Another “man am I glad I had the sense to start my own firm” story.
I remember late in my second year of law school, when every one was looking for summer associate positions. Unless the practice has changed since the days of yore when I was attended law school, law students try to find a job at a firm for the summer between their second and third year of law school. If all goes well, the firm extends the student an offer at the conclusion of the summer, and they have a job waiting when they graduate.
I was on law review, and we would hang out there during breaks, and swap stories of our job searches. I remember one fellow student, practically gushing about a job offer he had received. He detailed how a partner had explained that all associates are given car phones (cell phones weren’t a thing yet), and that the firm provides lunch and dinner in the office cafeteria every day. He thought that was all so great. He was getting a free phone, and he would save a ton on money on food.
Even then, ignorant as I was of life at a big firm, I recognized those perks for what they were. The firm wanted to make sure the associates were always reachable, and offered lunch and dinner so they’d never have to leave the building and could keep on billing. The law firm I went with took that even further and offered sleeping rooms and showers so you didn’t need to go home to grab a few hours of sleep.
Thirty-six years later I see that nothing has changed.
A PowerPoint slide from a presentation for associates at the Paul Hastings law firm was leaked to Law.com, and has made its way onto various sites. It is entitled, “Non Negotiable Expectations.” The presentation was purportedly made to the newbie associates by a senior associate. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the information being imparted to the poor lost souls at the firm, but it is gaining so much attention because they said the quiet part out loud, as the saying goes.
The bullet points in the slide are the reality that has always been hidden from prospective and new associates, behind a smokescreen of work-life balance discussions and the like. When I began working at “The Big Firm,” I was at least allowed a couple of months of ignorant bliss, thinking I had grabbed the golden ring of legal careers. Paul Hastings apparently believes in immediately ripping off the bandage. You have to admire the honesty, I suppose.
Here are the things that caught my eye.
1. “PH is an AmLaw 20 law firm. You’re in the big leagues, which is a privilege, act like it.”
Being an “AmLaw 20” firm is pretty meaningless from an associate’s standpoint, unless the metrics used have some special significance to their situation. The ranking is based largely on firm revenue (that factor is “double weighted”). I guess that could provide some comfort as to the firm’s financial health. According to the rankings, for 2021, the number one firm earned over $3.5 million per attorney. The number two firm earned a paltry $2 million per attorney.
That’s cool and all, but it says nothing about the quality of the firm’s work. So the presenter is saying that “you’re in the big leagues” based in large part on how much the partners make compared to partners at other firms. I don’t think a baseball player marks their entry into the big leagues according to the profits earned by the team.
2. “The client comes first and is always right.”
I should note that I don’t know the exact audience for the presentation. On the transactional side, more deference could be given to the wishes of a client. But if this was directed to litigators, this mentality was a major factor in my decision that the big firm life was not for me.
In the litigation context, contrary to point number 2, the client isn’t always right, and often does not deserve representation. At my firm, we only represent the party on the right side of the case, defined as the party who should prevail if justice is done.
If an attorney represents a client, with no regard to whether the action or defense has merit, then they are simply a mercenary, doing the bidding of the client. I think the fact that so many big law attorneys are forced to do so is a contributing factor in why only 44% of them report satisfaction with their careers.
To this, many attorneys will respond that everyone is entitled to legal representation, but that simply isn’t true. Here in California, as I’m confident is the case in all states, the Rules of Professional Conduct prohibit an attorney from representing a client when “the lawyer knows or reasonably should know that the client is bringing an action, conducting a defense, asserting a position in litigation, or taking an appeal, without probable cause and for the purpose of harassing or
maliciously injuring any person.”
From what I witnessed, this is never a consideration at a big firm. Indeed, big companies pay big bucks to big firms, often specifically because they are on the wrong side of a case, and hope to prevail by means of the scorched earth approach a big firm can offer.
Admittedly, who is on the right side is not always clear. If the defendant is unquestionably liable to the plaintiff, but the plaintiff is seeking damages that far exceed any injury, then who is on the right side of that case? And even if the client is on the right side initially, they might ask for litigation tactics that are not appropriate or ethical.
Don’t worry, there are plenty of cases that have no clear “right side,” so you won’t be hurting for work. But to be an ethical litigator, and feel good about what you are doing, you must be able to turn down cases, and fire clients who go to the dark side. You can imagine, though, how well it will go over when you tell the star rainmaker partner that the firm is on the wrong side and should fire his or her biggest client.
3. “You are ‘online’ 24/7. No exceptions, no excuses.”
This is worse than giving associates car phones, if it is meant literally, and it appears that it is. At least, back in the day, once your car was in the garage, you could sleep in peace until they called you at home. And you could avoid those calls by not being at home. Now these poor associates must remain linked to their phones, for calls and emails, “24/7.”
8. “No questions until you’ve tried to figure something out for yourself. Still can’t figure it out? Talk to your classmates.”
According to the list, associates are told not to ask questions. And if they do, questions should only be directed to equally ignorant classmates. From my experience, this sort of inefficiency is by design at large firms, since it encourages more billables. Better to have the associate flounder for days, researching an answer, than to get a quick answer from a more senior associate.
I noticed a common routine at firm lunches. Some associate would mention they were drafting a complaint to, say, compel the FCC to license a radio station antenna, and some other associate would say, “I have a sample complaint for that.” Being a computer nerd, I advised the powers that be that it would be a simple matter to set up a searchable data base of sample documents. The firm expressed no interest in the idea, and it hit me that in their eyes, efficiency would add nothing to the bottom line.
Is life all bad at a big firm?
For some period of time, I felt resentment toward the firm associates I had spent time with during the recruiting process. All those parties and dinners; couldn’t one of them have confided to me exactly what I was singing up for? But I mellowed with time, and came to realize that I bore the blame. The big firm experience is what it is. I think it is assumed that new associates know that they will have little or no life outside the firm, and do not need to be told.
Now, I actually look back with great fondness for the firm that hired me. In fact, 30 years later, the firm still invites me to an annual alumni event; a meet and greet between the firm alumni and some current partners and associates. There are always great appetizers and an open bar. A very class act. I do feel bad, though, for the current associates who were no doubt told that attendance is “strongly encouraged.” They stand there, looking a bit dazed, likely contemplating that this time is not billable.
I went to law school always intending to start my own firm, but allowed myself to be wooed. The realization that I had made a horrible mistake going the big firm route was momentarily sobering, until I realized I could simply return to Plan A. With that mindset, I turned my time there into an internship to start my own practice, and the work became more interesting and far less onerous. Big firm litigation certainly doesn’t translate in all aspects to what you’ll do at a small firm, but a lot of the fundamentals are there. I learned how to propound and respond to discovery, how to craft a persuasive motion, how to navigate court appearances, and all the procedural rules.
I initially kept my intentions to myself, but eventually shared my plan with a partner I did a lot of work for. He was nothing but supportive, and would send work my way that would better prepare me for my own practice. (It’s not like my firm would be any competition to a mega-firm.) I’m told I was the only first year associate at the firm to ever handle a trial solo. An employee of one of the companies represented by the firm had a slip and fall injury. The firm certainly didn’t handle personal injury cases, but the partner agreed to make an exception, both as a courtesy to the client and so that I could get some trial experience. Interestingly, he left shortly after I did, to work at an arbitration and mediation service. He apparently had an escape plan of his own.
In addition to the experience I gained from litigating the smaller cases, I used my time at the big firm to educate myself on practice areas that I would pursue at my own firm. The firm had continuing education passes available to all, including all presentations by the legal publisher The Rutter Group. Not only did that enable me to study practice areas that would be more applicable to my own firm, I could purchase the practice guides at a significant discount, allowing me to build my library. (Less important now, with everything available online, but physical volumes are still useful.)
Most every career requires you to pay your dues.
I think starting your legal career at a big firm can be a good choice. Most professions have a “residency phase” as it were, where you are expected to work long hours and pay your dues. I have no issue with that reality, but it was clear that while things might get slightly better in later years (and certainly more lucrative), the big firm slog was not the life for me.
Number 10 on the list recognizes the reality that the big firm life is not for everyone, stating that “it’s your reputation that will carry you – whether that’s here or in-house or elsewhere.”
Many years ago, I read an interview of one of the senior partners I had known while working at The Big Firm. He said that it took two heart attacks (it might have been three) for him to finally take a hard look at his work-life balance. Following his latest recovery, he continued to work at the firm, but said that he was now much happier, working what he described as part time – 50 hours per week. He added that if he had it to do all over again, he would not have made his work his life.
So with the PH list firmly in mind, by all means spend a couple of years at an “AmLaw 20″ firm to see if it is the life for you. Not only can you gain valuable experience while earning a regular paycheck, your time there will dispel any intimidation when you later confront a big firm on one of your cases. You’ll know that while the firm might be earning $3.5 million dollars per attorney per year, likely as not your opposing counsel is an inexperienced associate who is told not to ask questions.