Despite employing a relatively small percentage of practicing lawyers, “BigLaw” looms large in the popular imagination — and in the minds of incoming law students who aspire to walk its prestigious (and highly-paid) halls. Before we get into the details of how to get a BigLaw job, let’s talk about some basics — how do these firms operate, anyway?
The Basics of BigLaw
When we talk about “BigLaw,” we’re talking about the firms on the AmLaw 200 list with a few random outliers thrown in. These firms tend to be headquartered in large cities, particularly New York and Washington, D.C., and they might employ thousands of lawyers in offices around the world. Some of the largest offices might have 1,000+ lawyers.
Traditionally, large law firms had two tiers of lawyers: partners and associates. A generation or two ago, the basic expectation was that if you managed to get hired as an associate and did competent work for 8-10 years (give or take), you’d become an equity partner, meaning you’d be a part owner of the business and you’d share in the profits. Partners rarely moved around, and it was rare for people to work at multiple firms over the course of a career.
How Things Changed in the 1980s
All of this genteel behavior changed in the 1980s when the AmLaw lists were first published, listing “profits per partner” at the largest firms in the country. Suddenly, everyone had a scorecard, and — not surprisingly — successful partners at relatively lower paying firms began to jump ship to firms with higher PPP.
Thus, the rise of the “lateral move,” a switch at the partnership level from one firm to another. Those most likely to be able to make such moves were the “rainmakers” (the people who brought in the clients and, hence, the money) with a large “portable book of business” (meaning their clients would follow them to the new firm).
Once profits per partner became an important metric (and an important means of hanging on to each firms’ most productive partners), BigLaw developed other techniques to inflate PPP. Chief among these were hiring more associates (to increase leverage) and decreasing the percentage of associates who moved on to become partners (therefore ensuring a large slice of the pie for each partner).
Firms also created a new type of “non-equity partner” (sometimes called “of counsel”), which is essentially a glorified senior associate role with a salary, but no share in the profits. Oh, and the pressure to bill increasing number of hours — given that firms typically get paid by the hour — rose ever higher, to ensure enough money for a generous partner payout.
Putting these trends together, it’s pretty easy to see why large law firms don’t have the best reputation as great places to work. The traditional carrot (partnership) has become highly unlikely, even for the extremely talented and driven associates who flock to BigLaw each year.
Ratcheting up billable hour requirements ensures that the job itself is increasingly inhumane, with little prospect of work-life balance. And, because very few associates have any prospect of being promoted to partnership, the incentive to invest in mentoring and training (traditionally reasons to accept a BigLaw job) are significantly lessened.
Vigorous Competitions for BigLaw Positions
And yet…each year law students around the country compete vigorously to land a BigLaw position! When you consider the average law school student loan debt and a starting salary of $160,000 plus bonus, it’s not terribly surprising that firms have plenty of potential associates to choose from.
If you think you want one a BigLaw job, learn about the basics of on-campus interviewing, how to get a callback, how to get a summer offer, how to get an offer to come back after the summer program, and alternate ways to get hired (without participating in a summer associate program).