Boutique Law Firms, Small Law Firms

From Biglaw to Boutique: Where Are They Now?

Tom Wallerstein

Is law school worth the tuition? Should I take out loans to go to a highly-ranked school, or accept a scholarship to a lower-ranked school? These are the burning questions that this website loves to pose.

I have opinions on these subjects like everyone else, but honestly, what do I know? The legal market was very different when I went to law school.

I attended The University of Pennsylvania Law School from 1996 through 1999.  I loved my classes, my professors and my friends. Sure, law school was stressful, but, as I frequently quipped, it was better than work.

I have distinct memories of on-campus recruiting. OCR seemed stressful at the time, but it can hardly be compared to the stress that students now face In This Economy. In the late 1990s, attending a T-14 school virtually guaranteed you a Biglaw job, if that’s what you wanted.

And we did. All but a handful of my classmates aspired to work in Biglaw, at least to start our careers….

I don’t think it was just because the starting salaries were an astronomical $70,000 per year. No, it was really more about prestige, or what I called cocktail party appeal. A herd mentality engulfed us and we generally believed that, other than brief stints in judicial clerkships, Biglaw was the only option for anyone who was serious about their career. My Civil Procedure professor, Stephen Burbank, once made an offhand remark about Cravath, and that settled in our minds that working there would be the epitome of success.

At Penn Law, in 1997, we were guaranteed on-campus interviews with as many firms as we liked. Like all my friends, I signed up for dozens of interviews and attended call-back interviews with a number of firms. I wasn’t sure where I wanted to practice, so I interviewed in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, and Philadelphia. I didn’t apply to Quinn Emanuel or Keker & Van Nest, two firms I had never heard of. Boies Schiller only just barely existed, if at all.

I had a hard time deciding, so I chose to split my summer, working for eight weeks in Los Angeles and seven weeks in Philadelphia. I ended up accepting a clerkship following law school, and neither firm was the one I ended up choosing to work for when my clerkship ended.

I remember one day in particular when a large group of my friends huddled near The Goat in the student lounge. We were enthralled that Wilson Sonsini Goodrich and Rosati, the firm we most associated with the exciting dot-com boom (not yet considered a bubble), had sent a marketing CD-Rom instead of the traditional glossy print materials that other firms used.  Can you imagine, a CD-Rom? How cool was that?! We were so awed by the novelty. (Now, I routinely litigate against Wilson Sonsini.)

It’s interesting to reflect on my various friends, and the paths careers have taken since that cold November day 15 years ago. (Their names and various other identifying details have been changed to protect the guilty.)

Alexandra:  Of all my friends, Alex was the most committed to public service.  Even so, she took the most prestigious gig she could land right out of law school, clerking for a federal court of appeals.  After that, she worked as a district court clerk for a couple years — a somewhat unusual progression — and finally landed her desired pro bono job. After working there for a number of years, Alex became a faculty member at a T-14 law school.  She recently left that for a high-profile government job in Washington.

Winston:  Winston’s career has followed the path that many of us assumed we would follow. He was a summer associate at Cravath, but started his post-law school career with a district court clerkship, then a court of appeals clerkship. He did go to work in New York, but at another white-shoe firm, not Cravath. He stayed there until he made partner, where he remains today.

Claire:  Claire was another student who dreamed of making a difference. But following her district court clerkship, she couldn’t really afford to turn down the Biglaw paycheck. She went to work for a very traditional firm, and stayed there for more years than she would have liked. Eventually, though, she was able to secure her dream job with the ACLU. Like Alexandra, Claire also has found her way into academia and now teaches as an adjunct professor at a highly-ranked law school.

Ethan:  Like many of my friends, Ethan began his career in Biglaw, in New York. Like most everyone else, he burned out after a few years and moved to a much more pleasant midsized firm. He worked there for a several years before landing a gig as in-house counsel for one of his clients. Several years ago he moved to another, smaller company where he now serves as General Counsel. With each job change, Ethan made a little bit less money, and became a little bit happier.

Phil: This guy was brilliant, and a great friend, but troubled. He was a big drinker in school, and during his short stint in Biglaw. I always knew he was an alcoholic, but he managed it well, for a while. Law seemed an odd choice for Phil, the kind of guy to go right through the book, and break each and every law. Buying cocaine in a West Philadelphia crack house was not his undoing. Punching the cop who was arresting him, however, did not bode well for his legal career. He lost his license and has not practiced since. Last I heard, he had a steady job hauling items for the mob.  

Annette:  Annette was a rare bird at Penn because she told everyone from the first days of orientation that she had no desire to work in a firm. She always knew she wanted to move back home to Alaska and establish her own practice, and that’s exactly what she did. Annette was successful in private practice from the beginning, and has established herself as a top trial lawyer.

And then there’s me. I’ve already told my story: clerkship to midsize firm to Biglaw to boutique to ATL blogger. I’ve obviously reached the pinnacle.

I never bought into the idea that a law degree is a ticket to do anything you want. Obviously, that is even less true today than it was in the late ’90s. But at least back then, if you went to what U.S. News deemed to be a top school, you had a pretty decent chance of ultimately guiding your career in the direction you wanted it to go.


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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