The Biglaw year has a rhythm to it. As we approach Thanksgiving, there is an opportunity for each and everyone in Biglaw to take stock. Doing so is important, especially if one falls prey to the peculiar attempts by many to imbue meaning into Thanksgiving by “giving thanks,” before stuffing themselves into a stupor (followed by a six-hour-long “nap” on a relative’s couch and a frantic post-nap drive to some big-chain parking lot for the priceless opportunity to join the unwashed masses in a frenzied dash to save ten percent on the gadget du jour — if that is how people have their holiday fun, more power to them).
If you are going to make giving thanks a holiday focal point, at least do so mindfully. If you are still employed in Biglaw, you have a lot to think about.
If the events of this past year proved anything, it is that the change in Biglaw is irrevocable. In 2008, everyone suffered, driven by economic events bigger than the industry. In contrast, this year proved definitively that there are Biglaw firms that are winners, and getting stronger. But that list of firms is short. Most Biglaw firms are being challenged, and the responses they adopt to confront those challenges continues to be varied. Whether your firm is itching to merge at all costs, or continuing to whistle along as if nothing has changed (while frantically making moves under the radar to avoid giving even a whiff of being challenged), every Biglaw firm has wittingly or unwittingly decided on a future course. At a minimum, Biglaw lawyers should do the same on a personal level, with the understanding that for the great majority of Biglaw attorneys, career changes are more likely than career stability nowadays.
Checklists are helpful for assessing performance and ensuring that important considerations are not overlooked. While everyone’s personal checklist (or questionnaire, if you prefer) may look different, there are at least three categories that should be addressed on any Biglaw attorney’s year-end self-review: financial, professional, and personal. First, the financial….
Have you looked up your collections, both on working time (hours you billed) and originations? What about your realization rate? With Biglaw firms focusing more than ever on month-to-month financial performance, knowing “your numbers” is critical. You may also want to compare your performance to that of last year’s and the year before. It also does not hurt to forecast your performance for the first half of next year as well. And once you have a good sense of your contribution (or lack thereof) to the financial health of the firm, it makes sense to review the firm’s contribution to your financial health. Has your compensation stagnated, or its growth velocity slowed? Do you know what impact improved or poorer performance next year will have on your compensation?
Try and compare your compensation range with what the recruiters are telling you is available on the open market. Decide if you are comfortable with the ratio of guaranteed to variable compensation your firm is offering you. Take a look at your billable rate, and how much of the work you are doing is being billed out at a discount. Is your practice moving to more of an alternative-fee-arrangement model? Compare the ratio of work billed at your full hourly rate to that billed at at a discount or under a flat fee. Dive as deep as you want into the numerical measurements of your performance. But at least know how you are doing. Then be grateful you have a job and are doing so well. Or get mad at how poorly you are being treated. Your choice.
Next, consider your professional progress. Have you added clients in the past year? Improved the success rate of the pitches you have been on? Consider your standing within your practice group and office. Assess the internal and external competition you have — first in terms of being able to “sell your time” and then in terms of originating work for others. Note how many articles or speaking engagements you have had in the past year, and whether there are other things you can be doing to enhance your reputation within and without your firm.
Consider whether you are part of a growing or stagnant practice at your firm, and whether competitor firms are growing or retreating in your practice area. What about the quality of your client base, or your assignments? Are you happily getting increased responsibility, or has the type of work you are doing for clients become more rote and less dynamic? Draft up a list of your most important clients, and think about the work you want to be getting from them but are not yet. Same for clients you wish you represented. Try and determine why that has not happened yet, and what steps you can take to get the work you covet. Hopefully you feel good about your professional progress.
Finally, think about your personal life for a few minutes. Have too many years gone by in Biglaw and you are starting to feel that your chance to start a family is slipping away? If you have a family, are you spending enough time with them? Are you the kind of spouse you always thought you were going to be, or are you repeating the same mistakes you saw your parents or others making and ignoring your personal promises never to do the same to others? If you are single, do you have a viable dating life? Think about how comfortable you are with the choices you have made. Reaffirm your commitment to those things that are working, and try to change those that are not.
Checklists are an important tool for a lot of people in high-stress positions. If they can help an airline pilot trying to coax a tin can loaded with 400 people into the air safely, they can surely be useful to Biglaw attorneys who tend to put their own lives on auto-pilot in exchange for Biglaw’s bucks. A few minutes of thought before the frantic machinations of the holiday season and Biglaw year-end can be a very valuable investment. At the least, that reflection can make the words or feelings of gratitude you experience on Thanksgiving more meaningful. At the most, they can provide you the courage to make real changes in your personal and professional life. EIther way, I hope everyone enjoys the holidays.
What would you include on your year-end Biglaw checklist? Let me know 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.