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Biglaw Practice Today: Damn the torpedoes

My last post focused on how much it can suck to be a junior associate in Biglaw today. In fact, much of what I say about Biglaw could be construed as a tad critical by the cynical and jaded (or sane).

So let me begin with a caveat: what I write is never aimed at my former firm, or any firm in particular. In fact, if you choose Biglaw, I have no doubt that my firm is one of the best places to practice. My crucial point, which is not controversial, is that Biglaw’s pathologies cannot be isolated to one or two crazy partners here or there. The problems of Biglaw are endemic.

So before we get too far down that Biglaw-bashing road, and especially for the folks gearing up for OCI, let’s look at what you can get from Biglaw if you decide to say “damn the torpedoes” and push ahead despite all warnings.

Sure, money is big, especially with those big student loans. But if money were the only benefit the hassle and pain of Biglaw would not be worth it. Trust me, you don’t make enough to justify what you go through and the actual time you spend working. Calculate your actual hourly compensation based on hours worked and otherwise spent at the office sometime for a nice cold shower.

But there are four benefits apart from money that can be huge if you take advantage of them: résumé gold, training, flexibility, and pro bono.

1. Résumé gold

Even if you are only at Biglaw for 6 months (not recommended), an employer knows two things about you right off the bat: you are smart and well-credentialed, and you absorbed at least some of the Biglaw ethos: you work hard, you are an impressive troubleshooter, you function well under breathtaking pressure, you understand a screechingly high level of professionalism, you are compulsively efficient. That is valuable.

And the longer you stay in Biglaw, the more valuable it will be because of the “training” you get.

2. Training

Wait, training?!? How is it useful training when you spend most of your time doing legal grunt work, if it passes for “legal” work at all? In the first year of practice my friends at DOJ were handling their own trials, friends in public service had meaningful work with real client contact. You know what I was doing (spoiler alert: doc review with a side of legal research/writing). Training is a joke, you might say.

You would be wrong. True, I will never argue that the typical Biglaw junior associate path is the best way to get certain substantive legal skills like stand-up trial experience. You could be a litigator at a big firm for years and never see the inside of a courtroom. Or even that it’s the right place to nurture baby lawyers at all. But it is invaluable training nonetheless.

Biglaw is at the height of legal practice and it is the very best at mastering information and preparation. Biglaw’s resources are unmatched. Whatever you need to do, no doubt someone at the firm has done it before and you can draw on that experience. Biglaw’s expertise will trickle down the more you hang around.

By the time you finally do that first deposition or oral argument, perhaps years after your government lawyer friends, you will have prepared for, analyzed, dealt with any number of fire drills for, and second-chaired dozens. You will know more about doing a difficult argument or depo than any government lawyer who has had to do everything, from making copies, highlighting and flagging documents, researching local rules, to drafting outlines – and do it on the fly and without a net.

A Biglaw associate spends her time preparing and supporting senior attorneys and relentlessly chasing, and occasionally achieving, the three overarching but often mutually exclusive goals of Biglaw practice: it must be perfect; it must be done now; it must be cost efficient.

Glamorous? No. It may not be the training you wanted, but the Biglaw ethos and professionalism become part of who you are and how you approach any task for the rest of your career. Whether or not you enjoy all you go through to get there, it is valuable.

And the good news is that if you hang around long enough things get better. You eventually move up the chain and become too expensive for the worst of it. You’ll be in that other circle of Biglaw hell — the mid-level associate’s life of supervising all that grunt work — but at least you’re moving up.

3. Flexibility

Quite simply, there is a whole lot of flexibility about when and where you do your work in Biglaw (all caveats about using judgment apply, as always). If you’re billing a decent amount, face time is less important.

I’ll leave it to you to test all those boundaries and see how far they can go. But flexibility is a main benefit.

4. Pro bono

Pro bono is one of the best benefits of Biglaw practice. Biglaw has enormous resources of manpower, time, support, expertise, and connections from which it can draw. No other career option can match what it can do. Biglaw takes pro bono work seriously and the classier firms will let you bill an unlimited amount of your time and count some or all of it towards your billable requirements.

Pro bono is great for two separate reasons – you can run your own cases and develop skills you will get nowhere near learning in your billable life for a long time, and you can spend serious billable time doing something that makes a difference. And it feeds your soul – when everything else you are looking at is a roomful of boxes of documents stacked to the ceiling for the foreseeable future, there is something more you can do.

Many firms have full-time pro bono coordinators and lawyers. You tell them the skills you want (help a small business with taxes, cross-examine witnesses, get an oral argument) or the causes and organizations you are passionate about, and they make it happen.

Your clients have the full power and vast resources of Biglaw — simply the best legal representation there is. Who else will spend 400 hours of attorney time plus medical expenses, transportation costs, and fees, to build an asylum case for a homeless refugee? Or throw 2 associates and a paralegal full-time on a case assisting the public defender in a murder trial? Or represent a mentally disabled man on death row through the 17 years of his appeals? Only Biglaw. You should take full advantage of pro bono.

At its best, Biglaw practice can be exhilarating, challenging, rewarding — awesome. You will catch glimpses of it here and there even as a junior associate.

Speaking personally, from my time in Biglaw I broke the stranglehold of my student loans (law school plus an out-of-state performing arts master’s degree, genius that I am), worked with some brilliant attorneys on some great matters, did as much pro bono as I could, and gained significant litigation experience. All incredibly valuable to me. But is it going to be worth it to you? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

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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