What It’s Actually Like Working at a Law Firm

Written by Willie Peacock
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I still remember the job fair that cemented my decision to go to law school: Every table from a major law school was advertising the average starting salary of one of their graduates in private practice. Not being a lawyer yet, I conveniently ignored those disclaiming words of “private” and “average” and locked it into my brain that I would be making around $180,000 per year when I graduated.

Despite attending an amazing law school, I graduated at the height of The Great Recession. I think I know two or three people who landed $180,000 a year jobs. Instead, I weaved a path through shady solo law firms, legal marketing companies, and one of the largest divorce law firms in Southern California. I’ve even opened my own shop. 

Here is the truth about working at a law firm: It is almost always stressful, it is almost always very long hours, it is sometimes excellent training, and it is almost always a guaranteed salary.

What it's actually like working at a law firm

The experience in small law firms is drastically different from one door to the next. One law firm may represent anything that comes in, from defending sex workers on misdemeanor charges to filing civil lawsuits over a piece of plastic in a cookie. The next law firm may be a boom or bust class action law firm, swelling its ranks every time a settlement comes on and laying everybody off when times get lean. I’ve heard every story imaginable, and the weirdest ones come from the smallest firms.

Mid-sized firms provide more stability and less office drama, though it is still present. I’ve worked for somebody who would scream obscenities at everyone from the receptionist to other partners over small mistakes, yet would give generous holiday bonuses and was extremely understanding about family needs. I have friends who have dealt with lecherous creep partners. I also know people who have had amazing experiences in their law firms and have gone from fresh associates to partner ranks and become a true part of a professional family. In mid-sized firms, assuming you find the right fit, there is more room to advance and make an impact on the overall firm structure and strategy.

In “Big Law” firms, I honestly don’t know a single person who walked out of one of those firms thinking they loved the place. I have a couple of friends who made a career out of those firms, and none love their job, though they certainly love the salary and the perks. I have zero firsthand experience with these firms, even though those firms are the ones I dreamed about before going to law school. I have zero regrets about never getting a shot with one of those firms. I’m happier outside of the stressful boiler room environment so universally described by Big Law alums.

The last thing to remember is your practice area also plays a large part in your law firm experience. Criminal law can be a 24/7 job, along with some personal injury law firm practices. On the other hand, corporate law will rarely require middle-of-the-night emergencies, other than the occasional scramble to a deadline.

When I became a lawyer, because of the recession, there were unscrupulous attorneys nationwide advertising embarrassing salaries that were far below what you would pay a grocery store checker. In a better job market, such as the present one, one can expect a lot higher salaries in the solo and small firm market as firms scramble to fill open positions.

Other factors that affect salary usually include your practice area and geography. Expect salaries to be higher in places with a higher cost of living, such as the coasts. And some practice areas pay more handsomely or have more contingency or bonus-based compensation. A good thing to be aware of is whether your firm offers a profit-sharing plan, which can greatly increase your compensation if structured fairly. Other firms may offer an “eat what you kill” arrangement where you get a higher percentage of the take from contingency fee cases that you bring in.

The compensation can be great as well. Of course, in times of recessions or in smaller firms, the compensation may not be great. But the training aspect is still there.

The real caveat I would add here is to go with your gut when it comes to joining or sticking with a law firm. Many associates will stick in a toxic work environment for fear of burning bridges or blame themselves for the abusive partner. Lawyers have to be “tough” and just take the abuse, right? That’s not a proper training environment, and it is not a proper working environment for anybody, no matter their profession. You’ll know quickly whether the firm is providing you with a healthy environment that allows you to grow as a lawyer, and if it is not, you should look elsewhere.

Benefits of working at a law firm

Perhaps the greatest benefit of working at a law firm is the structure. You get training in the actual practice of law from people who have done it, you typically have support staff that can catch your errors, and you get a guaranteed salary. These are all things that you do not get if you try to start a law firm straight out of school.

For many people, their goal is to simply be a lawyer. They went to law school because they wanted to practice law and help others. They are not doing it to maximize their compensation; they are not doing it because they have an entrepreneurial spirit; they are doing it because they want to practice law. A law firm is a perfect environment for them.

On the other hand, some of us are just entrepreneurs. We want to call the shots, own the business, control everything. We aspire to build something different, do things differently, and perhaps provide a higher level of service or lower the cost of our services so that we can help more people. Other lawyers ditch the traditional practice of law entirely to take their skills and throw them into legal technology—aspiring to change the profession and close the access to justice gap.

Law firms are not for everyone, and neither is the traditional practice of law. But if the structure of a guaranteed salary and focusing on the law only is appealing to you, it is probably the right place for you.

Working at a big law firm

What's it's actually like working at a big law firm

Though I can’t provide any firsthand tales of working for one of the nation’s biggest law firms, we have all heard the stories: 80-hour work weeks, years spent doing dry document review before you get more substantive work, and a much more formal and buttoned-down culture than your average small firm.

There are certainly a lot of pros to working at a big law firm: the salaries are insane, for one. If you are leaving law school with six figures in debt, the bloated salaries for associates at these firms would likely clear your debt in a year or two, assuming you live conservatively. It is also a massive resume builder: many of the legal tech startups and the ranks of mid-sized firm partners include alumni of the big firms. I’ve had friends go from working at the most formal firms, like Cravath, to working at a record label and growing a full Jesus beard a year later. The line on the resume opens doors

There are also many cons though—long working hours is a rule. Tales abound of “old boys clubs,” little to no effort at diversity, and downright hostility or harassment, especially sexual harassment. You will also only be working for people who can afford these types of lawyers, which means no standing up for the little guy.

Before you look at the firm, check reviews online at sites like Glassdoor. See if any alumni from your schoolwork there or any friends of friends. LinkedIn is great for this. When doing your interviews, trust your gut with regards to the people you will be working with.

Working at a small or boutique law firm

Small law is where most private practitioners find themselves. And for most people, it is probably where you would be most comfortable. There are many positives to working in a small law firm, from typically a more casual attire and workplace to deeper involvement in more substantive cases and work earlier in your career.

However, smaller law firms also often mean smaller salaries. You may get to stick up for the little guy or take on cases that you are more passionate about, but the corporate clients and people who can afford the largest law firms probably won’t be within reach unless you become a niche or boutique firm that specializes in something companies can’t find at one of the larger firms.

I’d be remiss not to mention that culture, diversity, and harassment issues also exist at smaller firms. I’ve seen lawyers in small firms scream at new associates and verbally and emotionally abuse support staff. And even though the biggest law firms get the reputation as the boiler rooms with work hours that stretch into late nights and long weekends, the same culture of overwork is ever-present in many small law firms as well. 

It can be harder to spot these issues before joining the firm, as most people don’t leave online reviews about the working experience at a firm of two or three people. The best thing you can do is to trust your gut when interviewing with the firm and if the environment is damaging to your health, make the leap to a new firm or your own practice as soon as you are able.

Starting your own law firm

If you have seen my many posts on this blog, you know I’m a big fan of starting your own law firm. I did so after working for a few years in legal marketing. After striking out left and right with law firm interviews during the great recession, I opened a divorce law firm in Southern California before eventually getting absorbed by a larger firm. Later, I reopened my practice as a virtual law firm when my family life required me to move across the country.

Let’s start with the bad thing about owning your own law firm: everything falls on you. The risk, the responsibility, the system building, marketing, and branding—all of that is yours. If your dream is to just be a lawyer and not have any involvement in the business or the marketing, running a law firm is probably not for you. And all of this can be incredibly tedious. I’ve written post after post about the pains of trust accounting, business development, and more.

Another major downside is a lack of mentorship and guidance. This is especially difficult for people who start their own firm out of school. While not impossible, it is challenging. You will be constantly trying to dig through books or email lists, or asking rookie questions to the clerk at the court, screwing up everything and feeling like you are in over your head, until one day, after a year or two, suddenly it all makes sense.

On the bright side, the rewards of owning your own firm are all yours as well. I know people who work 40 hours or more per week for the state as a lawyer and take home a salary that is less than a McDonald’s manager. I know people who work in mid-sized firms and take home barely more than that, and they produce hundreds of thousands of dollars each year in billable hours. I also know plenty of people who started their own practice and within a year or two were making salaries comparable to a big law associate, with more flexibility and freedom and control over their lives.

Here’s what I love most about running my own shop: at a firm, I would have to get buy-in from every single paralegal, associate, and partner if I wanted to change how things are done. With my own firm, I can try things like document automation, electronic signatures, experiment with alternative fee arrangements, and the only person I have to answer to is myself. (And the clients of course.)

How to land your dream job at a law firm

How to get the legal job you want

Determine your personal values and professional goals

These values and goals will be important guideposts for you throughout your career. Once you have outlined these goals and values, consider strongly if that job at a firm will help you attain these goals or if it is just a paycheck. I know plenty of people who have made the wise decision to turn down a larger salary to continue doing something that they love. 

Use strategic marketing techniques

More than a decade ago, I spoke to the career services office at my law school and asked them if mass mailing my resume out to law firms was a good idea. They said absolutely not. They assured me that these firms do not review resumes that come in unsolicited and instead, the only way to apply for the job was to go to the on-campus interviews or to apply through formal job postings.

My roommate, a year after transferring to a different law school, did a letter-writing campaign. He sent out 200 resumes and got one interview, which resulted in a job at one of the oldest and most prestigious law firms in the country. 

The lesson? Career Services Offices don’t know everything. You do you.

It may seem like letter-writing campaigns are old-school, but even today, a paper letter in hand is much more likely to be reviewed than a cold email.

Before you do any of that, though, update your LinkedIn and resume. Have someone review both, preferably someone who is already in the industry. There are tools that can help you with your resume, such as the LinkedIn add-in for Microsoft Word. For further inspiration, look to the profiles of people who are already working at the firms you want to apply to.

Tap your personal network as well: some of my best career leads have come through friends and former colleagues who have either headhunted me or knew I was looking for the next big thing. Don’t be afraid to share that you are on the job hunt on social media or in conversations with your contacts in the legal industry. Many people are willing and excited to help make a connection or tell you about an opening at their firm.

Make networking and relationship-building part of your daily life

I used to hate networking. I always felt like it was a phony experience where everyone would realize that I was only there to try to get a lead on a job or referrals for cases. It wasn’t until I was many years out of school, secure in my career before I actually learned to enjoy networking for what it was: a chance to get out of my firm and out of my small circle of friends and just talk to people. (After five years of working from home, two in a pandemic, I would kill for one of those awkward new attorney mixers right now.)

If you only look at networking as part of your job hunt, it won’t be enjoyable. You probably will not build meaningful connections with people. But if you approach it as a social activity and as a way to make new friends and colleagues, you might find that you actually enjoy it. Once you have these meaningful relationships, these people may end up serving as a resource in your career progression when you least expect it.

Volunteer when you’re in school

A great way to make contacts in your dream practice area or in the legal community generally is to volunteer. True, volunteering is very difficult when you are a student or recent graduate with no income. Most of us limit our volunteering to internships and externships while we are in school, plus any mandatory pro bono time that is required to get our license.

However, don’t just view those as mandatory obligations—they can be a very valuable peek into the actual practice of law and can help you decide whether or not that firm or practice area is a fit. For example, I did an internship with a court during my third year of law school. By the end of it, I was certain I wanted nothing to do with criminal law—especially prosecution.

Avoid burning bridges and keep doors open

My first job out of school was for a legal marketing company. There were no lawyer jobs out there, so I took a job writing. I blogged, and I blogged until my fingers hurt. I wrote millions of words of content over a few short years, and by the time I left that place, I was miserable. I hated the place, even if I liked the people there. I was just fed up with plugging away at a keyboard and not pursuing any of my dreams.

On the way out, there were many chances for me to vent those feelings. Instead, I handled things as a professional, explaining that my dreams and personal goals required me to look elsewhere. Years later, when I needed a remote work position due to familial obligations, that company was there for me. A couple of years later, someone from that original team headhunted me for yet another opportunity.

I don’t care how bad the job was, short of harassment or abuse. Treat people professionally and as an adult, and it will go a very long way in your career. It might mean referrals, it might mean new job opportunities or it might just mean a friendly drink at a bar conference a few years from now. What’s the upside of the alternative? Letting everyone know how miserable you were so that you can make them so wary of you that you never have an opportunity to work with them again?

Conclusion

There is that old, often mocked, truism that you can do anything with a law degree. I’ve been a lawyer, a blogger, and a marketer. I’ve worked at firms mid-sized and small.

If you are wondering what it is like to work in a law firm, or if a law firm is right for you, start with your goals and values. Consider your needs with regards to your family life and work-life balance. Few industries prioritize an unhealthy work-is-everything mentality quite like lawyers do. If you have your needs top of mind when you research firms, when you apply, interview, and make the decision on whether or not to take an offer, you are much more likely to land in your dream scenario.

And if you decide to open your own shop, we will be there. Clio has resources for firms that are solo, small, or big. Our Guide to Starting a Law Firm includes everything from billing to retainers, business development to marketing, to hopefully help you get a head start and spend a little more time as a lawyer and a little less time figuring out the administrative pieces. 

Categorized in: Business

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