I turned down a summer offer from a very prestigious place which gave me the clear impression it was a sweatshop in favor of a lower ranked, but still reputable V100 firm that put greater emphasis on some sort of balance, plus it is a smaller office where I hope to be treated less like an expendable drone.
How were you able to determine the emphasis they put on the balance? I've looked at firms websites etc just to see what I might be getting into if I end up going to law school and it seems they all trumpet their commitment to work/life balance etc. What are some concrete things that made you think the firm you selected is going to be better? And how did you get the clear impression that the other one was a sweatshop?
1. they actively represented themselves as a contrast to those larger sweatshops in terms of abstract firm policy. I read between the lines a lot in my interviews with how each place answered my questions and what they emphasized. A lot of the interviewing process is gathering as much info as you can while at the office, talking to as many people as possible to get a total flavor for the place, and then trusting your gut about what you think that place is about and what's important to you. The firm I will be at is a CA based firm (and I will be in a smaller NY satellite office) so that general firm outlook is somewhat different from NY based firms, and they presented it that way to me. No other place I interviewed presented themselves as a contrast to sweatshop firms. All the others said "Yeah, we work a lot, but it's a New York firm, so..." I fully expect to be working a lot at the firm I chose (like 2000+ hrs/year), but I think that how the firm approaches those hours is important.
2. Speaking with associates (especially 1st and 2nd year associates) at both places, and asking them what their daily/weekly/monthly schedules are (I did this not in my callback interviews, but at follow-up visits after I got the offers). Some of the associates that the place I will be talked about their experience in comparison to those of their friends work at some of those "top" firms, i.e. Cravath, Skadden, etc... The associates I spoke to at the "sweatshop" firm talked about always working on weekends, not foreseeing any reasons they could leave before 9 pm except maybe "if [they] had World Series tickets or something." I just generally got a different vibe at the two places. Not to mention that the place I will be at took me out to lunch on all of my visits, let me stay as long as I liked and talk to as many people as I wanted, had me meet with the senior partner in the office for like 40 minutes, etc... At the other places I felt like I was intruding in peoples' schedules a bit by interviewing with them. Now of course it could be that the larger offices were just busier with more work to do, but I also got a more "people first" vibe at the place I will be at, or that they treated my like a person with a name they were looking forward to meeting, as opposed to just interviewee #14 for the day.
3. The office of the firm I will be at is much smaller, so I felt that there would be a need and opportunity to do more important things at an earlier stage. They spoke about having 2nd years handling depositions, etc... out of need, and those associates felt that they were much better lawyers having been thrown into the fire, in contrast to doing doc review for 3 years and then not getting to do a depo until year 4.
4. The firm I'm going to has the practice areas I am interested in, that many of the other firms I got offers from did not have. While it is not a guarantee that I will get involved in those practice areas right from the start, I thought I should go to a place where i at least have a shot at doing those things, since they are the reason that I came to law school in the first place. I never really cared too much about working on some colossal Bank of America merger deal. For some people, that is what they want to do, and I say, if it is, go for it. I just didn't want to wake up when I was 30 and realize that I was on a track to never getting to do what I wanted with my legal career and never seeing the light of day at some "super prestigious" firm. Since the pay at both places is roughly the same, I figured the value of prestige I was going to get at the bigger place was not going to be worth more to me on a day to day basis than my own sanity/happiness.
Again, this is a personal choice of mine. For some people, prestige outweighs work/life balance, or outweighs everything else. I certainly see the value of grinding 2-4 years at a place like Cravath (not that I was in the running to work there), and having that name on your resume going forward. I just knew I wasn't going like being at a place like that, nor would I get a chance to do what I want to do there. Let's say for example that you want to do family law or environmental law or some more niche practice. You're probably better served going initially to a less prestigious firm that does those practice areas than going to Cravath for 3-4 years and doing doc review and then trying to get into those areas with no experience in those areas. If you want to work as in-house counsel for a major bank, I can see how going to one of the biggest name firms would be of great benefit, because those places do a ton of that kind of work. But if you want to do entertainment law, it might be a better idea to go to a less reputable place with a strong entertainment practice with better connections to entertainment/media companies in-house counsel.
Again, just my own personal opinions.