Biglaw, Partner Issues

Buying In: A Mid-Summer Mailbag

Ed. note: This is the latest column by our newest writer, Anonymous Partner. In case you missed his prior posts, they are collected here.

With summer in full swing, and my column approaching its two-month anniversary, I thought it might be a good time to go through the mailbag. One of the main reasons I wanted to do this column was the opportunity to discuss the practice of law in Biglaw with people other than immediate colleagues and friends. Expand my horizons and all that.

Well, on that front, the readership has obliged, and I am grateful. So please continue sending me emails with column ideas and questions. I am pretty prompt in responding to email-based questions, even as I wish there was more time to talk through issues. (Reader comments, while at times helpful, frightening, and funny, will have to be a one-way interaction — mostly because of time constraints.)

Anyway, let’s take a look at some of the messages I have gotten so far (with identifying information masked to protect the senders), and my general thoughts regarding the issues raised within….

At the outset, I received a number of emails from associates asking for some general advice about their career plans. One example below:

I enjoyed your entry column on ATL. I’m a third-year associate in ____ hoping to become partner, but also recognize that ____, like your major East Coast city, is a rip-off.

So I wonder: is it worth it to stick around? Is a Biglaw partner’s salary in a major city worth the alternative — a 50% reduction in salary in a fly-over state where at least I can own a big house and have my kids go to good, cheap schools?

In other words, following your poker metaphor, whenever you “buy in,” you should always be thinking about when to “cash out.” For me, moving back to my home state would be cashing out, but I wonder whether or when it’s worth it.

I actually enjoy getting and responding to thoughtful emails like the one above. Of course every situation is necessarily fact-specific. That said, I appreciate the opportunity to help in some measure. Partly out of curiosity, in addition to responding as best as I could to the email, I jokingly suggested that there is a great side business out there for an anonymous Biglaw partner to give career advice to fellow travelers.

To my surprise, the writer agreed:

I agree that there is a demand for advice from people like you. I’m not sure whether I would pay for actual sessions, but I could imagine some associates or students who would. It’s a good idea.

An intriguing thought, and the interested clientele would definitely include partners. Everyone benefits from a coach — there is an excellent Atul Gawande piece on this issue for those interested — and an objective second opinion.

Also interesting, especially considering the resources and attention paid by Biglaw to “associate issues,” was that associates who wrote often felt that they had no one credible and objective to discuss their careers with:

I think a lot of young associates are afraid to talk to partners or coworkers because they worry that their concerns will get out and they will jeopardize their careers. The market is devoid of someone who is currently partner and frank about what it entails (not someone who has left because we assume they either were offered an of counsel position, they were forced to resign, or they just couldn’t hack it – not necessarily because it’s true, but it’s just how we perceive the situation).

As a partner, sentiments such as the one expressed above are both a concern and a call for action to Biglaw firms. Professionals, even junior ones, should be able to discuss their issues frankly with other professionals, but apparently the Biglaw dynamic discourages such interactions — to the point that an anonymous blogger could have more credibility than a firm-provided mentor! Food for thought, and maybe a future column.

Unsurprisingly, my Father’s Day column really generated some strong reactions. Some were positive:

Hi, I really enjoyed your column today on being a “Biglaw” dad, and I can relate in many ways to your piece (less the partner part of course)…. I am a Biglaw associate at a top 10 firm practicing general corporate law. I am progressing well with my firm and though there is no guarantee for anything, I have reason to believe that I have good partnership prospects if I continue performing.

(I appreciated that, and seriously hope this fellow is not deluding himself on his partnership prospects.)

And some were negative. This comment was posted to ATL’s Facebook page:

What a missed opportunity. I thought he was going to write about how one manages a family while working in Biglaw (i.e., Who stays at home with the kids? How do you decide that? Do you go with daycare? Do you choose a firm with flexible scheduling?) Instead he just writes about how awesome his kids will have it because he’s making the big bucks and working in a career people respect. Well, great. But it completely ignores a slew of much more important questions…

These thoughts are strangely both fair and representative of a real misunderstanding of some of the points I was trying to make. But what is interesting in hindsight, and continues to be, is how this comment reflects the common misconception that Biglaw attorneys operate in a liquid transfer market, where one can choose a firm based on something as vague (and frankly stupid-sounding) as “flexible scheduling” — for one thing, all professional schedules need to be flexible. And as you get more senior, the risks of making a move become more serious, and the typical Biglaw firm promises of a great working environment need to be taken with a pound of salt.

My experience is that Biglaw success is an exercise in making the most of the situation you are in. Family considerations are just one piece of each Biglaw lawyer’s career equation, and an ever-changing one at that. I’ll leave the parenting advice to the appropriate magazines — take a look next time you are in the OB/GYN’s office, whether as a patient or partner.

My favorite email was from the lawyer who emailed Lat directly after my Father’s Day piece, pleading for an intervention to stop my “fail” of a column and “delusional” writing. One thing that apparently served as proof of my malfeasance was my invitation for more “senior” Biglaw folks to email me about serving as interview subjects:

The guy seems really junior for using his own article to invite other BigLaw partners to take the first step and email him for an interview. Who would do that, seriously? Do the higher ups at Am Law 100 even read ATL?

A few things on this one. First, the “higher ups” definitely read ATL (or are briefed on its happenings), especially managing partners and hiring partners (who care about how their firms are perceived in the marketplace). Second, there is no such thing as too “junior” to do anything in Biglaw. We are all adults, and senior people appreciate initiative in younger lawyers. Finally, someone did respond — a Biglaw personality of unimpeachable accomplishment and character. I hope to have at least the beginning of our interview to you very soon….

Anonymous Partner is a partner at a major law firm. You can reach him by email at

(hidden for your protection)

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