Notice And Comment: A Biglaw Associate's Lament
What say you in response to this associate — amen, or stop yer whining?
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Welcome to the latest installment of Notice and Comment. As previously explained, this feature is an opportunity for me to hear from you, the subscribers of Original Jurisdiction, and for you to discuss interesting and important topics amongst yourselves, in the reader comments to each post.
I’m sharing an email I recently received from a senior associate at a Biglaw firm.This individual encouraged me to publish it, in the hope of starting a conversation, but asked to remain anonymous.
What do you think? Is this person an insightful truth-teller, or an entitled whiner? Please sound off, in the comments.
And if you have some thoughts of your own on a current topic that you’d like me to consider for Notice and Comment fodder in the future, please email me: email@example.com. Thanks!
Ode to the Biglaw life. Been in the grind for seven to ten years at a top firm in a big city, after graduating from a T14 law school. Sound familiar? There’s a lot of us out here — although based on LinkedIn, it seems there are fewer of us by the day.
I’m sure you also see the status updates of former classmates who just jumped to in-house positions at Amazon, Google, Microsoft, or some cool-looking fund named after some obscure Greek god. Surely these people have much better gigs than we do — they have escaped!
And here we are, continuing to slosh through the Biglaw mud. Maybe it’s the job security. Maybe it’s the golden handcuffs of knowing that as bad as it gets, we’ll get some money thrown our way at the end of the year, which will put us at ease for a few months until the cycle begins again. Those of us who have stuck it out in Biglaw are likely more risk-averse than those who left, or perhaps we really think that the Biglaw lifestyle is ideal for us and our families.
But speaking of that lifestyle, does it make any sense to always be checking emails? To always be working, ready to dart out of a Saturday morning Costco shopping outing with our kids in order to join some call that certainly could have waited until Monday morning? Surely our buddies at those in-house gigs also work hard, but they somehow seem to exist in an environment that respects personal time. (I’m sure this falls into the “grass is always greener” fallacy, but so be it, I’m just sharing how so many of us feel.)
Now, don’t get me wrong. We Biglaw veterans are lucky in many ways. We came of age professionally in the post-recession age, we were lucky enough to land summer associate positions, and we didn’t have to survive mass associate purges to keep our jobs. We make good money. We kept our jobs in COVID — and many of us earned even more during Covid, thanks to special bonuses, while our expenses went down. So we should just shut up, keep our heads down, and enjoy our gigs, right?
These are all fair points, and ones that I try to keep in mind when the grind gets me down. But still, is our existence normal? I’ll never forget when I took the train to the city and sat next to a well-known CEO of a startup. He noted how rigid and antiquated the law firm system is, and his words have stuck with me over the years. Getting an email from a partner at 10:30 p.m. on a Friday, ordering me to handle an insignificant task that the partner knew about literally two weeks earlier — is this normal? Is this how you treat anyone else in your personal or professional lives?
Perhaps the time has come for law firms and their leaders to sit down and realize that the world isn’t going to end if associates are treated with respect and their personal lives are valued as well. This doesn’t seem like too much to ask, and it’s surely a conversation worth having. I don’t need another Zoom webinar about work-life balance. I just need partners and other senior attorneys to treat us as you would like to be treated.
The world won’t end if certain tasks are handled during the business day as opposed to after hours. If we’re at a Mets game on a beautiful summer evening, surely we shouldn’t have to check our email literally every five minutes, forever dreading an email from a partner that will instantaneously turn over our evening. How about we act like normal people and tell the partner in advance where we’re going and, of course, we’ll be jumping back in when we get back home?
Because we always jump back in — that’s how we’ve made it this far. Now it’s time to let us, with ease and respect, sometimes jump out for a bit. Life is too short, so let’s remember that as important as we think we are, we’re far from saving anyone’s lives (or even really making people’s lives much better, in the vast majority of cases).
We’re in the service industry to help people make a buck — and that’s fine. So let’s still keep things in perspective and maintain proper order and balance in our lives.
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I’ve been writing online about law and the legal profession for so long that my readers have aged with me. For my readers in the law firm world, the typical reader is a young partner, and partners outnumber associates in the audience of Original Jurisdiction (which is one way in which OJ differs from Above the Law). I still have many associate readers, of course — but they tend to be on the senior side, like this correspondent.
By the way, thank you SO MUCH to everyone who has commented so far. The comments have been interesting, insightful, and civil. This is exactly the type of conversation I’ve been hoping to see in these pages, and it has been great to hear so many different perspectives. Thanks again!
Y'all seem a bit shy, so I'll start the conversation.
Reading this associate's message, I was struck by how the issues faced by associates today seem to be pretty much the same as the issues associates faced back when I was in Biglaw, some two decades ago.
If you had to pick, though, are things better today or in the past? I'm now engaged in a Twitter debate about this. I'd say that working in Biglaw is better today than it used to be, for a few reasons:
1. Technology has removed a lot of the worst Biglaw drudgery (e.g., reviewing documents in paper).
2. Remote working is now "a thing" -- the pandemic has accelerated it, but even before the pandemic, it was common at many firms.
3. Millennials won't put up with as much abuse as Gen Xers, and partners have been forced to adjust -- and become "nicer." As one partner at my former firm told me, "The millennials broke us."