ATL Career Center Survey, Biglaw, Boutique Law Firms, Career Center, Career Files, Law Students, Lawyers, Partner Issues, Small Law Firms

Here’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Our Law Firms

There is not nor probably will there ever be a definitive novel or film depicting the law firm experience. Law firm lawyers viewing The Firm or Michael Clayton or Ally McBeal are not going to identify with what they see on the screen. Novels like The Partner Track by Helen Wan or Anonymous Lawyer by Jeremy Blachman might be the closest thing (affiliate links).

A truly realistic portrayal of that particular white-collar salt mine would surely be too boring for the public. On the other hand, the comments from the ATL Insider Survey (14,000 responses and counting; thanks everyone) constitute a sort of undistilled document of the Biglaw hive mind. So what do we hear from this depressing, inspiring, contradictory chorus of lawyerly voices?

The ATL Insider Survey asks practicing lawyers to evaluate their employer in terms of compensation, training, culture and colleagues, firm morale, and hours. The survey also asks, “What would be useful or interesting for a law student or potential lateral to know about your firm?”

Reading through all the responses to this question, a handful of recurrent themes emerge….

1. It’s not the firm, it’s the individual partners. Expressed in myriad ways, this is the single most common sentiment from the Insider Survey. An associate’s professional satisfaction is a largely a function of the partners one is working for.


Working really hard and getting fabulous reviews is not enough — you need to be in the right practice area (which is impossible to predict eight years in advance) and have the right supporters.

Your work life will greatly depend on the shareholder you work for.

2. There’s a cold war on between partners and associates. Many respondents paint a very grim picture of law firm life in 2013, with associates and partners at odds over money, time, and communication.

The culture is one of fear. I don’t think many people are happy. Zero transparency from the partnership.

Stealth layoffs and retroactive and stealth paycuts while partners had a champagne party to celebrate increased partner profits. Firm and partners will blame associates for lack of hours or business. … Firm literally had zero events, functions, happy hours, parties, etc. for associates over the last two years. Firm morale is very low as a result.

Management plays a lot of games with promotions/raises. Says one thing, does another. Largely ignores feedback from partners you work for directly. Makes decisions based upon rumor. Almost no feedback until review, if you actually get one.

3. Training matters. Based on the huge number of respondents who bemoan its absence, the quality (or existence of) training programs is a huge difference maker.

Ain’t no “training” or “mentoring” round these parts.

Partners and associates are unwilling to invest their time and experience in training.

Training? What is this training you speak of?

4. Smaller = happier. While the compensation is obviously lower, small-firm attorneys contend the improved quality of life is worth it.

I used to work at [a Biglaw firm]; although I miss many aspects of that job ($$$, resources, prestige), my soul is infinitely more content where I am now. Work at a big firm as long as you can stand it and then GTFO — it’s not worth it. Practicing law, particularly litigation, at a big firm is not really “practicing law.” If you want to be a litigator, you will actually BE a litigator (not a document-coder) at a small firm.

This really is the often-talked-about-but-seldom-seen balance of life and work. Hours are reasonable, compensation is sufficient. You won’t get rich here, but you’ll know what your kids look like in the daylight.

Practicing at a smaller firm is great. Not having to bill hours is the greatest thing to ever happen to the practice of law. The compensation may be lower to start, but the possibility to make a lot of money while being your own boss is very real down the road.

For those of you who have yet to do so, please take a couple of minutes and respond to the ATL Insider Survey here.

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