It may be true that all happy families are alike while each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Based on my experience going undercover as V. Katz, I have come to learn that this is also true for associates (Biglaw and small).

Based on the comments on the salary survey, there are many small-firm associates with grievances regarding transparency, salary, benefits, hours, etc. Based on conversations with Biglaw associates, there are many who are burnt out and looking to make a “lifestyle” change by moving to a small firm, in-house position, or government job (although hopefully they saw the results that showed many small-firm associates work similar hours to Biglaw). In my conversations with unemployed or underemployed associates, they bemoan their law school loans and hope for a job before they become “obsolete and unable to re-enter the work force at the same level they were at when they lost their jobs.”

For some reason, these associates reach out to me for comfort and guidance. So, I offer them my version of a pep talk, after the jump….

Conan O'Brien

My version of a pep talk involves me borrowing someone else’s inspirational words. After all, I often feel like one of those unhappy associates, so my pep may not be all that peppy.

Luckily, we are at the tail end of graduation season, when there are pep talks (aka commencement speeches) galore.

I listened to Conan O’Brien’s speech to the Dartmouth class of 2011 and realized that what he said to them is equally applicable to us.

1. “There are few things more liberating than having your worst fear realized.”

Everyone’s worst fear is different. Given that many attorneys are high-achievers (and anal and Type A), however, that fear often involves some form of failure (real or imagined) in your legal career. That may mean being unemployed, under-compensated or under-appreciated. Let that be motivation to find your true passion in the law (or elsewhere). If you look back at profiles of successful lawyers or read about successful people, they will all agree that they are doing what they love. Take advantage of your “liberation” and explore.

2. “It is the failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us and makes us unique.”

For myself (and many of my friends and colleagues), one of the greatest forces in my professional development has been inertia. Just because you started down one path does not mean you need to see it through to the end (or until they decide they cannot make you partner). As Coco said, by trying new things and exploring your interests and passions, new opportunities can emerge.

3. “Work hard, be kind and amazing things will happen.”

Success is not easily obtained and it is not something that is possible without support and a strong network. Be kind not only to those who can help you, but to those who could use your help. At some point, those roles will switch.

Want more inspiration from Coco? Here is the full speech. It is well worth the time you usually commit to Facebook stalking.

And, if you find yourself suffering from June Gloom next year, sneak in to the commencement address of your local college or grad school, or take a week off and road-trip.

On an unrelated note, I love hearing from you and appreciate your story ideas and questions. Please keep them coming!


When not writing about small law firms for Above the Law, Valerie Katz (not her real name) works at a small firm in Chicago. You can reach her by email at Valerie.L.Katz@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter at @ValerieLKatz.


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