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An Introduction to “Biglaw”
Published April 2010, last updated September 2010
The term “biglaw” pervades the pre-law online community. It is sometimes framed as the natural career path for ambitious students, sometimes held up as an almost unachievable prize, pursued mostly by the foolish and uninformed, and at other times spoken of ruefully as an unavoidable fate. Some focus on sky-high salaries while waving away the real-life implications of long hours, while others lament a future filled with crushing boredom and the inevitable loss of one's soul. All of these perspectives are grounded in fact, but they are exaggerated in the emotionally charged online discourse on biglaw. This article is an attempt to provide some factual context for that discourse.
Although the term “biglaw” is prone to some variance in usage, the most commonly accepted definitions would stipulate that a biglaw job involves working in a large firm (the definition of “large” can also vary; the minimum would be 101 attorneys or more) that pays attorneys the market rate for large firms (currently starting at $160,000 a year), demands long hours, and tends to represent large corporations rather than individuals. It should be noted that these are not four totally separate criteria with any combination of filled and unfilled possible; some factors tend to carry others with them. For example, it would be odd for a firm to pay first-year associates $160,000 but never require them to work more than 40 hours per week. It is common for biglaw firms to have multiple offices in the United States or internationally. Some argue that biglaw should be delineated not by firm size per se but by a firm's inclusion in a well-known ranking of law firms, such as the NLJ 250 or the Vault 100, but this would not significantly change the firms that are included in the classification.
Salaries and Hours
Attorneys in biglaw firms are salaried, which means their pay does not vary according to hours worked; they are neither directly penalized for having no work to do nor directly rewarded for working long hours. Biglaw firms in the largest legal markets (New York, Boston, Washington D.C., Chicago, Los Angeles, and Dallas) offer a starting salary of $160,000 a year, followed by a series of pre-set raises for each year an associate spends with the firm (this system is referred to as “lockstep”). Very recently, however, some firms (for example, Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale & Dorr, Goodwin Procter, and Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe) have announced that they will be moving away from the lockstep system in favor of a more merit-based approach.
Because the business model of a large law firm requires lower-level associates to significantly outnumber the partners and senior associates who supervise them, there are high attrition rates in biglaw. Starting around their third or fourth years with the firm, some associates are asked to start seeking work elsewhere, while others choose to leave, transferring to other large firms or taking jobs as in-house counsel for former clients.
In addition to their large salaries, biglaw associates are compensated with year-end bonuses. In better economic times, bonuses generally started in the $15,000 - $25,000 range for first-year associates and could range to over $100,000, depending on seniority, performance, and the firm's overall profitability during that year. More recently, though, bonuses have fallen significantly; in 2009, first-year bonuses at one major firm based in New York were $7,500. For the calendar year when an associate starts with the firm (called the “stub year,” since associates have traditionally started in the summer or fall), the bonus is pro-rated. In the past, many firms' bonus structures have followed a lockstep system, but in recent years some firms have started tying each attorney's yearly bonus to the number of hours s/he billed that year. A few firms, such as Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, are famous for awarding bonuses equal or nearly equal to yearly salary.
Hours in biglaw are unpredictable. In very slow times, especially in the current recession, an attorney may sit idly all day and go home at 6:00, while during busier times, s/he may have to work all night to meet deadlines. One way an attorney's workload is measured is in hours billed per year, and while firms are reluctant to issue explicit requirements, typical unstated targets range from 1800 to 2300 billable hours per year.
When calculating how much time attorneys spend at work, it is important to remember that not every hour spent in the office is a billable hour. A 2009 brochure published by the Yale Law School Career Development Office estimated that, given a constant supply of work to do, graduates can reasonably expect to bill three hours for every four they spend in the office. This means that, if an attorney works 50 weeks out of the year, bills 2300 hours, and never sits around with no work to do, s/he will spend an average of 60 hours per week at work. Of course, there is no guarantee that these 60 hours will be spread out evenly over the week, or that lulls in the availability of work will not compromise the attorney's productivity and increase the total amount of time s/he must spend in the office.
Attorneys in biglaw have little choice about what cases they work on, how much they work, or when they work. Lower-level associates are subject not only to the partners who manage them, but also to all the levels of senior and mid-level associates between them, and being at the bottom of the totem pole means there are many opportunities for inefficiency or failure of communication to seriously overburden or inconvenience the lower-level associate. Whereas a traditional, 9-to-5 workday allows employees a distinction between 'my time' and 'the company's time,' in biglaw there is no certain and pre-defined personal time – there is only 'time when the firm doesn't need me to be doing anything.' Attorneys are issued with company smartphones (generally Blackberries) so that they can be contacted at any time. The class of 2009 at a top Boston firm was told during orientation that if they were spending time with their children and it was a Sunday, they were not required to respond to e-mails within a three-hour window. The unspoken corollary to this, of course – although the aspiring law student should recognize that it does not actually follow – is that if it is not Sunday or you are not with your children (or don't have children), you had better be on your Blackberry responding to any e-mail that requires a response within an absolute maximum of three hours.
In return for this lifestyle of high-stakes indentured servitude, biglaw attorneys are compensated with more than just high salaries. The firm will pay for a new hire to relocate after law school, and in a few years, it will pay for him/her to move again, on the assumption that s/he now wants a larger house. Gyms are often on-site, with memberships available at a below-market rate. Attorneys who work past a certain point in the evening (for example, 7:30) can order takeout and bill their meal to the client; typical dinner allowances are as high as $25. Similarly, there is a threshold (commonly around 8:00) after which the attorney can take a taxi home and bill that to the client, too.
Biglaw as a Career Goal
Obtaining a job in biglaw is a common goal for law students and prospective law students alike. Aside from the obvious allure of becoming wealthy, popular reasons for pursuing biglaw include the need to pay off large educational loans, the opportunity to work on important cases or with big clients, and a sense of prestige. Some plan to stay with the firm and hope one day to make partner, while others reason that they can put in a couple of intense years, make a dent in their student loans, and then move to a career that allows for more work-life balance. The attorney who does stay with the firm over the long term will not be rewarded with less work, but s/he will have more control over his/her schedule – and, of course, the ability to delegate. Much like law school, biglaw is a huge commitment of time and energy and should not be pursued by the uninformed, yet to those who are suited to it, it can be a rewarding endeavor.
Perhaps the most common rhetorical device in the discussion of biglaw is the metaphorical use of the term “soul”: biglaw attorneys sell their souls for money, the work they do is soul-sucking, etc. This is misguided.
Certainly, large law firms cannot always claim the moral high ground, and an attorney must whole-heartedly defend his firm's position whether or not he approves of it. However, there is no avoiding the fact that corporations are a dominant force of the modern world; society needs laws to govern such corporations, and, in turn, society also needs people to help the corporations interpret and navigate these laws. Biglaw attorneys contribute to the smooth functioning of our world just as their colleagues do in the realms of prosecution, criminal defense, wills and trusts, and so on. A biglaw attorney has certainly sold his energy and potentially all of his time to the firm, for better or for worse, but to imply that he has also parted with his moral compass requires a simplistic view of the lawyer's (and the corporation’s) place in society.
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