Big law: do you know what you’re getting into?

Large commercial firms are all the rage at university. They’re all we ever see. Rarely are there alternative options presented to us. In a way, nobody blames law students for falling for the marketing – because that’s really what it is – that leads them to believe that this is the only (good) pathway to take.

Let me tell you a few things I’ve heard in my network:

  • “I’m only applying at top tier firms, a mid tier would be a back up/failure”;
  • “I want to go into commercial law because of the money, prestige and status”;
  • Commercial law firms are the default for everybody and if you don’t want to do that you are “different” or there is something wrong with you.

There is a lot to unpack. Again, not saying there is something inherently wrong with law students, but there seems to be this air of snobbery that only shows itself amongst the law student fraternity. It ultimately harms all of us. For example, if we don’t get into that top firm we can feel like a failure. Or, we can feel like we’ve wasted our degree if we’re working at a smaller firm. This feeds into the massive levels of anxiety and depression in the profession. I’m telling you, it starts at university.

I had a reader reach out to me recently with an experience worth bringing out into the open:

Somebody needs to expose the toxicity that exists at these large commercial firms that spend all this money advertising at universities to make us want to work there. Having just resigned from a large commercial firm – which seemed like a great opportunity at the beginning – I am feeling completely disappointed with the experience I had there and the way things were handled.

I am sure I am not the only person who has experienced this. Needless to say, I no longer wish to work in a firm anymore and I know exactly why so many people drop out. The pressure of billable targets can be alleviated if firms just had a good culture, consisting of proper communication from the partners down, no favouritism, learning how to mentor properly, and pulling up unreasonable behaviour. Instead of churning and burning through their junior staff, firms should look at themselves and ask how *they* can stop the revolving door.

This reader is far from the only one with this experience. Many in my network have shared similar sentiments. This is in large part because nobody ever tells you about these things until you get there. Law students are blindsided by the marketing, and the prospect of a nice office and business cards that they think it will be all roses. And look, many firms are nice places to work, but many aren’t. Enough to warrant a serious warning to all of us who are thinking of going into large commercial firms.

Here are some things demonstrating what it is really like at these big firms, that I hope you will be aware of should you decide you’d like to try it out:

  • You are the bottom. That means, little to no control over your time or workload, and the senior lawyers get to go home much earlier than you a lot of the time. You may find some senior lawyers stay longer than others; these practitioners tend to treat you a bit better because they see it as an “all in this together” thing, others just push their work down the chain and simply check it off at the end. It’s not nicknamed a “sausage factory” for nothing.
  • Every senior lawyer is different. And that means different ways they want the work, some even micro-managing, while others are happy for you to do it your way as long as the task is done right. Remember, the bigger the team, the more people you are dealing with, who will all have differing personalities.
  • You can be great at what you do, but if you don’t bill to your target for *one* day, you can be out. Yes, it happens. Because never forget that law firms are all about the money like any other company. This can take away from actual enjoyment of the work as it adds a lot of extra pressure on top of actually getting things right.
  • You will be expected to get the work right far sooner than you think. You’re an investment to the firm and they want to see a return on that investment in as little time as possible, but at the same time, a lot aren’t willing to develop you so you can make that return. Lawyers aren’t always good managers and you will come across some who give very little instruction and expect you’ll just guess the right answer, whereas there will be others who make the time to sit down and explain the task to you until it’s right. So if you find a firm where you have a good mentor, stay right where you are and never leave until you can stand on your own two feet.
  • You will get little feedback. If at all. And if you do, it’s mostly negative. Nobody has the time to sit down with you and tell you what’s right and what needs improving. This is bad for us because we never know how we’re doing and we could be needing improvement without knowing it. So ask for feedback as much as you can, and if they won’t give it to you, then think about moving somewhere where they will. Feedback is important and there’s nothing nice about thinking everything’s okay because “no news is good news” and then all of a sudden many issues are being brought up together. This is just the nature of the firm environment, I’m told. They don’t have the time to sit with you every week to talk through things. When I was told about this (from several in my network) I was pretty shocked. Needless to say, I know why we all have imposter syndrome.
  • You will get different instructions from different people and in the end it’s your butt on the line. Never forget you are the bottom of the chain and easily replaceable. It’s easier to reprimand a junior than it is to have a talk with a senior about how they are giving instructions.

So how can you deal with this if you are in such a situation? Leave. And before you leave, think about implementing these tools:

  • Write down every instruction you get so you have proof of the exact instruction you were given at the time when the task was given to you. People forget what they say, and they may well think they’ve given you an instruction when they haven’t. It happens. Nobody is perfect, especially when they have 100 other things they need to be doing.
  • Clarify from day one how to charge for your time. If you get different opinions, go to the highest place you can – Partners are scary, but when it comes to the income the firm is generating, they will want to know there’s an issue.
  • If you get conflicting instructions, speak to someone. Ask the instructor if that’s their preferred way of doing it or if they don’t mind which way it’s done.
  • Email is your evidence that you’ve done your work. Use it.
  • Set out the expectations from the start for every instructor you get work from. They all have different preferences.
  • If you sense someone is being unfair, go to someone. They’ve likely been through the same thing and can tell you how to handle it.

I hope this helps you look beyond the fancy marketing. In another piece I will be writing about how you can decide if commercial law is really for you. Stay tuned.


The [Pre]Lawyer in Black


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