My typical conversation with law firm attorneys—young and old alike, at top firms and small firms, in large cities and smaller cities—involves their decision (or contemplation) of giving up on law firms completely. That’s right: The majority of law firm attorneys are ready to give up and quit the law firm world (or “trade down” to a law firm that will not challenge them). You are not alone by any stretch of the imagination. Most attorneys are in your shoes and thinking the very same thing you are.
- I was recently working with a well-known founding partner of a major American law firm with a huge book of business. To my astonishment, he turned down several highly lucrative law firm offers (two that were close to the mid-seven figures) and took a job in-house paying a fraction of what he could have made in a law firm.
- I speak with attorneys almost daily who take jobs right out of law school with giant law firms with the intention of giving up and going in-house, to smaller law firms, or taking some other sort of job with the government, or a public interest organization as soon as they can.
- Most midlevel to senior associates in major law firms are interested in giving up and taking jobs that are in different practice settings besides law firms. I would estimate that over 80% of women and over 60% of men that are attorneys want to work in different practice settings.
- Not too long ago, I had an in-house position for someone to head litigation at a small company in Louisiana for $200,000 a year. I had partners of major law firms in New York and other major cities competing for the job – despite the fact that in a few cases it would have involved a $2-million haircut.
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At the outset and in the spirit of full disclosure, I run businesses that help people get jobs in-house, jobs with the government, small firms and even solo practitioners, for example. As a recruiter, I also often place attorneys at law firms less prestigious than where they are coming from. I am not so idealistic to pretend that all attorneys should not take in-house jobs, move to less prestigious law firms, or go to work for the government—attorneys should take the positions that are the best for them. Regardless, none of this changes my overriding conviction that you should go to the best law firm you can—if you are up for it—and avoid almost all in-house, government, public interest jobs and so forth as long as you can. Taking these jobs is more often than not “giving up” and dropping out.
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Don’t Be a Dropout!
- When you were in high school people dropped out.
- When you were in college people dropped out.
- When you were in law school people dropped out.
- Many law students drop out and never take positions with law firms to begin with.
- Many attorneys you worked with dropped out of law firms within months, or a few years, of joining them.
Attorneys are psyched out by others. They get psyched out by their minds, get unfocused and veer off in the wrong direction and never reach their full potential in the law. This does not need to happen for most attorneys. What you need to understand is that you should do the best you can to stay employed as high as you can in the legal profession if you want to be the best you can be. Do not surround yourself with people interested in dropping out. Dropping out is insane. Once you drop out of a law firm you can almost never go back. If you drop out of a law firm you are making a decision with long-range consequences that will limit you the rest of your career—just like it does for people who drop out of high school, college and law school.
You should do your best to (1) get a position with the most prestigious law firm you can and (2) stay employed with the best law firm you can as long as you can. Do not drop out!
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1. You Want to Continue Working inside a Law Firm, Because If You Do So You Will Surround Yourself with the Most Successful and Sophisticated People Possible and Will Rise to Their Level
I used to work in college admissions for an elite college. When you see kids applying to college many of them look remarkable. Whether it is morning, noon or night they will do everything they can to stand out and look as successful as possible. They get the best grades they can, do all sorts of extracurricular activities and look in every sense like people who will succeed once they get out in the world. The very best colleges want not just people with good grades and test scores, but those who are active outside of class, are leaders and look like they will succeed in the world. These are kids who have not given up and are “shining” and looking like future success is within their grasp. (This, by the way, is exactly how you looked when and if you got a job with a prestigious law firm.)
Along the way, many of their peers gave up on the way to great colleges. At some point they stopped trying and gave up. Many became burnouts. Some skipped school. Others got discouraged and stopped trying. Some got interested in romantic relationships and made this their priority.
If an attorney went to a top prep school (Exeter, Andover, Collegiate, St. Paul’s, for example) they also went through the same process when they were younger to look as good on paper as possible. Top prep schools have so many applicants that they look for not just the smartest people, but those with other characteristics that make it look like the young person will be successful. Because they are so proud of attending and getting into these schools, most people list them on their resumes the rest of their lives—something you never see from people who attended more provincial private schools or public schools.
The qualities that the best colleges and prep schools are seeking are similar to what it takes to succeed in a major law firm: You need to be smart, extremely hard working (harder than your peers), get out there and be seen (to attract business) and be a leader.
- The way you looked on paper when you were 13 years old and got into some rarified and competitive prep school needs to be how you look compared to your peers now.
- The way you looked when you were 18 years old and got into Princeton, Yale, or some other incredible school needs to be how you look now compared to your peers.
- The way you looked when you got into a great law school needs to be how you look now compared to your peers.
- The way you looked when you got into a great law firm in law school needs to be how you look now compared to your peers.
- The way you looked when you lateraled into a great law firm even better than where you are now needs to be how you look now compared to your peers.
The students who work the hardest, get the best test scores and distinguish themselves the most are the ones who get into the best law schools. The very best law schools also favor the attorneys who are coming out of the best colleges. This is because they know that a historical pattern of achievement is likely to follow you to law school. The very best law schools are screening not just for the smartest people, but for those that show the same sorts of characteristics that someone needs to succeed in a major law firm:
- Commitment (you need to work very hard, for an extended period of time to get good grades to catch the attention of a top law school).
- High intelligence (if you get in the 97%+ on the LSATs you are smarter than most people taking the test).
- Outside interests and accomplishment (provided you do not have the best numbers, you can only distinguish yourself for top law schools with this).
Most (but not all) attorneys work extremely hard and are able to get into the very best colleges and the very best law schools and do the best they possibly can in these environments. Many even try and go to the very best prep schools they can go to.
Why do you think that people work so hard to get into the best colleges and law schools they possibly can? Is it because they have some sort of “magical” approach to teaching, or the curriculum that is only found at these well-regarded schools?
- See Also: What Yale Law School Teaches about How to Approach Your Legal Career That No Other Law School Does for more information.
More often than not people lead each other like lemmings. They believe that they are trying to attend the very best schools because of things like the quality of the teachers, or the ranking of the law school. This has very little to do with it, and the reasons for this are generally not talked about: People are trying to get into the very best schools because of who their peers will be. The better quality of school you attend the more likely it is that your peers will be smart, motivated and outstanding. The presumption is that if you spend your high school, college and law school around people like this you will become like them.
There is truth in this. If your peers are all very competitive with each other and trying to get the best grades, excel in extracurricular activities, and have all sorts of outside interests, you are likely to be like this as well. People tend to become like those they associate with and spend time with. The best schools do their very best to put high-achieving people around each other so they will rub off on one another. People become like those they are around. People that go to Yale Law School are more likely to become well-known attorneys, politicians, writers and so forth. This is not necessarily because they are smarter than everyone else. Thousands of people just as smart of them go to law school each year. They are helped along by being surrounded by others who are motivated, have big dreams and help them set higher goals for themselves and their lives than they otherwise would.
I attended a boarding school and stopped going to reunions over a decade ago. With few exceptions, almost everyone was interested in comparing “success notes” about what the other was doing and how successful others were. One person had become a famous movie star and everyone gathered around her, several people were doctors, lawyers and ultra-rich “flash traders” or hedge fund managers. Everyone was comparing notes about how the other was doing. These sorts of things made me feel like I needed to work harder and be more than I currently was—as I am sure they did for others.
This follows me to this day on LinkedIn, via email and when my phone rings from someone I attended high school with telling me about an update of someone who has just been named CEO of a big Silicon Valley company, or other times sharing someone’s failure. Success and failure follow people that attend schools like this. When you are surrounded by high-achieving people and constantly hear from them, you too are motivated to work harder. As far as I can tell, the main benefit of having attended to a top school is not what you learn, but who your peers are and the standards they set for each other as a group.
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Law firms are a complex pecking order of their own. The quality of your law firm will determine the quality of your peers and their standards. The very best law firms are selling the quality of their reputations and the quality of their attorneys. The very best law firms hire and bring people into their fold with the same level of intensity that law schools, colleges and elite prep schools do. The better the law firm, the better the screening process and the sorts of people that end up there. There is a difference between a firm like Wachtel Lipton, Cravath and Sullivan & Cromwell from the majority of AmLaw 100 law firms, for example. Their screening processes are far different and they are very careful about whom they let in. The very best law firms do not even hire laterals from other law firms because they do not want thinking processes, expectations, ways of approaching work and so forth to “infect” their flock of attorneys.
Law firms have the same pecking orders of prestige as law schools, colleges and prep schools do. This pecking order is based on the quality of the people that they let in and the screening processes. One club is more prestigious than the other. The quality of people you are surrounded by at one law firm will be far different and likely to rub off on you more at one firm than another.
Sullivan & Cromwell is profoundly more prestigious than Goodwin Procter or Morgan Lewis, for example, not because there are significant differences in the work that each does, but because of the quality of the people that each law firm attracts and hires (they also have much higher profits per partner). While not always the case, most people that are employed at Morgan Lewis could never get a job at Sullivan & Cromwell. Conversely, most people employed at Sullivan & Cromwell could have gotten positions at Morgan Lewis.
You are going to be surrounded by smarter, more motivated attorneys with characteristics that are overall much better at a firm like Sullivan & Cromwell than you would be at a firm such as Morgan Lewis or Goodwin Procter. Because you are surrounded by better people at a Sullivan & Cromwell, better things are likely to happen with your career over the long term. You will not only become a better attorney surrounded by better people, but you will also make decisions with your career that mirror those of your peers. You will think through decisions more carefully, consult with your peers and watch what they are doing. Your peers will more likely make better decisions with how they take next steps with their careers. Since you are watching what they are doing, speaking with them and going through the process with them as well, you too will become more successful. Is this always the case? No, of course not. However, in general the way I judge the quality of a law firm is this: The quality of the law firm is based not just on what happens with the people that are there (whether they make partner, for example) but what happens to the people that leave after they have spent significant time at the firm.
- When you are interviewing and speaking with law firms and when you are replacing someone, you should always ask what has happened to the person that came before you. If something bad happened this should frighten you.
- You should look at where the alumni of the law firm have gone and what they are doing. Are they well-known in law, business and elsewhere, or do they have a history of dropping out of the law and failing?
The quality of your peers is something that is hugely important and will rub off on you. If you are around people that cut corners, think negatively, are not committed and do not look destined for success, this will rub off on you. There are plenty of very smart people who go to bad inner city schools and never amount to anything whatsoever—and even end up in prison, drug addicts, or never go to college—because of their surroundings and the quality of their peers. In the same way, the quality of your peers as an attorney will affect the sort of person you become. Even though most people at Sullivan & Cromwell never become partners, the vast majority of them end up being far more successful in the long run than people who go to Goodwin Procter because they are surrounded by better peers. The people running the firm are better as well.
I see the same pattern over and over again: An attorney goes to an elite East Coast prep school, to an Ivy League college and top law school and then comes out of all of this without a decent law firm job—or if they get a law firm job they work there for no more than a year or two. They do not understand the importance of the most prestigious and best law firms in their evolution. You will become like the people you surround yourself with. The better quality of person you work with the better attorney you will become. Your thinking processes about life, your career and more will begin to mirror theirs as well. You will pick up on your surroundings and learn the ambitions, thought processes and more of the most successful people that will have you.
When an attorney goes in-house, takes a government job, opens a solo practice, or works in a firm that is beneath their abilities, they are consciously making the decision to surround themselves with people that are likely to not be as motivated and have the sorts of qualities that will help them progress on the path to long-term success. Law firm attorneys are motivated and work to project the best images for themselves that they can because they have to. They are trying to work for the largest clients possible, charging high hourly rates and need to justify all this with the highest possible quality. In addition, the very largest law firms have all sorts of controls and pressure: they want the best work, the most hours, the most business, the best public profile for each attorney and more.
The best law firms are a continuation of the process that most attorneys have been following their entire academic lives: You want to look as good as possible in all areas to advance to the next stage. The ball is always moving higher and higher for attorneys in law firms. Law firms represent this, and the level of competitiveness is higher and higher depending on the quality of law firm you are at. When your expectations are very high then you tend to try harder and expect more from yourself. When you expect more from yourself you end up becoming a better attorney.
The reason that attorneys should do their best to work for the best law firm they can and stay there as long as they can is because they will become better attorneys the longer they stay and the better law firm they work at. At every level of how an attorney is measured and compared to others, nothing makes an attorney better at what they do than a law firm.
If an attorney is in their 20s they may have 50+ years of practice left in them. If an attorney is in their 30s they may have 40+ years. If an attorney is in their 40s they may have 30+ years. Doesn’t it make sense to surround yourself with the very best people you can, learn to think and operate like them, raise the bar and have the highest standards possible as long as you can?
It makes no sense to play the game by going to a good college, law school and getting the best firm job you can if you are not interested in continuing to play the game. In most instances, attorneys prepare for the game for over a decade and then often drop out a few years into the game instead of toughing it out. Even partners drop out too early in the game many times.
You will be successful and learn to be successful to the extent you surround yourself with the most successful people you can. As an almost universal observation, attorneys in the best law firms tend to be more motivated, success conscious and do better work than their counterparts in other practice settings. Law firm attorneys work for paying clients, are surrounded by other attorneys with high expectations for them and need to keep their standards up at all times. Escaping an environment that does not have high standards for you will just result in you not reaching your full potential as an attorney.
- See Also: 10 Factors That Matter to Big Firms More Than Where You Went to Law School: Why the Law School You Went to Ultimately Does Not Matter as Much as You Think It Does to Major Law Firms
2. You Generally Get One Shot with Prestigious Law Firms: If You Leave or Do Not Join One as Soon as You Can You Will Never Have a Chance
Law firms want nothing to do with attorneys that do not know what they want to do with their careers, are not committed to working in a law firm and do not want to commit to the sort of quality, struggle for upward mobility and playing the law firm game that is required to be part of a law firm. That is like applying to Harvard for college and telling an interviewer that you are “not sure” you are interested in completing college, or that you “might want” to drop out of college half way through and go to school to learn how to be a professional acrobat. You are either committed to playing the game or you are not. If you are committed to playing the game it will show in everything you do. Actions speak louder than words.
Attorneys that do not work as summer associates, take jobs out of law school not practicing law, go in-house after a few years with a law firm, or leave demanding law firms to go to work in law firms that are not nearly as demanding are not playing the game. Law firms know this and they want nothing to do with it. The attorney does not have the motivations or skills to compete at the level the law firm expects.
Here is an important point to understand: Playing the law firm game and staying employed in a major law firm is no different than getting into the best school you can when you are younger. The struggle to get ahead and go to the best prep school, college and law school is simply “training” and a “warm up” for getting into the best law firm (and staying there later). The sort of behavior that future attorneys demonstrate to get into a top college, or law school, is no different than the sort of behavior you need to show to get a position with and stay employed with a major law firm. The reason your college grades matter to law schools is because they show that you have been able to buckle down, study hard, impress others and commit to something for an extended period of time.
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Getting and staying employed with the best law firm is like getting into the best law school you can, getting the best grades there and looking the best you can. It is the same game most attorneys have been playing for a long time. Let’s get something clear: The most prestigious law firms pay the most and consistently have the highest profits per partner. Most attorneys compare each other and rank law firms based on this information. This is just how it works (and has worked) as long as there have been large law firms. Cravath, Sullivan & Cromwell and Wachtel have always held a special place in the prestige category because they have consistently paid the most to their associates, been the most difficult to get jobs with and paid the highest profits per partner. They have been doing this for several decades.
The best law firms are under tremendous pressure to make a lot of money to (1) pay high associate salaries (to attract the best associates) and (2) show high profits per partner. This creates the sort of pressure cooker that is the typical prestigious American law firm that attracts the best people possible and expels and repels others like a virus. Lawyers rank and compare each other based on the quality of the law firm they are with. The highest quality law firm is widely considered the one that pays its partners and associates the most.
When you get right down to it, the profits per partner a law firm pays is no different in many respects than college and law school rankings.
- The best law school, Yale, has the highest average LSAT scores and undergraduate grade point averages.
- The best colleges typically have the highest SAT scores and grade point averages. People rank and compare each other based on numbers.
- The best law firms use numbers (profits per partner) to score each other as well.
While there are exceptions, the best lawyers are in law firms. For the most part, the better the law firm the better the lawyer. Law firms work for paying clients that have expectations. The larger the law firm, the larger the client and the higher the expectations the client will have for their law firm. Inside of a law firm, lawyers work for other lawyers that have the same sorts of expectations for the lawyers working for them (on behalf of their clients).
Many attorneys do not realize that once they “move down” to a less prestigious law firm, or move to another practice setting (in-house or the government) that they are often closing the door to working in a prestigious law firm ever again. They have walked away from the game they have been playing since they were young—without understanding that the game was still going on.
Additionally, the law student that does not work as a summer associate in a law firm—or get their first job with a law firm (with the exception of a federal or state supreme court clerkship) may never get a position with a top law firm.
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I speak with attorneys all the time that are under the profound misconception that after a few years doing public interest work, state government work, or working in another practice setting besides a law firm that they can just skip on over to a top law firm. It does not work that way, no matter where you went to law school. You need to get on the law firm bus immediately after law school. You need to stay on this bus if you want a career in a law firm.
It is exceedingly rare for in-house attorneys to ever get positions with a prestigious law firm after going in-house, for example. It is also quite difficult for government attorneys to go back to law firms – unless they are high-level government officials. Once you join a law firm you should do your best to stay there, or move up if possible.
- See Also: The #1 Attorney Career Killer That Attorneys Are Never Taught for more information.
3. In a Major Law Firm You Are Getting Access to Waterfalls of Money
One of the main reasons that it is so important that attorneys position themselves in the best law firms they can is because the better the law firm, the more money there is coming into it.
The very best law firms have huge clients that trust their attorneys implicitly and feel proud to be represented by these attorneys. These law firms pay high salaries to their associates, partners and staff because they have giant clients that are willing to write checks for their services continuously. They may be tapped into the cash flow that a giant company like General Motors, Intel, Samsung, or Boeing generates, for example, and have money to hand out to their attorneys and hire more attorneys. This sort of cash flow is what enables you to be trained, work with the best attorneys and have opportunities.
While you can tap into lots of money if you teach at a law school with a huge endowment, or work for various in-house companies, or many smaller law firms, it is not the same. Smaller law firms typically do not have the sorts of clients that are ready, willing, or able to write endless checks. Large clients mean more money and more opportunity. They also mean that you will have the ability to do sophisticated work, work on major matters and have more opportunity if you work in a larger and more prestigious law firm.
- See Also: How Important Is It to Work at a Major Law Firm? for more information.
4. A Larger Law Firm Will Allow You to Develop Skills That Are Focused and More Marketable
Most attorneys in smaller law firms are not that marketable because they have not developed specialized skills. Because larger law firms charge higher billing rates, their attorneys are expected to be more specialized in their practice area. Smaller law firms, companies and other practice settings typically do not have the volume of work to have attorneys that are as specialized. If you have highly developed and focused skills in your practice area, you are far more likely to be marketable than if you do not.
- It is very difficult to be marketable if you are a general commercial litigator—as opposed to a construction litigator or tax litigator, for example.
- It is very difficult to be marketable as a patent attorney unless you have a specialty—such as analogue circuits or drugs, for example.
- It is extremely difficult to be marketable as a corporate attorney unless you have a well-defined specialty—capital markets or mergers and acquisitions, for example.
No matter how you slice it, the specialist is more marketable than the generalist. You will have a much more difficult time getting any sort of position if you are a generalist as opposed to a specialist.
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5. The Model of a Law Firm Is Made to Push You Towards Independence: All Law Firms Are Pushing You to Grow Up
All law firms are pushing the people who work in them to become independent—or they can lose their jobs. This is positive. This is no different than a school pushing you to get good grades, or you will not get a job, or get into a top law school. No matter how you slice it, all law firms are pushing their attorneys to get business and support the firm. They are pushing you to grow up.
When an attorney has business they become independent. The firm provides them support and a percentage of the business the attorney brings in. If the partner does not like their support, or their compensation, they can leave. The partners I work with that have a lot of business generally get interviews with the majority of firms they want to (provided that there are no client conflicts). A partner with business controls their own destiny and life.
How does a partner get business? There are a lot of answers to this question, but a lot of people that you competed with in high school, college and law school probably at one point asked some of the following questions about you:
- “How did she manage to graduate with a 3.8 GPA?”
- “How did he get a 170 on his LSAT?”
- “How did she manage to get off the waitlist at Columbia Law School?”
- “How did he get a job at an AmLaw 100 law firm when he went to a third tier law school and was not even a stellar student?”
- “How did she get a job at a top law firm in New York City when she was only in the top half of her class?”
- “How did he make partner at our firm without any business and not having the highest hours?”
The answer is: If you want something enough you figure out how to do it. It is as simple as that.
- See Also: Top 9 Ways for Any Attorney to Generate a Ton of Business for more information.
If you go in-house or to the government, you become dependent on others and lose control over your career and life. You no longer have the ability to choose where you work and control your destiny. Your destiny is controlled by the economy and others. Partners with giant books of business can do whatever they want with their careers and are in control. This is what you should aspire to and what can change your career and life. This is the entire point of jumping through so many hoops to get into a big law firm in the first place: You want to get to a place where you are strong and in control. The bigger the firm you remain at, the more likely it is that you are going to be able to bring in large clients and be in control of your career.
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Most attorneys would be better served if they worked for (1) the best law firms they possibly can (2) as long as they can.
- Your first choice for an employer should always be a top law firm—the “top firm” is the best law firm you can get a job with.
- If you are at a world-class law firm you should do your best to stay there, or move to an even better one—you should generally stay until they tell you that you better start looking (unless you find a better opportunity in the interim).
- If you are at a good law firm, you should consider moving to a better one if you can (the better the firm you are at the more opportunities you will have in the future).
- If you need to move down in terms of the prestige level of the law firm you are at, you should only do so when absolutely necessary and when your law firm job has completely run its course.
- You should avoid in-house jobs, most boutiques, government jobs, public interest jobs and other jobs as long as possible—and only take them when your career can advance no further in a law firm.
This is not what most attorneys want to hear, of course, but there are significant reasons for me giving you this advice. I have had it with people in authority—whomever they may be (your friends, peers, career counselors and others)—telling you the contrary. Your best career is almost always with a law firm and the best law firm you can get a position with.
If you are getting different advice then you should be suspect. This is the fact: Not working at the best law firm you can is more often than not a career mistake and, among other things:
- You will stop improving as an attorney to your full potential.
- You will more-often-than-not hurt your career prospects.
- You will limit the lateral moves you can make in the future.
- You will limit the income you can make in the future.
In fact, when I am working with attorneys I do whatever it takes to find the best law firm I can for them, even it means trying to get them a position in the deserts of Qatar, or the oil sands of North Dakota. Regardless of whom you are, you should do whatever it takes to save your legal career and find the best law firm job possible. In most cases, this should take priority in your career and life.
The important point is that you should not drop out. If you drop out you will miss all that you have worked so hard to achieve and leave it all behind.
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