For the past two weeks, readers of this column have benefited from the insights of Professor William (Bill) Henderson of Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law regarding the current state of Biglaw. When Professor Henderson kindly acceded to being interviewed, he made a request that was both unexpected and welcome: he asked that I commit to answering a number of his questions in return.
I agreed and am pleased to present our exchange. I found his questions probing, and I have tried to answer them from a broad perspective, despite the fact that they call for some personal viewpoints that are by their nature unique to my outlook and experiences. I have answered the questions in the order presented, and have not altered them in any way. Now, I get my turn in the interviewee’s chair….
BH: Anonymous Partner, take us back to your decision to go to law school (give us the rough decade if you can). What did the world look like to the youthful AP?
I always had a strong sense that I wanted a family and that I would need to provide for one. Quite frankly, that sentiment drove my career aspirations more than anything else. I always thought that I would become a professional, and initially thought my destiny was as a surgeon, considering my competitive nature and capacity for emotional detachment. At the same time, I saw a lot of appeal in the intellectual rigor and ever-changing nature of law, so when I did well on the LSAT and attracted merit scholarships from law schools, I was happy to give it a go. It was the 1990s, pre-9/11, and college did not seem to be the ending point for my formal education.
There was no grand plan, just the sense that law school could open doors for me, and that legal training would serve me in good stead no matter what career path I ultimately chose. Law school itself went a long way in my maturation process, even though it took getting married and the challenge of being a Biglaw associate to truly push me to work hard and apply myself to the fullest. From what I see, students today do not enjoy the luxury anymore of floating through high school and college, landing in a graduate school of some kind, and turning their first job into the true foundation for their career. It is a shame, because the risk of burning out young seems much higher when one is always stressed about their next steps to the summit. I always felt one of my advantages was that I was not as academically invested as others, nor was my self-worth as attached to the typical components of a “prestigious” academic or even Biglaw career. To me, that is a losing game to play, as there is always someone with better credentials, better pedigree, or even better prospects. I’d rather chase personal experiences of value to me, and in the end the achievements or recognition seem to come along. “Run away from honor and it will chase you” and all that. Ultimately, though, talent and drive are not enough. At some point, you need to put in the hard work and turn yourself into a professional, with real skills. I found that opportunity in Biglaw.
BH: It’s the holidays, which is a good time to be wistful and engage in some time travel and counterfactuals, a la Jimmy Stewart and Ebenezer Scrooge. Could the young AP have benefited from any wisdom or perspective from the older (or middle-aged) AP? Between charitable and cynical, shoot for the former.
Part of me wants to answer that, if I had the ability to speak now to the young AP, I would tell him simply not to do anything differently. At the same time, I would probably take the opportunity to let him know that the way to avoid regret is to try and make informed decisions as often as possible. And even though there is thankfully very little I regret about how my life turned out and is going, I do sometimes force myself to acknowledge that there were experiences that I missed out on, because of a lack of information, and failure to apply myself at the critical moments where it was necessary. As I mentioned above, I really feel like I hit my stride in the Biglaw environment, helped in no small part by the responsibility I had to my wife, and eventually children. So if there are any experiences I regret missing out on, they are along the lines of not working harder in law school to get the grades for a clerkship, for example. Or to spend a few years as an AUSA. Both look like they would have been fun experiences to have, and great additional preparation for my litigation career.
As I mentioned in my initial column, when I went to law school I did so with an almost total ignorance of Biglaw, or how to distinguish between law schools. I was also clueless about Biglaw’s hiring process, what it took to succeed in law school, and pretty much anything that was not discernable from a quick glance at U.S. News & World Report’s list of the top law schools. While in law school, I got to learn a little about Biglaw from OCI, and eventually my summer associate experience. With all the changes in the industry, I feel like staying informed about Biglaw is a career-long process. Even as a partner, though, and one who has spoken to a wide cross-section of firms as a prospective lateral along the way, I still believe that Biglaw firms are becoming even less transparent than ever in response to the economic challenges they face. So I am a bit skeptical that knowing what I now know about this industry would have been very helpful to me starting out.
In fact, I think my naivete was a bit of an advantage for me in my Biglaw career, particularly because it shielded me from the prestige obsession that cripples a lot of lawyers. Taking calculated chances is an important ingredient of a successful Biglaw career, and a big component of mustering the courage to take those chances is the ability to say “why not” and do what feels right, rather than obsessing over following the perfect formula to reach Biglaw heaven. I’ve watched many people follow the script and wash out as a result. Too many. All that said, I would have also suggested to myself that I read my Pre-Law Tour column before committing to attending law school. Informed decisions are better decisions, after all, and perhaps I would have made things a bit easier for myself later on.
Next week, I’ll conclude this back-and-forth with Professor Henderson with my responses to his final three questions. Merry Christmas to those that celebrate the holiday.
If you had the ability to ask a Biglaw partner a question, what would it be? Let me know your thoughts by email or in the comments.
Earlier: A Discussion About Biglaw’s Present: An Interview With Indiana Law’s Bill Henderson (Part 1)
A Discussion About Biglaw’s Present: An Interview With Indiana Law’s Bill Henderson (Part 2)
Buying In: The Pre-Law Tour
Anonymous Partner is a partner at a major law firm. You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.