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Career Center: Finding the Perfect Firm – Does Work Life Balance Exist in Biglaw?

Can you name the Biglaw firms with great lifestyles, supportive and friendly partners, lots of mentors, a commitment to parenting, salaries high enough to pay off your debts in 6 years with no pressure to develop business, and a guarantee of partnership (and frequent sabbaticals)? This tough question cannot be answered. There is no perfect law firm — and despite the warm fuzzy noise of recruiting, every law firm has strengths and limitations.

You have chosen a demanding field where clients expect the best advice from the best lawyers. The explosion in associate compensation caused significant and permanent changes in law firms’ expectations for new associate performance, the tolerance for slow starters, and the likelihood of promotion. This generation of new lawyers will work harder, compete harder, and be under greater pressure to contribute (produce business) than was ever present in the past. That’s the reality of practice in the new millennium. But the desire to find the best law firm in an imperfect world is a legitimate quest.

Before deciding on which firm to join, consider these tips, provided by Lateral Link’s Frank Kimball, an expert recruiter and former hiring partner….

Don’t believe everything you hear. Law students must understand that there is no “one” perfect firm. Ignore law school hearsay. Most is inaccurate, superficial, and out of date. Ask yourself how the friend of your friend knows that XYZ firm is a “sweatshop,” but ABC firm is “family friendly.” Students should use their lawyerly skepticism without being cynical. The price to be paid for high salaries is that the differences in hours among firms (which were never as great as rumored) have narrowed to the point where they are almost irrelevant. Lawyers work hard voluntarily because of ambition and drive.

Keep in mind that the law firm is not a lawyer’s fiduciary, spouse, or parent. It cannot remedy the inherently demanding nature of the most elite law firms. It would be like asking a Recon Marine or Army Ranger to stop training. It’s been inherent in the experience for a century. And regrettably, some students and young lawyers feel that it is the law firm’s obligation to somehow change the nature of the profession — and that is just not likely to happen.

Beware of the firm that claims to have found the solution. The firm that trumpets a bit too loudly their treatment of family issues or women lawyers could well be one of the firms that cleverly dresses up its numbers and really is no different from its less clever competitors. As with many other areas, it is a long, bumpy, difficult walk out of the Stone Age on fundamental legal/social issues, something I was reminded of yesterday when I read an excerpt from a United Airlines in-flight magazine from 1957 which proudly advertised “men-only Executive flights” between New York and Chicago — something that survived until 1970.

Do not assume that size is inversely proportional to culture and supportive colleagues. I know many refugees from large firms who are dismally surprised when hours and pressure do not go down when they move to smaller firms, and even more troubled that what they thought would be a collegial culture with group hugs and aromatherapy candles is actually a firm where the pressure to produce is paramount.

Choose a firm based on the people you meet. Mentoring evolves. It cannot be assigned, feigned, or forced.

Balancing work and life will be challenging – no matter which firm you choose. The interval for starting a family overlaps with the most demanding years as a lawyer. You have chosen a tough and demanding profession. The years when you learn your craft, develop your specialty, gain acceptance, earn a promotion, and cement relationships with clients are in direct and substantial conflict with the years when you start and raise your family. That will not change. What you can do is discuss with your life partner the choices you are going to make in order to manage the process as effectively as possible.

For those of you who are not parents but believe that you will be somewhere down the road, there is really no way to put into words the benefits and burdens of parenting. It’s the most rewarding and demanding job you will ever have. It’s unpredictable, time consuming, draining, exhausting, and fascinating. And that’s just in the first few days after you bring a child home from the hospital. Setting aside the moments of wonder and awe — it is also tiring and difficult. There will be days when your eyelids ache. There will be nights when you can’t sort the burdens of work from the burdens of parenting. There will be sleepless dawns followed by demanding days.

So what’s the moral of the story? There is no perfect firm, and anyone who says there is probably also has a bridge to sell you. When trying to decide which firm you should start you career with, the most important tip I can give you is to accept your new position with eyes open, understand that every firm has its advantages and limitations, and recognize that our profession is a demanding one that will require plenty of effort not only to achieve the professional success you seek, but also to find and maintain that elusive work/life balance.

Visit the Career Center for additional information on the top law firms as reported by attorneys and summer associates inside the firms. The Career Center’s firm snapshots and comparison tool will help you stay on top of what’s happening in the market.