The cycle of becoming and staying a lawyer in a large law firm is in no small measure about your ability and desire to conform. People who become attorneys in large law firms generally do so because they have been conforming since they were young children and see a reward in continued conformity (money, status, and a somewhat-predictable life). People who stay attorneys in large law firms are able to do so because they are able to conform. If you have the ability to conform and are comforted by it, you will likely be a successful large-law-firm lawyer. If you do not have the ability to conform, you are going to have a difficult time staying a large-law-firm attorney.
Attorneys can become large-law-firm attorneys because they can conform.
Most attorneys who choose to stop being large law firm attorneys do so because they no longer have the interest (or ability) to conform.
Something I noticed early on—from the time I was in elementary school—is that the kids who did the worst in school were the ones who refused to conform and play by the rules. These kids acted out in class, refused to sit still, got in trouble and were their own person. Many of these kids never finished high school. At least two I know of wound up in prison eventually. Most had issues with drugs and so forth. Few went to college. Some went to college and dropped out. Others went to college and barely squeaked by. When it comes to conformity, this is what schools, institutions, and others do to us. The more you conform, the more society will reward you by giving you access to positions where conformity is expected. In general, the best law firms and schools admit people who show they can conform the most.
Some people stop conforming at different times. Some kids go to great colleges and stop conforming once they get there. They stop working hard, get bad grades, and let everything go. Other stop conforming to law school and others when they get out.
I’ve seen attorneys with 20+ years of experience stop conforming. I work with partners from large law firms regularly who decide they want to leave the practice of law, spend time with their children, travel, or do something else for a time and then want to come back. Large law firms almost always have no interest in rehiring these sorts of attorneys. They know that the attorney who has stopped conforming—even for a short time—will likely not conform when they come back again. The same thing goes for attorneys who quit large law firms to travel, or do something else—they are viewed as nonconformist. If you do not show that you are conformist and do not want to leave the group under any circumstances, most large law firms will have no interest in you.
Once you stop conforming law firms lose interest in you. They expect constant and never-ending conformity. This is extremely important to them. A large law firm survives, grows, and dies based on its ability to have everyone conforming because its business model requires this.
Conformity is expected of everyone in large law firms. Large law firms need conformity. This is because they have lots of work to be done, for lots of money, and without this conformity things just would not happen. People need to work lots of hours, follow orders, and compete with one another to bring in business, work the most hours, and do the best work. If there were not this conformity, then the system would not work. The system only functions because people conform and play this game. They play this game because—like bees in a hive—they believe it is in their best interest to be part of a group working for the common good rather than operating independently. The person who operates independently takes a risk that others will not take care of them and that they are better off relying on the group instead. As businesses and groups, a law firm needs everyone working there to conform and play the game.
The question everyone must ask themselves is “Am I better off as part of the group, or am I better off doing something else—and looking out for myself in some other way?”
When I was practicing law with large law firms, I was faced with just that decision. When I was younger, instead of doing other sorts of work, I started my own business doing asphalt work in Detroit. I failed a great deal at first, but eventually was able to find success doing this sort of work and knew—after a few years of doing the work—that I could always make a living and earn enough money to support myself doing this sort of work. I saw that I could do this without having to have bosses and others telling me what to do. The feeling that you can rely on yourself and do not need others to be successful is tremendously empowering. When you realize that your spirit and own skills can support you and that you do not need others, it is a feeling that makes you feel much more secure in your future than knowing you must seek the approval of a single employer to make a living and to be happy and secure.
When I entered the legal field, I very quickly realized that when you were working with a large group of others, you needed to seek their approval to advance—and even if you impressed others it could be a very dangerous thing.
I saw associates who should have made partner not make partner (due to politics) and asked to leave the firm.
I saw partners asked to leave the firm for not having enough business.
I saw one partner I worked with become an income partner instead of an equity partner due to losing a big client.
I saw associates isolated and given no work due to upsetting a partner.
I also saw some people I worked with simply rebel against all of this and leave the practice of law completely!
This was a wonderful experience and not as negative as it might sound! Watching all of this nonsense going on that had a profound impact on peoples’ lives, I quickly realized that I was faced with two choices: Conform and play this game, or do something on my own. Had I not had the memories of what it had been like being an asphalt contractor and the self-confidence in my abilities from this, I would never have made this choice. I would have done my best to conform and be part of this group and stayed and played the game as long as I could—or done something completely different. I would have tried to rely on the people I worked with to protect me, advance me, show me the ropes, and share the wealth with me. If that did not work out, I would have tried to change venues and go in-house or do something else where I would be tasked with conforming in another environment. This is the game we play when we work for other people: We need to conform.
Conforming requires that you do what is expected of you by the group. Attorneys from many firms often have the tendency to act alike. They often dress similarly, live in the same neighborhoods, have similar mannerisms and even outside interests. These attorneys are similar because they are adopting the mannerisms of the group.
When I was in law school, most of the students in my class got jobs in a law firm if they wanted to—but there was one student, in particular, I remember who did not. He had gone to art school before enrolling in law school and was different. He showed up for interviews dressed much differently from other students, wore his hair long, and looked different. He wanted very much to work in a law firm and had good grades, but was not the sort of person in whom the law firms were interested. He looked nonconformist. Law firms want nothing to do with people who do not act the part(s) they are seeking. If you are going to work in a large law firm, you need to look and act the part.
Most people become attorneys because they are smart, work hard, and conform. Your ability to conform is something that got you where you are today. Your ability to conform will determine if you can continue working in a law firm, or need to do something different entirely.
The average law firm is one of the more conformist places you could possibly work. There are some law firms that are nonconformist, but in general, they all require conformity. Someone like Richard Branson or Donald Trump could never work in a law firm. They can say what they want to say and be the sort of person they want to be, instead of putting in unnecessary face time in an office, billing hours, begging for work, and more. People like Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and tons of other well-known lawyers who never practiced law got to a stage in their lives where they faced the decision of whether or not to work in a law firm and decided against it. If you want to be an attorney in a law firm you need to conform. You cannot expect to succeed if you do not.
If you want to be (and stay) a successful law firm lawyer you better be ready to conform. In fact, in a career spent doing nothing but working with lawyers, I am convinced that working in a law firm is about the most conformist profession there is. There may be a job that requires more conformity, but I am not aware of it: The conformity is not just about acting like everyone else—it is more than that. It is about
the time an attorney must put in to show they are working hard,
the work that is required to become an attorney (conforming to a series of schools, tests, and so forth),
the constant need to impress others (first senior lawyers, then clients—and judges if you are a litigator),
the need to play by the rules and never break them.
There is nothing wrong with any of this, and I am not judging it—because this conformity is necessary for the system to work. Doctors, accountants, people working for companies, people in the military, and all sorts of other jobs require conformity too. Society requires conformity for certain jobs and could not function without it. What you need to decide if you want to be a large law firm attorney is whether or not you are ready to conform. If you are not ready to conform, you should find something else.
A thought that I have been having over the past several weeks is about the company where I work and what works here from a management standpoint. Because of my rebellion against conformity, we are not structured in such a way that we have regular reviews and micromanage people who are here. Instead, people are given a high degree of autonomy, know their jobs, and are allowed to operate independently with only minimal guidance. It may not be the most profitable way to operate a company, but it works. The people who have stayed at the company the longest have been allowed to operate on their own, without a lot of rules, and be themselves. Every single time I have tried something different and tried to put rules in place, closely monitor performance and mold people, they have revolted and often left. Most people like operating independently and without a lot of rules.
Because law firms require so much conformity and have so many rules, attorneys are constantly leaving and need to be replaced. Law firms constantly seek out new attorneys who are ready to conform to replace those who left. Law firms seek attorneys who will conform and push out those who do not. The law firm is a dynamic organism that is always seeking conformity and needs people who will play the game and conform.
If you are seeking to be happy in a large law firm, you will need to conclude that the conformity of the situation works for you. It may well work for you—or it may not. If you can conform and play the game the rewards can be great. If you are not ready to conform, then you will need to figure out your best path. Attorneys who leave the large law firm behind often do so because of their inability to conform, lack of interest in conforming, or problems with conforming. This is the choice you must make: Are you better off relying on others, or on yourself?
Are you happy working in a large law firm or do you prefer a smaller law firm? Share why you feel that way. Is conforming hard for you or does it come easy? How has this shaped your legal career? Does your law firm require a high level of conformity or not? How much conformity do you think it should require of its attorneys?