By Kristine Cherek • June 05, 2016•Writers in Residence, Careers, Firms and the Private Sector, Law School, Choosing a Career and Landing a Job
"It is like a pie eating contest where the prize is more pie."
That was my mentor’s (witty and very accurate) description of what it is like to be promoted to partner at a major law firm.
The year was 2005 and I was an 8th year associate in distress. From an outsider’s perspective it appeared I had everything firmly under control. I had proven myself and moved up the associate ranks. I had every indication I was on track to be promoted to partner within a few “short” years. Silently, though, I was having a career crisis of the existential kind.
Did I really want to be a partner? Or was I pursuing it out of some competitive need to capture the prize? Did I want to keep billing killer hours for years to come? Or would I be happier in a position with a better work/life balance? Did I thrive on the thrill of the work or was I just doing it for the prestige? Would my life suddenly change for the better once I made partner?
Thankfully I had a fantastic mentor who was willing to work through my latest crisis of the mind with me. I realize not everyone is so lucky. Not everyone has someone who is willing to pull back the curtain and speak honestly about what life is really like at a major law firm. So allow me do the honors. Please read on, laugh at my ignorance, marvel at my naivety, and take comfort in knowing no one could possibly be as clueless as I once was. And I turned out ok. At least I think I did.
The Clueless Years
In the early years of my career I felt like I had no idea what I was doing. While law school was incredibly interesting and intellectually challenging, it did not teach me how to actually DO anything. I read cases about contract disputes; however, in two semesters of Contracts classes I never actually SAW a contract. Then, as a first year associate, I was entrusted to create the thing that I had never even seen. To make matters worse I was acutely aware of the fact that the client was paying hundreds of dollars per hour for my clueless time. I was convinced I was the ONLY ONE who felt so clueless. All of the other junior associates knew what they were doing, I figured. They had graduated from the nation’s top law schools. They looked so confident and acted so smart. I must be the village idiot, I thought. As it turned out, the village idiot was the junior associate who thought she knew everything. You see, if a new attorney thinks she knows what she is doing then she is either an exceptionally rare specimen or terribly mistaken.
Maybe that is why we call it “practicing law.” It takes years of practice to master any skill. It takes decades of practice to master the law. To the junior attorneys who read this, please rest assured you are not the village idiot. You are not the only one who feels like she does not know what she is doing. Everyone feels that way. They just do not openly admit it. In fact, they probably think YOU are the superstar who has everything under control. Remind yourself there is a reason the firm (or corporation, or governmental entity, or nonprofit organization) hired you. You are intelligent. You are more than capable. You will learn. Work hard, absorb every bit of knowledge you can, and fake it until you make it if you must.
Call Me Pollyanna
As an associate I had this naïve conception that life must be SO MUCH BETTER as a partner. In my state of bliss I figured that partners are experts; therefore, they must know everything. They must not be intimidated or stumped by any intellectual obstacle thrown their way. They must feel accomplished, sure of their skills, and confident. They must have everything under control. The pressure must not get to them after all these years. They must be the masters of their own schedules, for they are not at the mercy of a partner who dumps work on them on a Friday evening. Partners, I figured, had it all and I wanted that for myself.
Bursting the Bubble
I wish I could say that becoming a partner makes everything right with the world. I wish I could tell you the clouds will clear, the angels will sing, and a bright light will shine down on your brilliance. I wish I could say that partners have really manageable schedules, they do not work weekends, they never have to postpone a vacation, and their clients are all really nice people who never demand unreasonable things. But those would be lies.
If you are looking for a pot of gold at the end of the associate rainbow you may find it. But the pot of gold will only be a literal one (i.e., money). Life does not suddenly become less stressful, more peaceful, and more manageable just because one’s title changes. In some ways it is quite the contrary, to be brutally honest.
As an associate I had only four things on which to concentrate all of my energy: billing plenty of hours, learning as much as I could, doing great work, and making partner. A partner’s world is much broader and the billable hours do not necessarily decrease. As a partner I also had to worry about “business development,” a topic that was never even mentioned, much less taught, during my law school career. Developing a business plan, attracting new clients, increasing the volume of work for existing clients, budgeting, negotiating fee structures – I had no idea how to do any of this. And, of course, it is the partner’s responsibility to mentor, teach, and train the associates. It is a great life. But it is not an easy life.
“That’s Why You Make the Big Bucks.”
I admit I am not a “glass half full” kind of person. And I admit I may have a teeny tiny tendency to complain…particularly to my husband. Let me explain how my complaining and my husband’s brilliance collided to put into perfect perspective my life as a law firm partner.
“I have to work all weekend AGAIN,” I lamented to my husband one evening. “That’s why you make the big bucks,” he replied. What? Seriously? That was not exactly the compassionate response I was expecting. Then, in less than 40 words, my husband perfectly explained my life to me. He said something along the lines of: “Why do you think attorneys at large law firms make so much money? It isn’t because they do not work weekends. It isn’t because it is easy. There is a reason they pay you all so well.” Enough said.
Attorneys, and in particular attorneys at major law firms, are very well compensated. As a 25-year-old brand new associate my annual salary exceeded the median household income for a family in the United States. In exchange for that, didn’t I expect to work exceedingly hard? Didn’t I expect there would be a lot of pressure? Didn’t I expect to have to miss a friend’s birthday party, or cancel dinner plans, or miss a family event from time to time? Shouldn’t I have expected the life I came to know so well?
A client had an “emergency” at 6 p.m., thereby causing me to cancel my dinner plans. I guess that is why I made the big bucks. The associate completely screwed up the document and I had to redraft it…at midnight. I earned those big bucks. I spent all weekend drafting a document that the client “had to have” by Monday morning but then did not look at until a week later. Big bucks strike again. I postponed a Las Vegas weekend getaway when a closing was delayed. It is a good thing I made those big bucks so I could afford the airline change fees…three weekends in a row.
There was a tradeoff to the life I had chosen. If I was not okay with that tradeoff then maybe that life was not for me. I could wallow in self-pity or I could embrace my reality. And if neither of those seemed like appealing choices I could make a change and create a different kind of life. It was not anyone’s fault but my own that I was a partner in a large law firm. In fact, there was no fault in it at all. It was a privilege. It just may not have been the privilege I wanted after all.
Is It Worth It?
Think back for a moment to my mentor’s pie eating contest analogy.
I think what he was saying is this: Being an associate at a major law firm is tough. But do you know what is even tougher? Being a partner. Do not expect it (the billable hours, the pressure, and the consuming nature of the profession) to be easy as an associate. And do not expect it get any easier once you become a partner.
Being an attorney at a major law firm is an incredibly rewarding career path, to be sure. The work is intellectually interesting, challenging, and even fun. You get to be surrounded by really smart people all the time. The camaraderie you feel toward those who work (days, nights, and weekends) along side you is almost unexplainable. You get to spend everyday learning, thinking, and growing intellectually. The sense of accomplishment you feel when closing a deal or winning a case is hard to beat. The clients (for the most part) are good people who are easy to work with. And, of course, the compensation isn’t bad. But life at a major law firm is not for everyone. The workload is unpredictable and can get heavy. The hours can be very long. It gets stressful. Some days are better than others. Some days you will want to loudly complain (or cry, or yell, or all of the above). If you are in it for the prestige or the money, sooner or later you will find yourself unhappy and unfulfilled. But if you really appreciate what you have and if you love it, it is worth every bit of the sacrifice.
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