This is not a column about getting bloated Biglaw partners into running shape, as much as many of them need the exercise. Instead, let’s focus on another 10K milestone, one that Biglaw associates chase after, spurred on by a number of incentives, ranging from a simple desire to keep their hard-earned jobs to the burning ambition necessary to even aim for partnership: reaching 10,000 billable hours.
In the popular conception, 10,000 hours of practice at any skill is a critical hurdle to achieving mastery. It does not work that way for lawyers, especially those that start out in Biglaw.
As anyone who has started their career in Biglaw knows, the early years are more about survival than anything else. The most critical skill is adaptability, both in terms of being able to handle the lifestyle stresses presented by the Biglaw junior associate experience, and recognizing just how little law school has prepared one for Biglaw legal practice. In fact, I would say that for purposes of tracking personal progress towards the 10K mark, the first year of Biglaw practice (and maybe two or three depending on whether one is in a firm that “rotates” their juniors to expose them to different practices areas) should be thrown out. Consider that time as the foundation that allows for future productive lawyering if it makes you feel better. And first-years would do well to disabuse themselves of the notion that they will be “contributing” or doing “quality” work. Obviously they need to do their best, and perform up to Biglaw standards, but the hard truth is that the first-year in Biglaw is there to force high-flying and well-credentialed aspiring lawyers to humbly confront two uncomfortable questions. First, do you even want to be doing this? And second, even if you want to, are you good enough?
Ed. note: Please welcome our newest columnist, Gaston Kroub of Kroub, Silbersher & Kolmykov PLLC, an intellectual property litigation boutique here in New York. He’s writing about leaving a Biglaw partnership to start his own firm.
One of the criticisms leveled at Biglaw attorneys is that they do not have a lot of “real” experience — and as a result are somehow lesser lawyers. Biglaw litigators in particular are ripe targets for such remarks, even more so than their brethren in corporate, real estate, or tax. While it is often true that a Biglaw litigator will have much less trial experience or even “on their feet” courtroom experience than a criminal defense attorney, blunt attacks on a Biglaw litigator’s technical skills usually reflect more on the person making the criticism than the subject of that criticism.
For what litigation in Biglaw lacks in terms of volume, it more than makes up for in terms of scope and scale. The crucible that a series of high-stakes litigation matters subjects a Biglaw attorney to is just as capable of forming a highly-skilled litigator as a high-volume personal injury practice. Yes, there are good Biglaw litigators and bad ones, but that is a function of the lawyers themselves, rather than Biglaw’s ability to produce capable litigators. One can even argue that the Biglaw experience makes a better litigator, on average, than someone who learns their craft on a different track.
At big law firms, a few folks engage in “training,” but very few bother with “coaching.”
That is: A partner may spend a few minutes training you how to write a brief or take a deposition. But, if you prove ineducable, the partner will promptly cut his (or her) losses: He won’t ask for your help anymore; he’ll pluck you out of his life. You won’t be fired; you’ll simply be forced to solicit work from other partners. You’ll never be “coached” about what you did wrong, except (maybe) at the end of the year, when some guy you never worked with evaluates you by reading aloud a comment that “one partner said you don’t write very good briefs.”
Corporations are different. Coaching is the name of the game: You can’t think? We’ll coach you!
Two weeks ago, Greenberg Traurig announced a lawyer residency program — one-year positions where lawyers spend a third of their time on training, are paid “considerably less than associates,” and billed out at lower rates. When the program concludes, residents may be offered a position as an associate, become a non-partnership track “practice group attorney,” or get shown the door. The program has elicited a range of reactions over its implications for Biglaw, ranging from potentially promising (David Lat and Toby Brown), to shortsighted and risky (Jordan Furlong), to a mixed bag for associates (Adam Ziegler).
But from the perspective of lawyers who want to start their own firms and have the option of handling traditionally “big firm” matters, residency programs like that offered by Greenberg Traurig are a boon. Imagine being paid to do little more than spend a year learning the ins and outs of big firm practice and practice areas by observing depositions and trials and accessing unlimited PLI content. Plus, residents have a chance to meet and network with other lawyers at GT and throughout the legal community; presumably, fewer billable hours means more time to hobnob. At the end of the residency, lawyers could move on to start their own firms — but with the benefit of a year of student loan debt repaid and a big firm credential on the résumé — which can be a selling point for certain types of clients (usually the kinds of clients who won’t experience sticker shock at your $250/hour rates because they’re accustomed to paying double that at a large firm)….
Following the lead of Kilpatrick Stockton, Orrick, and other Biglaw firms, Greenberg Traurig has created some new non-partnership-track attorney positions. They pay less than traditional partnership-track — or, in GT parlance, shareholder-track — positions, but the billable-hour requirements are lower and the training is better.
What do these positions look like? Let’s find out….
Alright, alright: At one level, it is about the money.
If you’re saddled with $100,000 in student debt and you’re unemployed, some money would help.
But if you’re making $160,000 in your first year out of law school, it’s not about the money.
When I entered the legal workforce, the “going rate” and terms of employment varied regionally in the United States. I chose to work in San Francisco — earning less than the going rate in New York and being entitled to only three weeks of vacation each year, instead of the four offered elsewhere — because I preferred San Francisco to New York. It wasn’t all about the money.
I chose to work at a small firm (I was the 21st lawyer at the joint) — knowing full well that my annual raises would be less at my small firm than they would have been at a large one — because I wanted real responsibility early in my career. It wasn’t all about the money.
When I later moved to one of the biggest firms in the world, it still wasn’t all about the money . . . .
Former managing partner Edwin Reeser is one of my favorite analysts of the legal profession (or industry, as the case may be). He recently wrote an interesting and thoughtful piece for the ABA Journal with a great title: “Law firms in the Great Recession: looking for change in all the wrong places.”
I’m a sucker for a good double entendre. Here, “looking for change” has at least two meanings. First, there’s “change” in the sense of reform. Second, there’s “change” in the sense of “spare change,” reflected in the sad way that law firm are rifling through the couch cushions — de-equitizing partners, laying off associates and staff, and cutting other costs here and there. These marginal steps have helped keep profits per partner up in the wake of the Great Recession, but they’re no recipe for winning the future.
So what should Biglaw be doing to promote long-term success?
The legal profession has changed greatly over the almost seven years since the launch of Above the Law. Do these changes amount to a paradigm shift? Or are they just a temporary blip that will eventually be reversed?
Professor David Wilkins, Director of the Program on the Legal Profession at Harvard Law School, is one of the most astute and well-informed observers of law as both a profession and an industry. In his recent keynote at the NALP annual education conference, Professor Wilkins considered these questions, and also shared his predictions about the future of the legal profession….
First, an offer: I thought I had retired my “book talk” about The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law when I moved to London last fall. But I’ll be in the States for a few weeks in late May and June, and I’ve been asked to dust off the talk and give it a few times — at the annual meeting of the Association of Defense Trial Counsel in Detroit, and again in Chicago for Kirkland & Ellis and Greenberg Traurig. So long as I’ll have to flip through my notes and re-learn the talk, I might as well give it for your group, too. Please let me know by email if your law firm is interested.
Second, today’s thesis — and it’s a backwards one: Law firms think more highly of you for the years when you’re not working at the firm.
I’ll start with the easy example: I moved as a sixth-year associate from a small firm in San Francisco to a huge firm in Cleveland. When I arrived at the huge firm in Cleveland, partners treated me surprisingly well. Why?
The evolution of relationships between the genders continues. Currently, in law firms, there is an interesting conundrum; balancing the desire for a gender-blind workplace where “the best lawyer gets the work and advances” and the reality of navigating the complicated maze created by the fact that, in general, men and women do possess differences in their work styles. These variations impact who they work with, how they work, how they build professional connections and how organizations ultimately leverage, reward and recognize the talents of all.
Henry Ford sat on his workbench and sighed. A year earlier, he had personally built 13,000 Model Ts with his own hands. Fashioning lugnuts and tie rods by hand, Ford was loath to ask for help. Sure, there were things about the car that he didn’t quite understand. This explains the lack of reliable navigation systems in the Model T. But Ford persevered because he knew that unless he did everything, he could not reliably call these cars his own.
“Unless my own personal toil is responsible for it, it may as well be called a Hyundai,” Ford remarked at the time.
The preceding may sound unfamiliar because it is categorically untrue. And also monumentally stupid. Henry Ford didn’t build all those cars by hand. He had help and plenty of it. Almost exactly one hundred years ago, Henry Ford opened up the most technologically advanced assembly line the world had ever seen. Built on the premise that work can be chopped up into digestible pieces and completed by many men better than one, the line ushered in an age of unparalleled productivity.
Today, an attorney refers business because he can’t do everything the client asks of him.
There are three reasons why this is way dumber than a made-up Henry Ford story…
Ed. note: The Asia Chronicles column is authored by Kinney Recruiting. Kinney has made more placements of U.S. associates, counsels and partners in Asia than any other recruiting firm in each of the past six years. You can reach them by email: [email protected].
Since late last year, things have been booming in Hong Kong / China in cap markets, especially Hong Kong IPOs. M&A deal flow has recently been getting a bit stronger as well. Although one can’t predict such things with any certainty, all signs are pointing to a banner entire 2014 for the top end US corporate and cap markets practices in Hong Kong / China. This is not really new news, as its been the feeling most in the market have had for a few months now and things continue to look good.
The head of our Asia practice, Evan Jowers, has been in Hong Kong for about 10 days a month (with trips every other month to both Shanghai and Bejing) for the past 7 months, and spending most of his time there meeting with senior US hiring partners at just about all the major US and UK firms there, as well as prospective candidates at all associate levels and partner levels, and when in the US, Evan works Asia hours and is regularly on the phone with such persons, as our the other members of our Asia team. Our Yuliya Vinokurova is in Hong Kong every other month and Robert is there about 5 times a year as well. While we have a solid Asia team of recruiters, Evan Jowers will spend at least some time with all of our candidates for Asia position. We have had long standing relationships, and good friendships in some cases, with hiring partners and other senior US partners in Asia for 8 years now.