BigLaw is often touted as the way law students Make It™. But, the BigLaw search was also one of the times I was most palpably conscious of my First Gen-ness because the entire process is so foreign to anyone outside the legal profession. I had never even heard of “BigLaw” before law school, so I didn’t have a single clue what pompous gibberish people were speaking when they told me it was time to start applying. The BigLaw application process was a steep learning curve for me, to say the least. Thankfully, I relied on the wisdom of an amazing Career Services Office, and I’m very proud of how my BigLaw search shaped up.
To pay it forward, this is the first in a series of four articles about BigLaw. This article defines “BigLaw” and offers advice to help you decide if a BigLaw career might be right for you. Part Two helps get you started on your BigLaw search and find a firm you’ll love. Part Three walks you through the application process itself, and Part Four will help you choose among offers to select your ideal firm.
What Even is BigLaw, and Why Do I Want to Work There?
BigLaw is, to say the least, Big. We’re talking about firms that employ hundreds of attorneys and have gross profits of millions— if not billions— of dollars. Many BigLaw firms have tens of offices across the country, and many have a few international offices as well. BigLaw typically represents the biggest clients and companies like international banks, big pharma, and huge tech companies. (The American Lawyer generates a list of the top firms every year— the AmLaw 100 and the AmLaw 200— if you’re curious which firms qualify as “BigLaw.”)
BigLaw typically hires the top students at law schools, especially from the Ivies, for their second summer. Plus, 2L summer associateships usually carry a significant expectation summer associates will likely return to the firm after they graduate. BigLaw places a premium on your law school’s prestige, your GPA/rank, membership in a journal/law review, and participation in mock trial or moot court— usually in that order. It’s stiff competition. That’s not to say that students who don’t have those things on their resume aren’t eligible for BigLaw— you shouldn’t hesitate to throw your hat in the ring— but know that the process might be more of an uphill battle.
BigLaw jobs tend to pay quite well for your 10 weeks over the summer, and entry level salaries usually start at 6 figures. In return for that obscene income, attorneys who work in BigLaw are expected to bill as many as 2,300 hours a year for the firm, which can mean working 10-12 hours a day every day, including weekends. Without any hyperbole, BigLaw attorneys work All. The. Time.
Other than the financial stability, the biggest reason graduates choose BigLaw is the prestige. It does a lot for your resume to be able to say that one of the biggest firms in the country— maybe the world— chose you. In that sense, BigLaw can open a lot of doors further down the road in almost any legal career path simply because your affiliation with the firm is considered an indice of your legal caliber and acumen. BigLaw is also known for giving attorneys opportunities to be fully immersed in the law; BigLaw attorneys have unparalleled opportunities for training, both formally and through sheer in-the-trenches work, and that makes for an invaluable learning opportunity, regardless of your long term career path. So whether you’re interested in staying in the private sector, or if you’re more interested in public interest, government service, or even academia, BigLaw can help set you up for that.
Of course, this is all in exchange for pulling all-nighters with some degree of frequency, and being called at 3 AM to triple-check citations. In that sense, BigLaw is not for the faint of heart or the work-shy. And BigLaw attorneys lose a considerable amount of control over who they represent and what they do; in BigLaw, you’re not going to choose your clients, and if you have moral scruples over that idea, you should give it a think as you consider if BigLaw is right for you. Check this out for more pros and cons on BigLaw.
But Should I Apply?
In short, yes. You should try. I’d be lying if I said that BigLaw summer associateships aren’t stiff competition. The best and the brightest at every school are fighting for a chance to work at the most prestigious law firms. Even folks at the top of their class may apply to dozens of firms, and only hear back from a fraction, with only one or two offers in hand at the end. And, of course, this also means that those students who aren’t necessarily top of the class may have a slightly more uphill climb ahead. But, don’t let this dissuade you from applying— throw your hat in the ring. If BigLaw only hired the top 5% of the class, there would be all of 20 people in BigLaw, but these firms are behemoths, so that’s clearly not the case.
The worst that can happen is what? That you don’t get an offer? Well you won’t be in any worse a position job-wise than if you didn’t apply; but by applying you probably gained some valuable resume and interviewing tips, and you might even have gotten some free food out of it. Look, it might be a bit of an ego blow, but if you really are interested in BigLaw, don’t let your pride preemptively stop you.
And if you’re a 2L reading this worrying that you didn’t have the right job your 1L summer to be able to apply to BigLaw— don’t. I don’t mean to say they don’t matter, but in the grand scope of BigLaw career paths… they don’t much matter. There is no one position that will make you necessarily more or less marketable for BigLaw. Seriously. Whether you go to BigLaw your first summer, work in-house, intern with a judge, or spend time with a non-profit, a BigLaw job is attainable for your second summer. What’s important is not the position itself, but the work ethic and experience you derive from it. Even from just a handful of people from my school, the acceptability of diverse backgrounds is evident:
My point is just this: Never let your concern about not having had the “right” 1L summer position or the “right” credentials scare you off from pursuing the BigLaw path. Throw your hat in the ring.
Once you’ve determined if BigLaw is right for you, jump on over to Part Two of our BigLaw series to learn more about creating a concrete action plan to apply to BigLaw firms.