Biglaw, Small Law Firms

From Biglaw to Boutique: Going Through the Motions

Tom Wallerstein

For years, it has been common knowledge that the vast majority of associates at most Biglaw firms will leave before becoming a partner. At many firms, it is not uncommon for fewer than one in ten entering associates to ultimately become a partner. As partnership tracks lengthen, the attrition rate goes even higher. The decision to leave a firm to form a private practice, for example, is becoming increasingly common.

We assume (hope?) that the high attrition is because Biglaw offers the most exit opportunities; i.e., the prospects of developing a career as in-house counsel, or joining a business unit of a company, or going into government, or joining to a small or midsize or boutique law firm, or maybe even leaving the law altogether to become a consultant, a blogger, a Lego artist, what have you. Just because you start your legal career with a law firm doesn’t mean your goal is to become a partner.

Often, associates who know that they will not become a partner seem content to just put in their time, try to keep their head down, and collect a paycheck while waiting for their firm to announce their intended bonuses. They rationalize that they know they will leave anyway, so why bend over backwards for the firm?

The reason that even departing associates might nonetheless want to work even harder at their firm is not necessarily to benefit their firm, but because that is the best way to advance their own future career. The hard work that benefits the firm actually benefits them, too.

My idea is simple: Recall the days that still are to come. As soon as you know that law firm partnership is not your destiny, you should recognize your Biglaw experience for what it has become: a stepping stone to the next phase of your career. Don’t view your time as a stop-gap period in your career where you’re just cashing paychecks and paying off loans. Instead, develop and execute a conscious, pre-designed plan to get you where you want to be.

If you know as a junior associate that you will someday start a private law practice, there is no good reason to wait until you are ready to leave your firm to begin taking the steps that will help your future practice succeed. Imagine yourself running a solo practice, and handling the same matters you are working on now at your firm. You’re going to need the experience and skills to handle the entire matter from soup to nuts.

So, even while toiling away at your firm, you should make every effort to learn as much as you can about your practice area. If you’re a litigator, you should try to gain experience not only with legal research and writing, but also with the strategic use of pleading challenges, discovery strategies, motion practice, case and risk assessment, depositions, pretrial and trial strategies, etc. I know this is easier said than done, and you may despair of the seemingly endless hours doing document review. But my advice is to refuse work only when absolutely necessary and to actively seek out more and better experience whenever possible. If your firm offers pro bono opportunities in which associates can take on partnership-type roles, you should jump at those.

As you become a mid-level and senior associate, your goal should be to take ownership of entire matters, not just discrete tasks that are assigned to you. This will help give you the experience and skills you will need when it comes time to run your own cases in your own shop.

You also should try to participate in pitches, and see for yourself what is effective, and what is not. Learn as much as you can about the business of your firm’s clients. Learn the tactics of a good negotiator and what it means to have a successful negotiation. As you become more senior, try to gain experience managing more junior associates and paralegals.

Once you’re on your own, you won’t have any of the many advantages that come with practicing in a large law firm, including a pre-built infrastructure to support you. Once on your own, you won’t have the in-the-trenches training you get from working closely with people considered to be the best and brightest in their fields. You likely also won’t have the privilege of working entirely on complex, high stakes matters. And, of course, you won’t have a generous, regular paycheck to look forward to while you learn. It’s important not to take these assets for granted and to fully use them, especially if you think you will someday open your own shop.

In other words, once you realize that you will be leaving Biglaw, it actually behooves you to increase your efforts even if you don’t feel particularly loyal to your firm. I know that devoting time to non-billable projects like pitches and pro bono work is a tough pill to swallow when you already feel like you are devoting every non-sleeping moment to the firm, and even more so if the work does not count toward bonus calculations. But my point is that, even for pro bono work, your motivation can be your own self interest once you realize you are sowing the seeds for your own future career.
Remembering this might help you better tolerate some of the tougher moments that are all too common in Biglaw.


Tom Wallerstein lives in San Francisco and is a partner with Colt Wallerstein LLP, a Silicon Valley litigation boutique. The firm’s practice focuses on high tech trade secret, employment, and general complex-commercial litigation. He can be reached at tomwallerstein@coltwallerstein.com.

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