What’s It Like Working at a Major New York City Law Firm?

by Scott Edward Walker on January 26th, 2011

Introduction

About once a week, I receive an email or phone call from a law school student asking for career advice and specifically inquiring what it’s like working at a major New York City law firm (as I did for nearly eight years).  I discuss below the good, the bad and the ugly.

The Good

New York City is the capital of the legal profession.  Accordingly, there is no better place to launch your legal career than at a major New York City law firm, particularly if you’re interested in practicing corporate law.  As a corporate associate, you will be working on some of the largest and most complex transactions in the world (often covered on the front page of The Wall Street Journal).

The environment is intense; the partners are demanding; and work day is long.  Indeed, as a junior associate, you can expect to work 15+ hours per day and, if a deal is hot, much longer.  All-nighters are not uncommon; for example, my former colleague’s best friend started at Wachtell Lipton (a top M&A shop), and within the first six months he had done 30+ all-nighters (defined as not sleeping).

The most significant benefit of this work environment is that you will be developing a strong, foundational skill-set.  You’ll be working under very smart, talented and experienced lawyers, and you can’t help but absorb some of their analytical skills and sound judgment; it’s like a rookie training with the Yankees or the Steelers.  You will also begin developing strong drafting skills, which is critical to a corporate lawyer (not to mention learning the importance of meeting tight deadlines and responsiveness).

The Bad

One of the major downsides working as a junior corporate associate at a major New York City law firm is the excessive number of hours spent doing tedious, mind-numbing work.  I remember my first deal as a junior associate.  My firm was representing Sony in connection with its $2 billion acquisition of CBS Records.  I was assigned to a 20-lawyer due diligence team and ended-up spending about 16-18 hours per day for three weeks reviewing corporate documents at the headquarters of CBS Records.  Other than drafting closing documents, this is generally how you will spend your first couple of years at the big firm.

The other significant downside is the extraordinary pressure to bill.  Your job security depends upon meeting certain minimum annual billing thresholds; and bonuses are tied to thresholds as well.  Accordingly, the entire business model promotes inefficiency and padding.  This may be good for the law firm’s bottom line; however, it leads to over-lawyering and the inability to prioritize issues.

The Ugly

The ugly is pretty ugly – and you have to develop some thick skin to survive.  Simply put, at times you’re going to feel abused as a junior associate.  It will be tough enough pulling all-nighters and doing piles of scutwork, but the false deadlines, disrespect and personal insults can be a lot to handle.  (For example, some partners will not even acknowledge you in the hallways or bathroom or will curse at you and/or belittle you in the presence of other lawyers.)

This abusive treatment always seemed quite short-sighted to me for several reasons: first, the firm was driving good associates away; second, many associates would go in-house and would eventually have an opportunity to forward business back to the firm; and third, why not have a great reputation for treating associates well and thereby become a magnet for law-school graduates.

So why does this go on at most of the major New York City law firms?  My conclusion: partners abuse associates because they can; or, to put it another way, this is the way they were treated and so they continue the vicious circle.  Believe me, the same thing goes on at the big New York City investment banks — as attested to by my friends (and discussed in the book “Monkey Business: Swinging Through the Wall Street Jungle”).

Conclusion

Like anything in life, there are pros and cons to starting your legal career at a major New York City law firm; however, I strongly recommend it – particularly if you’re going to practice corporate law.  The training you will receive there will be invaluable.  Moreover, you will have lots of career opportunities after a few years.  As the song goes: “If you make it there, you can make it anywhere.  New York, New York.”

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