Billable Hours

We tend to think of the biggest Biglaw firms as “sweatshops,” while we view small firms, midsize or regional firms, or even Am Law 200 firms as “lifestyle” shops. The thought is that the big bad firms that service Wall Street clients will grind you up and spit you out, while somewhat smaller firms will allow you to have a normal life as you pursue your career.

It’s a great story, but it’s not necessarily a true one. Sometimes working at a smaller firm or a regional firm just means the same work with more pressure and less pay. Attorneys at such firms, whether partners or associates, don’t always have the kind of resources that Biglaw attorneys enjoy. There aren’t multiple layers of staffing available to double- or triple-check every document. It’s a lot of stress.

And stress can be just as deleterious to your health when working at a regional firm as it is when you work for a truly huge firm. This week, we’ve been fielding a bunch of reports about an associate who passed away at home after working what some tipsters report as maniac hours at his regional law firm the week before.

It’s a sad story, one that some accuse the law firm of trying to cover up, but it’s another opportunity for us to remind readers to take care of themselves even when work seems overwhelming…

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On Monday, as the world was learning about Justice Stephen Breyer getting robbed at machete-point, fellow Justice Antonin Scalia was getting cozy in the hallowed halls of the University of Chicago Law School.

A few years ago, Scalia criticized the law school’s political drift to the left. But just before Valentine’s Day, they kissed and made up. On Monday, Scalia gave a speech at U. Chicago, where he used to teach (and served as faculty advisor to the Federalist Society). He also offered some, how shall we say, unexpected career advice for attorneys who are just starting out….

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Hands off the dancers, sir.

Our latest Biglaw blind item concerns the sighting of a partner at a strip club.

Right now you’re probably thinking: yawn. A law firm partner at a strip club? As they say, it happens every day (or night — and often gets billed to “business development”).

But there are a few more details that make this item noteworthy….

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Tomorrow, associates at Goodwin Procter will receive individualized news of their bonuses. You may recall that last month, when ATL’s new director of research, Brian Dalton, compiled a list of Biglaw’s ten most generous firms — i.e., the ten firms that pay the best bonuses, when measured against their profits per partner — Goodwin did good, winning fourth place. (The firm fares well in rankings; last month, it made Crain’s list of best places to work in New York.)

Will this year’s bonuses preserve Goodwin’s good standing? Let’s find out. Although the individual amounts are being communicated tomorrow, the firm has outlined its overall approach in a memo….

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The other day, I was at dinner with some Biglaw friends. While I prefer to associate only with my small-firm kin, I needed someone to pick up the check. And, I thought I could do some missionary work and convert my friends in to small-firm lawyers (so I could mine them for story ideas, obviously).

Something unexpected happened during dinner. One of my friends asked me why I believe small-firm life is so different from Biglaw. I went through my standard list of reasons: quality of life, money, autonomy, mentoring, etc. I even cited Tom Wallerstein’s Top Ten.

That was where things took an unexpected turn: my friend did not buy it. Indeed, by the end of our dinner he had me questioning my beliefs. Does size matter, I thought? Needless to say, as a woman who has devoted her “career” to writing about small-firm life, this experience shook me to my core.

Let’s see if you can help me make sense of that night….

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We’re still catching up on bonus news that broke over the holidays. Remember, if we missed your firm, please let us know at tips@abovethelaw.com.

Just after Christmas, Dechert announced its 2011 end-of-year bonuses. I guess you’d call it a “match” of the Cleary Gottlieb scale. Dechert is paying a pro-rated bonus to first-year associates and has a top payment of $42,500 for very senior associates.

But Dechert isn’t a lockstep firm. You have to meet a requirement in order to get the bonus. That requirement looks very much like an hours requirement, but Dechert doesn’t want you (or its clients) to think that they have an hours requirement — so they have some kind of nebulous performance requirement that can most easily be defined with reference to hours.

Oh, and they’ll dock you if you didn’t input your time, on time, throughout the year….

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Tom Wallerstein

When I started my firm, several mentors gave me the same advice: Don’t work for free. It’s easy to see the problem with working for free. Giving away what you’re trying to sell isn’t exactly in the business plan. Unfortunately, this sage advice can only really be learned the hard way, through experience.

Working for free can arise in many different ways. The most obvious example is a client who wants you to represent him but can only promise to pay you later.

Even if your gut tells you that taking on that client is a bad idea, this can be surprisingly tempting to a new firm or solo practice. For starters, there is such a thrill with getting your first client, or your first “real” client, or your first big client, or your first whatever client, that the excitement can cloud your better judgment. You will be tempted to overlook the red flags that you will not be paid for your work….

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Tom Wallerstein

Recently, someone remarked to me that the week after Christmas is a “dead week.” He meant that many people take the week off, many companies are short staffed, and business generally is light.

When I was in Biglaw, I always worked the week after Christmas. Even though most partners wouldn’t be around, I figured that left it up to me to make sure my cases were being handled properly. With hindsight, I know that I probably wasn’t quite as essential as I thought, but that was my attitude at the time.

Now that I am a partner in my own firm, you might think that I can finally relax and let my associates mind the store. Negative. First, I care about my associates’ quality of (work) life. Having spent years in Biglaw, I am committed to trying to lessen at least some of the unpleasantness that often entails. So I want my employees to be able to take time off, or at least work a lighter schedule, during a week that is traditionally light. Second, running my own firm just raises the stakes. Now I really do have ultimate responsibility for all my cases, so I feel even more pressure to work harder and better than ever before.

So much for a dead week. Still, the comment got me thinking about what it means to be “swamped” with work versus having a “dead week,” and how those concepts differ when applied to Biglaw versus a running a solo or small firm practice….

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Edward Hayes (on The Charlie Rose Show)

What draws people to the practice of law? Some do it for the paycheck, some do it for the prestige, and some do it for the excitement and fun of it all.

Veteran New York litigator Edward Hayes belongs firmly in the final camp. Although he has amassed fame and fortune over almost four decades of practicing law, his legal career reflects a quest for adventure.

And what adventures Hayes has had. After graduating from the University of Virginia and Columbia Law School, he joined the Bronx District Attorney’s office, where he prosecuted homicides (which there was no shortage of in the Bronx in the 1970s). He then launched his own practice, handling civil and criminal matters for such clients as the estate of Andy Warhol, notorious “Mafia cop” Stephen Caracappa, acclaimed architect Daniel Libeskind, actor Robert De Niro, celebrity editrices Anna Wintour and Tina Brown, billionaire publisher Si Newhouse, and then-paramours Sean Combs and Jennifer Lopez (after they were arrested together back in 1999).

Eddie Hayes has even found his way into literature. He served as the basis for Tommy Killian, Sherman McCoy’s defense lawyer in Tom Wolfe’s great novel, Bonfire of the Vanities. Wolfe dedicated the book to Hayes, a close friend of his for many years.

This past summer, I enjoyed the privilege of spending a day with Ed Hayes. We met up at Penn Station and took the train out to his vacation home in Bellport, Long Island, where we enjoyed a leisurely lunch, dining outdoors and overlooking the water. (There are Lawyerly Lairs-style photos of his house, after the jump.)

During our time together, Hayes reminisced about his extraordinary life in the law, offered career advice for fellow lawyers, and showed me how to properly prepare a caprese salad….

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It seems that founding partner John Quinn isn’t the only one at Quinn Emanuel with a surplus of Benjamins right about now. On Friday, the litigation powerhouse announced its 2011 year-end bonus scale — and, for the most part, it’s more generous than the benchmark Cravath bonus scale.

We say “for the most part” because, for associates billing under 2100 hours, the scale is below Cravath — but just slightly. And it’s our understanding that not many QE associates bill less than 2100 hours anyway.

Let’s take a look at the details….

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