- No one is absolutely perfect in their job.
- Yet, in the legal world one mistake can prove fatal.
- Find out the 10 biggest career mistakes a lawyer can make and how they can survive those mistakes.
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.
In this article, you will learn the unwritten rules you need to follow to survive and thrive in a big law firm at time when the option of leaving practicing law is considered by more and more attorneys.
Here are some interesting observations:
- The majority of attorneys who join large law firms out of law school may never make as much money (adjusted for inflation) ever again. That's right. Even in smaller firms. In New York and Los Angeles, a young associate can make $200,000+ a year. The average attorney with 15 years of experience does not even make that much. Many in-house and government jobs pay senior attorneys less than $100,000 a year.
- Most attorneys who join large law firms out of law school never work at firms as prestigious ever again. Attorneys generally move a few times (to large law firms) before finally stepping out of a large law firm into something smaller or different. Once they do this, the odds are greater than 95% that they will never work in a large law firm ever again.
- Only half of the attorneys who join large law firms out of law school are likely to be practicing law in 10 years, while over 85% of the attorneys who join small law firms are likely to still be practicing in 10 years. I have no idea why this is. Maybe the attorneys who were in large firms became burned out and demoralized. What I do know is that most attorneys I see who join large law firms end up leaving the practice of law.
- The majority of attorneys who join large law firms out of law school will never work on matters as large or for clients as important again. Most attorneys will never have the experience of working on as important matters ever again as they had in the large law firm. For the most part, the rest of their careers (if they stay practicing law) will be dedicated to servicing smaller clients.
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.
See the following articles for more information:
- Top 32 Reasons Attorneys Lose Their Jobs Inside of Law Firms
- Survival Tips for the First-Year Associate
- A Step-by-Step Guide to Law Firm Success: Rise Up
- Top 7 Tips for Succeeding as a First-Year Associate: How to Succeed as a New Associate in a Law Firm
- How to Be a Successful Attorney
- Two Fatal Deficiencies That Prevent 99% of Attorneys from Achieving Greatness
- 21 Reasons You Will Never Get a Job with a Major Law Firm Now (or Ever Again)
- The One Simple Rule for Succeeding in a Law Firm
- Two Things the Most Successful 5% of Attorneys Do That the Rest Do Not
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, 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.
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 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.
People leave law firms because they get “psyched out” for a variety of reasons.
Reviews psych people out.
Most young attorneys have no idea what they are doing and make various mistakes and blunders on a consistent basis—even the most diligent of them. There are always “ego weak” partners in every firm who take great pride in putting down young associates and love to prove how little they know. This is perfectly normal and simply part of the process of learning. Many reviews can be quite brutal—and they are done this way to make sure that the person being reviewed improves.
Many young attorneys have been praised in school and by their parents all of their lives. Getting negative feedback is not something they are used to, especially when they may be working 80 hours a week in a law firm for a faceless client.
I’ve seen many attorneys leave due to negative reviews. An attorney should never leave a firm over reviews. You should simply improve on the things the law firm told you. I also have a little secret…
Junior associates are generally not [that] profitable for a law firm. Once you hit a “sweet spot” inside the law firm and have between 3 and 6 years of experience, you will become quite profitable for the law firm. At that point, you will generally start getting “kick-ass reviews” where you are ranked highly on all factors. Reading the reviews of mid-level associates (provided the firm has work) is almost comical. Everyone is told he “is on the right track” and “things are looking good” (implying partnership is coming). By that point, most mid-level associates have purchased homes, are married, and may have children. They proudly bring home their reviews to show their wives. Their wives will believe that everything is going well. It’s time to expand our family because our master likes us!
I cannot tell you how many glowing reviews I have seen strategically placed around homes of mid-level associates in the television room, on the kitchen table, on the nightstand, and so on. Just understand this: There is no need to leave due to a few bad reviews because they will get better once you are more profitable for the firm.
Another secret: The law firm at one point will be kissing your ass because it does not want you to leave yet. (Your profitability will start declining at year 7 or so, at which point reviews will again turn savage).
A final issue with reviews is this. Many law firms have issues caused by losing clients, recessions, partners leaving, and more. When this happens, the law firm may be under pressure to cut associates or get them to leave. What better tool than the negative review? Thus, just like positive reviews, negative reviews are often a “sham.” The point to remember is that you do not need to be the one who leaves when this happens. It may make sense to look for a job, but that may not work if other firms are also hemorrhaging associates.See the following articles for more information:
- If My Boss Gets Mad at Me or I Get a Poor Review, Does This Mean I Should Look for a New Job?
- An Associate's Guide to Law Firm Performance Reviews (Including Getting a Bad Law Firm Performance Review)
- Why the Best Attorneys Are So Hard on Themselves and Others
Difficult or undesirable legal matters may psych people out.
I once represented a client from New Jersey who was in the “mafia” and operating a “front business” that had been sued for some matter by a Chinese company. The client at one point called me from his cell phone and gave me a speech about respect and threatened me with physical harm if I did not get him the result he wanted.
Having spent the majority of my career up to that point in the asphalt business in Detroit and having been robbed and threatened by guys like him before, I proceeded to give him a piece of my mind and tell him that I’d be happy to meet him anywhere for a face-to-face confrontation. In response, he hung up the phone. A few minutes later, the partner assigned to the case showed up at my office door looking very happy.
“The client just called and said how much he respects you. He says he does not want anyone but you working on his case! I do not know what you did. Good job. Barnes!”
While I hate to say it, many of the pencil pushers I was working with would have quit their jobs after being threatened. I was not bothered in the least because I understood the guy and knew it was just a “test” to see if he could push me around. He knew that if he could push me around, the opposing side would be able to as well.
Far too many attorneys leave when confronted with a tough legal matter or difficult client.
I’ve seen some associates having to spend 18 months living in a hotel room in a small city in the middle of nowhere reviewing documents and entertaining themselves with rental movies each night. I’ve also seen many of these same attorneys quit a few months in. They quit because “living in the suburbs of San Antonio is not New York!” or “I need a life.” I’ve seen many simply walk off the job.
Are you kidding?
You went to law school and worked hard for years to get this job and are leaving because you do not like your current assignment? You do realize how this is going to look to other employers, right?
Perhaps the dumbest move by an attorney I ever saw was by one who miraculously got a job with one of the largest and most prestigious law firms in the Bay Area after having been unemployed for over a year. During his interviews, he expressed to the partners in the firm that he was most interested in white-collar litigation but that he would also be happy doing general commercial litigation. He was hired to do litigation.
Unfortunately, the firm did not have any white-collar litigation work when he started. Nevertheless, it started trying to give him all sorts of commercial litigation assignments, but he refused them all on the grounds that he only wanted to do white-collar litigation.
This lasted a few months until he was fired and blackballed from basically every large law firm in the country. He has been working as a contract attorney ever since.
The promise of a better lifestyle at another firm psyches people out.
Many attorneys are under the impression that they can join another law firm and suddenly work fewer hours, have friendlier colleagues, earn just as much money, and that the grass really is greener on the other side.
When I first started practicing law, a friend of mine who was working at another law firm called me and told me how cool his firm was. He described attorneys driving around in Porsche convertibles, talking to major Hollywood producers on cell phones, and making all sorts of important deals. It sounded good to me!
“These guys are too cool to even work in the office!” my friend told me.
Little did I know the law firm he was working for was having a hard time recruiting people and was offering associates a “bounty” of $20,000 if they could bring in other attorneys. None of the attorneys at this law firm had anywhere near my qualifications. Nevertheless, I decided to go over there and interview.
When I got there, the law firm was not as described. It was not a “cool” place. The firm did not have a lot of work, and the attorneys were not cool at all. It was all smoke and mirrors. I realized that I had been “conned” to some extent by believing the grass was greener somewhere else.
Most attorneys do this. They believe that there is something wrong with their current job (hours, stress, types of cases) and that this can be solved by going somewhere else. This is sometimes true—but not always.
Law firms are businesses. Because they are businesses, they want to make as much money as possible. In order to make money, law firms need to bill the maximum number of hours. If they have billable work, law firms will focus on it to increase revenue. If you are there, they will have you doing billable work.
No firm is a “lifestyle” firm if they get a bunch of work. They will make sure their attorneys are working as much as possible when they have a pressing legal matter—or a client willing to pay.
See Why There Are No Lifestyle Law Firms for more information.
I once had the Sultan of Brunei as a client. At the time, he was one of the richest men in the world. If he wanted something done, he expected it to be done the best way possible with every single angle questioned. When he had something that needed to be done, I was expected to work 16+ hours per day until the work was complete because he wanted his attorneys to go all out and was paying our bills. Concerns about my lifestyle did not matter. For law firms, it is about money when they have a client willing to pay—pure and simple.
A poor bonus psyches people out.
Many attorneys have “quit” after receiving a small bonus. Who knows why you received a poor bonus? It could be a variety of factors that have absolutely nothing to do with you. Many people receive meager bonuses simply because the law firms have made promises to other partners, and there is not enough money left for you.
A small bonus is disappointing, but it is certainly not a sign that the law firm dislikes you. Working in a large law firm (and as an attorney) is a long race, and your long-term career satisfaction cannot be determined simply by one bonus.
Part of the “test” of being in the large law firm is the ability to deal with the good times as well as the bad. Many law firms consciously do not give attorneys bonuses because they want to see how committed they are.
A friend of mine was an eighth-year associate in a firm I was in and considered one of the best associates in the entire law firm. Incredibly, though, he had not received a bonus in a few years even though first- and second-year associates had been receiving bonuses of as much as $25,000.
“Why don’t you leave if they are not paying you a bonus?” I asked him.
“I am not supposed to know, but another partner (a friend of mine) told me that they do this as a sort of test. There is not a large buy-in to the firm anyway. They want to see who will stay and who will go with no bonus.”
Sure enough, this guy made partner a few months later.
You should never make a decision to leave a firm based on money and bonuses.See the following articles for more information:
- Why You Should Find Your "Tribe" and Not Just Focus on Money in Making Law Firm Job Decisions
- How Can I Express My Displeasure at Not Receiving a Bonus This Year from My Law Firm?
- The Top Reasons Why Money Is the Dumbest Thing Any Attorney Should Focus on When Joining a Law Firm
- Never Focus on the Money: Focus on Your Higher Purpose and Contribution
A bad mistake psyches people out.
Most young attorneys (even more experienced ones) make a variety of mistakes. These errors may include missing filing deadlines, misapplying the law, upsetting a higher up by saying something inappropriate, turning in an assignment late, or losing a case. When these situations occur, the attorneys at fault may feel like they made a career-ending mistake, and the only way for them to redeem themselves is by leaving.
All attorneys make mistakes. Some of these mistakes are more serious than others. However, the worst thing you can do is take these errors too seriously. If you make a very serious mistake, you need to learn your lesson, never make the error again, and then move on as quickly as possible. If you dwell on it, others will too.
You will gain respect by overcoming the situation, persevering, and improving. If at all possible, you should not be a “loser” and give up if you make a bad mistake. Just move on.
See Top 5 Tips for Attorneys Who Make Mistakes for more information.
Poor treatment by a superior psyches people out.
One time I was sitting in my office working on a brief with a treatise in front of me that I had checked out of the library when a very important partner in the firm stormed into my office: “GIVE ME THE F****** BOOK!” he screamed and then stormed out.
I was shocked. I had never even worked with this partner. What could I have possibly done to merit such poor treatment? I was very confused, and it was not one of my favorite moments.
For the next several nights, I tossed and turned in my bed. I did not understand how someone in my firm could think so little of me to treat me this way. Should I leave the job? I was too good to be treated this way! Was there something I had done that I was unaware of?
Little did I know, this partner was in the middle of losing his job. He was also being sued for sexual harassment by a former secretary and for malpractice by a former client. I learned all this later, of course, but his attitude at the time made me feel like there was something wrong with me and not him.
See If My Boss Gets Mad at Me or I Get a Poor Review, Does This Mean I Should Look for a New Job? for more information.
- Feeling disfavored psyches people out.
Law firms have all sorts of sycophants in them. I once heard an uptight associate tell a partner she did not mind when be burped obnoxiously in front of her. Since I knew her, I then heard her complain for at least 30 minutes about how disrespectful the partner was.
Attorneys inside law firms generally want to be liked and favored. This is natural. Law firms are sometimes a meritocracy and other times they are not. What is important, though, is to worry first and foremost about your work. Most popularity contests inside of law firms do not turn out well for the participants. Here is why:
When you are competing in a firm popularity contest, you will eventually “lose” and find yourself disfavored in the contest. You will do something wrong, piss someone off socially, or something of the sort. If you become too friendly with people in your law firm, they will also learn the details of your personal life, which will always be used against you. Let me repeat:
Details of your personal life will always be used against you.
No matter what, you can trust no one. Zero, nada, zilch. You cannot trust your secretaries, friends, or anyone. You have no friends.
Not being part of the “favored” group has its own set of advantages because you will then spare yourself the almost inevitable falling out with the group, which will hurt your career more than not participating in the first place. You should be professional with your peers but realize that work does not need to be a popularity contest.
Not having enough to do psyches people out.
Most law firms get slow at one point or another. If your law firm gets slow, this certainly does not mean you need to look for a new job. I have seen attorneys go a year or more without work in a law firm when a large case settles. If you are not busy, you should write well-written memos on matters partners in your firm are interested in or publish articles on various matters to draw attention to the firm.
If you are slow, I am not going to lie to you and tell you this is a good thing. You need to try to find work and be productive for the firm. At some point, many of your peers will leave, and when the caseload increases (which it usually does), the firm will give the work to you.
Being around seemingly more qualified peers psyches people out.
Law firms attract some of the most competitive and smartest people out there. While this is a good thing, many competitive people are very good at psyching other people out. They will brag about getting exceptional reviews when they did not. They may make up rumors about others to hurt them. There are many games that can be played, and you need to understand that when you are in the midst of these games, you are up against incredible competitors.
Some competitors will only be nice to you if you have negative information to share about your experience in the firm. Other competitors will “use you” only to solicit negative information about other attorneys that they can spread around.
Remember: These masters of manipulation will do everything they can to psych you out, and you should not let it affect you. Keep your head down and work as hard as possible. Most people playing these games end up having it all catch up to them eventually. It is fun to watch them go down. Just wait.
- See Why Most Attorneys Are Angry for more information
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 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 his reviews will be and the less likely he will be to lose his job.
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, it sees 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.
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 hard you are willing to work.
That’s right. Give one attorney a bunch of legal matters and he might bill 1,500 hours. Give another attorney the same legal matters and he might bill 3,500. Which attorney do you think is more profitable for the law firm? Moreover, if you are working all the time and billing a ton of hours, you are clearly very motivated and willing to work hard. This is good. Law firms like people who work hard.
How your work is received by superiors.
Superiors will only give you more work if you do a good job when they give you work. A partner does not have time to give work to people who do not take their assignments seriously.
If you are producing work that is not carefully thought through, riddled with typos, or you are not taking time to understand your superior's point of view and approach to a matter, then partners are not going to give you more work. You can’t just make a half-assed attempt to get the work done.
I want to be very clear about something. Every assignment you get from a partner is a GIFT and you should treat it as THE MOST IMPORTANT ASSIGNMENT IN THE WORLD. That may sound far-fetched to you, but it is absolutely true. You need to make a major, major effort with every assignment you are given and take it very seriously. It is the attorneys who take the work the most seriously who end up getting ahead in the law firm environment.
See Take this GIFT for Granted and Your Legal Career Will Be Dead for more information.
I almost hesitate to bring this up, but I do because it is something I have seen happen again and again to young attorneys. Young attorneys are given an assignment, but they do not take it too seriously and take an informal approach to the matter thinking it is not that important. The memo, brief, or whatever it is may not be bad, but it is not very good either and not well thought out or thorough. This upsets the partner because the legal matter is very important to him. In fact, the reason he is a partner in this massive law firm is that every matter is important to him. Every matter you work on is extremely important.
Your attitude and eagerness for work.
You should always have an attitude where you are hungry and extremely enthusiastic about working. This will set you apart a great deal from many of your beaten-down peers who act as if they already have too much work. You should always accept work and do so enthusiastically (unless it is physically impossible for you to do so).
Let me tell you a quick story about an attorney I once knew who was extremely successful. He was seated on an airplane next to a large client of the law firm when the client was bit by a spider. The client’s leg was hurt, and the client decided to sue the airline, the cleaning company, and others tangentially involved.
This was a very, very frivolous case, but the attorney (a young associate) begged the firm to let him take it on a contingency basis and promised to continue billing 2,500+ hours per year (to paying clients) during this time. The attorney took on the spider bite case, which he was doing for free, and worked late nights, every weekend and holidays on the case, and eventually took it to trial.
He lost. However, he put in such a huge effort that the client and the partners who had observed him carrying on this war were incredibly impressed.
Not too long after he lost this case, he was made partner at the urging of the client and partners who had observed him working on the spider bite case. His enthusiasm and eagerness to do anything impressed everyone. He was one of the youngest associates to make partner in the firm’s storied history.
How you are able to get others to give you work.
Attorneys need to be able to convince others to give them more work. This means you need to ask and find others who have work. Many times you may need to ask more than once; however, you should always keep asking. Expressing your genuine enthusiasm for a case or a legal matter often can get partners with a certain type of work to give it to you.
Getting work is no different than campaigning for student council or some other similar exercise. You need to get people to like you. In order to do this, you need to be seen, be agreeable, and find commonality between you and the people you are working with. People will generally give work to people who ask for it and make an effort. Many partners will only give you work after they have become comfortable with you and you have earned a reputation for doing good work. Being inside a law firm involves marketing yourself to partners.
How much clients like you.
Clients need to see you as a hard-working soldier behind the scenes. You want clients to like you, and this is very important to your success. If a large client likes an associate a great deal, the client will demand to have that associate work on all of his matters.
See Top 9 Ways for Any Attorney to Generate a Ton of Business for more information.
How you make others feel about themselves.
Most partners have slogged away and suffered through 10+ years of indignities and other problems before making partner in a law firm. They deserve (and want) to feel respected and important.
Just because the guy you are working for is someone you would not consider dating in a million years or reminds you of a person you might have beaten up in high school does not mean the partner does not deserve to feel like he is the biggest deal in the world. You need to make him feel important and respected. This is part of your job and is the nature of your position on the totem pole at this point in your career.
If the partner feels good about himself each time he gives you work, he will be more likely to assign extra work to you later on. If you are snide, contradict him, or look at him like he is a tired, drab, and depressed person, the odds of him giving you additional work will go down dramatically.
You should take care of the people you are working for. Offer to get them a notebook or pen, carry their bags on trips and get them coffee. These are the people supporting you, and you should let them know you appreciate them by giving them the respect their roles entitle them to. They will, in turn, give you extra work.
How open you are to learning.
One of the strangest types of associates out there is the “know-it-all” associate. Believe it or not, there are tons of young associates out there who are so terrified of criticism that they respond “I know that!” every time someone makes a suggestion to them. I do not understand this attitude, and it does not work well.
Law firm partners have spent tens of thousands of hours learning the law, and they love lecturing young attorneys about various things. You need to learn to incorporate this into your work product. To reward you, these same partners will give you additional work and feel rewarded watching you grow in response to their teachings.
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 because 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 them. How can firm management make you a partner if its members do not even know you? I have seen associates in branch offices who have gone a decade or more being eligible for partner but never becoming one.
The young branch office is the most dangerous of them all. If Skadden Arps had a client like General Motors threaten to jump ship, it might do something insane such as open a branch office in Detroit. However, once these Detroit attorneys discovered that golf during the workday, weekends off, and enjoying similar benefits 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?” 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 multibillion-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.
- See Which Type of Law Firm Is Best for You and Your Career: Main Offices of Large National Firms, Branch Offices of Large National Firms, Midsized Firms, Boutiques, or Newer Fast-Growing Firms? for more information.
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 the former love interest.
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:
Why should we pay you $200,000 a year if you are willing to work for $25.00/hour?
Think about this. If you are selling something for a massive amount of money, why should someone pay this if they know you are willing to sell it for a much cheaper price? A job (unlike a contract) is a commitment where you get benefits and protections. A contract job could last just a day. If you are an itinerant attorney working for a day’s wages, a major law firm is not as likely to be interested in you.
Are you working as a contract attorney because no one will hire you?
This is the perception. Do you think there is a single associate in a law firm like Gibson Dunn & Crutcher with experience working as a contract attorney? I doubt any of the hundreds of associates there have ever worked as a contract attorney.
Why would you humiliate yourself reviewing documents?
We are far too important to hire someone who does this. This is just how law firms think. If you are trained to analyze complex matters and are willing to stoop so low that you are now working on unimportant mind-numbing cases, that is going to say something to a law firm.
Your skills may have gone away after all of this contract work.
Most contract attorneys do not have to perform at the same level as they would while working on a major corporate transaction or writing a brief. The perception of many law firms is that the contract attorney’s skills may have atrophied by doing this work.
6. Taking Too Much Time Off
While having a child, getting sick, or any other absences from the office are natural, 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,” an 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?
Also, 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 taking 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 it needed someone to do a small trial for a case that was coming up. Texaco was eliminating its 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.
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 nearly so.
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 the person does not have the nerves and balls for the large law firm or (2) if he is 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 they are to believe 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 not in your favor.
See the following articles for more information:
- Why You Can Never Stop Practicing Law for More Than a Few Weeks Once You Start
- Taking Time Off From Practicing Law: How Will It Impact Your Future Marketability?
- Taking a Hiatus from Practicing Law
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 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. But after being asked whether he had already sent 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 it was with him.
The only thing an attorney has is his ability to be trusted. If he cannot be trusted, he will lose his job. Partners lose their jobs for making mistakes on expense accounts. If you are dishonest, you will experience massive problems.
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.
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 a large law firm and is one of the “smaller” things that the smartest and most savvy associates are doing.
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 he is better than you for some reason, you can kick his 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.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Are The Best Law Firms to Work For?
Associates assess their own firms on a range of workplace issues related to career development, career outlook, job satisfaction, and quality of life. The 10 overall best law firms to work for as of 2021 are as follows:
1. McDermott Will & Emery
McDermott, one of the top law firms, is best known for its work in healthcare and tax—though its practices extend far beyond. When it comes to wellness, the firm is forward-thinking, offering billable credit for 25 wellness hours and appealing to individuals seeking a dynamic workplace with like-minded people. While the firm's reputation for toughness in taxes has remained intact, it has expanded its scope over time. The firm advises its clients on new areas like life sciences, renewable energy, and privacy law, which complement its more well-known areas such as M&A, antitrust, health care, intellectual property litigation defense, real estate investment management.
2. O'Melveny & Myers LLP
O'Melveny & Myers, which has offices in seven countries on three continents and was founded in California, has expanded out to all areas with branches in seven nations on three different continents, including a recent addition in Texas. The firm's attorneys have significant expertise in antitrust, appellate litigation, entertainment law, labor and employment issues, intellectual property litigation, product liability claims, project finance transactions, securities litigation, venture capital investments, and other areas. The firm provides services in a number of industries, including banking and financial services, consumer goods, energy and natural resources, entertainment, and media, health care, hospitality, industrials and manufacturing, life sciences, real estate, sports, technology.
3. Clifford Chance US LLP
It is no surprise that Clifford Chance is looking for individuals with global aspirations and foreign language abilities as a worldwide organization. This Magic Circle firm provides a positive firm culture and interesting employment, as well as genuine support for pro bono and overall diversity. Today, Clifford Chance has 32 offices across key economic regions in the United States, Asia Pacific, Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Clifford Chance is particularly well-known for its financial business. The firm offers substantive experience in a wide array of practice areas and industry sectors, including banking and finance, capital markets, corporate, litigation and dispute resolution, real estate, and tax pensions, and employment.
Orrick's innovation is on display across the board, from its energy and technology clients to its innovative wellness programs to its cutting-edge technology solutions. At this forward-thinking business outlook, individuals who are down-to-earth, collaborative, and visionary will feel right at home. Orrick is a multinational law firm with over 1,100 attorneys that is fiercely dedicated to cooperation and innovation. The firm has dozens of offices across the globe, including domestic locations in California, New York, Oregon, and Texas.
5. Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP
Morgan Lewis has branched out from its Philadelphia roots to build a global network of lawyers in 31 offices, reaching from Boston to Singapore and San Francisco to Dubai. Morgan Lewis is a firm with a wide range of skills that spans across the energy, financial services, health care, life sciences, retail, sports, technology, and transportation industries. The following are the four core disciplines of the firm: corporate, financial management, and investment management; IP; labor, employment, and benefits; and litigation, regulation, and investigations.
6. Ropes & Gray
Ropes & Gray has a seat at the table as one of the finest legal firms. The firm is recognized for its private equity experience, as well as its general competence in all legal practice areas. Collaborative learning and mentoring are essential to the business's collaborative culture, which tolerates no egos. Ropes & Gray is an international law firm with offices throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia that takes pride in handling cutting-edge cases. The firm is well-versed in assisting clients in complex, highly regulated sectors like asset management, health care, life sciences, private equity, and technology.
BakerHostetler's culture is professional yet friendly, reflecting its Midwestern roots. Associates are also treated to strong mentorship and transparent leadership. The “IncuBaker” team is one sign of the firm’s commitment to innovation. BakerHostetler focuses on emerging issues like blockchain, the Internet of Things, and new markets tax credit in addition to bankruptcy, digital assets, and data management. In a dozen sectors with 16 practice areas, it covers bankruptcy, digital assets and data management, labor and employment law, intellectual property litigation, and tax.
8. Proskauer Rose LLP
Proskauer Rose is an all-over legal behemoth with expertise in labor and employment, as well as media, entertainment, and sports. Proskauer Rose is a top law firm for both labor and employment. The commitment to pro bono and a strong dedication to diversity are two important aspects of the business's lifeblood. Amiable go-getters that thrive in a company that values teamwork will thrive at this firm. Proskauer Rose is practically synonymous with “sports law”—clients include Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, and the National Basketball Association. This slogan is only a representation of how well-known the firm has become. While it is flashy, this reputation overlooks the business's extremely diverse work, which includes top-notch corporate, litigation, tax, private client services, entertainment, and labor and employment practices.
9. Paul Hastings LLP
Paul Hastings, a top law firm for quality of life, prioritizes associate mentorship, training, and long-term career development. If you are searching for a firm that values hard effort and client service, this might be the place for you. Paul Hastings has grown from a mid-market firm in the United States to an international organization with expertise in employment, tax, and corporate law as well as big-name clients in nearly eighty nations during the previous several decades. With offices in Beijing, Hong Kong, Seoul, Shanghai, and Tokyo, the firm has become especially strong in Asian market dealings.
Dechert is a global firm, but its collegial culture seems to create a sense of close community. The firm incentivizes attorneys to contribute more than simply billable hours, giving them a "STARS" award and bonus for efforts in diversity and innovation. In the United States, the firm is known for its work in antitrust, international arbitration, financial services, life sciences, strategic transactions and private equity, litigation, white-collar, product liability, real estate, and securities.
Do Lawyers Make Mistakes?
The business of law may be overwhelming. We have too many files to handle. We must react to the unexpected strategies of opposing counsel. And because the law is always changing, we are frequently performing things for the first time. It is impossible for errors not to creep into our work in this environment.
However, as a profession, we seldom reflect on this truth. As a result, we come to believe that we all operate in an ideal manner. This must change. It is critical to be upfront about mistakes.
The following steps are helpful in moments of panic when you realize that things have not gone as planned:
Be honest about what happened. It is terrifying when something goes wrong. However, if you don't admit your mistake and address it right away, it will only get worse. It is difficult to make good judgments when you are isolated and alone. Keep in mind that the earlier you address a problem, the simpler it will be to discover a solution.
Take a break. Remember that it is okay to disengage and seek validation outside of the workplace after dealing with a difficult event. Try to engage in activities you might enjoy, like preparing a good meal, finishing a book, or indulging in your guiltiest pleasure.
Stay off social media. Though social media can be informative (and entertaining), it can trick you into thinking that your friends’ best moments are their everyday moments. You might think, your friend who is a lawyer always looks great and professional and seems to eat the best meals and go on the best vacations. In moments of vulnerability, it is easy to slip further down the comparison spiral and think, I bet this person never makes mistakes. In reality, this is almost certainly not true. But the easiest way to keep your mind clear is to get off social media.
Lean on your support network. When you experience that sinking feeling in your gut after something goes wrong, you must rely tremendously on your friends and mentors. They are there to remind you that the feeling will go away and that you should not rest your self-esteem on that one file.
Reflect on what happened. After the panic has passed, sit down and really consider why it occurred. Were there too many things happening at that time? Could you have planned better? Moving on should include a thorough examination of why things happened as they did so that the same sequence of events can be avoided in the future.
What Is The Most Challenging Part Of Being A Lawyer?
Given the amount you spent to obtain your legal degree, one would assume that the worst of your problems have been overcome. Unfortunately, though, being a lawyer never stops challenging you. From the long hours to the unpleasant clients, you constantly appear to have a lot on your plate.
Here are seven problems that come with the territory of being a lawyer, as well as some suggestions for overcoming them:
1. The Long Hours
In reality, you probably assumed that you would work long hours when you began your legal career. Expectations, on the other hand, seldom prepare us for the truth.
The truth is that working as a lawyer has significant negative effects on you, as well as the people around you.
You may begin to overlook important family gatherings. Your social life fades away. You become buried in paperwork.
For the past several months, you have been giving up personal pleasures to serve your clients. You can only continue in this manner for so long before you will need to learn how to balance your professional life. Begin by making reasonable objectives for yourself and work your way up from there.
If you are working long hours, you are undoubtedly already anxious. Long hours, however, are not the only causes of stress for attorneys.
In most professions, there is a lot of pressure to be successful. The gravity of what you do may make the pressure even greater in the legal profession.
Making a mistake as a lawyer might result in significant financial losses for clients. In certain circumstances, lost cases can lead to hefty fines and incarceration. There is the of likelihood that you will feel bad when one of your blunders has these ramifications.
So here is a tip:
Remember that you are just a person. You should always do your best, but you will not win every case. The sooner you accept it, the better.
3. New Technologies
Not just for lawyers, new technologies are becoming ever more disruptive. These technologies have generated a slew of legal issues including net neutrality, election transparency, and a host of other burning issues.
More legal concerns imply more work for attorneys, which is wonderful. However, the impact of this technology on the legal industry has not been entirely beneficial. Many attorneys are now being expected to master new and innovative technologies. This demand just adds to the burden of lawyers' plates.
Furthermore, some of these methods are eliminating legal employment. Many businesses are now using technology to complete activities that they previously hired attorneys to undertake. Fortunately, attorneys may adjust to the use of these new technologies. All they have to do is get familiar with this cutting-edge technology. They will be able to improve their competitiveness by doing so.
4. An Increasingly Competitive Job Market
There will always be a need for people who have a deep understanding of the law. And not simply anybody can grasp the intricacy and complexity of the law. The situation is actually worse than that. The legal field has grown increasingly competitive, according to many lawyers. There are a few causes for this steep rise in competition.
We detailed one reason above: new technologies. Many of the new technologies on the market have eliminated the need for companies to hire lawyers. Another reason for the ultra-competitiveness? The sheer number of people who study law these days.
There are many more lawyers than there are positions available. As a result, after obtaining their degrees, several attorneys have difficulty finding employment.
When it comes to finding a new job, we believe that one of the most important pieces of advice we can offer you is to improve your skillset. By picking up important talents, you may become the type of lawyer who is difficult to find. New technologies and entering specialized legal sectors are great ways to stand out.
5. Clients' Reluctance to Spend Money on Legal Services
At one time, employment in the legal sector was considered some of the most lucrative occupations available. Though lawyers still earn a living, many are far from affluent.
Because many clients are reluctant to spend a ton of money on legal services.
Some individuals and organizations these days choose not to spend any money on legal services. They would rather risk it with new technologies than pay for a lawyer, they believe. Many of these technologies provide the same value at lower fees, according to some reports.
The parties that do spend money on legal services are hesitant to spend much. There are many attorneys available, so customers may choose to go elsewhere if they do not like your rates.
However, do not drop your rates to excessive levels if you want to be successful in this practice area. Instead of providing value that your competition does not, provide it. You might then show your clients why you charge what you do.
6. "Guilty" Clients
Here is a hard pill to swallow:
Not all of your customers are going to be "innocent." You will occasionally represent clients who have been charged with the crimes for which they were arrested.
So what do you do in these cases?
Keep things professional. And keep in mind that you decided to pursue this line of work for a reason. Hopefully, at the end of the day, you will find that this one reason makes everything worthwhile.
7. Assumptions About Your Character
More than a few attorneys face preconceptions about their character. Criminal defense lawyers, for example, are frequently judged on how successfully they represent their clients.
Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to this problem. The only thing you can do now is to accept that people will evaluate you. You should also accept that the opinions of others do not matter.
You know yourself best.
What Is Considered BigLaw?
The name "Big Law" is used to designate big law firms in major cities like New York and Chicago. Although becoming a lawyer may be time-consuming and costly, it might pay off if you are accepted into Big Law; at a large firm, your starting salary could be $130,000 or more.
Big Law is a phrase that refers to legal work undertaken with the biggest and most well-known top firms in the United States. In general, these law firms have a significant presence in Washington, D.C., as well as larger cities such as Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, and Dallas. It is not unusual for Big Law workplaces to have a strong presence abroad, though.
Big Law firms, on the whole, charge their clients very steep fees, and lawyers who work with these companies may make more money as a result.
Please see this article to find out if litigation is right for you: Why Most Attorneys Have No Business Being Litigators: Fifteen Reasons Why You Should Not Be a Litigator
See the following articles for more information:
- Top 32 Reasons Attorneys Lose Their Jobs Inside of Law Firms
- Five Class-Based Rules That Determine Attorney Success or Failure
- Four Union-Like Rules of All Law Firms You Need to Know About
- Two Things the Most Successful 5% of Attorneys Do That the Rest Do Not
- The "Systematic Reason" Why Most Attorneys Fail in Large, Prestigious Law Firms
Harrison Barnes is the founder of BCG Attorney Search and a successful legal recruiter. He is extremely committed to and passionate about the profession of legal placement. His firm BCG Attorney Search has placed thousands of attorneys. BCG Attorney Search works with attorneys to dramatically improve their careers by leaving no stone unturned in job searches and bringing out the very best in them. Harrison has placed the leaders of the nation’s top law firms, and countless associates who have gone on to lead the nation’s top law firms. There are very few firms Harrison has not made placements with. Harrison’s writings about attorney careers and placements attract millions of reads each year. He coaches and consults with law firms about how to dramatically improve their recruiting and retention efforts. His company LawCrossing has been ranked on the Inc. 500 twice. For more information, please visit Harrison Barnes’ bio.
About BCG Attorney Search
BCG Attorney Search matches attorneys and law firms with unparalleled expertise and drive, while achieving results. Known globally for its success in locating and placing attorneys in law firms of all sizes, BCG Attorney Search has placed thousands of attorneys in law firms in thousands of different law firms around the country. Unlike other legal placement firms, BCG Attorney Search brings massive resources of over 150 employees to its placement efforts locating positions and opportunities its competitors simply cannot. Every legal recruiter at BCG Attorney Search is a former successful attorney who attended a top law school, worked in top law firms and brought massive drive and commitment to their work. BCG Attorney Search legal recruiters take your legal career seriously and understand attorneys. For more information, please visit www.BCGSearch.com.
Harrison Barnes does a weekly free webinar with live Q&A for attorneys and law students each Wednesday at 10:00 am PST. You can attend anonymously and ask questions about your career, this article, or any other legal career-related topics. You can sign up for the weekly webinar here: Register on Zoom
Harrison also does a weekly free webinar with live Q&A for law firms, companies, and others who hire attorneys each Wednesday at 10:00 am PST. You can sign up for the weekly webinar here: Register on Zoom
You can browse a list of past webinars here: Webinar Replays
You can also listen to Harrison Barnes Podcasts here: Attorney Career Advice Podcasts
You can also read Harrison Barnes' articles and books here: Harrison's Perspectives
Harrison Barnes is the legal profession's mentor and may be the only person in your legal career who will tell you why you are not reaching your full potential and what you really need to do to grow as an attorney--regardless of how much it hurts. If you prefer truth to stagnation, growth to comfort, and actionable ideas instead of fluffy concepts, you and Harrison will get along just fine. If, however, you want to stay where you are, talk about your past successes, and feel comfortable, Harrison is not for you.
Truly great mentors are like parents, doctors, therapists, spiritual figures, and others because in order to help you they need to expose you to pain and expose your weaknesses. But suppose you act on the advice and pain created by a mentor. In that case, you will become better: a better attorney, better employees, a better boss, know where you are going, and appreciate where you have been--you will hopefully also become a happier and better person. As you learn from Harrison, he hopes he will become your mentor.
To read more career and life advice articles visit Harrison's personal blog.