Let’s start with a definition. Merriam-Webster defines “autonomy” as “the state of existing or acting separately from others.” Meaning you have the proverbial “control over your own destiny,” or put another way, are not dependent on others. In many respects, complete autonomy is a fiction for a lawyer. We are all dependent — on our clients, our partners, our firms. But lawyers still value autonomy. It may be elusive, particularly in Biglaw, but it is an important contributor to career satisfaction and performance.
In fact, earning a significant degree of autonomy was among the leading factors in making my Biglaw experience a positive one. Yes, I said earned, rather than “being granted” or “given.” In Biglaw, you need to carve out personal space for yourself. It is not something that is given. Nor does anyone tell you what you need to do to earn your measure of independence. At a very high level, it is necessary to project both confidence and competence — to your clients, peers, and superiors, at all times. If you are successful, and earn some autonomy, there is a higher likelihood that you will be happy in your Biglaw job. Imagine that.
Perhaps surprisingly, your Biglaw firm actually wants you to have a degree of autonomy….
If you have significant autonomy, not only are you likely to be happier, and thus easier to retain for continued milking of every drop of billable hours that clients of the firm are willing to pay for, but you are also likely to be better at the job of being a Biglaw associate, counsel, or partner. Research suggests that employees who feel like they have “autonomy support” — in the form of an employer’s trust in their competence and ability to control their working lives — perform the best. Biglaw lawyers are not an exception to this phenomenon. At the same time, there is no roadmap any Biglaw firm can give its employees as to how to earn a greater degree of autonomy. Which causes frustration, and a lot of wasted talent.
Think about the many well-credentialed, hardworking Biglaw attorneys who elect to leave or are forced out of their firms. In many cases, the number one reason for their departure is the frustration caused by a lack of autonomy. It might be the lack of a pathway for ever getting control of one’s work schedule. Or for more senior lawyers, the loss of autonomy in the name of centralized “performance management” by a certain unit within the firm, whether it be the executive committee or a practice group leadership structure. No one can function productively for long under such conditions. Rather, the affected lawyer will engage in the self-protecting act of looking at exit options — from their firm, or sometimes from law practice itself.
But what does it mean to have autonomy in Biglaw? True, having more control over one’s schedule and assignments does allow for some “coasting,” and maybe even the ability to schedule a vacation — and actually take it as planned. But there is a danger to feeling comfortable, particularly in today’s short-term-focused Biglaw. Because the only measure of, and way to earn, “true” autonomy in Biglaw is based on one’s ability to generate business, whether internally from firm-controlled institutional client work, or externally from self-originated clients. Any other sense of Biglaw autonomy is ephemeral.
For boutiques, it should be obvious that the owners will enjoy an order of magnitude greater level of autonomy than would be manageable for all but the biggest rainmakers in Biglaw. Put another way, if you are a partner at a boutique, you most likely are one of the big rainmakers. By necessity. So while boutiques offer more autonomy for partners, and to some extent all employees of the boutique relative to Biglaw, there is a commensurate need for greater levels of self-motivation in the boutique environment. It truly is more of a “produce or else” environment, especially when your firm does not enjoy the cushion provided by multiple practice groups that may be capable of covering for slower times in your practice area.
At the same time, you can safely assume that your partners will help spur you to achieve your best when you are in a boutique. Precisely because they are so dependent on you, as you are on them, for the success of the firm — in a much more direct way that at even the most tight-knit Biglaw firm. There are no illusions of autonomy at a boutique, because there is no way your partners can afford to police you. Nor can they afford for you to take from their autonomy through attempts to micromanage them.
Ultimately, the clearest way to think about autonomy as a lawyer is to consider the level of responsibility you are willing to bear for the consequences of your actions and advice. In Biglaw, most lawyers are somewhat removed from those consequences, and therefore do not enjoy a lot of autonomy. In a boutique, there is a greater likelihood that you may have a greater sense of autonomy, but you are also closer to the consequences, whether they are positive or the opposite. Different people have different levels of tolerance or even desire for that “risk” — and in my case, what was acceptable to me for over a decade now seems constricting. But make no mistake, if you want to experience autonomy in its fullest sense, may I suggest a different profession. And if you are a lawyer, best to get yourself comfortable with depending on others. Keep their interests in mind along the way, and you might even enjoy your career.
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.