Myths on Big Firm Law Practice


Another interesting insight by Honorable Patrick J. Schiltz, U.S. District Court, District of Minnesota who before private practice as partner in a big firm for 8 years before leaving for a “greater calling”

“On Being a Happy, Healthy, and Ethical Member of an Unhappy, Unhealthy, and Unethical Profession” (1999) 52 Vanderbilt Law Review 871

Arguments for Big Firm practice

1. Training: Where is the breath

First, the breadth of training is as important as its depth. True, it is nice if associates can take the time to learn to draft interrogatories the right way. But it is also nice if associates can get to do something other than draft interrogatories. The life of an associate in a big firm litigation group is dominated by library research, writing briefs, drafting discovery requests, and responding to discovery requests. A typical junior associate will have little client contact, take few depositions, do little negotiating with opposing counsel, argue almost no motions or appeals, and try not a single case”. Talking about corporate work is no better; do you want to be know in Who’s Who Legal guy #04 that knows everything about clause #365 of a syndication lending agreement? Or do you want to be that lawyer who creates a springing security on unsecured loan at default.

I believe the most valuable training that any young lawyer receives comes from observing and being observed by more experienced attorneys. This type of one-on-one mentoring is disappearing in big firms for a number of reasons, including the pressure to bill hours, the pressure to attract and retain clients, the pressure to minimize legal costs, the increasing size of law firms, and the increasing mobility of lawyers and high turnover rate demotivating senior lawyers “wasting” time on associates.

2. Interesting or Challenging Work

What is “interesting” or “challenging” is in the eye of the beholder. If your idea of challenging work is having the time to research a complicated issue of securities law, then you will find more interesting work in a big firm. But if your idea of challenging work is helping a client get divorced without losing her children or putting a diabolically clever criminal behind bars or helping a client realize her dream of opening a small business, then you are likely to be bored in a big firm. What many lawyers find most gratifying about practicing law is having ordinary people show up at their offices with problems, and then seeing the lives of those people improved in tangible ways as a direct result of their lawyer’s efforts. Such lawyers will not find working in big firms to be either very interesting or very challenging.

If you go to a big firm, you will have to find a niche, and the bigger your firm, the smaller your niche is likely to be. If you become an expert in chartering banks, you will charter banks, day in and day out. If you are assigned to defend that billion dollar antitrust action against MNCs, you might spend six or seven years of your life working on that one case–and doing so as the fifth lawyer on a five lawyer team. Some lawyers like to be able to specialize; others do not. It depends on the lawyer.

I (author) developed a national reputation for defending religious organizations in clergy sexual misconduct cases. I worked on hundreds of those cases, sending out pretty much the same interrogatories, getting back pretty much the same answers, reading pretty much the same medical records, asking pretty much the same questions at depositions, filing pretty much the same summary judgment motions. I found the work interesting, but the fiftieth case was not as interesting as the first, and the hundredth case was not as interesting as the fiftieth.

3. Collegiality

Again, there is something to this. At a big firm you will be surrounded by attorneys who got good grades (Dean Listers) at good schools. Most of them will even be good lawyers. And it is indeed nice to walk down the hall and talk to the leading tax lawyer in town or to walk farther down the hall and give an assignment to a young associate fresh off a Judicial Law Clerkship programme. But, being part of a law firm with outstanding lawyers does not mean much if those lawyers don’t know you or are indifferent to you. Many big firm partners don’t even know their partners in their departments much less other department or even the dozens of “here today, gone tomorrow” associates

4. Its only short term

Everyone wants to go to big firm because they know that jumping from big firm to small firm to inhouse is easy or I need a 14 month bonus to pay off my student loans. Both of these are valid reasons but they come at a price. The Big Firm culture is going to change you and mold you into something you didnt bargained for.

And that is my point: When it comes right down to it, there is one and only one reason to go to a big firm: money. “The old law firm–one characterized by collegiality, intellectual challenge and institutional clients–is dead and gone.” What’s left? “Money, Money, Money.”

Recommended reads:

Being an ethical lawyer

Meet the Hollywood Lawyer

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