Associate Advice, Biglaw, Boutique Law Firms, Small Law Firms

From Biglaw to Boutique: Behind the Curtain

Tom Wallerstein

I was grateful that Quinn Emanuel sent me to Los Angeles for a multi-week long, intensive trial advocacy training program. The instructors were incredible and the program overall was one of the most valuable training experiences of my career.

Some of the sessions featured practice drills followed by critiques from practicing attorneys. In one of the sessions, that “mentor” role was filled by a junior partner in a well-known firm. He had long, wavy hair and wore a tight silk shirt with the top several buttons open, exposing his chest hair and gold chains. His cologne should have been arrested for olfactory assault. If you think of a 1980s hair-metal band you will get the right idea.

Creepy-looking Mentor was constantly flipping his hair and paying far too much attention to the young, female associates. (He seemed to think it was particularly important to help them with their cross-examination posture, as he made a point of standing behind them and guiding them like a golf or tennis pro might do.)

Even though the program was only “practice” — cue Allen Iverson — there was a lot of pressure because many firm partners were there watching and, presumably, evaluating us. In this particular session, the associate doing a cross examination was very nervous, and visibly shaking. When the associate was finished, Mentor said he had a relevant war story he thought would be helpful to share, and did so….

“When I was an associate, I was working with Famous Trial Attorney on his biggest case to date. We were in trial, and the whole trial was coming down to a battle of the experts. Well, wouldn’t you know it, but the night before the other side’s expert had to testify, something came up [I can’t remember what he said], and Famous Trial Attorney told me that I would have to conduct the cross examination myself at trial!”

Mentor continued: “You can imagine how nervous I was. There I was, a mere associate, and suddenly I had to conduct the most important cross examination in the firm’s most important case. I tell you, when I walked into court the next day, my heart was definitely beating out of my chest. I’m sure my hands and knees were visibly shaking, too.”

Wow, amazing. So what happened, Fabio?

“Oh, I crushed him. We won the trial because of my cross examination.” Hair flip.

Do you see why Mentor shared that uplifting story with us? No? Well, me either. I could not believe that this guy who embodied the worst of L.A. stereotypes was so loose with the truth as to tell such a ridiculously exaggerated story. The true point of his story seemed to be “of course you are nervous because you will never be as awesome as I am.”

Several months later, I was attending one of a series of seminars on “How to Become a Rainmaker.” The panel included Junior Partner, of another brand-name firm, who was supposed to give insight into how he developed such a sizable book of business so early in his career.

Junior Partner said, “I want to relay this story of how I got Very Important Client.” The attendees leaned forward, eager, listening for the secret. Once again, the gist of the story was how awesome Junior Partner was, and his anecdote had absolutely zero value for anyone listening. To the contrary, the subtle, unspoken moral of Junior Partner’s story seemed to be, “Don’t even try to be a rainmaker because you don’t have the magic that I have.”

I wish that my experiences with Mentor and Junior Partner were anomalies, but they’re not. Consistently throughout my career, I have encountered supposed mentors who were self-centered to the extreme, and whose only “advice” was thinly-disguised self-promotion. Why is this so common?

With apologies to Will Meyerhofer, allow me to play armchair psychologist for a moment. I have written before that sometimes the most “successful” lawyers are not necessarily the cream of the crop; that is, the most talented or smartest practicing attorneys. Sometimes they are the Emilio Estevez and not the Anthony Michael Hall of the lawyer’s Breakfast Club.

Many of those attorneys who are not necessarily the best or brightest of their peers want others to believe that their success is due to some inherent, special talent, as opposed to mere good fortune. Their ego demands that they rationalize and justify their success. Humility is anathema to their psyche. If exposed, they desperately beseech you to “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!”

The best lawyers are different. They are confident about their skills and don’t thrive off the admiration of young associates. They are quick to credit others for their success. It is from these types of attorneys who you should seek to learn. These are the attorneys you should seek out as mentors.

I don’t know if the ego problem is better or worse in Biglaw than small. But I am pretty sure that the skills needed to succeed in the law are not mysterious, or elusive, or even particularly difficult to master. I assume that mastering them, like everything else worthwhile, requires dedication and practice. Being an associate is difficult enough without buying into others’ self-serving notions that, despite all your education and effort, you don’t have what it takes to succeed.

If you find yourself responsible for generating your own business, you will quickly discover that necessity is the mother of invention. Until then, try to seek out and learn from others who have nothing to prove and will more eagerly share the secrets behind the curtain.

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

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