Friday, November 30, 2012

"Real" Lawyers

When you are an attorney at a large law firm, you are worked hard.  You are stressed.  You are pulled in a thousand different directions.  But, you are also pampered. 

I'm not talking about the large salaries (though those are nice).  I'm talking about the support - the paralegals, the copy center, the cite checkers, the research librarians, the e-discovery experts, the graphics team, and I could go on and on and on.  At my first law firm, I could drop off the draft of a brief at 11pm, and by 8am, it was back underneath my office door - fully cite checked and proofed and formatted.  And when that brief had to be filed?  I didn't have to do it.  Someone else went to the courthouse or filed it electronically or served it or whatever else it is you do with a brief.  I couldn't really tell you what exactly has to be done. 

It is a huge help, and in an environment where time is at an ultimate premium, is almost a necessity.  But it results in a learned ignorance. 

Biglaw attorneys are smart, no doubt about it.  But they aren't necessarily skilled in the practical stuff.  They never learn the elementary nuts and bolts, and then when it comes to real litigation experience - the kind where you stand up in court and actually speak - they have to wait a decade or so for that.  (But they can write really well.  And use Westlaw.) 

And in terms of getting the work, and finding new clients?  They don't worry about that.  The work comes from a partner, and that's it.   There is minimal networking, minimal business development, and minimal contact with the outside world, really. 

We biglaw lawyers don't know how to be "real" lawyers. 

This new gig of mine (you can read about it here) has me realizing this more and more - I am going to lunches, attending networking events, and meeting a lot of non-biglaw attorneys.  Attorneys who don't have copy centers or cite checkers and who find their clients themselves.  They do their own billing, they talk in court (gasp!), and they network.  A ton. 

That thing called the DC Bar?  You know, that thing that your firm pays your membership to and that you occasionally go to when you need your CLE?  It's, like, a real thing.  With events and lunches and courses and sources of professional support .  There are a ton of other bar associations too, by the way, for women, for minorities, for trial lawyers, for all areas of law.  And who knew, these organizations have a ton of attorneys in them.  I have met the smallest fraction of these "real" lawyers, and I am incredibly impressed. 

They are skilled, in a way that I, and my former colleagues, are not.  Many I have met have been practicing not much longer than I did, but they have first chaired various trials and taken countless depositions.  They find and manage their own clients and learn new areas of law as needed.  They represent people instead of corporations.  They have small offices and little support staff, and they do things themselves.  They are, it seems to me, empowered.  They are brave.

There is a biglaw bubble that I think envelopes all who enter it.  And now that my bubble has burst, I am in many ways in awe of these "real" attorneys. 

It's the kind of lawyer you see in the movies. The kind of lawyer I envisioned myself being when I applied to law school.  It's not the kind of lawyer I ended up becoming. 

But I suppose it's never too late. 


  1. THis was so very interesting.

    Thank you. I love inner peek, at all the behind the scenes.

  2. Oh man! When I switched law firms it was so hard at first to learn how to file and note up motions! I kept sending this one case to the wrong court. I definitely miss the extra pair of hands!

  3. Just to note, what you say is somewhat specific to litigation attorneys. Transactional big-law associates have a different experience, usually. Definitely we have the support you're talking about, but we aren't typically as isolated. Transactional attorneys talk to clients and opposing counsel all day and develop real relationships with them, and negotiate points large and small with the other side. We don't go to court, but we attend and speak at meetings and conferences. And of course in order to be a big-law partner, in most cases you do have to market yourself intensively, and many big-law partners are incredible at that (and started doing it as associates). Not that any of this makes most of us big-law transactional associates feel like "real lawyers". We're impressed by those people you're talking about, too.

  4. @FM- Point taken. Transactional is a whole different ball game (and one I know very little about!).

  5. Government lawyers pretty much do everything themselves too. At least, I've never had anyone cite check anything for me. I can barely find anyone to copy anything for me.

  6. I have learned more in the my two years at a small firm than I did my 6 years prior at a big litigation firm. But I am a great researcher and writer too!

  7. I'm surprised there are no opposing viewpoints from experienced big-firm lawyers here in the comments. Hm.

  8. There was one, now that you mention it, but I found it to be rude and frankly, nasty in nature, so I deleted it. I am happy to have opposing viewpoints on the blog, however I won't post anything, expressing any view, unless it is written respectfully.
    That's all. Happy Monday, everyone!

  9. Well that seems over-curated to me. Most blog owners I respect only delete comments containing hate speech, unwarranted personal attacks, or Viagra ads. But to each her own I suppose.

  10. @ Anonymous: Thanks for your insight. But at the end of the day, it's my blog, and my space, and I like to keep it respectful. (And there's nothing wrong with Viagra ads, btw). :)

  11. The 2007 market crash created a whole new ballgame as well. Any big firm litigator who thinks she can sit back and wait for work from partners without networking and hustling won't be a big firm litigator for long.

  12. Oh god each time I read your blog it feels as though you are reading my mind. I am a former Skadden attorney too, and waking up from the big law cloud.

  13. Ooh this is a great post. Honestly - every now and then a friend will ask me if I would go out on my own but I don't think I could! I don't know how to do half of what I should (because we have clerks/assistants/etc.). Crazy, right?


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