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By Murray Gottheil | May 11, 2023
Now that I have been retired for a few years, I sometimes wonder whether my experience as to how law firms work remains valid. Also, since I spent my days with medium-sized firms and not in Big Law, I occasionally worry that my view of what goes on in Big Law is not correct.
But then I speak to lawyers working in Big Law and they invariably confirm that Big Law is exactly what I always thought it was (which is just Medium Law on steroids, with worse side effects), and nothing has changed, and likely never will.
Recently I spoke to a young associate whom I will call Sue. Sue has toiled away for a number of years at several large law firms in Alberta. She is making a lot of money and working unreasonable hours – nothing new there.
So what is her complaint? She is working for a partner who has a great specialty and a humongous client base and needs a bevy of associates to push the work out. Let’s call the Partner “Big Law Gal.”
Big Law Gal treats Sue with respect and keeps her gainfully employed, but she keeps her clients and referral sources close to her vest. She does not need Sue to learn to do the high-level things that Big Law Gal can do. She is not looking for Sue to provide strategic input and would be apoplectic if Sue said anything to a client that might suggest that there is a better way of doing things that Big Law Gal may have overlooked. She would not even be happy if Sue brought such an issue to her and put her in the position of having to go back to the client and say that her initial advice could have been better.
The firm wants Sue to focus on Big Law Gal’s work. It has no interest in encouraging Sue to develop her own client base, nor will it support Sue if she wants to migrate to work for another partner who may offer her a better career path.
The way that I see it, this leaves Sue with two choices:
- Sue can decide that her future is wrapped up with Big Law Gal, find a way to improve her skills by observing Big Law Gal, but otherwise without Big Law Gal’s help, and bide her time until Big Law Gal has a mental break-down, retires, or dies. That may be a good bet if Big Law Gal is in her sixties, but not that good a plan if she is in her forties. It is a terrible plan if Sue wants to cut back on her hours and achieve some work/life balance. And even if Sue is fortunate enough to be there when Big Law Gal has a heart attack or quits for one reason or another, there is no guarantee that the clients will stay with her, given Big Law Gal’s continued efforts to keep the loyalty of the clients and referral sources to herself; or
- Sue can stay long enough to learn what she can learn from Big Law Gal and then get out. But she has to do this strategically. There is no point getting out of working with Big Law Gal at one firm just to work for another version of Big Law Gal with a similar approach at another firm. So, to get out for a better life, she has to do one of the following:
- Find a Big Law firm which suddenly finds itself in the position of having a client base and no lawyer with the skills to service it. Perhaps their version of Big Law Gal just bit the dust and for some reason the clients will be willing to stay if quickly introduced to a good substitute; or
- Locate a medium-sized or boutique firm which will support her to develop a client base. But that likely comes with a pay-cut, a time-limited financial guarantee, and some risk that Sue may not be able to generate a client base to support her lifestyle; or
- Set up her own firm.
If Sue wants to try one of the latter two options, she has to be ready to earn less money while she builds up a client base. Perhaps she is fortunate enough to have a life partner who can support her for a year or two. Or maybe, she has squirreled away some of that Big Law salary for a few years instead of living to the max on her rather large income, and she can subsist on that for a while. Or perhaps she is a trust fund baby. If Sue is like many associates though, this adjustment to a lower income will be a challenge.
Once we are talking strategy, hopefully Sue has eked out some time during her Big Law days to establish herself as an expert in her specialty area by speaking and writing and has built up a network of potential referral sources and clients. More likely though, she has been so busy billing 2,000 hours a year and trying to find some family time that she has just basked in the ‘prestige’ of her Big Law job without thinking much about her future.
Sue’s options will likely shrink as she gets older. The option of jumping to another firm becomes increasingly more difficult once you have been practicing for more than about six years as firms prefer to higher younger folks who are willing to work longer hours at lower salaries, with fewer expectations of partnership. Also, Sue’s desire to devote all of her waking hours (including some of the hours when she really should be sleeping) to work will begin to dissipate over time as she gets older and acquires more life responsibilities.
And so, my advice to the young folks who find themselves in this position is as follows:
- Save as much of your money as possible, instead of buying into the lifestyle of a generously paid Big Law associate;
- Establish a network;
- Build up your profile in the profession;
- Have a plan to move up or move out;
- Execute your plan;
- Do it sooner, rather than later.
Murray is a happily retired lawyer who lives in the country, drives a pick-up truck, writes, teaches and mentors. You can reach him at [email protected] or see what he is up to at lawanddisorderinc.com.
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