10 Things I Learned From Working In Big Law

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Big Law provided me with a slew of difficult and challenging times. I wasn’t particularly happy, and I eventually walked away because I wanted to do something else with my life. I wanted to pursue a brand of work that intrinsically made me happy. So I left.

Now that I’m out of the game, folks often ask me the following: “do you regret practicing law?” Absolutely not. Moreover, I continue to recommend Big Law as a first job for top law school graduates. As gruelling as firm life can be, it undoubtedly bestows young associates with an irreplaceable skill set that translates to any profession. My firm experience cut my teeth as a businessman, and I truly believe that it will serve me well for the rest of my life. Below is a list of the 10 most valuable skills that young litigators will surely glean from a Big Law experience.

1. How To Be Responsive Partners expect their associates to be available at all times. That means having their blackberry accessible 24/7, whether they are at home watching a sitcom or on the front nine of a golf course. And when a bright-eyed associate gets that last-minute email requiring a diligent effort on a time sensitive assignment, the proper firm etiquette is to respond ASAP. Failing to do so can aggravate both colleagues as well as clients. My old firm mentor gave me a rule when I started: any email that comes to my inbox must be responded to within 30 minutes or less.

Now, this doesn’t mean that an in-depth research assignment should be thrown together in that time frame; instead, however, what needs to be fired off in the short term is a quick acknowledgment that the task is being attended to. This let’s your coworkers know that the message has been received and that the product will be delivered shortly. This keeps everyone on the same page and facilitates a steady workflow. Firms do a great job of burning this anal-retentive sense of urgency into their fledgling lawyers. This mindset will serve young law grads well in both Big Law and beyond.

2. How To Write Well — Attorneys are known for being excellent writers. In fact, writing ability is probably the most important skill set for budding Big Law associates. If an associate is not a strong writer when he joins a firm, the partners and senior associates will bash him with constructive criticism to make sure that he gets up to speed as quickly as possible. Firms teach associates how to put together concise and clear sentences, how to front-load memorandums and briefs with the most pertinent information, and how to carefully excise writing of all grammatical and spelling errors.

Convoluted legalese is yesterday’s mainstay; for modern attorneys, the emphasis is on clean and clear language. Writing is both a science and an art, and Big Law firms are some of the best training grounds to perfect both aspects of the craft.

3. How To Tolerate Unpleasant Work — As much as I advise my readers to “follow your bliss” and “do something you love,” the reality of life is that you are always going to have to endure boring grunt work. It doesn’t matter if you’re a painter, a musician, a farmer, or a politician. For example, with my current venture, a supposed labour of love, I am still forced to make cold calls every so often in order to drum up business. And sometimes I have to drive around to different locations to hang up flyers.

Even though I don’t particularly enjoy these tasks, they have to be done. Big Law has taught me how to put my head down and plow through these obligations even though they are painfully boring. Through painstaking repetition, I now understand how to prepare my mind when necessary so that I can efficiently and methodically barrel through busy work.

4. How To Be Punctual — While many corporate positions stress the importance of punctuality, law is a special animal. Not only are attorneys subject to internal deadlines and meetings, but they are often at the mercy of inflexible judges. If a court specifies that something needs to be completed by a particular date, you simply must comply. It is a sink or swim environment, and showing a lack of discipline with respect to punctuality is a surefire way to plummet to the ocean bottom.

5. How To Deal With Powerful People — Working with powerful people requires a certain amount of grace and calibration. Sometimes you need to be submissive, and other times you need to show strength and composure. You must read each situation carefully and act accordingly.

Being surrounded by partners and senior associates in Big Law — fairly powerful individuals in their own right — is great practice for any subsequent career jump. Attorneys are constantly working with highly educated and accomplished mentors, all demanding a certain professional demeanor on a daily basis.

But more interesting than the coworkers are the clients. Big Law firms deal with massively influential corporations. After all, those are the only organisations that can afford to pay the insane billable rates. I’m talking $US400.00/hour for a junior associate; sometimes $US1,000.00/hour for the Big Law big dogs. But what is really cool about working with these massive clients is that the point of contact will usually be someone fairly high up in the company. This could include a vice president, a CFO, a general counsel, and in some cases, a CEO of a fortune 500 company.

Working with these C-level executives yields a strong and steady mentality. Another interesting facet of being a litigator is depositions. When a young buck steps up to the plate to grill his deponent, he will likely be interrogating a fairly senior member of the company. In these situations, associates learn how to be assertive and strong despite the lopsided power dynamic.

6. How To Read In A Fast And Effective Way — This one almost goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway. The path to being an excellent reader begins in law school when professors flood students’ schedules with laborious and dense reading assignments. The progression continues at the firm when associates are required to do (1) copious amounts of legal research, (2) parse all sorts of documents, and (3) proofread tons of legal briefs and motions. Attorneys spend the majority of their day reading something, and the reading will, in general, be fairly complex. Accordingly, Big Law associates learn how to process large amounts of information in an efficient manner.

7. How To Manage Time — Most litigators in Big Law will be staffed on somewhere between three and five cases simultaneously. That means associates (1) need to be aware of several ongoing projects at once, (2) recognise what is due when, (3) know which partners need to be contacted about what, and (4) keep abreast of when the next item needs to be addressed. Needless to say, attorneys often feel lost amidst an insane flurry of activity. They either learn to organise their schedules or find a new career. Bottom line… Big Law attorneys know how to manage their time better than anyone in the corporate game.

8. How To Pay Attention To Details — I had a rude awakening when I began my legal career. By nature, I am not a detail-oriented person. Instead, I am what folks refer to as a “big picture” guy. Well, that simply does not fly for a young associate. Big Law requires all employees to adhere to a standard of perfect emails, flawless memos, and immaculate discovery documents. Typos are not tolerated. Even intra-firm emails are heavily scrutinized.

To adapt to this heightened standard, I had to implement a host of different methodologies to ensure that my work product met the firm’s quality control standards. Eventually, after enough time, these techniques became second nature, and lo and behold, I had morphed myself into a relatively detail-oriented person. If you compare a basic memorandum generated by a Big Law attorney versus that from any other corporate genre, you will most often find that the pristine and polished end product was manufactured by the lawyer.

9. How To Be Self-Sufficient — So it’s your first day as an attorney. You graduated from a great law school with an awesome GPA, and you feel like you can take on the world with your legal wizardry, right? Well, truthfully, you don’t know jack. The vast majority of what you need to learn will be absorbed on the job.

And how does that learning primarily take place? By doing. No lectures, no tutorials, and no homework. You will be handed all sorts of assignments that you will have absolutely no idea how to complete. The onus is on you to look up exemplars, speak with mentors, and undertake independent research to get the job done. Once again, the sink or swim policy is in play. If you successfully navigate these choppy waters, you will have earned yourself a shiny “self-sufficient” merit badge.

10. How To Delegate — Even young associates must be savvy with delegation. This is not as easy as it sounds. First off, they need to get comfortable with the bizarre age dynamics at play. For example, since most law school graduates are around 27 or 28, the odds are that their secretaries will be older and more experienced than them. The same goes for the paralegals as well as the contract attorneys.

The young associates are responsible for divvying up work assignments and taking on a leadership role. As they move up through the ranks, they will be required to assemble teams of underlings, hand out assignments, and keep tabs on progress. Again, there is no tutorial on how to oversee large teams. They must learn as they go. After a few years in Big Law, associates are well equipped to manage any large project.

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