Biglaw, Dewey & LeBoeuf, Killing Lockstep, Money, Partner Issues, Partner Profits

Biglaw: It’s Not All About the Benjamins

James B. Stewart

That’s the subject of our second Times piece, an elegant essay by James B. Stewart, the acclaimed journalist and book author, reflecting on his time as a Cravath associate. Even if Cravath might not top today’s Am Law associate surveys, Stewart seemed to have an excellent experience.

Of course, it was a different and far more genteel time:

Cravath did its best to keep the outside world at bay and minimize distractions. Among these was what other lawyers were being paid. I was told when I arrived that my salary would be $16,500 and it was Cravath policy to always pay the highest rate. While my friends at other firms were speculating avidly about whether, say, Sullivan & Cromwell would raise starting salaries and others would follow, at Cravath we knew that if they did, our firm would top them. We were all paid the same based on seniority, and bonuses were unheard-of, so there were no jealousies or resentments.

Of course, I’m guessing there were also no six-figure student loan balances back then either. But I digress.

Even then Cravath lawyers worked long hours. In my book “The Partners,” I told the story of a young partner who billed 26 hours in a single day by flying to the West Coast, gaining three hours thanks to the time-zone change while working on the plane.

Okay, glad to see some things haven’t changed.

Now, here’s the juiciest part of the Stewart essay (which you should read in full if you haven’t already). He reveals what makes a partner:

What did [the associates who made partner] have in common?

They weren’t necessarily the brightest. Everyone there had impressive test scores and academic credentials. They weren’t, as I had expected, the hardest-working. Everyone aspiring for partner worked long hours and gave the appearance of hard work. They weren’t the most personable. Cravath was refreshingly meritocratic, and gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, and social and academic pedigree all seemed irrelevant.

Finally it came to me: The one thing nearly all the partners had in common was they loved their work.

This came as a profound revelation. Of course they worked long hours, because it didn’t feel like work to them. They took great satisfaction in the services they rendered their clients.

You couldn’t fake this. The partners seemed to have some sixth sense. I enjoyed my work. But I had to admit I didn’t love it the way they did.

I couldn’t agree more with this. The people who get all excited talking about an argument they want to drop into a footnote of a brief, or who get off on a brilliant new way to draft a certain contractual provision — those are the people who make partner.

At times I found this mystifying. How could anyone tackle a complex tax problem with such enthusiasm? Or proofread a lengthy indenture agreement? Why couldn’t I love a prestigious, high-paying, secure job like they did?

At the same time, it was liberating. It was obvious to me that someone who loves his or her work, whatever that might be, has a huge competitive advantage, not to mention a satisfying and enjoyable life. Somehow people who love what they do seem to make a living. So I started pondering what I might love as much as some of my Cravath colleagues loved practicing law.

And so he left, going on to a brilliant career as a prize-winning reporter and bestselling book author. Some of you might call him “a Biglaw washout,” but I’d just call him self-aware. He figured out what he wanted to do with his life, and he went out and did it. Good for him.

Life is too short to linger in a job you loathe, even if it pays well. If you love your Biglaw job, that’s great; keep at it, make partner, and enjoy the attendant wealth and prestige. But if you don’t, earn enough to pay off your student loans, and move on.

A Law Firm Where Money Seemed Secondary [DealBook / New York Times]
Culture Keeps Firms Together in Trying Times [DealBook / New York Times]
HAPPINESS IS… CRAVATH? [The Belly of the Beast]
Writer Recounts Career-Changing Revelation: Those Who Made Partner at Cravath Loved Their Work
[ABA Journal]

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