Remember your first semester of law school? Everyone was scrambling to be at the top of the class because everyone knew that only the top 10% or so of the class would get a coveted summer internship at a Big Law firm. And everyone knows that the best way to get a job at Big Law when you graduate is to be a Big Law intern during your 1L summer, if at all possible.
Yes, everyone is a “gunner” for the first few weeks of law school.
Never mind the desire to do well academically for the sake of, you know, doing well. Throw a Type A future lawyer who is used to being the smartest person in the room with a hundred or so other Type A future lawyers who are also used to being the smartest person in the room, and you have yourself one helluva competition.
Trouble is, the prize at the end of the competition is a myth. That’s right: there is no Big Law internship waiting for you just because you aced your Crim Law, Torts and Con Law finals. And why should there be? Big Law jobs for brand new associates straight out of law school are going away. Technology has made the grunt work once done by a cadre of young associates – legal research and drafting – much easier for the Big Law lawyer. The Big Law baby associate is becoming obsolete.
But that’s not the BIG lie. The really big lie in Big Law is that the young lawyer needs the job at Big Law, not that Big law needs young lawyers.
Law schools teach us from Day One that a job at Big Law is the goal. And it is – for the law school. A million baby lawyers hanging their shingles fresh out of school screws up their U.S. News ranking, don’t ya know.
But does a new lawyer straight out of school need Big Law? I don’t think so.
First and foremost, there have always been a number of newly-minted lawyers in every graduating class that hang a shingle right away, and most of them do just fine. Just because a law school doesn’t treat it as a desirable option doesn’t mean it has not always been a desirable option.
More importantly, the same technology that makes practicing law more efficient for the Big Law attorney is now cheap and readily available to the small firm and solo practitioner. From affordable online legal research services, to document assembly applications, to cloud-based practice management, time management and accounting applications, technology that was once only available to the legal elite is now within reach of the budding solo.
My experience as a Big Law associate was that we were actually less technologically savvy, less nimble, less flexible, and less efficient than I can be as a solo. Take that, Westlaw!
The mentoring and training of time spent at a Big Law firm that are supposedly the great benefits to the young lawyer are also mythological. Most Big Law associates are pointed to the deep end of the law library pool and told to start swimming. In contrast, I watch young solos at bar luncheons working the room, building relationships with more experienced attorneys and actually getting some of that all-important mentoring.
The one real benefit to working at Big Law straight out of law school is that you get to make your early mistakes on someone else’s dime. The thing is, most new lawyers I have encountered work very diligently not to make very many mistakes, period, whether they are at Big Law, a solo or at a small firm.
Finally, there is the student loan issue. Graduating with $100,000 of debt is intimidating to say the least. The logical thing to do, it could be argued, would be to go for the guaranteed salary of a Big Law firm so that you can pay those big loans! But considering how many Big Law firms recently have laid off young associates (and even partners!) it seems to me to be just as risky to join Big Law as to hang a shingle. Maybe less so since you can’t really fire yourself as an employee if you are a solo practice attorney.
So the myth that you would do better to go to work for Big Law straight out of law school than to hang a shingle is, I think, well and truly busted. If you want to pursue that elusive job at Big Law, go for it… but not because you feel like you HAVE to. Do it if that’s what you want out of your legal career. Otherwise, go the solo or small firm route. You won’t regret it.
All opinions, advice, and experiences of guest bloggers/columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, practices or experiences of Solo Practice University®.