This is the second-part of a two part series on what advice I would give young lawyers in Biglaw to reach financial freedom. The first part deals with how to manage money. This part deals with how to last long enough in Biglaw to actually become free.
Becoming a valued Biglaw drone boils down to two key principles:
- Deliver good work product
- Manage your image
Some might say I’m forgetting key principles like hard work, always being available / eager, etc. But I would argue that these are only important to the extent they uphold the second principle.
Going on a quick tangent, my high school valedictorian wrote a note in my senior yearbook that said something like:
It was nice knowing you, slacker! You know, if you really put your mind to something, you too can be successful.
Condescending, right? At the end of high school, everyone had a single data point about how their future would turn out: what college they were attending. She went to the best university in the U.S. and I didn’t. (Boo hoo, that wasn’t the goal anyways.) Well as time passed, everyone got more data points. I looked her up recently, and somehow she fell into law. She went to an OK law school, certainly well outside the T14, but still got Biglaw upon graduating. She got kicked to the curb in 2 years and she’s been bouncing from firm to firm since then. She couldn’t handle the transition from school to real life. Going back to what she told me, it turns out being a “slacker” was one of the reasons I lasted so long in Biglaw. I knew how to navigate difficult situations without killing myself. Get 80% of the result for 20% of the effort. That’s why principle #2 is “manage your image,” rather than “work super-duper hard.”
Let’s talk about these principles in more detail. Disclaimer: My experience is obviously limited to my practice group. I don’t know a lot about what goes on in, for example, corporate, tax, health, T&E, employment practice groups. Hopefully those of you who are in other practices groups can derive some universal truths from this post.
Deliver Good Work Product
If you can’t do the work, then there’s nothing I can say or do to help you last long enough in Biglaw to become financially independent. Usually, partners can sniff out folks who are not up to snuff in a few short months.
For those of you still reading, good work product is essential to becoming a valued Biglaw drone. Come out swinging out of the gate with these tips:
- Make sure you understand the assignment. Get it the first time. Bring a notebook into the assigning attorney’s office so you can take notes on what to do. Ask for a deadline. If it’s a totally unfamiliar task, ask if there are any exemplars you can review.
- Don’t burden the assigning attorney with too many requests for clarification. Don’t require hand holding. You should be able to advance the assignment to the next stage without too much guidance. If you’re a first year, the next stage might mean an outline as opposed to a complete draft. But move it forward. Don’t make the assigning attorney feel like they’re doing the work themselves.
- Make sure the deliverable can be shown to a client. If it cannot, it likely is not suitable for delivery to a partner either. No typos, bad grammar, or strange formatting. Look at an exemplar to see if your work product is on par with what others have done. A lot of the time, polishing work product means copying and pasting a bunch of boilerplate language.
- Make sure you are not citing bad law — I know of two summer associates who were no-offered because they cited to overturned cases in legal research memos.
- Provide executive summaries, instead of requiring the reader to wade through paragraph after paragraph of minutia
- Give status updates as appropriate. Don’t inundate the assigning attorney, or make them feel like they have no idea what you are doing.
You kind of get the idea on work product. Help make the assigning attorney’s life easier. Over time, this will build trust.
Manage Your Image
- Act one level higher than your current position. Act like a mid-level and you will be treated like a mid-level.
- Corollary: Don’t act like a first year, or worse, a legal assistant or secretary. Notice how staff members always send out e-mails saying they will be out next Thursday for a doctor’s appointment? Do you see any senior associates or partners doing that? While you should make sure your team knows when you will be out, there’s a right and a wrong way to do it.
- Further corollary: Don’t ask for permission to take vacation. Again, do you see anyone other than legal assistants and secretaries doing that? Slip it in during normal conversation a few months before your trip. Look at all your trial calendars before you pick dates to avoid issues.
- Don’t admit mistakes until you have done a complete audit of what happened. As a college intern, I once admitted to what I thought was a mistake, but it turned out not to be. A mistake admitting a mistake? How incompetent! As an associate, you want partners to see the unblemished facade — no cracks! In other words, don’t show them how the sausage is made, especially if they don’t realize the sausage includes guts and eye balls. But if you made a serious mistake, you should own up as maturely as possible. Make some lemonade out of lemons…also the faster you own up, the more likely it can be corrected. If it is minor and will likely slip through the cracks, then you might consider taking your chances.
- Partners should think you are busy, whether or not you are actually busy. This helps keep busy work off your desk.
- Only speak up in meetings if you are sure you are right. When I was a junior associate, I erred on the side of being perceived as the quiet, but smart associate. This helped mask the fact that more often than not, I was clueless. But try your best to speak up a few times during meetings.
- If you are generally in demand, never volunteer for work. No good can come of this. Murphy’s law will come in effect and you will simultaneously get more work than you can handle. But do express willingness to handle work that is just out of your reach. This will help demonstrate eagerness without much of a downside. Plus, it helps you act one level higher.
- Never embarrass anyone personally or stab anyone in the back, either inside or outside your firm. You can embarrass the other side when you destroy their witness in a deposition, but don’t attack anyone personally. It’s a small world and they will make you a target. Why make the road to FIRE be more difficult than it already is?
- Don’t jump the gun. As you get more senior, sometimes partners will give you the autonomy to correspond directly with opposing counsel or make decisions. Always CYA on key issues so talk things out before making a decision.
- If you are sought after by two rainmakers, pit them against each other. Be like water and turn their pulling on you into their pushing against each other. Don’t commit to a large project for one without checking with the other. They will have to work out a solution that accommodates your bandwidth. You may feel pinched for a while, but ultimately you will come out on top. In the future, they may just assume the other has you really busy (see above). Along the same lines, try to work with both evenly so you can use the tension to your advantage in the future.
- Make the firm woo you. Many rules of dating apply to being an associate. But you have to be a superstar, i.e., the hot chick. This is advanced level shit so YMMV. If they want to retain you, then they will pull out the stops. This is a very vague topic, but here’s an example. Let’s say a partner leaves your firm and asks if you want to go along with them (you don’t), you can very casually drop this in conversation and trust me, the news will make its way around. The firm will start charming you. You might see a fatter bonus. You can be somewhat hot and cold in this regard. Let them hang on your every word to try to take your temperature. The flip side is: Never, ever let the firm feel like they own you.
- Never mention FIRE to anyone. That’s a four-letter word (duh!). But keep them a little off guard. You conform for the most part, but they scratch their heads wondering why they don’t own you like the own the other associates.
There’s so much to say on managing your image. It’s really the key to being a valued associate without having to grind your life away. I suppose if I had to boil down the advice, I would say always to put your best foot forward and use your environment to your advantage as much as possible.