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Biglaw Practice Today: Cruel Expectations

I’m not in this world to live up to your expectations and you’re not in this world to live up to mine. Bruce Lee

If you read Above the Law you know that law school, the legal profession, and Biglaw especially are not like the movies, not like the grand old days, and certainly not like partners pitch it to you at on-campus interviews. Still, a main source of junior associate misery is false expectations. Some examples:

“Why did the carefully crafted memo I turned in (that was deemed crushingly urgent) never even get read?”

“Why did the senior associate get to take my deposition prep binders and outlines and take the depo herself? (And then email me frantically during the breaks with follow-up questions.)

“What do you mean I need to re-review the past 3000 documents for an issue you never told me was relevant to this case and my one-week’s experience didn’t pick up?”

“How could they tell me at my third-year evaluation that I don’t have the right litigation skills, when they’ve staffed me on nonstop monster doc reviews for two years?”

“Why have I been working on this case for 8 months and haven’t seen the partner once?”

“Why did a partner stream into my office at 6pm on Friday with a drop-dead urgent assignment she’s had on her desk for two weeks?”

You have expectations of partner respect for your time? Minimally competent case management? Adequate notice of deadlines? Feedback on assignments? Occasional appreciation? Increasingly substantive work? Being included in the big picture of a case? Any partner contact at all? Poor fool.

This may all seem obvious. But I have seen that look of stunned confusion from burst expectations in a first-year associate’s eyes more times than I can count. Law students and junior associates often have ideas about Biglaw that are wildly out of touch with reality — or at least, no longer the way things are.

Mistaken expectations are dangerous. Wasting your now-extremely-precious time over wrong notions about what Biglaw is and is not — and even worse, what Biglaw should be — will chip away any motivation to turn in even marginally acceptable work product.

After all, why bother when your work load is both crushing and sheer drudgery? When “binder-making” is a laughable but accurate résumé entry for two years at a firm? When this wasn’t how you pictured life in Biglaw?

From a purely selfish standpoint: in a tough job market, losing motivation puts you at risk. And wallowing in Biglaw pathologies is not the way to get anything useful from your time there.

You need to understand what Biglaw is, and what it is not, or these expectations will wreck you.

First, what Biglaw is not:

Biglaw is not a touchy-feely, Kumbaya-singing environment — no matter how hard firms try to get on Yale’s Top Ten Family-Friendly Firms list or top the Vault diversity rankings, tout their flex and part-time options, or talk up their pro bono commitment.

And it is not the law firm of the olden days, when a firm and its associates shared the same expectations and loyalty — you gave your time and life and maybe your soul, but the firm gave you back opportunity, mentoring, a real commitment to your development as an attorney, and eventual partnership.

The bond of mutual, career-long commitment between a firm and its junior associates that somewhat justified the drudgery and pain is no more.

Second, and most important, understand what Biglaw is:

The world of Biglaw is the Game of Thrones: a feudalism with a strict hierarchy, albeit in a free-market universe. Partners are kings, who trust their high profile, bet-the-company cases to senior associates (barons and knights). Senior associates manage cases, devising sometimes sadistic work streams to accomplish unachievable visions of perfection and in turn funnel work down the chain to mid-level and junior associates (yup, peasants and serfs, many indentured by student loans).

Each partner or group of partners is a fiefdom unto itself and much of your day-to-day happiness depends solely on those senior attorneys with whom you work. Partners and senior associates can get by with a staggering level of bad behavior, making your life chaos, before it rises to the level of actionable … if it ever does.

There is no universal oversight power to force a particularly disorganized or sociopathic partner to take a good supervisory skills course. No effective centralized bureaucracy to ensure associates get the skills they need, provide a constant, manageable work flow, or get you the hell away from “old school” Partner X and his obsession with daily team meetings at 7 p.m.

Biglaw today is simply a mega-business and it will use you as it sees fit to get what it needs, with no genuine concern for your development, your life balance, your practice interests and goals, your sanity, or anything else.

Despite the firm’s rosy talk of associate development and individualized mentoring, as a cold economic matter assignments are mostly determined by your hourly billable rate, the staffing needs of the firm, and whether a partner knows and likes your work.

Nearly all of your assignments will be work that senior attorneys are too expensive to do, which means they will largely be hideous, duplicative, overzealous flights of über-anal fancy. Partners billing over $750 an hour cannot do slogging document review 12 hours a day for 3 months (you can do the math on that) — that is for you, or more likely today, the contract/staff attorneys you supervise.

Biglaw is arguably law practice at its height — the most sophisticated matters, the biggest clients, the most at stake. Biglaw is the Major Leagues, Broadway, or the Olympics, — perfection is expected and getting there is excruciating — only without any of the rewards of the art. It can do anything, in any amount of time. And it does it on the backs of an endless supply of highly intelligent but virtually unskilled junior associates.

When you understand what Biglaw is and sweep away false expectations, you can think about what you want out of the experience — pay down massive student loans, become a specialist in some nifty area of law, sock away money to open a locavore BBQ joint, shoot for partnership, get two years of résumé gold and move on to public service? — and chart a course to get there. And you will stop wasting your time raging against the inhumane, broken, and demoralizing world that it is.

As Bruce Lee said, don’t accept Biglaw’s expectations as your own, because it does not share yours.

I will talk more in later posts about what of real value you can get from Biglaw, the professionalism you must develop to survive (or at least keep micromanaging senior associates at bay), avoiding some of the worst pitfalls, and how to maintain some control over your work flow, your experience, and your life. Or check out my book HERE (shameless plug and affiliate link).

But as a junior associate at any Biglaw firm today the reality is that it will suck more often than not. After all, this is Biglaw — what were you expecting?

Sarah Powell is a lecturing fellow at Duke University School of Law. Prior to joining Duke she was a litigator and senior associate with Covington & Burling LLP. Her recent book on Biglaw practice today is: Biglaw: How to Survive the First Two Years of Practice in a Mega-Firm, or, the Art of Doc Review (affiliate link). You can email her at

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