Perception V. Reality: Working in Biglaw, For Real

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Many of us grow up watching great shows like Suits, Goliath, How To Get Away With Murder, to name a few. These television shows, while entertaining, show the most exciting parts of working on a case. These attorneys wear fierce suits, the women run around in heels all day, and they make it look super exciting. But aside the glamour, the expensive suits, and outrageous timepieces, legal practice inside the biggest and most prestigious law firms are far from whatever Shonda Rhimes’ beautiful mind shows us. These shows brainwashed many with the idea that working at one of these firms is a dream come true.

The Law Firm Concept

The definition of success varies among individuals and lawyers in general. There are numerous ups and downs regarding jobs in Biglaw. In the event that you measure success in terms of financial compensation and profit, then yes, working for a big firm can be the best thing you can do. In case you are looking for work-life balance, and perhaps a clear conscience, you may want to stay away from Biglaw.

When comparing the yearlong wages of lawyers in numerous developed countries, the highest paying firms are in most cases, industry giants. From the very beginning, at the bottom of the corporate ladder, junior lawyers make almost twice as much as lawyers at medium size or boutique law firms.

Top Compensation Report
2018 top compensation by year for a few firms in the top 200, Leopard Solutions Firmscape: Top Compensation Report.

Many of these firms recruit lawyers from some of the most prestigious universities in the US urging only the top of the class to apply in order to build the strongest legal army. Biglaw rewards these outstanding individuals with great salary packages (see above) and the possibility to grow within the firm. In exchange for the large income, which for many is nearly two hundred thousand the first year, lawyers must give away a large part of their lives, devoting themselves to basically living inside the office.

When working for big firms, weekly schedules are anything but fair. Lawyers, especially junior associates and paralegals, work between 60 to 90 hours a week or even more when a big case is on the line. There is no such thing as work/life balance because, in return for these incredible salaries, firms squeeze every second of your time. Even though most lawyers can agree that their work schedules are overwhelming and exhausting, these conditions are aggravated when working in Biglaw.

Balance, What Balance?

The ever-popular and oft spoken of work-life balance can be achieved while working in these types of firms. The main problem is that “balance,” takes years, if not decades of working extensive hours under the highest levels of stress. Climbing the corporate ladder of such firms, from junior associate to a senior or managing position is both time-demanding and stressful. This, however, happens in almost every firm, but competing against hundreds of lawyers for the same position can cause major anxiety and stress. There is also a chance that you will never make it to senior partner, which is something to consider when dedicating your entire professional career, chasing the dream of having your name on the door.

I Didn’t See That On TV!

Best law firm

In the movies, there is always a big case with a very junior associate in charge of finding the missing piece – that one bit of evidence that will turn everything around for the defense. The other misconception of Biglaw is that lawyers always work on interestingly big cases and perform very challenging tasks. Since the legal industry provides services based on billable hours, junior associates perform simple, boring and unchallenging tasks such as precedent review, case filing, and administrative work – while the more experienced lawyers take on cases. This is simply the industry standard. Doing this, firms can charge clients a higher rate per hour.

The Really Real Truth & Nothing But

Lawyers often feel depressed in the first years of their career because it simply isn’t what they imagined. The glamour, the expensive dinners, the perks, and glitz is not reality. Climbing up the ladder at many firms is not black-white – work X amount of years, make partner; life is set – is not the way it is in real life. Firms have complex hierarchies that serve as huge obstacles for many bright-eyed new attorneys.

While it has been very easy to say that working in Biglaw is thankless and all stress all day for years, it is also very rewarding in the long run for those willing to sacrifice the great number of years to reap the rewards. Excitement and stress are not mutually exclusive and can occur at the same time within the same career. In the end, lawyers must decide whether to enter this competitive corporate world or spend their career at a boutique firm or private practice. Regardless of the choice, the law is full of rewarding opportunities. Subscribe to the Leopard Blog for discussions on diversity, law firm insights, and other relevant topics.

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