Summary: Many attorneys believe that the quality of their law school, or law firm, will determine the course of their legal career.
Many attorneys believe that the quality of their law school, or law firm, will determine the course of their legal career. I regularly place partners in their 70s, and many of the partners I have placed are now in their 80s and still practicing, with large books of business, at major law firms. Fifty years ago many of these attorneys started out as solo practitioners. If your entire career is determined by the quality of the law school you attended or the firm you started your career in, this would mean that what happens for the next 50 years of your career after you get out of law school would not matter.
What determines whether you succeed as an attorney has nothing to do with any of this. Regardless of where you went to law school or the quality of the law firm you are currently at, you can work in a major law firm if this is important to you. Anyone can. I will tell you how in this article, but it is important to keep in mind that this is not something that is easy to do.
Why do attorneys from the best law schools, and the best law firms tend to do better than others? At the outset, let’s be clear about a few facts regarding what happens to attorneys who do not attend the best law schools:
- You are less likely to become an important politician, judge, or academic.
- You are less likely to be famous for doing anything.
- You are less likely to ever work in a major law firm.
- You are less likely to make a lot of money.
- You are more likely to work in a smaller law firm, for a smaller company, or at a less important government job.
These are facts. These facts, of course, are just “averages” of what happens—but they are more often true than not. The lower ranked your law school, the more likely you are to be less successful practicing law, in politics, business, government, or academia.
There is a golden rule for getting and keeping a position at any major law firm. I see that simple rule is often neglected by law school graduates and often forgotten by even experienced attorneys. To learn more about the simple rule for surviving at a law firm is check out the link below!
If you go to a lower ranked law school, you will also be surrounded by people who will very quickly accept that they too are unlikely to be that successful—and they will learn this very quickly. They will be rejected from important clerkships and law firm and jobs early in their career. The only doors that will open will be with less desirable legal jobs—if any open at all. These attorneys will be surrounded by classmates who will be similarly defeated early in their careers. They will accept that their lot is to be less successful than attorneys from better law schools.
When these attorneys get out of school, they will be likely to work in positions where they are surrounded by people who are not high achievers who hold themselves to high standards. They will pick up on their habits, ways of thinking, expectations, and beliefs in what is possible in their careers and lives. Many of these thoughts will be limiting, and these attorneys will then be even less likely to be surrounded by winners and super achievers.
What will determine whether or not the attorney who does not go to the best law school, or work in the best law firm, finds success will be something other than the people they are surrounded by.
I want to tell you a quick story.
There are all sorts of entrepreneur groups around the country. There are groups like Vistage, the Young Professionals Organization (YPO) and others that are even more prestigious and difficult to get into. Groups like Vistage will take pretty much anyone who applies with a certain sized business. YPO, however, is more difficult to get into. Applying, being accepted and getting into this organization can be political and quite competitive and you need to have a much larger business than what you need to get into Vistage. YPO is more difficult to get into in some markets than others. The benefit of joining an organization like YPO is that you will surround yourself with other people running businesses who have much larger businesses than Vistage members.
I know of a guy who was operating a business in California, and wanted more than anything to get into YPO. He kept applying and getting rejected. He was not connected with the right people and did not fit in with the people locally. Eventually, he got frustrated and applied to a YPO in the Middle East—despite being from California—and got in. Incredibly, he started taking a 15-hour flight from California and traveling to the Middle East for meetings several times a year. Why would someone possibly do this? Is it that valuable to spend your time associating with other successful, connected, entrepreneurs—even when they are on the opposite side of the world?
Several years after joining this organization his business increased over 10x. He became extremely successful, and his business continues to grow year after year—where before it was doing well but nothing like the level it rose to when he became part of the group. The only thing that changed for him was surrounding himself with other people who had high expectations for themselves and thought about their lives, careers and businesses in a certain way. He made friends with these people, started doing business with them and learned from them.
The people you surround yourself with can make a huge difference. When you are around people who think highly of themselves, have a lot of self-confidence and are highly motivated, your life and career can change.
Looking for people that you should surround yourself with is called finding your “tribe.” To learn more about why and how to find your “tribe” read my article below.
When you go to the best law schools and work in the best law firms, you are surrounded by people who also have high expectations of themselves. The higher you go up on the chain, the more you will find that the smartest and most successful people in any profession surround themselves with other successful people. If you are going to be successful, you need to be around others who are not willing to accept mediocrity and demand more from themselves.
I was at a conference recently and was listening to a man who had just sold a business for a billion dollars. This man said that a business is nothing more than the result of numerous decisions stacked on top of one another.
When you spend time with other successful people, they share with you their ways of thinking about the world and their approach to problems. They are motivated to do things in a certain way and find ways to succeed. They use their work and free time in ways that imitate and model other successful people they are around. When you surround yourselves with other successful people, you too will often become successful. They are motivated and competitive with one another. They set high expectations. It is no different in your career: You will succeed to the extent you make the right decisions and surround yourself with other successful people.
Something I have noticed in a career and life where I surrounded myself with very successful people is that they are all, almost universally, quite competitive with one another. In many respects, it can be exhausting spending time with them because they are constantly comparing and contrasting everything they do with what others are doing. It is completely ridiculous. They will compare their homes, spouses, cars, education, awards, jobs and more with one another. They talk about what so and so have and do. It is exhausting really – completely exhausting.
I used to live on a street in Malibu with about 15 houses. It was a nice street but nothing like a few other streets in my neighborhood where James Cameron, Kelsey Grammar and a few billionaires lived. I hated the neighborhood and found the people extremely competitive with one another. It was not enjoyable having conversations with people because it was all about name dropping, who had what, who was doing what and more. I only lived on the street for three years; however, during the three years I lived there the majority of the homes on my street went up for sale and were sold because the couples living in them divorced. In the case of my street, I believe many of the couples became unhappy with one another because they were constantly comparing their lives to the lives of the people they associated with and never felt happy, or satisfied with their own lives. It was a very insular, competitive and unpleasant place to live for me. I could be wrong about these reasons, but I believe that when you are surrounded by extremely successful people at such a high level, it can build a certain level of dissatisfaction with your life.
The main reason to go to the best schools and work in the best law firms is to surround yourself with other high achievers who (1) set high goals for themselves and (2) will not tolerate mediocrity. The more you surround yourself with other high achievers, the better off you will be—in some respects. If you keep up with them, you too will do well. People in high-achieving groups typically have high expectations for themselves and what they believe they should be accomplishing. When you are around low achievers and people with low expectations, this also makes a difference. You will often rise, or fall, based on the quality of your company.
Finding high achievers and mentors at prestigious schools and firms is the ultimately goal. The reason being is so you can learn and better yourself through the experience and knowledge base of those above you. Here is some advice from my website about why and how to seek out experts of a similar ilk within your office or law firm.
- Seek Out and Work with People Who Share Your Beliefs
- The People You Work and Associate with Can Either Make or Break You
Like the people in my neighborhood; however, the attorneys who go to the best law schools and work in the best law firms are often the most likely to “divorce” the practice of law. They believe they cannot keep up with the massive hours and demands. They often become extremely dissatisfied with their lives and careers and leave to do something else. Being around people, who are extremely competent, motivated and who work hard brings out a sense of lack in them and they end up leaving the practice of law.
I see this with so many attorneys who go to the biggest law firms in New York. I know these attorneys would most certainly be far more likely to continue practicing law and have long careers if they, instead, had worked in smaller law firms, in smaller markets. I suspect many of the couples on my street may have stayed married and been happy together had they, instead, lived and worked around people that were not constantly finding reasons to be dissatisfied with their lives and want more and more.
Regardless of your intelligence, if you grow up in rural West Virginia and attend a horrible public high school, the odds of you doing well are going to be severely diminished unless you have some strong role models around you. The odds that you will find these among the other kids in your school will be quite slim. The majority of kids will not be competing to go to Ivy League schools, build up their extracurricular activities and get the highest SAT scores possible. They will not be taking SAT prep classes, nor will they be taking lots of AP classes. Their motivations may be more directed towards sports, the opposite sex, or other things where there is less likely to be a future. The parents will be less likely to be successful and be driving the kids to do the best they can. In short, you will not be surrounded by people who are pushing you to do the best and are competing to do so.
So what does it mean if you do not attend the best law school?
If you do not attend the best law school, the odds are that you will not have high expectations for yourself and what you can accomplish. You will be surrounded by people who are settling for lesser jobs and futures and are happy with this. You may come to believe that you too do not deserve high-level success. You may pick up the habits and ways of doing things that all but guarantee you will be unlikely to achieve at a high level.
If you go into a major law firm after law school, you will be surrounded by even more high achievers. These high achievers may be interested in making millions of dollars a year becoming partners in these law firms and will work as hard as they can, producing the best work possible, to be the best lawyers they possibly can. If you work around these attorneys, you will be pushed to be more thorough and produce the best work possible. Working for deep pocket clients that can afford large legal bills, you will be in a situation where you can work as hard on a given matter as necessary to do it correctly. You may also end up burnt-out and demoralized working for an ultra-competitive large law firm—this is very common.
Attorneys at smaller law firms, with smaller clients, will often cut corners and the work will not be as good, or thorough, as it could otherwise be. You will be around other attorneys that have low expectations for the quality of their work, cut corners and do not do as well. Instead of learning to cultivate large, public companies as clients, you will, instead, often be going after lower-level clients—criminal clients, divorce clients, personal injury clients, or smaller businesses. The smaller the firm and the lower the quality of their law schools, the more likely you will be working on smaller matters.
Many attorneys “divorce” the practice of law. Here are some articles I wrote about attorneys leaving the profession and why they did. Have you ever thought about quitting the practice of law? Why?
- Why Do So Many Attorneys Ask "What's the Point?"
- 25 Reasons Most Attorneys Hate the Practice of Law and Go Crazy (and What to Do about It)
- Why You Should Quit Practicing Law
However, as I told you earlier: None of this matters. Despite the dire prognosis above, it does not matter where you went to law school, or the law firm you start your career out in.
It does not matter the attorneys you started your career with. The things that matter are (1) Your motivation, drive and enthusiasm; (2) the decisions you make; (3) the people you spend your time with; (4) your practice area; (5) business you develop; (6) your reputation in the legal community; and, (7) how willing you are to continually look for better jobs.
I will examine each of these below.
- Your Motivation, Drive, and Enthusiasm
The majority of successful people are extremely motivated. They tend to be motivated to such an extent that nothing shakes them. For whatever reason, they very much want to be successful, rich, powerful, respected and so forth. They are resilient and keep calm. They want to be as successful as they possibly can be. This desire for success is something that is internal to them.
Resilience and the ability to be calm are the top characteristics I notice in the most successful attorneys I place. They are also very motivated and driven people. I’ve written several articles about how these traits help anyone success in their career and life. Please leave your comments and thoughts below in the comment section.
- The Power of Resistance in Your Career and Life
- Consistency and Commitment Beat Brilliance and Talent
It does not matter where you went to law school, or the first firm you started at if you are extremely motivated. Motivation is the most important ingredient for success. Most attorneys stop being motivated quite early in their careers and settle. Successful people keep going and never get comfortable and are constantly pushing themselves to do better and better.
One of the benefits of not going to the best law school, or working in the best law firm early in your career, is that you can get more and more confidence over time and stay motivated. I cannot tell you how many young attorneys I have seen lose their confidence early in their careers because they chose to work in large law firms and lost their motivation, drive, and enthusiasm.
Your motivation, drive, and enthusiasm is the secret weapon that will make you extremely successful. The more motivated you are, the better off you will be. I recently switched accountants because I found an accountant so motivated and enthusiastic I could not believe it. He is in his mid-60s, but he gets up at 4:00 am to work each day. He has accounting books littered all over his home, in the trunk of his car and everywhere. He lives and breathes accounting issues. He loves what he does.
In contrast, my former accountant was often difficult to reach because he was sailing and doing other things. He was not nearly as motivated and enthusiastic about his work. The accountant in his mid-60s that I transferred my work to is amazing. He wants to grow his business; he is so driven he is up early each morning, and he is incredibly enthusiastic about the work he is doing.
The more motivated, driven and enthusiastic you are the more successful you will be. You can use this motivation to move mountains. Nothing is more important than motivation for success. You need to guard your motivation and stay motivated.
The benefit that attorneys have who do not go to the best law schools, or work in the biggest law firms, is that they often get angry when rejected and use this anger to motivate them to work harder and succeed. They also have the benefit that they are more likely to take jobs where they do not get their spirit crushed by massive hours and stress early in their careers.
If you are motivated to succeed, virtually anything is possible, and you will be to a great extent “unstoppable.” If you are motivated to get into a large law firm, everything will flow from this. If you want to be a success in the practice of law, the most important ingredient is motivation.
- The Decisions You Make that Advance Your Goal of Wanting to Work in a Major Law Firm
There are all sorts of different decisions that you need to make to be successful in the practice of law. The practice area you choose, the city you work in, the sort of law firm you join and more. All of these decisions will have an impact on how successful or unsuccessful you are likely to be. The more strategic each of your decisions is and the better they are, the more likely you are to be successful.
While I cannot tell you what decisions to make, I would recommend reviewing many of the articles I have written on BCGSearch.com. There are countless decisions that you will make in your career that will either move the ball forward or back. Every decision you make should be geared towards moving towards working towards a law firm and not away from it.
- You should be trying to do work on behalf of large clients and not small ones. You should be working in practice areas that service large clients and not individuals. If you want to work in a major law firm, you need to be doing work on behalf of major clients and not smaller ones. Major clients are corporations and other businesses that can afford to write a series of seemingly endless checks to their attorneys. If you work for these sorts of clients, you will learn the skills you can get when you have the luxury of time when you are working on various matters—this will make you a better attorney. Attorneys from smaller law firms are often not as effective at practicing law because they do not have the time to dedicate to clients. Large clients also tend to hire the best attorneys and to work around other good attorneys will make you better at what you do, lead to more connections in the legal community and help you greatly.
- You should only be working in law firms and in-house, or with the government. While it is possible to move from being a US Attorney to a major law firm, for example, in general, large law firms only hire from other law firms. The pressures, culture, and experience you get in practice settings other than law firms are different. You need to commit to a law firm practice setting in most instances if you want to work in another large law firm.
- You should continually move to only better and better law firms. It is important to be strategic a continue moving to better and better law firms if you are seeking to work in a major law firm. If each move is to a little bit better firm than the last, you may eventually end up at a major law firm.
- You should do your best to work in markets with large law firms. The larger the market you are in, the more likely you are to get a position with a major law firm. While there are some exceptions, in most cases law firms, do most of their hiring of attorneys within their market (unless you are relocating to be home with family, for example). The longer you are in a major market, the more likely you are to develop a reputation among the attorneys your area, meet other people working in major law firms and be able to transition that way.
These are some of the countless decisions you will need to make throughout your legal career if you want to get a position with a major law firm. Your objective needs to be to make as many decisions as possible that move you towards and not away from practicing in a major law firm.
- The Other Attorneys You Spend Your Time With
If you want to work in a major law firm, it is important that you spend your time with the best attorneys possible—both inside and outside of work. You need to spend your time around other motivated, hungry attorneys who are either working in major law firms or want to. Being part of bar associations, practice group sections and other groups where you are likely to associate with and get to know attorneys from major law firms is something that will help you a great deal. These attorneys are also likely to have connections, share with you how they think about the practice of law and help you along towards your goal of working in a major law firm. You should be spending your time with attorneys working in large law firms, or interested in doing so. You want to spend your time with the best attorneys possible. Within your law firm, you should do your best to work with attorneys who are considered the best, have the most business, know the most attorneys from other major law firms and are most likely to get jobs with major law firms.
The people you spend your time with will have a major impact on how successful you end up becoming. I wrote article about this as well, please read it for more information about the importance of working with the best and most positive people.
- Your Practice Area
I see attorneys move to major law firms all the time from small law firms and unknown law schools when they are in the right practice area. In general, if you want to move to a major law firm you need to stay away from consumer-facing practice areas and concentrate on working in practice areas that do most of their work for businesses with a lot of money.
Consumer-facing practice areas include things like personal injury, family law, insurance defense, consumer bankruptcy and so forth. Consumers typically have less money to spend on attorneys and legal fees and do not provide attorneys the opportunity to do the best work possible. Large law firms avoid attorneys from consumer-facing practice areas. If you want to work for a major law firm, your best opportunity is to work in a practice area where large law firms have a difficult time finding attorneys to do this work—and where they will hire you regardless of where you went to law school or the reputation of the firm you are coming from. Patent law is the “classic” practice area where this is likely to occur. In major economic booms, there is often a shortage of corporate attorneys, and it can work there as well. Other strong practice areas include things like food and drug law, ERISA, environmental (defense), trademark, finance, tax, healthcare, insurance coverage, construction, telecommunications, real estate, and labor and employment. As a rule, you will typically have the most success the more transactional and niche your practice area is.
How important is it really to work in a major law firm and have experience in large markets? Very, that’s why I wrote this article below about the 10 major benefits to attorneys of working at a major firm.
- The Business You Develop
Without question, the attorneys interested in moving to a major law firm should develop as much business as possible. The more business you develop, the more likely you are to be able to move to a major law firm. The amount of business you have as a senior attorney will in most cases be the deciding factor on whether or not you get hired by a major law firm.
Most major law firms require $1,000,000 to $3,000,000 in business to lateral in as a partner. If you are in a niche practice area and the firm has existing work and clients, the amount of business required may be less. When developing business, most law firms are interested in (1) a book of business that is slowly increasing and creeping up, (2) clients that will be willing to pay billing rates similar to what they charge.
Large law firms function and succeed based on the amount of work their partners have. This supports their administrative and profit apparatus. Your goal as a young, or senior attorney needs to be to develop as much business as you possibly can—this is the deciding factor on how much money you will earn, the quality of the firm you are in and more.
Don’t be discouraged thought there are alternative routes to a lateral move, placement, or making partner without a book of business or experience. This article below discusses just such a route toward becoming partner without business.
- Your Reputation in the Legal Community
Large law firms like to hire people with top reputations in the legal community. You can do this by being well known to the media, giving lots of talks, writing articles or treatises and, more importantly, getting a reputation for doing outstanding legal work. A reputation can take years, or even decades to develop. The better your reputation, the more likely top law firms are likely to be interested in you. To create a top reputation, you need to impress other attorneys you come in contact with and be considered honest, likable and formidable. A reputation is a difficult thing to quantify; however, the best reputations are something that makes top law firms interested in you. I have seen numerous attorneys get positions with top law firms based on the quality of their reputations.
- How Willing You Are to Continually Look for Better Jobs
Many attorneys who end up in the largest law firms can do so by continually having their eyes open for better and better jobs—they are willing to find these jobs by being geographically flexible, starting a job search and never giving up once they start. I have seen more miracles than I can count in my career from attorneys who were willing to be flexible in their searches and not give up. If you are hungry and want to succeed, you are likely to face a lot of rejection along the way—and need to get used to this. You also need to become willing and able to stay engaged in the job search. You need to persist until you succeed and never give up. While a lot goes into a job search, ultimately it is your spirit and willingness not to give up that determines your success. I tell my candidates that if I believe in them and remain engaged in their search, they will succeed. It may take you several interviews and a lot of rejection before you succeed, but the most important thing is never to give up.
If you truly want to move to a major law firm, it does not matter where you went to school, or the firm you started at. What matters is what you are willing to do to get into a major law firm and how you position yourself. Depending on your age, the odds are you have several decades to go from where you are now to where you want to me. It is completely nonsensical to believe this is not something you can do if you make the right moves and position yourself correctly. The more driven an attorney is and the less likely they are to settle for wherever they are at in their career and life, the better they will do. If you can pass the bar, you are smart enough to succeed in the practice of law.
Ex: Do you or someone you know graduate from a less prestigious law school? Maybe you or someone you know is at a less than prestigious law firm?
I speak with countless attorneys who are worried about their degrees or current experience. Oftentimes, they are confused about what really determines success as an attorney. That's why I wrote this article.
Share your responses to these questions and your thoughts about how to be successful as an attorney from a les than prominent law school in the comments below.
About Harrison Barnes
Harrison Barnes is the founder of BCG Attorney Search and a successful legal recruiter. Harrison 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.