Biglaw, Contract Attorneys

Biglaw’s Status Issue

Patricia Gillette of Orrick.jpgOver the weekend, I read an interesting article by Orrick partner Patricia Gillette about how law firms should rethink how and who they layoff in an economic downturn. Normally, when firms find themselves in a financial pinch, they immediately slash those that they consider most dispensable: the contract lawyers, part-time lawyers, and support staff that may very well be crucial to the firm running smoothly.

While it’s always attention-grabbing to hear critical rumblings out of the belly of the beast that is “Biglaw,” one paragraph from the article struck me. I read it again to make certain I had understood it correctly. Gillette says that not all of the best and brightest lawyers wind up as Biglaw associates. Craziness…

From Patricia Gillette in the American Lawyer:

Part-time lawyers, contract lawyers, and lawyers who don’t want to be partners can provide an alternative, cost-effective way of accomplishing a lot of traditional legal work. Indeed, some of the best and brightest lawyers coming out of law school choose not to work the 2000+ hours considered to be “full time” (as that is defined in law firms now). Some make that choice because of child care issues, others because they believe that the promised partnership pie is simply an illusion or not a prize at all — but rather a burden of liability with very little upside for many years to come. The wholesale termination of these attorneys, based solely on their status, ignores the mindset of many lawyers who are entering the legal profession today (and it sends a message that people who choose that path have no future in large law firms).

Wait, wait, wait. What? You mean to tell me there are actually people who went to some of the best law schools in the country, and do not want not become part of Biglaw? I know, that sounds like crazy talk. Are there really people who don’t want to give up their lives for that huge paycheck (a paycheck that, while generous, will never make you a millionaire)? You mean they don’t enjoy constant fear, stress, and pressure? They don’t like working weekends at the office, never having a social life, or returning Blackberry messages at 2 a.m.? All for that one day, seven to eight years later, when they may (but probably won’t) be one of the very select few elevated to non-equity partner, or even, *gasp*, full partner? Because, if that’s not living the dream, then I don’t know what is.

The sad, sad fact, my friends, is that some do. That’s not a bad thing. More room for the “best and brightest,” right?

Last month at LegalTech, I had the pleasure of meeting Jeremy Blachman of Anonymous Lawyer fame. After summering at Willkie, Farr & Gallagher, he decided to forgo becoming an associate to write his hysterically funny novel instead. I asked him how he could turn down such a large salary fresh out of school.

“It’s not as hard as you think,” he said.

Although Jeremy’s experience is unusual, his opinion cannot be more true. I have met plenty of people that have their own reasons for not pursuing BigLaw. To be honest, my reason for not choosing BigLaw was simple. I didn’t have a choice. When I passed the bar I was unemployed and scared to death. Contracting helped to get me on my feet, and I was grateful that work was available.

That being said, I have met some of the most amazing people while contracting. Many of them are former trial lawyers, retired law professors, ex-associates, and even some former partners. And in firms, many of the litigation support directors I know are also attorneys. Some have more power in their firms than many of the partners. As well, many litigation support managers and analysts are of absolute importance whenever an infamous, but all too common ,”fire drill” is taking place.
So why aren’t these people’s talents better utilized? Why are they always the first on the chopping block the moment a whiff of economic bad news is in the air? Ms. Gillette touched upon this in her paragraph above: “The wholesale termination of these attorneys, based solely on their status, ignores the mindset of many lawyers who are entering the legal profession today.”

Status is often everything, and nowhere is that more prevalent than in Biglaw. Biglaw personifies American hierarchy. As a contract attorney, I did not have to be told where I stood on the totem pole. All I had to do is look down, and see the ground beneath me. Yes, there were times I was talked to like a third grader. One time, our entire project team was put in timeout. Yes-just what you’re thinking. Timeout: as in, when toddlers are told to go sit in a corner and be quiet. Our team was told to sit at our desks in silence. Because of the misdeeds of one or two attorneys who had no business being on that project, or any other for that matter, we were all punished as a group.

Don’t get me wrong, my experience contracting has been very good. The vast majority of associates with whom I have worked have been top-notch. In fact, the other day, I was just complimenting one for being published on a highly popular legal news website. Shockingly, I have found that when most people are treated like adults, they respond in kind.

Also, I am acutely aware that there are issues on both sides. I have run into a contract attorney or two that have been, shall we say, “a few sandwiches short of a picnic.” Although 95% of the attorneys I have met while contracting are quite competent, I know people tend to remember only the 5% that are not. I guess that makes sense. After all, no one has ever run into a crazy associate or partner who is a complete “whackjob” in an AmLaw200, right?

Thankfully, because of articles like Ms. Gillette’s, it seems the status of these groups is changing for the better. With the downturn in the economy, contracting has started to shed its stigma. Part timers are more highly sought after than before. And, with the continued application of technology in complex litigation, the value of many lit support personnel becomes meaningfully evident.

In her critique, Patricia Gillette makes many references to the Titanic, so perhaps this isn’t the best time for me to write something cliché like “we are all in the same boat.” Yet, as our legal profession changes and evolves, Biglaw could use more partners like her steering the ship.

Gabe Acevedo is an attorney in Washington, D.C. and owner of the e-discovery blog, He also writes on legal technology and discovery issues for Above The Law. He can be reached at

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