Once you’ve picked your firm (and they’ve picked you), you should do what you can to brand yourself as a capable legal thinker who can be trusted to handle serious and substantive assignments. This branding effort can and should begin before you even finish law school. For instance, don’t slack off in your 3L year just because you have a job offer in hand. Keep working hard. BigLaw partners often peruse incoming associates’ resumes before handing out assignments, and an associate who graduated with honors will be viewed more highly than one who didn’t.
Similarly, try to write a 3L paper and get it published in a law review. Having a law review publication to your name is a great calling card that shows you’re a capable legal thinker and writer. Partners notice this sort of thing.
Finally, you should seriously consider a judicial clerkship, either right out of law school or after a year or two at a firm. Besides being a lot of fun, clerkships are great indicators that you know how to think, research, and write effectively. Accordingly, I’ve found that partners are more inclined to give early responsibility and substantive assignments to associates who clerked, compared to those who haven’t. And virtually all BigLaw firms will happily leave your spot open if you decide to take a one-year hiatus to clerk. Any firm shortsighted enough to begrudge you this opportunity is not a place that you’d want to work anyway.
When you’re at a BigLaw firm, the recipe for success is pretty simple: do great work. Research the hell out of any legal memos you’re asked to draft. Check and re-check your writing to make sure it’s as clear and lucid as possible. Before drafting a deposition outline, think long and hard about what admissions you want to get out of the witness and what questions you should ask to elicit them.
The quality of your work product is far and away the most important barometer of success as a BigLaw associate, and great work can compensate for almost anything else. For instance, most partners won’t care if you roll into the office late or leave early (within reason) as long as you send high-quality work to their inboxes on time. I’ve written some of my best briefs while sitting at home in my briefs – and the partners really didn’t care that I was doing this work from home rather than the office.
Even the vaunted obsession with billable hours often takes a back-seat to work quality. Your average BigLaw partner won’t fight to keep or promote a 2,700 hour-per-year associate who can’t be trusted to help win the partner’s cases. But that same partner will fight for a 2,000 hour-per-year associate who writes great briefs, or takes killer depositions, or provides thorough and top-notch legal research.
Thus, my overall advice for aspiring BigLaw associates is fairly simple: think carefully about which firm would be best for you. Work hard to brand yourself as a solid legal thinker before you even step through the firm’s doors. And concentrate on turning out great work product after you step through those doors. Simple advice, to be sure, but advice that I strongly believe in.