The social dynamics within Biglaw firms can mirror those found in pre-colonial Puritan societies. Long working hours in harsh competitive conditions, hierarchical command structures, and a recognition that the group is only as strong as its weakest member. Common features of both your local Biglaw firm and Plymouth, Massachusetts, circa 1650.
Smallpox may no longer be the threat it was to the pilgrims, but Biglaw associates (and increasingly partners) are susceptible to career killers just as deadly. Reputation is everything in Biglaw, and decisions about someone’s suitability to remain employed in Biglaw are often made on the basis of (sometimes undeserved) labels that can attach to someone with the adhesive grip of a miracle glue from a late-night informercial. Yes, Biglaw lawyers can find themselves branded with the equivalent of a scarlet letter. Just like young Hester Prynne, but rather than being branded with an “A,” Biglaw folk get tagged with one-word denigrations of their fitness to reach the promised land of partnership.
There are plenty of one-word adjectives that serve as partnership (and often employment) disqualifiers for those in Biglaw. And just as there is no “I” in team, there are not many favorable descriptors for Biglaw lawyers that start with that letter. Intelligent? Everyone in Biglaw is, at least relative to the large majority of the human race. Inspired? Better suited to describe someone in public interest law, rather than a regulatory expert skilled at carving out exceptions for clients that want to circumvent the very rules that the rest of society is expected to abide by.
What about “interesting”?
There is very little interesting about people billing 2200+ hours per year, who barely have the time to shower, much less indulge in self-growth. You might have been interesting prior to Biglaw, and you may eventually become more interesting after making partner or leaving Biglaw. But as an associate? No one expects you to be interesting at all. Unlike your college roommate who works 29.5 employer-provided health-care-exempt hours per week behind the cheese counter at a fancy supermarket/food bazaar. With their expensive Ivy or near-Ivy degree. They better be doing something interesting on the side. You get a pass, for as long as your Sunday nights are spent working on deal documents rather than trying to figure out who dies next on Game of Thrones.
So we can adopt “I” as our Biglaw scarlet letter. It is not hard to come up with a series of labels that Biglaw (and for that matter small-firm) lawyers need to avoid being tagged with. It is well-known that in order to make partner at a Biglaw firm, a “perfect record” is usually needed. As in perfect reviews, every year. Because in Biglaw, once someone is tagged with a negative label, it is impossible to detach it, short of moving to another firm. Or bringing in an insane amount of business somehow, in which case all past negative history is first forgotten, and then rewritten to turn the rainmaker into the most talented associate ever to grace the firm’s shared offices. But even a rainmaker would have a hard time removing the stench of the following, whether fairly earned or the product of a jealous colleague/superior aiming to ruin a career.
We can start with indifferent. Biglaw partners, from the top of the firm down, love to see enthusiasm from associates. Managing partners want people who “contribute to the firm’s culture,” and have little patience for those who don’t enthusiastically embrace the privilege of being at the firm. Assigning partners, best thought of as an associate’s earliest clients, will naturally give better work to those who show that they enjoy what they are doing. No one expects associates to skip to work whistling Pharrell’s “Happy” on the day that two motions need to get finalized and filed, but even with the recognition that associate work involves a lot of drudgery, there is still an expectation that an associate can never be indifferent. You either want to be in Biglaw or you don’t, and once you project indifference, it is nearly impossible to recover whatever standing you may have earned in the eyes of partners beforehand. And partners are not immune from becoming indifferent themselves. To clients, to their fellow partners, to their associates. Once they do, it is usually only a matter of time before they leave the firm. Who knows how many lateral moves are simply attempts by partners to recapture the enthusiasm for their work that they once had?
As bad as being labeled indifferent is for a Biglaw attorney, it is even worse to be considered insufferable. Yes, nearly everyone at Biglaw has a healthy ego, and lawyers are not usually known as “easy to get along with” types. But everyone knows when an associate, perhaps emboldened by mistakenly assuming that what Biglaw firms put into their recruiting material actually reflects the firm’s estimation of its new recruits, acts entitled. And no one likes it. Especially partners, who may very well have projected entitlement themselves as associates, but can’t tolerate it in others in even the most minute measure. Fellow associates and staff don’t like it either, and when it comes to being badmouthed in Biglaw, everyone’s opinion counts against the person who has “earned” their colleagues derision. Praise, on the other hand, only matters if it comes from the powerful.
What is worse that being called insufferable? Perhaps only one other label: incompetent. The Biglaw equivalent of a death sentence. I have never heard a Biglaw lawyer called that and remain employed for very long. If you hear your name and the word incompetent within the same paragraph, much less the same sentence, it is definitely time to start Googling something like “great severance packages.” And don’t expect to be able to continue your incompetence at a boutique that aspires to compete with Biglaw firms on quality. Because if you can’t hide incompetence in Biglaw, there is surely no place to hide when you are needed to be incredible.
Gaston Kroub lives in Brooklyn and is a founding partner of Kroub, Silbersher & Kolmykov PLLC, an intellectual property litigation boutique. The firm’s practice focuses on intellectual property litigation and related counseling, with a strong focus on patent matters. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter: @gkroub.