I asked, and once again the readership delivered. I thought it would be interesting to hear from former Biglaw associates who had been passed over for partnership, and I was happy to receive some thoughtful responses.
As you will see below, and as I discussed in my columns relating to making partner, there are very powerful personal forces at work in these situations. As much as we can learn from our own disappointments, so can we learn from the experiences of others, especially those who have forged ahead despite a setback.
Biglaw can be a brutal business. We need to pause and reflect on the human toll that working in this environment can take….
The words of our interviewee are unedited, except to protect anonymity. As in the past, my initial questions appear in bold and my follow-up observations appear parenthetically after each response. I thank our interviewee for these candid observations and thoughtful opinions on some very personal issues.
AP: Did you know you were going to be passed over, and if so, how did you prepare?
I was passed over twice — in two consecutive years.
I wasn’t sure how things were going to go for me the first time around. I had joined the firm as a lateral a few years earlier and had quickly established myself as one of the “go to” associates in the New York office’s M&A practice group…. My specialty was public company M&A, with a particular emphasis on cross-border tender offers.
Although I had managed to remain quite busy through the end of that first consideration year, I was somewhat of an anomaly in that regard. Deal activity had started to slow a year or two prior and things dropped off precipitously after a major disruptive event. Early that year, the New York M&A practice group began to shed associates, something that continued throughout the year. Although I was pretty sure that I wasn’t going to be fired on that first go-around, I didn’t think that I would make partner either. I thought that, most likely, I would be deferred. And that’s what happened.
By the time that the next year-end rolled around, I knew for sure that I wasn’t going to make partner. In fact, I fully expected to be fired. And that’s what happened.
(AP: It is amazing how despite our attempts to convince ourselves that things will go differently, our intuition as to how things will ultimately turn out turns out to be correct. Unfortunately, the reality of whether someone will make partner depends on a number of factors, not the least of which is the health of the group they are practicing in. Making partner is simply one of those things where everything has to “go right” in order to happen, one of the many reasons it remains such a singular achievement, even up to today. But no one should kid themselves that it was all in their hands, as many factors outside their control can be determinative. Of course, ask most partners about how they saw their prospects — everyone was a shoe-in. Hindsight is fun.)
AP: How did you react to the delivery of the news? Were you tempted to put up a fight?
In advance of my first “partner candidate” year-end review, expecting that I might be deferred, I prepared a list of questions about my future at the firm that I planned to ask. I ended up not asking any questions, though, for a couple of reasons.
First, I arrived at my year-end review exhausted from a lack of sleep and sweaty from a crazed sprint across Midtown from a closing the day before that had morphed into an inadvertent all-nighter. Second, the M&A practice group’s administrative partner and the co-head of the M&A practice group both seemed extremely uncomfortable conveying the news of my deferral. They both looked down a lot while mumbling, their words trailing off inaudibly mid-sentence. Just wanting the extreme awkwardness to end, I concluded my review as quickly as I could.
The next day, I announced that I would be taking an extended, three-week vacation. In prior years, I had never taken more than a week of vacation, inevitably forfeiting the three weeks that carried over into the following year. There was no way that I was going to let that happen again.
I had hoped to return from my lengthy vacation revitalized and ready to go. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. I just couldn’t get my head back into the game. Deal flow was still slow and junior and mid-level associates were being jettisoned at an increasing pace. The general torpor that had descended over the New York M&A practice group continued to hang like a dark cloud of doom over all of us.
During my extended vacation, I decided to make my personal life a priority. Several months earlier, I had been introduced to a woman from out of state who worked as a fundraiser for a non-profit. She made frequent trips to New York to visit prospects and we started spending a lot of time together when she came up. We became an official couple in that spring.
I spent the rest of that year traveling back and forth to visit my girlfriend, pretty much just doing the bare minimum at the office. At the end of the year, I had billed only 1,100 hours — half of those during a two-month stretch advising on a hyper-complex cross-border tender offer.
As a result of my low hours and general disinterest, there really wasn’t much doubt in my mind about the fate that awaited me in that year-end review: I was given six months to leave the firm. Given that the more junior associates who were still being fired at a steady pace were being given just two months at that point, I really couldn’t complain.
(AP: This was tough to read, and on some level an indictment of the “up and out” system that spits out highly profitable and skilled lawyers just because of their advancing seniority. It is hard to blame our interviewee for getting disillusioned with his prospects and focusing on his personal life. We all need an “exit strategy,” and it sounds like our interviewee realized that — barring a miracle — he was effectively never making partner at his firm. I have seen this series of choices play out with others at my own firm, whether it is a female senior associate deciding to start a family after being passed over, or a male associate finally deciding that it was time to explore post-Biglaw options as well. It is worse nowadays, since most firms are more than willing to string senior associates along indefinitely, as long as they are producing. They will still never make partner, but can at least keep their jobs. The minute there is any weakness in their production, down comes the guillotine. At many firms, the same rules now apply to partners too, actually.)
AP: Looking back, was getting passed over a blessing or a setback for your personal happiness?
The woman from out of state and I were married a few years later. We currently live in a colonial-style home on a partially forested, half-acre lot near a nice city with our son, a kindergarten student at a blue-ribbon private school. I have my own business law practice advising small and medium enterprises.
Many of my friends and former co-workers feel that I’ve pulled off the perfect escape from Biglaw. I’m not so sure. I still spend more time than I probably should reflecting on what I loved about my years in New York — the thrill of a new billion-dollar acquisition, the all-nighters with my trusted deal teams, the international travel to London and elsewhere — and wondering what I might have been able to achieve had things gone differently.
(AP: For all the talk of how Biglaw stinks, there remains some romance — primarily in the ability to do high-quality work with smart and committed colleagues. More than the fancy office space or the perks, it is the ability to work on things that matter (even if just commercially) that makes the Biglaw experience memorable for those who have moved on.)
I hope everyone learned as much from these observations as I did. Once again, I thank our interviewee for doing a service to our profession by offering these insights, and I wish them the best for future success and fulfillment. Finally, I continue to extend an open invitation for individuals concerned about making Biglaw’s future a bright one to contact me, potentially to share their thoughts with this audience.
In the meantime, you can comment below or reach me by email…
Anonymous Partner is a partner at a major law firm. You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.