Here are five for . . and five against
Big is good, but not always better when it comes to a legal career. So what are the actual benefits of working for Big Law?
There are several, such as the money and the clients. There are opportunities to specialize in different legal areas and there are often boundless resources.
But the decision is a balancing act because, as we have outlined below, there are also disadvantages.
Let’s consider the five key factors in favour of working for Big Law.
The money in Big Law can be huge, compared to most other jobs outside of banking and finance. We’ve reported on recent salary increases in firms in both the UK and US.
According to the NALP 2021 survey, first-year associates at Big Law will frequently start off with a salary of $170,000 to $190,000. The largest 25 law firms in the US have those assocviates with five years’-plus experience starting at around $360,000.
Generally the money is paid via the lockstep model which coordinates payment based on the years out of law school, with similar bonuses paid. This differs from the ‘eat what you kill’ model that pays based on billable hours and fees generated.
Big Law Training
Training at the Big Law firms is superior, without doubt, to what anyone else can generally provide.
There are a variety of training and mentoring programs you can take advantage of, such as:
- Summer associate programs
- New employee onboard training
- In-house educational programs based on a practice area
- Shadowing and mentor programs
- Continuing education opportunities
There is no doubt that Big Law advantages in terms of training and mentoring are exceptional.
3. Career Advancement
The ability to advance your career in Big Law is high, but the demands in terms of work, billing objectives and the like are equally high.
However, having a defined career path with opportunities that are clearly marked (and represented by both money and prestige) provide a unique characteristic of the Big Law Firm career path.
A large law firm may have the advantage of more staff, but that doesn’t always mean everyone is coordinated.
When you have in-house baristas, restaurants and drivers to shuttle you home at night, you know that the legal resources in Big Law are also extensive and capable of enticing even the most reluctant lawyer into the Big Law fold.
The budgets for resources is huge. 30 per cent of respondents from the firms of 100+ attorneys reported to 2021 ABA TechReport showed that over $20,000 on average was spent on software for the law firm, versus solo and small firms (2-9 attorneys) that spent between $1,000-$9,999.
5. Networking and Prestige
There is no doubt there is a cache for working in Big Law and the law firms know it – so should you.
The ability to network with others and to have the name of a major law firm on your CV is major and can lead to significantly enhanced law career opportunities (even outside law) in future.
With specialized training and work, credentialed teams, training and leadership, the ability to develop a ‘rep’ based on your big law employer is major and important, so don’t ignore the potential here.
Lawyers also have the chance to develop their specialties and
But . . Big Law comes with the disadvantages, too. We outline those below.
Big Law’s Top 20
For those wanting to know what the top 20 largest law firms are – the image below from 2019 provides details that are pretty well up-to-date for 2022 as well. Baker + McKenzie remains atop the heap with around 6000 lawyers worldwide.
The 5 Downsides of Big Law
Among the downsides of Big Law careers are the following 5 factors you should look at:
The Big Law field is also one with plenty of competition, with lawyers who fight with one another to achieve elbow room at the partner table.
These are areas with bright people often with highly developed competitive instincts and egos. The competition can be brutal and you need an outer shell to protect yourself from the ego-bruising encounters you meet as you work the long shifts towards making your mark in the firm.
The path to partnership is littered with the corpses of tired, beaten and worn-out associates. It can be an eight year battle to achieve partnership in a large law firm and your motivation and drive must survive the journey as best it can. Be prepared for a long ride – albeit well remunerated on the way.
2. High Billables
Billables are everything in large law firms and you need to be prepared for the clock that will endlessly tick in your ear.
Large law firms will impose quotas, which may be anything from 2000 to 2200 hours a year, which is around 42 hours billed week on week. But that’s not all, because you also have the job of being involved in non-billing activities like marketing, which can add another 20 or so hours to your weekly toll.
3. Academic Credentials
The reality is that although going to a top law school does not make you a top lawyer, it can certainly help you get into a top law firm.
So be ready to have to display your qualifications and counter any suggestion that your law school is not the one for the firm you are seeking to work for.
The ability to specialize – indeed the requirement to specialize – is a double edged sword for those working in Big Law and you can find yourself siloed into an area that restricts or limits your outside employment opportunities should the need or desire arise to leave the firm.
Equally, of course, the training that provides the specialty can be an advantage in terms of a lateral move, but be aware that this factor is one to be taken seriously and it is a factor that drives many lawyers in major law firms into areas where they may feel trapped.
The stress factor in major law firms creates potential problems that have been highlighted in recent years with the high departure rate from firms – the ‘resignation’ factor.
Be aware of the long-hours, high expectations, high competition, deadline-focused stresses that can become part of your daily routine at a Big Law firm. Is that something you want, or can handle?
Big Law – To Be Or Not To Be
So the question of whether to join Big Law or to stay ‘small’ (which can also mean extremely well-resourced, well paid boutique practices) is one that needs careful calibration. The balancing act requires a consideration various issues and a self knowledge as to whether you are up to facing the requirements demanded by those firms that can seem to consume you – just as they train and pay you so well.