Blawg Review 176
I Wonder What Would Happen If Law Firms Focused More On Providing Quality Representation Rather Than Driving Billable Hours For Their New Associates?

Big Fight About Big Law: Are Law Students Really So Indoctrinated That They Think Prestige Can Only Be Found At Big Law?

A recent post “Can You Really Learn To Be A Lawyer At Big Law: Small Law Firms Offer Experience You Can’t Get Tied To Desk” has generated a lot of commentary.  One person going by the name of “law student” took umbrage to the suggestion that you can obtain both experience and competitive pay outside the big law club.  I worked at big law out of law school so I know how sensitive these issues can be.  To suggest to a big law associate that many other lawyers measure “prestige” beyond the firm letterhead, strikes the very foundation of everything they have come to believe about the law.  Law schools are complicit in holding out big law as the ultimate prize.  Here are some of the comments that have been generated thus far:

  • If solos are so successful, why can they only afford to pay new lawyers $15 to $25 an hour, with no benefits?
  • I know junior attorneys at solo firms. They are complete nobodies, and often abused.
  • So yeah, if you want to be an insignificant nobody, who gets paid pizza delivery wages, with no benefits, to get yelled at by a boss…
  • If biglaw associates don't do or learn anything, how do they develop into biglaw partners?
  • Bottom line is money talks and bullshit walks. If you had any you'd pay your junior lawyers. You don't have any money, so all you can offer is "experience."

Cleary, the previously mentioned post hit a nerve with “law student” who is taking great umbrage that there could be any other alternative than big law for a successful law student.  It is our job to help educate “law student” about such matters.  So I am asking those of you in the blogosphere who managed to “eke out a living” outside the confines of big law to tell your stories here.  Feel free to comment below. 



Let's all be fair. There are good firms and bad firms at all levels of practice, and in all size firms. But times are changing. BigLaw is struggling with the down economy. Technology makes things possible for all attorneys in the areas of client service, alternative billing and innovation which provide a huge competitive advantage for smaller firms. I have often said that big firms can not compete with our service offerings. It's true. We, and out clients who still or used to use Biglaw for other maters, see if everyday. The age of the full service firm is waning. Clients want the best attorney for the job, wherever they are located and whatever sized firm they are working for. The internet and technology allow clients many more choices and much more information about those choices than previously existed.

Another Law Student

I'd rather be paid $12-25 an hour than work at biglaw. Like all great bureaucracies, biglaw moves at a snails pace. I've never seen a big firm innovate or do anything other than maintain the status quo, which, frankly, isn't the reason I went to law school. Biglaw's idea of risk is the occasional casual Friday or allowing Bud Light at the annual picnic. If the definition of crazy is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results, then biglaw's business model is king of the asylum.

I've also never seen a big firm that values free speech or promotes an attitude other than conformity. I've never understood why people would go to law school and then line up to become another faceless lawyer at firm with the surnames of six dead white guys in the title. When people try to impress me with their "prestigious" firm names I can only wonder, "How the hell do you brand something so ridiculously pretentious?"

At the end of the day, I want to know and like the people I work with. I want their successes to be my successes, and their failures to be my failures. When I ask about their kids I want them to know that I actually care, and not that I'm extending some stupid socially-required platitude. I want a firm that recognizes that "team building" is as absurd as it sounds, and that good people are hard to come by.

These things are worth more to me than money. Maybe I don't know any better because, like "law student," I'm still a law student. But if the only sense of ownership BigLaw can offer me is my partnership distribution, then they can count me out. If I can never move from a small firm to a big firm then so be it--at the end of my career I will know that I was something more than a douchebag in at suit that paid for three guys at the top of a pyramid scheme's vacation homes. I will be able to say to my children that I looked tradition in the face and laughed at it, and at the same time I made myself and my partners wealthy in both money and soul.

Carolyn Elefant

Can we please dispel the notion that all solo lawyers are paupers? I know several independent solo practitioners in a variety of regulatory fields who earn solid six figure incomes. They could readily afford offices, but many choose to work from home since they travel so frequently that office space would be a waste of money. Some prefer to work at home to have the ability to wear sweat pants when not meeting with clients. To see these guys, you might assume that they can't afford an office but in reality, they don't want the added hassle.
As for paying new lawyers $15 or $20 an hour, what kind of work is being performed for that amount? Is it billable work - or is the solo taking a contigency risk? Are the fees recoverable? I find it far more unconscionable for lawyers to be earning $30/hr for document review, when firms are billing them out for $200/hr.


I believe that law schools do indoctrinate students to believe that only biglaw can provide them with a meaningful career choice. At my law school, there was, to my knowledge, ever any resources about going off to work as a solo. Mentioning that you wanted to work for a small firm, and the people in the career development office would look at you and ask if you meant working for Jenner and Block instead of Skadden (just picking random names since I can't remember the ones I heard when I brought it up).

I remember (and this was less than ten year ago), trying to figure out what to do if I wanted to go solo straight out of law school. There was no help at the CDO for figuring out what I needed to get ready to make that step.

Part of it has to do with money. Although Ms. Elefant is correct, there are solos who make six figure salaries, most do not do it right away. Whereas at a biglaw firm in New York or San Francisco, the first year associate is making $150K easily... some of which they hope will be donated back to them.

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