An open secret about big law firms is that big law firms don’t exist in the way a law student would think. While a law firm “culture” does exist in some ways (i.e. the pay can be different among lockstep biglaw firms and non-market paying firms), an associate in one group can be on a different planet than an associate in another group. In reality, you will work for a few partners, a couple of senior associates, and maybe even a more junior associate. Of course, every firm is different, but you will generally work in a silo of a few people, who will have a disproportionate impact on your career, happiness, and overall well-being. (No biggie). Yes, these four or five people will affect when you eat, sleep, and engage in any other normal human activity. This serves as a warning to know what you are signing up for by going into biglaw. So how does this play out in practice? Here’s a breakdown:
Partners will be the CEO of your silo. They have the relationships with clients and generate revenue for the firm as a whole. But they have their own mini-fiefdom that will determine your work schedule and have an outsized impact on your future. Some partners will be tyrants of these fiefdoms, and you can imagine the worst from these types of despots (stapler throwing, unruly demands, fake deadlines, etc.). But others (and in my experience most) are not this bad. They know you don’t know anything and are willing to help you. Your success is their success. How do you end up with the latter group of benevolent dictators? It’s painful to hear, but luck drives so much of that outcome. You can help guide your luck in this arena by talking to associates before you join and getting coffee with as many lawyers as possible during your summer. Word on the street is the golden currency of trying to identify which partners score high on the terrible to work for-index.
While partners call the shots, more experienced associates will likely have more of an impact than partners on your day-to-day existence within the firm. Typically, the tone of a silo starts at the top but senior associates carry their own quirks, attitude, and style that you will need to understand in order to succeed. Like partners, some associates will take you under their wing to guide you through what is likely a tough first few months at the firm. Others will…not, and can make your life miserable. When you first start out, treat associates like partners. Take what they say as gospel and do everything you can to fit your work into their universe of idiosyncrasies. Even if you think their comments on your memo are contrived and nit-picky, err on the side of “you are a first year associate” and follow what they say. There is something to be said about survival in biglaw. These associates have survived for multiple years by doing something right, so do your best to implant yourself as a rule follower in their silo.
No matter the name of the firm on your business card, partners and associates in your silo will be your true firm. Talk to as many as people as you can who can provide the inside scoop on which silos to avoid.