Life as a Lawyer: Week 1 – Training and Anticipation
Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be a corporate lawyer at a large law firm? Well, so have I. After four years of grueling graduate school, the time finally arrived for me to face the behemoth known as “Big Law”.
Really, the anticipation leading up to Day 1 is the worst part. Life in Big Law (defined colloquially as “working for a large national or multinational law firm”) is generally described by the following phrases:
“Selling your soul”
“Prepare to have no social life”
“Go home early while you still can”
…and so on. Even the interview process to get hired by a big firm can be summed up by the “2 am conference room test”, which basically means that, as long as your GPA is up to snuff, all the interviewers are really looking for is whether or not they’d want to kill you if they got stuck in a conference room with you at 2:00 in the morning. Because you will be in a conference room at 2:00 in the morning at some point in your career.
It also doesn't help that everybody knows most people don't last long at big firms. The life span of the average big law associate is about two years (completely anecdotal statistic). Many firms not only expect you to leave – they want you to leave. If you leave, the chances increase that whatever organization hires you next will eventually become their client. This model works so well that some firms even have dedicated personnel whose role is to help you find your second job. Encouraging.
But what about...?
There were also a number of concerns on my mind as I prepared to start my new job. After dealing with the burnout of grad school, would I be able to handle the pressure of Big Law life? If I couldn’t, what would that say about my ability to succeed in the world? Most importantly, how could I protect my Sundays as a Sabbath Day when the expectation is that you’re available pretty much 24/7?
The night before my first day, I spent a long time on my knees, praying to God that I would be able to do this job – and not just do it, but enjoy it. I’ll be honest – even though I’ve been around lawyers A LOT over the last four years, I still don’t actually know what a corporate attorney does. I know generally what litigators do, because that’s what law school prepares you to do, but I still don’t know what the day-to-day world of a corporate attorney looks like. Would I enjoy it? Would I have to look at contracts all day? Contracts was one of my worst classes in law school, partly because I had a professor who spent more time drawing pictures of the assigned cases on the board than actually teaching me about contract law (seriously – our final exam read like a Fitzgerald description of an elaborate party-gone-wrong). But also because contract law was boring, and if that’s all I’m going to be doing for the rest of my life, kill me now. But people spend their whole lives doing this, and making good money at it, so there has to be something more interesting than staring at contracts. Right?
Bursting Through the Buildup
In spite of the psychological trauma leading up to the job, big law is a door that doesn’t stay open forever, which is why I made the decision to choose that path when the opportunity arose. So, after four years of anticipation, the time finally arrived for me to walk through the firm doors as a bona fide attorney (more or less – I still technically haven’t been sworn in yet). On Monday morning, I woke up early, got dressed in the outfit I’d picked out a week ago, hopped on the train and headed into the city. And….it was great. After nearly three months of sleeping in and having absolutely no responsibilities, it felt amazing to be back in the workforce as a contributing member of society. Even though I only sat through trainings my first week, just being in an office lifted my spirits. I have discovered that I like to work, and I like to feel like my work matters. I think that’s one reason school was so difficult for me – I spent four years taking and taking and taking – just consuming information without putting it to any sort of purposeful use. It’s hard to really feel fulfilled when all of your endeavors are just about how much you can consume. I understand that it’s a condensed period of time and you have to consume so you can produce blah blah blah, but I really do think that’s one reason I struggled so much with school.
But now, I was finally back in an office where I could put all that information to use and really go out and make something of my life. The training wheels of final exams and grades were gone and I was once again a big kid, riding on my own two wheels down the street with the air rushing past my face and shouting “WOOHOO!” at the top of my lungs. I know I know – my first all-nighter is going to feel like crashing into a tree headlong, but hey - for now I'll take the rush of the first week, and the first paycheck. I don’t care what they say - adulting is fun.
Lessons from Week 1
Week 1 of training was about what you’d expect: lots of sitting (and consequentially lots of sore legs – welcome to your 30’s Erin), lots of firm culture, and lots of lectures on how not to be the first year associate everyone hates. From what I can gather so far, being a first year associate can be summed up as follows:
- Law is an apprenticeship and you’re at the bottom of the rung.
- You’re going to do all the grunt work, but learn to love it cause it’s actually a great “learning opportunity”.
- And my personal favorite: In order to be a great associate, “Be psychic.”
Even though I’m being slightly facetious (not really), there are also some things that have really impressed me about big law life this past week. Perhaps the biggest thing that has impressed me are the people. Every person I have met, from staff to attorneys, is nothing but a model of professionalism, intelligence, and total class. I feel the level of my IQ go up just by walking in the building. (Note: Although this is cool, it's also extremely intimidating.) People are good at their jobs and the firm is good at what it does. If I’m here to learn, I’m clearly in a good place.
I've also been impressed by how much the firm cares about our success. Even if they know many of us won't stick around, they also know that they are an important – if not the most important – placeholder in our respective professional journeys, simply by virtue of being the first stop. Therefore, they put an enormous amount of time and money into training, mentorship, personalized development, and other resources for new attorneys - resources a lot of smaller firms and other organizations just don't have. Channeling their Boston heritage, the firm really does try to create an environment where "Everybody knows your name". I think I’ve lost track of the number of people who’ve noticed I was new, introduced themselves, and welcomed me into their offices anytime I’ve had a question, even when they’re extremely busy. As a bright-eyed first year, I am profoundly grateful for that.
At the end of the day, however, although training was a great start, it only increased the amount of anticipation building in my eager little mind. Seriously - every time they told us how to make a good impression, I just wanted to jump out of my seat and shout “Let me go Coach! I've got this! Let me prove to you that I’m worthwhile!” I know. It’s so embarrassing. But hey – if I’m going to be working a thousand hours a week, then I guess it’s a good thing to feel that way, right?
Luckily for me, first assignments are just around the corner. Here we go.