disappointed they were with him.
The only thing an attorney has is their ability to be trusted. If they cannot be trusted, they will lose their jobs. Partners lose their jobs for making mistakes on expense accounts. If you are dishonest, you will experience massive problems.
Share a time you have seen an attorney's career affected by being dishonest in the comments below.
9. Talking Poorly about the People You Work for. It does not matter whether you like or respect the people you are working for. You need to keep your opinions to yourself. If you talk badly about the people you are working for, it will get back to them. When it gets back to them, they will want revenge, and they will figure out a way to get back at you and hurt you.
You never want to say anything negative whatsoever about the people you are working for. These are the people who support you. You will also need these people later in your career. Even the largest legal communities are really small legal communities. Say only positive things about the people you work with.
Besides the reasons above why else is it so important to always speak positively about the people you work for? Share your thoughts below.
10. Not Understanding the Rules of Face Time. Regardless of how many hours you are billing, you are expected to arrive at the office before the partners and leave after they leave. You do not have to, but you should. This is the rule that the smartest attorneys follow. It is a rule that works, and it is another way to stay employed. This shows you are hungry and take your job seriously. It shows you are giving your superiors the respect that they deserve. It makes them feel good and gives them the ability to call impromptu meetings at 7:30 a.m. or 8:30 p.m.
While this may sound unreasonable, it is far from it. As an attorney, you are expected to be available and putting in hours. I am not saying you must do this, but this is the absolute best way to keep your position in large law firm and is one of the “smaller” things that the smartest and most savvy associates are doing.
How else can you show your firm that you are always available? Share your answer below the article.
I realize a lot of this may sound unreasonable, but these are the rules (the most important rules). You need to follow these rules to stay employed and survive. If you’ve come this far, you should not blow it by misunderstanding these rules.
There are tons of other things I could tell you about—how to dress, when to talk and remain silent and more. You should pick these up on your own. The items above are of supreme importance. Follow these rules consistently, and you will do very well over the long run. Years from now, your peers will be plugging away at less important jobs, and you will be continuing to rise.
Here is what is nice about these rules: The people who follow them almost always do well. If someone went to a better school than you, or thinks they are better than you for some reason, you can kick their ass on the law firm battlefield by following these rules.
Here is what happens in most law firms: People show up and some follow these rules and others do not. The ones who do are the survivors. What is so thrilling about watching this game is that the ones who do not follow the rules are often the ones with the most hubris. This is a game, and hubris will not win it. If you want to win, follow these rules.
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