The Downsides of Big Law

Skyscraper

Big Law can be especially rewarding—both financially and otherwise. I worked with incredibly bright people on difficult, complex matters. Ultimately, I decided to move on because I had a burning desire to try starting my own company.

However, there are some downsides to life as a Big Law attorney. Some that immediately that come to mind are the following:

Lack of work-life balance

It’s a given that you will work long hours and will often work on the weekends. Everyone understands that when they start, but it really hits home when you’re feeling stressed and fatigued. Further, you often have to cancel plans with friends and family members.

Difficult work environment

Partners feel stress from clients, senior and mid-level associates feel stress from partners, and you, as a junior associate, will feel stress from nearly everyone. The stress rolls downhill. Clients are paying large fees for your services and you (and your bosses) want to deliver the best possible work. Even more difficult is the fact that you often have to deliver quality work product under short deadlines.

Risk aversion

This is a big one. As a Big Law associate, you become more comfortable with your higher standard of living. This makes it more difficult to leave the firm and “downgrade” your lifestyle if you want to take a career risk. This is commonly known as the golden handcuffs syndrome and I wrote more about it here.

Less responsibility

Something that may surprise new junior associates is that, compared to other jobs, they likely won’t have as much initial responsibility as they envisioned. For example, if you’re looking for courtroom or deposition experience, you likely won’t make many substantive appearances until you’re a mid-level or senior associate. In the beginning, you’re often in a support role. And this makes sense because junior associates are still learning about the practicalities of legal practice. This also goes to my second point about clients paying large fees for your firm’s work: they would be uncomfortable giving so much responsibility to a young associate with little to no practical experience.

Depending on your interests, the actual work

Many law students pursue Big Law because of the compensation, prestige, and/or potential exit options. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with this. But just be aware that you accept the risk of not necessarily enjoying the work that you’re doing. The worry is being pigeonholed into a discrete area of law that you don’t enjoy. If that’s the case, you’ll have to speak out and make a change (the earlier, the better).