Please don’t riot.
I have turned down a job at Biglaw.
The recruitment began about eight years ago. I had been a lawyer for ten years. A big firm was opening an office in my city. The managing partner came to see me. Nah, I just put my name on the door of this new office. We shook hands and kept in touch.
Then it was the big firm starting a new department. I wasn’t really interested, and after a few years, I read the firm lost interest in the department as well.
The third time was different.
It wasn’t just an offer, it was an offer for a leadership position. There wasn’t one meeting, there were five. We didn’t just talk about law and family and futures, I submitted tax returns. It got really close. The managing partner and I became fast friends, and with the excitement, came an equal amount of anxiety.
And so there are two things I want to tell you here: why I turned it down, and why, if the opportunity arises, you shouldn’t….
I will start with the main reason I considered the job: the leadership position. Biglaw in and of itself is not attractive to me. I don’t do well with authority or bureaucracy. Of course, the firm assured me that while those were valid concerns, I shouldn’t worry. I wasn’t coming in as a young associate, and they weren’t looking to change the way I practice law.
Although it’s an honor to be recognized and recruited, the other reasons that people normally consider joining a firm — stability, security, prestige — didn’t faze me.
Another reason I considered the job is because after 18 years practicing law, it was time to seriously engage in this process. Was I going to continue to work in my own firm with one other lawyer, or was I going to be in a leadership position in a national firm? How would this change my practice, my life? In the process, I learned a tremendous amount about the firm, my firm, Biglaw in general, and myself personally. It was a great few months of analysis and contemplation.
Let me get the money thing out of the way, because I know you’re all foaming at the mouth to know.
Biglaw has two issues when it comes to paying lawyers: overhead and formulas.
Biglaw is big overhead. I believe I have big overhead, as I’m one of those non-futurist types who has an office, staff, real people walking the halls, a copy machine lease, and a phone contract with eight lines. But it doesn’t come close to Biglaw.
My overhead is about 40 percent. My prospective new firm’s overhead is about 60 percent. Do the math.
Biglaw also has what I don’t: “non-revenue producing partners.” That means lawyers that don’t bring in business, or enough business to pay for themselves. Know who pays for them? Exactly. So not only would my book of business be used for overhead, it would also be used to pay for these “non-revenue” folks.
My conclusion was that if the money was “outrageous,” I would continue the conversation.
It wasn’t. It was about what I make now, but with some serious downsides and unknowns. The firm was honest that they couldn’t pay me the ratio of book of business to overhead that I have now.
There would be a yet-to-be-determined bonus. There would be equity. They would pay for insurance and gas and dinners. There would also be the loss of being paid as a P.A., which means less in business deductions, and therefore more taxes. In the end, it was the promise of a bigger book of business that would cancel all that out, and in the end, make me more money. Possibly.
But I also would be responsible for a bunch of lawyers. My practice would be subject to conflict checks of a much bigger operation than I was used to, and my fees would be determined by how the firm charges. There would be much more control of my operation by “management.”
The final analysis was this: was I interested in taking a leadership position at a big firm for about the same money I make now, maybe more, knowing that I would possibly lose my identity, some freedom, and have many other considerations in play when bringing in new clients and working on their cases?
The answer? Not now.
The “grass is always greener” thoughts go through the minds of many solo and small firm lawyers, as well as Biglaw lawyers. Solos and small firm lawyers having trouble making payroll or paying rent often wonder about the stability and security of Biglaw (notwithstanding the last five years). It’s a salary, a bonus, and if you don’t bring in enough business, there are others there that can help fund your inability to make rain, at least for a while.
So why should you accept an offer from Biglaw if the opportunity arises? No matter what lawyers say about quality of life and all that other crap, it comes down to money. If you are desperately struggling to pay rent, then the security of a salary so that you can practice law is at the top of your list of priorities. Also, if you’re doing well, but have a practice that can grow exponentially through association with a large firm, then the loss of freedom when it comes to practicing and making money is not so important — you have a potential of more clients, more cases, and the ability to bring in more business.
So if you’re struggling to make $150,000 and the firm will pay you a steady $100,000 plus a bonus and give you a state-wide or national platform, you may wind up making more money in the end, and not having to worry at the end of every month whether you can pay the rent.
Will I consider Biglaw again? Maybe. Part of continued growth is learning what you want, and do not want to do. The best way to determine whether you are where you want to be is to consider what’s on the other side. For those of you who say you would never change your practice, I encourage you to engage in a serious process where you can evaluate why you think that way. I learned that money being about equal, I’m happy where I am.
During the process I was asked a question: “What’s the most important thing to you in your practice?”
Brian Tannebaum will never “get on board” at the advice of failed lawyers who were never a part of the past but claim to know “the future of law.” He represents clients, every day, in criminal and lawyer discipline cases without the assistance of an Apple device, and usually gets to work (in an office, not a coffee shop) by 9 a.m. No client has ever asked if he’s on Twitter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.