There are at least two contradictory stereotypes about associate life in large, national law firms (hereinafter “BigLaw”). The first is that BigLaw associates work in a high-stakes, exciting world where their decisions have multimillion-dollar consequences for their corporate clients. The second is that BigLaw associates live a life of drudgery, doing boring and tedious work that garners little praise and even less recognition.
As a sixth-year BigLaw associate, focusing on intellectual property and antitrust litigation, I think both stereotypes have some degree of truth. In the past year alone, I deposed one of the most famous computer scientists in the world, wrote briefs that garnered commentary from major technology blogs, and flew to London to advise a client on strategy for a billion-dollar lawsuit. On the other hand, I also reviewed privilege stamps on thousands of client documents, pored over hundreds of Kinko’s receipts to create an accurate Bill of Costs, and cite-checked partners’ briefs to ensure that their cites were in proper Bluebook format. In short, both excitement and drudgery are integral parts of BigLaw associate life.
Indeed, the life of a BigLaw associate is varied and checkered enough that it’s difficult to describe a “typical” day. Nonetheless, I will try to do so. Individual results, as they say, may vary:
7:00 a.m.: Get up, throw on running clothes, and run the 4.5 miles to work. This routine – running to and from work – has turned out to be a great idea. By turning my commute into my daily exercise, I save a huge amount of time. And it’s easier than you might think. Almost all case documents are electronic these days, so I almost never need to take files to and from the office. And I have a membership to the gym across the street, so I can shower off and not subject my co-workers to my sweaty self all day long.
8:00 a.m.-10:00 a.m.: Draft document subpoenas to third-party witnesses in a search engine patent case. This task doesn’t sound too exciting – and it isn’t. But various third-party witnesses inevitably have documents that are relevant to any given litigation, so the parties need to subpoena these witnesses in order to get their documents. The trick is to make sure the document requests in the subpoena are broad enough to capture every scrap of paper that might be relevant to the litigation, while being narrow enough to convince a judge that you’re not just going on a fishing expedition.
10:00 a.m.-2:00 p.m.: Work on a summary judgment motion for an antitrust case. This task is a lot more fun. Our opponent engaged in some seriously shady behavior during trade organization negotiations several years ago, and we have the documents and deposition testimony to prove it. I just need to distill all the documents and depositions into a compelling, ten-page narrative for the judge. This is advocacy at its best: gathering up the relevant facts and presenting them to a judge (or jury) to convince them that your client is in the right and your opponent is in the wrong.
2:00 p.m.-3:00 p.m.: All-hands meeting for a trade secret case. This meeting entails all the partners and associates on the case convening in a conference room to discuss the various case tasks. Without these all-hands meetings, things would go to hell very quickly. There are just so many different things going on in a given case – analyzing case law, deposing fact witnesses, collecting documents, drafting written discovery, working with expert witnesses – that certain tasks would inevitably fall through the cracks if we didn’t have weekly all-hands meetings to ensure that every task had a partner or associate assigned to it.
These all-hands meetings are also a nice opportunity for camaraderie and even some gentle ribbing. At this particular meeting, the buzz centered on one of the junior partners on the case who argued our summary judgment motion in court last week. After the hearing, our local co-counsel quietly suggested that her leopard-print pumps were a bit too fashion-forward for the particular judicial District we were in.
3:00 p.m.-5:00 p.m.: Legal research for another patent case, over tablet computer patents. The partner in charge of this case wants to pursue a patent exhaustion defense, but we need to know whether this defense will fly under our facts. So I hit the books (i.e., Westlaw) to research the standards for patent exhaustion and figure out if we can credibly assert this defense.
5:00 p.m.-7:00 p.m.: Review opponent’s discovery motion for the first search engine case. Right before the close of business hours, I get an automatic email notification from the Court telling me that our opponent has filed a motion seeking to compel us to provide more thorough discovery responses. Our response to their motion isn’t due for a week, but I spend a couple hours reviewing their motion, digesting their legal arguments, and brainstorming counterarguments that we can make. Actually drafting our response brief can wait until tomorrow. I’m done for the day. Time to run home.
As I said, individual results may vary. While any BigLaw associate’s career will have a mixture of exciting and boring work, the precise mix will vary significantly across associates – and across firms. For that reason, I strongly recommend that any law student seeking to work in BigLaw conduct due diligence about which firm to join. Look up the Vault profiles for all the firms you’re considering. Reach out to friends and former classmates who’ve gone on to work at those firms, and ask them about their experiences. Even reach out to friends and former classmates who work in the same city as those firms– after all, firms acquire reputations in the broader legal community, and those reputations often have a good deal of truth to them.
Then, after you’ve acquired all the information you can about your candidate firms, sit down to think about which firm would be the best fit for you. This may involve weighing different factors against each other, because a strength in one respect may be a weakness in another. My firm, for instance, has a well-deserved reputation for having a freewheeling culture with minimal bureaucracy and no well-defined practice groups. This is great if you want the freedom to work on a broad range of cases in different legal fields. It’s not so great if you want formal, structured mentoring early in your career.
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.