How To Survive Life At A Big Corporate Law Firm

Editor’s note: A version of this post appeared on Quora in answer to the question, How do I survive life as an M&A associate at a top law firm? We are republishing this answer with the author’s permission.
A few practical tips, most of which you probably already use:

Live within short walking distance of the office: I paid about $US600-800 more in monthly rent to live in midtown east so I could have an average walking commute of 7 minutes (4 if I run and the crosswalk lights work out). Studies show that commuting is one of the unhappiest activities for most people — this is especially true if you don’t look forward to your job. By living close enough that a walk home takes as much time as a bathroom break, you can roll the dice more often and return home for activities like lunch, a quick shower or nap, walk your dog, peck your significant other on the cheek, etc. You’ll have your blackberry and if anyone asks, you were taking a dump in the bathroom or out getting coffee.

Get a home office: buy, set up, and practice using: a fast printer, copier/scanner, a quality speakerphone/headphone setup, fax machine, laptop, and basic office supplies. Work remotely from home as much as possible. Just don’t try to treat your roommate or spouse like your secretary…

Keep basic toiletries and snacks in your office. It’s fairly routine to walk into one of the firm’s bathrooms at 2 or 3 a.m. and see someone brushing or flossing their teeth. Be that person. Given all the downtime where you’ll need to be sitting around waiting for a call, you can relegate certain hygienic activities/chores like cutting your nails or getting a haircut. Find a decent barber, shoeshine, deli, dry-cleaners, chiropractor (you’re going to get back pain from all the sitting), pharmacy, and gym near the office. Keep an extra suit and tie, gym clothes, cough drops, plastic utensils, shoes/slippers, sweatpants (AC in some offices can get frigid at night), etc. for those late nights and early mornings. Keeping a Kindle and an iPad (or laptop) in your office won’t hurt either.

Join a gym or sports team. Staying in shape will help your stamina and keep you in better mental health as well. You’ll have an easier time staying awake when you need to and falling asleep when you have the chance to. Joining a team (e.g., soccer, softball, biking) is even better because it will give you a social outlet outside of work but can be more difficult to maintain because of your crazy and unpredictable hours.

Be disciplined about what you put into your body. Don’t make a habit of getting beer/wine with lunch unless it’s socially expected (e.g., entertaining a client or a summer associate). Try to avoid drinking to excess or by yourself. Try to be healthy on Seamless. Stick to sushi and salads as often as you can, and do not feel obligated to max out your meal allowance. Just because you can spend up to $US35 on dinner doesn’t mean you should. Try not to drink coffee after 3-4 pm as it may affect your ability to fall asleep later that night. Do NOT take adderall, coke, or any other drugs to stay awake and alert; or any sleeping pills, weedm or other substances to fall asleep — you will begin to form dependencies. Remind yourself constantly that our profession has the highest rates of depression and substance abuse/addiction.

Maintain your friendships and interests outside of law. This will be difficult after you cancel plans at the last minute on your high school or college buddies for the 20th time due to a deal or case blowing up, but it is crucial for your mental health to not be constantly surrounded by colleagues who almost all hate their jobs but can talk about nothing else even when outside of work.

Decide what your goals are. If you know already that you don’t care about making partner, then you can push back a bit more when the assigning partner or associate calls. If you are considering in-house opportunities, then you should try to develop deeper relationships with your counterpart(s) on the client’s side. Having a light at the end of the tunnel to work towards also helps keep your endurance and spirits up.

Treat your peers and subordinates with as much or more respect than the partners. As a junior associate, you have the least leverage when it comes to getting quality support. The only way to make the super competent paralegals want to work for you is to be nicer to them than other associates (e.g., don’t make people stay late unless absolutely necessary — do NOT make a junior associate or para stay late just because 30-45 minutes of work MIGHT materialise later in the evening; sack up and do it yourself if that happens; provide regular, unsolicited updates on deal or case status and impending deadlines; if anyone below you on a deal f—s up and the partner or client notices, own up to it as if it were your own mistake). Get to know the schedules of your team. If the first year working under you has volleyball on Tuesdays, do everything you can to avoid making her stay late on those nights. If a para wants to stay late 2-3 times a week to get the overtime pay, then try to accommodate him.

As far as your peers go, there’s no reason to act like the job is a competition even if you intend to treat it like one — maybe especially if you decide to treat it like one. The most ambitious associates at the firms I’ve worked at were also the ones with the most pleasant facades who tried to be friends with everyone. Nobody rises to the top without allies. Being respected and liked by your peers and your subordinates will show the partners and clients that you are pleasant to work with/for and that you can effectively manage and mentor others. It’ll also make your life easier. For one of the last deals I was staffed on, the senior partner called everyone into his office for a preliminary team meeting early on and talked for 20 minutes about how delighted he was to be working with us and how much he hoped we’d enjoy this deal; then he concluded by turning to me and the other junior and saying: “Oh, by the way, as the deal goes along, if one of you notices that you’re no longer being cc-ed as much on emails or given as many assignments, it just means I think you’re stupider than the other one.” Afterwards, I made it a special point to emphasise to the other junior that I a) did not think of myself as more senior just because I was a 2nd year while he was a 1st year since we were both on rotation and new to this particular practice group; b) already had one foot out the door and thus was not competing with him in any way; and c) thought the partner’s speech made him sound like a d-bag. We got along marvelously, and he made my life easier by covering for me and keeping me updated at several crucial moments during the deal.

Constantly consider and evaluate your exit options. Even if you intend to stick it out and try for partner, it’s good to know what your other choices are. Unless you’ve already experienced a string of months where you billed 400+ hours and pulled multiple all-nighters but felt like it was a cakewalk, assume that you will burn out at some point. It’s just a matter of time. Make it a point to stay in touch with headhunters. Let them take you out for coffee every few months. Keep in touch with your classmates and colleagues (both current and former) to see what industries they’re in (or considering switching to) and what opportunities there are outside of biglaw. I know so many lawyers who left to join a startup or found a food company or travel the world like a bum. Hearing those stories is important. If nothing else, it will make you feel more in control and valued because you will know that you’re making a deliberate choice by staying. You’re choosing to stay here over all your other wonderful options — not because you don’t have any other choices. The moment it stops being worth it, you’ll have a headstart on jumping ship.

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