I’ve now written more than 250 columns at Above the Law; I’m invoking a point of personal privilege.
Neil Falconer (of Steinhart & Falconer in San Francisco) passed away last week at the age of 91. He was an extraordinary lawyer, a fine man, and a mentor to anyone who had the sense to listen. Between 1984 and 1989, I learned from Neil what it meant to be a lawyer – “be a sponge; soak up the law;” “never tell a small child not to stick peanuts up his nose;” “you take as long as necessary to solve the problem; let me worry about the bill” – and I later dedicated The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law to him. I expected to shed a tear when I read his obituary, but I didn’t expect to be dumbstruck. Words are a terribly feeble way to encapsulate a life. And sometimes you’re paid back, years later, for even the smallest of gestures. Here’s a link to Neil Falconer’s obituary in the San Francisco Chronicle. Rest in peace, Neil. And thank you.
Thinking about Neil caused me to reflect on the decision that I made, 30 years ago, to work at a small firm (of 20 lawyers) on the West Coast.
Everyone told me that I was nuts: “You can always move laterally from a big firm to a small one, but you can’t move laterally in the other direction!” “You can always move from a big New York firm to a firm in California, but you can’t move west to east!” “You have to start by getting the ‘big firm experience.’ Then you can always move to a small firm.” “Go to a big firm! That’s how you keep your options open!”
The conventional wisdom isn’t always right . . . .
How was the conventional wisdom wrong?
First, and as I had anticipated, my small firm experience taught me far more as a beginning lawyer than I would have learned at a big firm. During five years at my small firm in San Francisco, I first-chaired two trials, two or three arbitrations, and a half dozen or so administrative hearings. I argued twice in the Ninth Circuit, and the partners worked hard to raise my profile in the local legal community. This included executing a shrewd bait-and-switch that caused me, at age 29, to become the founding editor-in-chief of California Litigation magazine. (The executive committee of the Litigation Section of the State Bar thought it was getting a 50-year-old partner to do the job; he cleverly stepped aside at the last minute and foisted me off on the gang.)
I’m fairly confident that lawyers at big firms didn’t then (and don’t now) get similar experience at such a relatively tender age.
Five years later, things had changed.
Personal circumstances (with one kid in diapers and a second on the way, we were just too far from family in the Midwest) forced me to attempt the impossible — to move from west to east.
I would have preferred to move to a small firm, but I couldn’t find one at my chosen Midwestern destination that made me comfortable. I thus had to attempt the doubly-impossible — to move both west to east and from small firm to large.
It’s not impossible.
Two things plainly worked in my favor. First, I had solid academic credentials and had clerked on the Ninth Circuit, so big firms were interested in talking to me. Second, I was only six years out of law school, so academic credentials still mattered and it would be another three years before I was up for partnership.
But, whatever the reasons, the doubly-impossible proved entirely possible: I selected from among several job offers that large firms extended to me.
I remain convinced that my approach served me well. Few — indeed, “none” would be a better word — of the homegrown associates who were my contemporaries at my big firm had the sort of hands-on experience that I’d accumulated in five years at a small firm. And it was even better than that: The partners at the big firm had no idea what I’d done in my past, so they entrusted me with many responsibilities beyond my years.
That’s a side benefit to moving laterally as an associate: At your first firm, everyone sees you when you’re a baby lawyer, unable to do anything.
That was certainly true for me at my first firm. Neil Falconer stared at me quizzically during my first week on the job: “Why don’t you sign the subpoena? Aren’t you a lawyer?” (The second question stumped me for a while, but eventually I realized that it was rhetorical.) If you enter a firm as a mid-level or senior associate, you’re already a fully-functioning lawyer; no one sees you when you’re completely inept and retains forever that lingering image of you.
The lateral move also let me bluff (slightly) about my substantive expertise. Nobody knew whether I could spell “SEC” without being spotted a letter, so I could tell the big-firm gang that I’d like to continue working in 10b-5 defense. Presto! You’re assigned to a 10b-5 case or two, and you soon actually know something about that field of law. That’s tough to do if everyone at your firm knows full well that you’ve never done anything other than wrongful termination defense.
I know that the passage of 30 years has changed some things. (Just look at me, for heaven’s sake!) Many law school graduates today are pleased to land any job, let alone to have a choice between firms big or small. And it’s surely far easier to move west to east today (when the big firms all have offices on both coasts) than it was in times past (when O’Melveny, Gibson, and Latham were L.A. firms, and Skadden and Sullivan & Cromwell were in New York, and never the twain shall meet).
But please don’t be trapped by the conventional thinking.
If you choose to work at a big firm because you “want to keep your options open,” then you didn’t really exercise an option at all. Go to a big firm only if the firm (or its lawyers, or one of its practices) excites you, or if there’s some other real justification.
Please don’t make a career choice simply because everyone else is doing it. Your life deserves more careful thought than that.
Mark Herrmann is the Chief Counsel – Litigation and Global Chief Compliance Officer at Aon, the world’s leading provider of risk management services, insurance and reinsurance brokerage, and human capital and management consulting. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law and Inside Straight: Advice About Lawyering, In-House And Out, That Only The Internet Could Provide (affiliate links). You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.