Summary: Want to be at the top of the legal profession? You should work at a major New York City law firm if you want to learn how to get there.
You might wonder why New York City attorneys seem to often be at the top of the legal profession.
They have mystique and cache.
They’re like the supermen and superwomen of law practice.
Here are the top 10 reasons New York City attorneys are regarded so highly.
New York law firms have unparalleled mystique and command extremely high regard from other firms, attorneys, legal clients, and the market generally. This article explores why. There is really no single reason that top New York firms are considered the best. Rather, it is the combination of numerous factors that serve to make them what they are. It is this combination of factors that also has the effect of making New York law firm attorneys the best and most highly trained and competent attorneys in the country. If you want to learn the skills to be at the top of the legal profession there are many good places to do so, but there is no place that is consistently better than New York.
There is a level of prestige that attorneys from these firms have that is not dissimilar from the prestige of having attended an Ivy League law school. This is often confusing to attorneys from the South, Chicago, Texas, and the West Coast—as such attorneys may have a more parochial understanding of the relative prestige levels of top firms in New York versus other locations. If I am working with two otherwise equivalent candidates relocating to other parts of the country, one from a top New York City law firm and the other from a top West Coast or Chicago firm, the attorney from the top New York City firm is generally the one that gets the best reception.
Prestigious New York Law Firms Serve Large, Cost-Averse Clients That Can Select Any Law Firm They Want for Their Legal Work and Attorneys Associated with Such Selectivity Get a “Halo Effect”
New York City is a very expensive city to do business in, live in, and work in. The taxes are extremely high for the people working there, it is very crowded and a difficult place to live in or commute to, and it is not easy to raise a family in the city. There is also a lot of competition for the best legal talent, so law firms need to pay high salaries to attract it. Office space is very expensive, as is administrative support and all of the other things necessary to run a law firm. Consequently, the rates that the largest New York City law firms charge typically need to be very high to offset all of these costs. In many New York City law firms, the rates of a junior associate are higher than those of partners in midsized to smaller cities.
Because of the high costs, the more prestigious New York City law firms typically do work for the companies that can afford them—which are the largest, most cost-averse clients in the market. These are giant, profitable corporations that can throw off lots of money and are only willing to spend this sort of money so long as they receive the absolute best possible work from their attorneys. Most large New York law firms serve successful companies all over the country. They are not just doing work for companies in the area. The reason for this is because the most successful companies, with the most significant legal problems, are looking for the best legal help they can find. They believe that sending their work to New York City and spending this additional money will give them equivalent benefits in terms of favorable outcomes on deals and lawsuits.
An attorney associated with high-priced legal services gets a “halo effect” from this association and employers, potential clients, and others infer that they must be good attorneys if they were accepted into this and allowed to work on such important matters.
In Top New York Law Firms, There Is a Culture of “Paranoia” That Creates Better Attorneys
When a lot of money is going around, this typically means that attention is being paid to the quality of the work being done. At every level of the process, from the legal department of the client to opposing counsel, to possibly even legal periodicals and the government, the work that the law firm produces is being carefully reviewed and gone over for inconsistencies and imperfections. This sort of oversight exists in all law firms, of course, but in the largest New York law firms there is a culture where the stakes always seem high. The attorneys inside of these law firms develop a sort of “paranoia” about making mistakes and doing anything whatsoever wrong. Partners, associates, and others believe that they are one mistake away from losing a client, or losing their jobs, and conduct themselves as such.
The work that is done by attorneys from top New York law firms tends to be “tighter,” more error-free, and more consciously considered from every angle and aspect because clients can afford this. If an in-house counsel is reviewing something and finds a typo or another sort of error, the in-house counsel may presume that the logic and “meat” of the work product may be riddled with the same sort of mistakes. When clients are paying a lot of money for legal work, at every stage of the process they want to be convinced that they are paying for the best service they possibly can and they also want to make sure they look the best they can in the market (as reflected by the quality of the law firms they hire).
Because New York attorneys are working for the largest clients, they are more-often-than-not working on high-stakes matters, where they are surrounded by teams of attorneys who are trying to produce the best work possible. Being exposed to how people work and think on these sorts of matters can create a much better attorney than would otherwise be created.
In my experience of working with attorneys all over the world and in every level of the profession, one characteristic of the best attorneys is this “paranoia” about details and perfection. Attorneys who are average to poor will gloss over details and as a result, will lose cases and matters. Because they are not working for clients willing to spend the money to do work in-depth, they will try to “wing it” with courts, clients, and others and simply not understand matters with the level of depth that is necessary to yield the most advantages.
The more your client can afford to have you look at something, the better the quality of the work is likely to be. It is the attorneys who are consistently expected to understand the matters they work on in great depth, and given the time and the money to do so, who develop the best work habits and become the best attorneys in the long run.
The Best New York Law Firms Give Attorneys the Ability to Become Highly Specialized
In many law firms, attorneys are more generalists than specialists. In New York, attorneys tend to become extremely specialized in their practice area niches. This means they understand an aspect of their practice area in great depth—and in such depth that they may be among only a few people in the world with such knowledge. This is not always the case, but in almost all instances attorneys in the best New York law firms become more specialized than attorneys in other sorts of law firms.
When “deep pocket” clients have a specialized legal matter that they need someone to work on, they feel much better having someone work on the matter who knows the subject matter inside out. New York law firms tend to have specialists in various areas who can command higher prices in the market for the work that they do. This training in a specialty often justifies the high rates the law firms charge.
Being specialized also makes you more marketable from a hiring perspective, because if you acquire unique skills you will generally be one of only a few applicants for jobs requiring someone with your background.
If You Work in a Top New York Law Firm, There Is a Presumption That You Work Extremely Hard and Know How to Find Work to Be Done
Attorneys in major New York law firms typically work extremely hard. The presumption is that if you have worked in a top New York law firm that you work extremely hard and can tolerate long hours. While attorneys work hard in most major law firms, they are consistently expected to work very hard in New York. There is no tolerance whatsoever for shirking responsibility, or not working major hours inside of most major law firms in New York.
Attorneys in all markets and in all prestigious law firms work hard, of course. In New York, though, they tend to consistently be working hard. This level of hard work is something that is expected without question for attorneys from the largest New York law firms. There is little tolerance for not finding work to be done and keeping your hours as high as possible. Attorneys in New York firms tend to be highly motivated to bill lots of hours when they have the opportunity to do so.
In large New York law firms, the partners often have their choice of associates to work with and give work to. They will choose the best associates and give work to the associates who are likely to do the best work for them (and many times bill the most hours). Attorneys in New York law firms are all concerned about keeping their hours up and in many law firms (not all) they compete with each other to get access to work. This is a good system: The hungriest attorneys who do the best work get the most work. If an attorney is not hungry and does not get work, the attorney loses his or her job by not having billed enough hours.
There are few regions of the country where attorneys are expected to work and compete as hard to get work as in New York. Attorneys who do not get good work typically lose their jobs fairly quickly.
If You Work in a Top New York Law Firm, There Is a Presumption That Your Focus Is 100% on Your Job
The overriding focus of most New York City attorneys in large law firms is on their work. In the lateral market, law firms know that if you are coming from a major New York law firm you understand and respect the importance of hard work.
On the West Coast, there is an increasing tolerance inside of even the most prestigious law firms for attorneys working at home and having lives outside of work that trump their commitment to work. There is less tolerance from a cultural perspective inside of major New York law firms for attorneys who do not take their jobs seriously and make it their overriding focus.
In New York law firms, attorneys are expected to have an “all in” attitude and take their jobs extremely seriously. They are expected to be dedicated to their jobs above all else—sleeping, eating, exercise, personal lives, and so forth. Attorneys who do not have this level of dedication are “cast out” and typically let go when review cycles come up. The level of dedication required of attorneys in major New York firms seems to exceed that of attorneys elsewhere.
The commitment required to work in a top New York law firm is so strong that many attorneys end up leaving the practice of law entirely after practicing in New York firms for several years. These attorneys conclude that every law firm must be this way and they want nothing to do with it because they need some semblance of a life outside of a law firm. The experience and being around such highly motivated peers can be extremely off-putting and drives many attorneys trained in this way of life permanently away from the law.
There Is a Presumption That You Are a Good Attorney If You Survive in a Major New York Law Firm for at Least Five Years
If you can last five or more years in a major New York City law firm, the market will believe that you are a very good attorney. Very few attorneys can survive that long in a major New York City law firm. Most get “psyched out” and leave. They cannot handle
The harsh reviews
The competitive nature of their peers
The “paranoid nature” of their peers
The demanding partners
The level of commitment required
The attention to detail required
The constant negativity of their colleagues
The fact that other attorneys seem to constantly be leaving to go to other firms and in-house
The alienating nature of sitting alone in front of a computer constantly
I could go on and on about why this sort of life and experience makes a good attorney—but it does. More importantly, if you can survive in this environment for a good length of time, you can generally survive anywhere. There is little tolerance for cutting corners or mediocrity in the largest law firms in New York. Your weaknesses will always be rapidly exposed. In order to hold on to a job, you need to address any weaknesses and fix them. By the time most attorneys have spent five or more years addressing their weaknesses and fixing them inside of a major New York law firm, they become quite formidable compared to their peers in many other markets.
There Is a Presumption That You Are Extremely Motivated If You Went to Work in a Major New York City Law Firm to Begin With
Attorneys who go to work in the largest New York City law firms know what they are getting into. They know that the hours are going to be long, that getting ahead is extremely difficult, and that they are going to be a small fish in a big pond. Despite all of this, they still choose to go to work in New York City. Hiring attorneys in other cities know that an attorney coming from a large New York firm must have a high level of motivation just because that attorney showed up in that large New York firm and remained for any length of time. This level of motivation is something that will serve an attorney trained in a New York law firm well wherever that attorney goes later.
In many other cities, attorneys go to work in law firms not because they want the most challenging conditions possible, but because they simply want a job. But New York attorneys tend to have a desire for excellence and to push themselves harder than the rest. This is attractive to law firms.
There Is a Presumption That Attorneys from Major New York City Law Firms Are More Professional
Attorneys in major law firms in New York are part of a culture that is “more professional” than the West Coast and most other parts of the country. While much of the country has gone “casual,” New York attorneys are more likely than not to understand the nuances of how to dress and act professionally. New York attorneys tend to be trained and know how to “look and act the part” more so than attorneys in many other cities. New York attorneys tend to have a more “corporate feel” than attorneys in other cities. They are consistently better dressed, better groomed, and more professional because they are surrounded by other attorneys who are looking and acting the same way.
The level of professionalism that New York attorneys show is attractive to many employers. Much of this professionalism likely is due to the fact that New York attorneys are more likely to represent banks and other people in financial sectors—and they are mirroring them. Nevertheless, when New York attorneys show up for interviews in other cities they convey a sense of professionalism that is attractive to employers. Employers like this professionalism because they want people representing them in the market to look and act professionally. Sending a highly polished and professional attorney into a meeting with a client is preferable to the opposite. There is a certain level of competence and professionalism that attorneys from certain New York law firms are presumed to carry that attorneys from other markets are not.
The Jobs in Most Major New York Law Firms Are Very Difficult to Get
New York City is a huge city with tons of attorneys. When law firms in New York are hiring, they typically know exactly what they want and can get it. There are countless attorneys from top law schools who have the sorts of backgrounds that the law firms are seeking. Law firms can afford to be extraordinarily choosy when they are hiring. This is why they typically only hire the very best. In most areas of the country, a law firm may “settle” when hiring a lateral attorney. The attorney may have good qualifications—but not be perfect for the position—and be hired anyway. In New York, law firms never need to take this sort of risk. A prestigious law firm in New York can generally attract any sort of attorney that it wants and will hire based on personality, qualifications, fit, motivation, and all sorts of other characteristics that might not necessarily come into play as much in other regions of the country. New York City law firms are uncompromising when it comes to hiring standards because they can afford to be that way.
Because the New York market is so competitive, law firms in other cities know that when an attorney from a major New York law firm shows up to an interview that the attorney is likely to have good qualifications, and moreover that the attorney is also likely to be polished, professional, motivated, and say and do the right things to get a job. New York attorneys are—as a general rule—far better interviewers than attorneys in other areas of the country. They show up and act more serious, connect more with their interviews, and are more polished and convincing than other interviewees. It is not uncommon for attorneys from New York to lateral into other markets and get jobs at every firm they interview with. In contrast, you rarely see this sort of thing when an attorney from California, Chicago, or Texas tries to relocate to New York. There is something about being trained in New York and getting a job there in the first place that makes attorneys from there into more of what law firms want at the lateral level.
New York Attorneys Tend to Be Extremely Concerned with Prestige and What Other Attorneys Think of Them and Want to Be Among the Best
Law firms know that New York attorneys are very concerned with prestige—more so than attorneys in most other cities. When you take your job so seriously, when you are so motivated, and when you are billing so many hours—you want to be rewarded with the most prestige possible. The motivation to work at the most prestigious possible firm is much more prevalent in New York attorneys than in attorneys from other cities. They tolerate the grueling working conditions often because they believe this is the only way to be considered the best.
Law firms can channel this into more hours and higher quality work. While many attorneys may be concerned with a paycheck, the New York attorney tends to be more concerned with the prestige level of his or her law firm: The entire system functions based on attorneys being concerned about who their peers are, working in the most prestigious law firm, and getting ahead.
New York City attorneys are surrounded by a culture that continually emphasizes getting ahead, working in the best firm, and so forth. This tends to produce a very success-conscious sort of attorney that law firms like.
The upper end of the New York legal market creates an attorney who more-likely-than-not is an exaggerated example of what it takes to be a good attorney in any market. The saying “if you can make it here you can make it anywhere” really holds true for New York. There are major benefits in the lateral market to attorneys who are coming from or have worked in, top New York City law firms. Attorneys coming out of these firms are presumed to be harder working, more professional, more motivated, more committed, better at their work, more exposed to sophisticated work, and less tolerant of mediocrity than attorneys from other markets. In a career spent working with New York City attorneys and those from other markets, I can say with 100% confidence that these stereotypes are largely true. Attorneys trained in major New York City law firms do deserve a higher level of respect.
Is it true that New York City attorneys at major firms are more successful than other attorneys? Do you know any New York City attorneys? What sets them apart in your eyes from other attorneys? If you are not at a major law firm what can you do to remain competitive with attorneys working at major firms? Share your answers to these questions by commenting below.
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