Is Big Law For Me?

Is Big Law For Me?

Perhaps even more disturbing than quickly realizing that my decision to go to Big Law was the wrong one, is the thought of spending several years in the professional blissfully unaware of any issues until I bang my head against the glass ceiling. My conception of the glass ceiling became much more real after I read the account of a black attorney who sues his large law firm employer for racial discrimination in The Good Black. Although some of the evidence that attorney Larry Mungin puts forth to support his racial discrimination claim is ambiguous, for some reason, Mungin's opportunities for advancement at the law firm stagnated. Regardless of whether one believes that Mungin was a victim of racial discrimination, his experience the firm demonstrates that Mungin believed in his future at Katten Muchin until he finally hit the glass ceiling.[1][2] I don't want to become another Larry Mungin.

I'm concerned that a large corporate law firm is not the best place for a Black queer woman who still feels guilty for deciding against a public interest career. Many of the discourses on diversity in law firms emphasize how hard it is for women and minorities to break through the glass ceiling that continues to be permeable only to heterosexual white men. Even as women and minorities enter the legal profession in increasing numbers[3], many of them don't go to large law firms, and those who do seldom make their way up to the ranks of partnership. Like so many other women and minorities, will I decide to leave Big Law when I realize that things haven't changed, or that it's harder than I thought to change them from the inside?[4] I'm afraid of the answer.

So I failed the First Date Test. First, I felt guilty. As much as I insist that post-graduation public interest jobs are impossible to get, I know that I'm probably exaggerating to feel better about the choice I've made. I don't want to be another woman who comes to law school to do public interest and leaves doing corporate litigation, but that's exactly what I'll be.

Then, I got defensive. I hate that people often look at me differently once they realize that I'm not going to be the "good kind of lawyer." I realize that some lawyers are self-serving and morally myopic, but I feel a compulsion to let people know that I'm not. I remind them that not all law firms are evil corporations and not all lawyers are demonic, money-grubbing minions. My firm is really involved in the community has ties to a million public interest organizations. Plus, I'll be doing tons of pro bono work. I can help people just as much working for a law firm as I could if I were working in public interest. Working at a firm doesn't mean that I can't still be the good kind of lawyer!

Finally... well, I didn't have a panic attack, but I definitely panicked. If, in my second year of law school, I'm already justifying my career choice to someone I barely know, and whose opinion means almost nothing to me, will I have to justify my career to myself and to others for the rest of my life? Can I handle that? Do I want to handle it? So I failed the First Date Test. Maybe I should consider pursuing a different career path. 


[1] Paul M. Barrett, The Good Black: a True Story of Race in America (1999).

[2] Larry Mungin filed a racial discrimination lawsuit against the law firm Katten Muchin Rosenman in 1994 while working at the firm's Washington, D.C. office. Now17 years later, only two of the D.C. office's 69 attorneys are Black. Katten Muchin Rosenman Employer Info, NALP, (last visited April 23, 2011).

[3] In their study of University of Michigan Law School graduates, for example, Nelson and Payne note that minority lawyers are more likely than white lawyers to begin their careers in government and public interest sectors. Robert L. Nelson and Monique R. Payne, Minority Graduates from Michigan Law School: Differently Successful, 25 Law & Soc. Inquiry 521, 523 (2000).

[4] A 2009 Catalyst study found that 64.4% of women of color associates left their employers within 55 months, compared to 54.9% of women overall. Nearly 75% of women of color associates left their firms by their fifth year of practice, and 85% left before their 7th year. Catalyst Releases Women of Color in U.S. Law Firms Report- Quantifying Gaps in Perception and Experience, Ms. JD, (July 21, 2009, 12:12).


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