The Big Lie About Big Law

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®.

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11 comments on “The Big Lie About Big Law

  • Suzanne,
    You are 100% correct that biglaw associate jobs are going the way of the dinosaur and for that reason, biglaw is probably not an option for the vast majority of new grads. However, if new grads have a realistic shot at a biglaw job, they should go for it, particularly if they are carrying a lot of debt. Salaries at big law are still very high and by living frugally, a new grad can pay down a significant portion of debt in a year or two on a big firm salary. In addition, big law does provide substantial training opportunities. Even working on a memo about an obscure component of a massive case teaches research and how matters fit together. Also, big firms will often pay new associates to do pro bono or attend costly skills courses and CLEs which actually are very valuable. True, you will not get hands on experience but big law will instill very strong practical work skills which can lay a foundation for starting a practice. Of course, this may all be a moot question anyway because jobs at large firms are so limited.

    • I think that some Big Law firms do an excellent job of training their brand new associates, while many do not. My experience was that I got little to no training right off the bat. Most attorneys I know figure it out as they go whether they started at Big Law or as a solo. I will say that the ones who seem to have gotten the most out of their post-law school employment went to work in the government sector or went to work at a small firm where they received a lot more oversight and training. Yes, my Big Law firm paid for my initial Florida Bar-required CLE, but that benefit was not by itself enough for me to advise someone to choose Big Law over solo practice.

  • I disagree with one statement you make: “Law schools teach us from Day One that a job at Big Law is the goal.” The law school I attended taught the law and how to thnk like a lawyer. And it did it extremely well in my opinion. I think your statement overly generalizes something that may be the case at some law schools, but not all.

    • Hi Tony, thanks for joining the discussion. When I went to school saying you want to go solo had faculty rolling their eyes and suggesting you were making a big mistake. They also saw no advancement in their agenda so you were gently (and sometimes not so gently) pushed to the side. No, it isn’t specifically stated. But when the brochures to attract students are all about Supreme Court Clerkships and who got an associate position at a Big Law Firm and NO mention of solo practice, the intent is clear. Come to our school and we’ll teach you how to be an employee. I have yet to see one law school brochure which trumpets the successes of solo/small firm practice, showcases it as an option. I would love to see and I would promote that school gladly. But when I went and for nearly a decade after, being self-employed was my dirty little secret as far as the school was concerned.

      • Susan,

        I will say this about my school (South Texas) – most of what I see in the advertising is not about the court clerkships (though we have a few) and the Big Law associates, but more about the small firm (not necessarily solo) attorney’s who have made big names and the advocacy championships that the School has won in various competitions. And while career services remains mired in the Big Law rut because it is easy (and I have friends in that office, so I don’t say this lightly), I can say that there were offerings and support for solo practice was present – namely an intersession class focusing on opening a practice, a half-day seminar on solo practice (a friend of mine – not Chuck – spoke on the nuts and bolts issues of starting a solo practice) and heavy emphasis on advocacy and clinics. But I do think that this is the attitude of those schools not in the upper ranks of US News ratings and not of those number ranked schools – which will be to their detriment when Carolyn’s point comes to fruition and those coveted Big Law associate positions go the way of the dinosaur.

    • Tony, you don’t say whether your law school did anything to encourage those who chose the solo or small firm route. All law schools focus on academics and preparedness to pass the bar exam. But how did your law school prepare students for employment and/or entrepreneurship after graduation ? Susan’s experience is far more the norm than you may realize.

    • I think Tony’s point is accurate in that law school itself doesn’t “openly” carry a bias for big law firms, but you have to read between the lines. For instance, we have “Professionalism Day” where every year the students select from a wide array of topics and receive lectures from practitioners. “Solo and Small Firms” is included within that agenda. There were 3 different lawyers sharing their experiences on going solo. I enjoyed hearing the experiences of lawyers who had thriving small practices, but I was mixed on the advice that was given to the students regarding the “When?” and “How?”. Of course, these are big decisions that can depend on one’s personal tastes, but what I gathered as the ultimate conclusion from the comments was that the move is laden with risks, and that the idea was just risky in general. In no other Professionalism Day discussion (aside from maybe Professional Ethics) did I ever get the feeling that the profession comes with serious risk taking. Since the school does nothing to proactively challenge that portrayal of small firms, one could absolutely deduce the bias.

      I’m nearing the end of my 20′s, have 6 years of experience in Environmental, Health, and Safety, and 2 young children, so my comments are not those of a typical 22-25 year old law student. But what I like about this article, and SPU’s philosophy, is that it encourages us younger troupe to stay sharp in our skills and relationships and perhaps not see an exclusion from big law, voluntary or involuntary, as a patent failure in our legal careers. Articles like this one really do help distill the “risky” image of being solo and focus our attention inward on the skills we are developing while in school.

    • Tony – I would agre with you. When I started law school, the Dean stood up and said in essence – When you all graduate from law school you are all “equal” in that you receive the same degree with the same opportunity to take what you learned and shape your own destiny as to that aspect of the law you want to practice….

  • The facts are as follows:

    1. Lawyers have been starting, marketing, managing, buying & selling successful solo law firms for nearly one thousand years.

    2. For about 95% of that time – or only in the last 50 years – there was no such thing as a “big” law firm.

    3. The socio-economic and political factors that necessitated “big” law firms emerged in the 1950′s for very practical reasons. For equally practical reasons today big law firms are for the most part unnecessary. Which is why we keep seeing waves of massive layoffs, mergers and big law firms splintering apart into more viable smaller law firms.

    4. The vast majority of lawyers in the United States today – and this has been true for the past 236 years – are solo lawyers. The “face” of The American Lawyer is a solo practitioner. Perhaps with a few associates and some support staff…but always a single shareholder who makes his or her own decisions, takes responsibility for his or her mistakes and celebrates his or her own successes.

    5. It was only since the 1950′s for some of the reasons mentioned above that big law firms began making big endowments to big law schools that law students began to believe that there’s anything wrong with hanging ones own shingle and going solo. Gee, I wonder why?

  • Forming my own law practice has been one of the most rewarding decisions for me. The satisfaction I gain from working with clients of my own choosing is unmatched. The inner growth that happens for a law business owner as s/he learns to ask deep and tough questions is also incredible. I would say that there are probably solo law firm owners who are not too happy, but it is likely exactly because it isn’t something that is taught or encouraged and people are left to figure it out. Your post has inspired me to reach out to my law school career center to see how I can help new struggling attorneys learn about the option of being a law business owner.

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