My Advice to Young Lawyers (Part 2)

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:

  1. Deliver good work product
  2. 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.

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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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Provide executive summaries, instead of requiring the reader to wade through paragraph after paragraph of minutia
  6. 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

  1. Act one level higher than your current position.  Act like a mid-level and you will be treated like a mid-level.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Partners should think you are busy, whether or not you are actually busy.  This helps keep busy work off your desk.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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?
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. 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.

Posted in Law

11 thoughts on “My Advice to Young Lawyers (Part 2)

  1. This is great advice. At the end of the day, most associates in BigLaw can do good work if they know the assignment well from the get-go (point #1), make proper use of previous work by other good attorneys (point #3), and proof it well before passing it along.

    During my time in BigLaw, my failures were almost always directly attributable to missing one of the above.

    By the way, new reader to the blog and I’m a big fan already. Added to Feedly!

  2. While I don’t come from a legal background (I work in a large accounting firm), I found that the technical side (including the good work product) was something that was expected from everyone at senior levels, and progression through to Partner then became far more about perception (or managing your image) than anything else.

    Managing perceptions, especially when you have a history with the firm (e.g. where people can remember something you screwed up years ago) can be a real challenge and a source of immense frustration as you are trying to take that final step. But my advice would be to understand who doesn’t see you in the best light and see if you can work openly and honestly with those people to address their areas of concern. It will take time but it will be worth it in the end.

  3. I used to work in Big 4 accounting firm and I wish I read this earlier. Now I am in a managerial role in an educational company and I will keep a lot of your valuable advice handy.

    Cheers,

    BeSmartRich

  4. Hi Anon Lawyer.

    I have read your blog from beginning to end and just wanted to let you know that your story is very inspirational. I am a third-year litigation associate in big law who is essentially trying to replicate your life. I’ve got the large income, minimize expenses, invest trifecta down, but I am not sure I will be able to stick it out as long as you have. I also seesaw between hating my job and not minding it as much, but the hating phases seem to be getting longer and longer with each cycle. I am well-liked at work so for me it is just a mental problem of being able to stick at it long enough.

    • Thanks for the comment, 3rd year. I’m glad you enjoyed the blog posts. My second and third years were probably the hardest because the finish line seemed so far away. I remember the despair I felt even as a first year, when I was at trial and feeling really miserable. But once the trial was over, I made sure to take a long vacation and recharge. Then my next case got really busy, and I would just keep rooting for it to go away. Then I would take a long vacation again. After a while, I learned a little trick. I know litigation is unpredictable, but just roll the dice and plan some short weekend trips far, far in advance. These are the gems in your life that you can look forward to while you slog it out. Worst case is you make the firm/client cover your non-refundable costs if you have to cancel, and then postpone it as necessary — at least it will now be on people’s radars when you actually do go. Chances are you will be able to go when the time comes, especially if you are smart about scheduling them. I’ve only had to cancel one trip in the last few years. Now you have a trail of breadcrumbs to a little R&R for the next year. It helps get you through mentally.

      Another thing that helps, especially in your mid-level years is to put your FIRE engine on auto-pilot. If you’re confident it is getting you where you need to go in 5 years, then you may want to stop obsessing about quitting. The obsessing part makes it worse.

      Hope this helps and I wish you the best of luck.

  5. Your advice resonates with me – a lot of things I should have done early in my career but I only learned from mistakes. Now I am debating whether to stay at big law as long as I could or to go to small law firms with lower billable rate but hopefully comparable compensation and interesting work. Any suggestions?

    • I think it’s a tough decision. Would need to know more about your career and life goals as well as financial standing. If you can break orbit from associate compensation in Biglaw, then the delta between Biglaw and small law can become quite large. At the same time, you have to see whether staying in Biglaw is sustainable for your mental health.

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