“Where do I sit?” seems like an important question. Especially for second-graders on the first day of school. Or for zit-spocked high schoolers angling to spend some class time in the proximity of their crushes. And just like second-graders or hormonal high schoolers, Biglaw partners are known to obsess about their office locations. For example, I have seen partners I used to work for studying the floor plan like a treasure map, for uncomfortably long periods of time.
Surely they were mentally imagining their names transposed over a corner office, or next door to the big conference room, or for the real aspirants, within touching distance of the managing partner’s office. While this behavior is strange when taken to the extreme, it highlights an important reality of Biglaw.
Where you sit, matters….
Some partners, relegated to an “off” floor where they are the only M & A partner in a sea of bankruptcy lawyers, simply long for a chance to join the “rest of the group” on the power floor of their practice group. Ambitions differ, but nearly everyone cares about where they sit. Me — I like a nice view, and some sunshine. I don’t ask for much.
I have benefited though, from proximity to the partners I worked with, and from generally always having an office in the “middle of the action.” And I was always aware, as everyone should be, that each floor in a Biglaw office has its own culture, and you want to fit in. Even if it means you need to put on a tie sometimes. Like when you have a meeting in the conference room next to the two crusty old partners who remind everyone of the old balcony-dwellers in the Muppets.
In other words, you want to be part of the bloodstream within the Biglaw office circulatory system — even if having a “better” office might come with more responsibilities with respect to face time, grooming, and the like. Obviously if your Biglaw ambition is to flame out in the most drawn out way possible, by all means volunteer for the office tucked in the corner no one ever goes to.
But if you are serious about Biglaw, you will at least give some thought to the pros and cons of your office location. And you will try your best to make the most of it, and if need be, seek out an upgrade. (For junior associates, that includes evaluating your roommate too. The taint of having a bad roommate should be a real concern. Guilt by association is real — remember you are in a system where firms are looking for eliminating factors, no matter how tenuous.)
An example. When I was an associate, I had the option of moving offices more than once. But I turned those offers down repeatedly, even though my office was on the smaller side. Why?
Because despite the office’s small size, my location was fantastic, abutting the conference room. Many a time I received an assignment (usually on the easier side) because partners were getting off a call, or in the middle of a meeting, and needed some quick and dirty, but immediate, help. It was a great way to build goodwill for me, so I never moved. The alternative was to be in a larger office, closer to the partners who actually gave me most of my work. But I liked having the buffer, and I liked having the opportunity to be exposed to other partners. So I stayed.
That said, as an associate, if you are located a bit away from one of your feeder partners, the onus is on you to be around. And to pass by the partner’s office occasionally. Nowadays, I always have something to discuss with the associates that help me out, but I don’t always want to make the trek to see them. But I do notice if they have not stopped by in a while. Of course, if they were my neighbors, I would not be very happy if they were always stopping by to chat. It is a workplace paid for by billable hours, after all.
Unfair as it may seem, I have also seen laterals fail, especially at the partner level, due to office location. At one point, when my group was expanding rapidly, there was a period where it was clear we would need most of the real estate of the floor we were on, but some other groups needed to be relocated first. As a result, a few of the lateral hires were put on a different floor, and it really was a death knell for their chances of getting integrated. Not their fault, but true. On the other hand, I can see the benefit of inserting a lateral into the midst of a cohesive group of lawyers that work together all the time. Maybe they can then get to know the new lateral on a personal level, even if it takes a bit for professional collaboration to commence.
I understand that your typical Biglaw attorney, partners included, do not have much say in where they sit. So other than building a ten-million-dollar book and pushing someone currently occupying a corner office out into the hallway, what can you do if you are in a less than ideal spot?
First off, make the best of it. If you are tucked in a remote corner, spend more time in common areas. Bring your laptop and hang out in central conference rooms. Tell everyone you work better that way. Second, try and figure out who controls the office chart. Make friends with that person, and everyone who will have an impact in any reassignment decision (they will likely be people you will want to like you anyway). Come up with reasons why you should be kept in mind in the event a better office opens up. Finally, be mindful that you need to demonstrate productivity and initiative no matter where you sit.
While your office location is important, it is also important to keep some perspective. Thankfully, one of the remaining big perks of a Biglaw gig is a nice working environment. But who knows how much longer Biglaw firms will occupy Class AAA space. Enjoy it while you can.
Anonymous Partner is a partner at a major law firm. You can reach him by email at email@example.com.