Big law survival guide

October 2015 | First Focus

Lindsay Cameron worked for six years as a corporate attorney at large law firms, including one of New York’s most profitable firms. She describes her time there only half-joking as like being “in prison.” 

After leaving the firm to have her first child, Cameron wrote her first novel, “BIGLAW,” just published by Ankerwycke, the ABA’s new consumer book imprint.

“BIGLAW” tells the story of Mackenzie Corbett, a second-year associate at a premier Manhattan law firm who has a big salary and the opportunity to work on high-profile deals. But she is also sleep-deprived, dealing with volatile partners and has precious little free time to spend with her boyfriend and close friends and family.

With the opportunity to secure a prestigious assignment on the line, the overachiever in her is determined to do what it takes to close the biggest deal in the firm’s history. But when Mackenzie finds herself the focus of an insider trading investigation her dream job begins to crumble before her eyes.

In this novel that includes situations in which she or her former colleagues experienced, Cameron throws back the curtain on this intriguing world and exposes the rigors of life in big law.

We caught up with Cameron to further explore the pros and cons of working in big law.

You recommend big law follow the example of banks and institute shorter workweeks and limit weekend work to improve work/life balance. From your experience, wouldn’t a firm’s bottom line take a big hit under that scenario? How might firms retain profitability?

Some big banks have realized that you can’t push people to unreasonable limits and still expect healthy, productive employees. There is no simple fix for the entrenched culture of overwork at big law firms. But limiting late night work and protecting a few weekends off per month doesn’t have to mean a significant reduction in the amount of hours that an associate bills. Often, work is doled out to associates late in the afternoon or early evening, but if there was a limit on late-night emails instituted by the firm then partners would be incentivized to delegate earlier in the day and the work would be done more efficiently.   

With the amount of money law firms pour into recruiting, summer associate programs and new associate training, it is in a firm’s best interest to figure out ways to keep mid-level associates from leaving the profession. I would argue that giving associates some time off that is predictable and consistent would avoid a lot of the burnout in the mid-level ranks. Allowing associates time to sleep at night and allowing one day a week to be work-free is not going to cut into a firm’s bottom line. It might even improve it.

What else could big law do to retain talented, bright and energetic lawyers like you?

First of all, thank you! Everyone’s decision to leave a firm or make a career change is personal, and for me there were a number of reasons it was time to move on from big law. That said, there are some things that law firms could do better to help retain women lawyers. For me, it would have made a big difference to see a female role model in the higher ranks at the firm. I worked in a department that didn’t have a single female partner. Not one. If the glass ceiling has been shattered, you certainly couldn’t tell from where I was sitting. When firms promote women to partnership and management positions at the same rate as (or even close to) that of males, you’re going to see a trickle-down effect in the retention of junior and mid-level female associates. I think it would also reduce the casual sexism that often plagues male-dominated work places and would create a more pleasant atmosphere for everyone.

Aside from the money, what advantages does working in big law offer?

An important advantage of working in big law is being able to put a big firm name on your resume. Employers know that these firms have strict hiring standards and anyone who has managed to stick it out for a period of time is intelligent, hard working and performs well under pressure. That is extremely valuable. Despite the long hours, big law is a great training ground and springboard for in-house legal jobs, positions with smaller firms or even jobs outside the profession.

Could you share some tips for how an associate can thrive in big law while maintaining one’s sanity?  What are some popular survival strategies?

Well, you know the advice they give to new mothers: “Sleep when the baby sleeps”? I would give the same advice to new associates. When things are quiet, take advantage of the time and relax, work out or do whatever it is that helps you recharge your batteries. Don’t stick around the office for the sole purpose of face time.

The most important survival strategy as an associate is to use your resources. Law firms have all kinds of support personnel in place – librarians, precedent specialists, paralegals, secretaries, proofreaders, word processing department — and they can make your job easier. So, drop off that marked-up document with the 24-hour word processing department and go home for the night!

The economic downturn in 2008 rocked the legal profession, causing tight budgets, unprecedented layoffs, firm closures and hiring freezes.  How has the big law environment changed since then? Has it changed the life of an associate?

I think the big law environment is tougher now. Associates are facing stagnant salaries, slimmer odds of making equity partner and less job security. Clients are scrutinizing bills and working out alternative fee structures, which means firms are staffing their deals leaner. Gone are the days when fringe benefits and glamorous perks could reduce the sting of your all-nighters.

What kind of lawyer is big law now seeking? How would you advise law students interested in a career in big law?

Big law firms have always sought out smart, well-credentialed hard workers and I don’t think that has changed since the downturn. If anything, big law spots have become more competitive, giving these law firms the upper hand in hiring associates.

A main source of junior associate discontent is false expectations, so I would advise law students who are interested in a career in big law to speak to a big law associate about the day-to-day life of an associate. big law is not for the faint of heart. In the early years. there will be much more “binder making” than substantive work, feedback on assignments will be minimal and 60-plus workweeks will be expected. But you’ll also receive excellent training if you stick it out long enough, have enormous resources available to you, make a healthy dent in your student loans and pad your resume. Going into big law with eyes wide open will likely increase your satisfaction with your chosen career path. 

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