Failing the First Date Test: Why I Shouldn’t Work in Big Law

Failing the First Date Test: Why I Shouldn’t Work in Big Law

 

I suggest that anyone who is unsure about her future career plans try out the "First Date Test" for choosing a profession: If you're on a first date with someone and you can't tell them what you plan to do for a living without feeling guilty, getting defensive, or having a panic attack, you should think about pursuing a different career path. I believe in this test because I derived it from real-life experience. I recently went on a pleasant enough first date with a guy who was about my age, was also originally from the Midwest, and who, like me, moved to California for graduate school. When the conversation turned to career plans, it began something like this:

Him: I've been working for a clean energy startup since I finished grad school, but I don't know if I want to do this forever. If could be fun to teach for a while and get more people excited about the field.

Me: Oh cool. Well, I'm about halfway through law school. Oh, but I'm not just in law school! I'm also getting a master's in Latin American Studies.  

Him: So, are you planning to combine my degrees to work in Latin American development or politics or something like that?

Me: Not really. [Understatement]

Him: Well then [half jokingly?] are you at least going to be the good kind of lawyer?

Of course, I knew exactly what he was asking. And of course, as a law student who intends to spend her post-graduation years at a large law firm, I refused to give a straight answer. I rambled on for a couple of minutes about the interesting cases that I would work on at a big law firm, the fact that most corporate law firm clients would rather do the right thing early on to avoid litigation, and the opportunity that law firm work will provide to choose a different career down the road. Sensing that neither of us was satisfied with my answer, I quickly added, "I also want to do a ton of immigration and asylum pro bono work."[1] Silence. By all discernible measures, I failed the First Date Test.

Despite my best efforts, I am still unable to fully accept the idea of going to work for a large firm after law school. It's a frustrating position to be in, especially as I watch most of my peers run off to accept permanent offers and six-figure salaries from corporate law firms, knowing that they've gotten what they wanted from law school. So why am I not satisfied with the same achievement? Probably because never intended to go to Big Law before I started law school, and now that in law school, I'm not convinced that Big Law really wants me.

As a black, queer-identified woman, I came to law school with a strong sense of social justice a belief that a career in law would enable me to address many of society's inequalities. I was certain that I would pursue a career in civil rights or human rights law, probably focusing on racial discrimination and LGBTQ issues. I made sure to mention my future career plans whenever someone made a disparaging comment about law school or lawyers, assuring him or her that I was going to be the "good kind of lawyer." In fact, I proclaimed more than once that I would rather eat my own arm than devote my life to a corporate law firm that helped make rich companies richer. Fortunately, no one has called me out on the fact that I still have two arms.   

In spite of my professed desire to work in the public interest, I spent the summer after my first year of law school working at a large law firm in the Pacific Northwest. In an effort to persuade myself and others, I've come up with a plausible explanation as to why I jumped ship and opted to go the corporate route: fear of post-graduation unemployment. Although I had little desire to work for a law firm, I reasoned that it was good to keep my options open and consider trying something new for the summer. Besides, in my interviews with public interest organizations, several interviewers told me flat out that while they would be happy to hire me for an unpaid summer internship, they lacked the time and resources to invest in a recent law school graduate with little training or experience.  Ultimately, I decided to forgo public interest opportunities and instead spent my 1L summer getting a taste of corporate law. After participating in on-campus interviewing, I decided to spend my 2L summer working for a large law firm as well.

Although I enjoyed working at law firm last summer, I still can't escape the nagging feeling that I'm somehow "giving in" by abandoning public interest to work in Big Law. I'm sure that many other law students have made the same switch. As the authors of Urban Lawyers note, large law firms have grown to dominate the legal market[2], and an increasingly large number of lawyers choose to begin their careers in large law firms.[3] I never thought I would be one of those lawyers, but at Stanford Law School, going to a big law firm after graduation seems to be the path of least resistance. I can justify my career decisions based on money, prestige, or relative security of employment, but I have to admit that on some level, it's just easier to let myself get swept up in the Big Law current.



 

[1] In 2009, the 100 law firms averaging the most pro bono hours per lawyer logged between 45.8 and 169.5 pro bono hours. American Lawyer.com, The Am Law Top 100, http://www.law.com/jsp/tal/probono (last visited April 23, 2011). In 2009, the average law firm associate worked 2032 total hours, while the average associate at a firm with more than 700 lawyers averaged 2076 hours. NALP, Number of Associate Hours Worked Declines, http://www.nalp.org/assoc_hrs_feb2011 (last visited April 23, 2011). That means a firm whose associates work the average number of total hours could make the Pro Bono Top 100 if its associates devoted 2.25% of their total hours to pro bono work. The firm could top the charts if its associates devoted 8.3% of their hours to pro bono. Given these numbers, a "ton" of pro bono work at any point in my career seems unlikely.

[2] John P. Heinz, et. al., Urban Lawyers: the New Social Structure of the Bar 99 (2005).

[3] John P. Heinz, et. al., Urban Lawyers: the New Social Structure of the Bar 142 (2005).

Building a Better Legal Profession (BBLP) is an organization based at Stanford Law School.   BBLP is a national grassroots movement that seeks market-based workplace reforms in large private law firms. For more information, visit BBLP's Web site at www.betterlegalprofession.org.