Before David emailed me late Sunday night alerting me to the New Republic article that is the topic of the day (as it should be), these were the lead paragraphs to my column this week:
“I used to run to work a lot. Not for exercise. And not because I was late. Because I was excited to get to the office. I don’t know if I was the only one in my group whose pace would quicken as they got closer to the office. I know mine did. Maybe that enthusiasm contributed to my making partner when many other talented attorneys went (sometimes willingly, most times not) in a different direction. I actually loved being a Biglaw lawyer. There were cases presenting problems to solve, and I was grateful for the opportunity to be a part of trying to accomplish that for high-end clients. More often than not, the days when I would be hustling to get to work would be good days. Purposeful days.”
“To be clear, I was never one of those people who was in the office at 6:30 a.m., pretending that I had gotten so much important work already done by the time everyone else rolled in. (As an aside, these types are usually insufferable or desperate, and thankfully no one is seriously suggesting that the solution to Biglaw’s problems is an earlier average start time.) As I got more senior, my typical start time got later. Mornings were the only time I could reliably spend with my kids, and as busy as things were, I could never be assured that I would not be handling more work after my wife went to bed. So I took advantage of the Biglaw perk that is the exclusive province of Biglaw ‘timekeepers’ (attorneys and paralegals usually) — the ability to show up at an hour that for most corporate employees is when the lunch pangs start kicking in….”
“Even as an associate, I drove into work the vast majority of days. It was a luxury, but an indulgence that I felt made me more productive. I could take calls in the car. Most importantly, driving cut a substantial amount of time from my commute, especially on the way home. At the hour I was heading home, every minute counted. I usually had a short window to try and get home before the kids went to sleep, or to catch dinner with my wife. Driving often helped make that possible, so it was worth the expense to me. So when I talk about running into work, it was usually the few blocks from the parking lot to the office. It was a good feeling, knowing that there was a lot to get done at work, and that I had responsibility for things actually getting done. I had a substantial caseload, and even had helped bring some of those cases in the door. I was learning my craft, under the tutelage of people who had a lot to teach, and whom I respected, both personally and as lawyers. Running in was appropriate.”
And then I got David’s email. Read the article, and David’s thoughtful treatment of it. I appreciated the perspective of the former Mayer Brown partner who shared his thoughts with David. Was unsurprised that a Biglaw partner with “millions of dollars of stable annual business” is generally bullish about Biglaw’s future. Agreed with his perspective that there is something distasteful about partners callously exposing their firm’s flaws to a reporter, as if their perceived “mistreatment” (financially, of course) was so grave an abuse that their former, present, and future colleagues must now suffer.
After reading the article, I found it interesting that in passing the article highlighted one of the bygone features of the Biglaw of yore — the willingness of firms to help struggling partners across the finish line Jim Redmond-style. Those days are effectively gone for anyone in my generation or below. It would be nice to have partners with that sense of shared responsibility, and even nicer to never need their kindness.
While I thought the article was fascinating and a Biglaw must-read, there was an aspect of the Mayer Brown story that seem starved for attention. What about the client? In the article, Mayer Brown’s clients are simply mentioned for historical interest as a source of revenue. There is no discussion of why any one client stayed with the firm (as opposed to Biglaw Firm Y) for decades, or why a client would choose the firm now. By now it is trite, but we all know that the only way for a Biglaw firm (and its partners) to succeed in the “new normal” is to partner with its clients, and be viewed by clients as a trusted partner.
What does this have to do with running into the office?
Simple. I was an associate during the “years of plenty” and always had an abundance of work. And I enjoyed my work, so running in to get it done was a natural thing to do, especially since I was feeling fortunate to be getting paid handsomely to do the work I wanted to be doing.
It is not as simple nowadays. I am paid more handsomely than I was back then, but I run into the office less. Because there is less work for me to do. Why? It is complicated. Factors include increasing competition in my area of practice, my lateral move, my relative youth, my lack of a rainmaking senior partner feeding me business, and more. Where does that put me? In the same boat as pretty much everyone else in Biglaw nowadays — trying to “grow my practice.” I am fine with that.
But even though I do not run into work as often as I used to, when I do run in, it is with more joy and greater purpose. Why? Because the clients that I am running in to service are overwhelmingly my own, and no longer simply corporations that were at times completely faceless to me even when I was working on their cases. Now, those corporations have an actual face (or two) to me — the face of the person who trusted me with their work, and put faith in me that I will make them look good for doing so. So while the volume may not be where it used to be, I am heartened that I still get to do what I love to do. And that is worth continuing to run for, no matter how steep the uphill slope may appear.
Despite the doomsday-ish tone of the article, the end of Biglaw will not come about, as long as there are enough lawyers who care less about their point totals than they do about their clients, and are willing to make the personal sacrifices necessary for professional achievement. I know that my best chance for future success is to align myself with people that are running into the office for the right reasons — not the simplest thing to do nowadays with an illiquid lateral market for younger partners. Those people are out there, and are maybe already resident in my current firm. I will continue looking.
Ultimately, while the article did an excellent job highlighting a lot of the ways Biglaw firms can and do go wrong, there is much of the Biglaw story yet to be written. And that story will be written more by the people running in than by those either moving the finish line further away or running away altogether.
Which way do you run, and have you changed direction recently? Let me know your thoughts by email or in the comments.
Anonymous Partner is a partner at a major law firm. You can reach him by email at email@example.com.