Understanding Big Law: A Must-Read Guide To One Of The Most Challenging Workplaces In The World Is Now Available

An Am Law 100 partner and rainmaker penned Big Law Confidential to help the rest of us understand the law firms that help run the world.

Screen Shot 2023-02-13 at 11.33.23 AMMany a law student dreams of wearing a fine suit and walking into a gleaming office tower, then settling in a corner office to conduct high-stakes legal work. Yes, they will have heard about the astronomical stress levels that come with working in Big Law, about its all-consuming nature.

But some people can’t resist a “New York, New York” challenge. They know that if they can make it at one of these firms, they’ll make it anywhere.

Enter Big Law Confidential, The Comprehensive Guide to the Large Law Firm Work Experience in the U.S. by D.W. Randolph. For young lawyers who want to take on the challenge — and those who care about them — it’s a must-read.

The author is a partner, rainmaker, and practice leader at a firm in the Am Law 100, the ranking of the largest, most high-powered firms in the country, those tagged with the Big Law label. The author chose to write under an anonymous pen name so nothing would interfere with the frankness necessary for the work to be truly useful.

And frank it is. Early on, the author discusses sky-high compensation. We’re talking a starting base salary of more than $200,000 per year in some markets, plus hefty bonuses. This is followed by a dose of reality: Big Law pays this much so top students from top schools will put up with the “soul-crushing” work.

In case you think this is an exaggeration, a Forbes survey recounted in the book found “the #1 worst and unhappiest job in America was that of associate at a Big Law firm.”   

This book is designed to help attorneys prepare, and cope. Big Law Confidential contains a massive amount of information, from the general to the granular. It’s tempting to say that only a Big Law attorney would be tenacious and organized enough to produce such a guide, meant to teach its readers “how to survive the grueling, incredibly stressful, and immensely challenging work experience[.]” 

Or better yet, how to succeed. Some advice is common-sense, such as an emphasis on producing quality work and promptly communicating with senior attorneys and clients, but some is less obvious and quite clever. For example, the author advises you to schedule your personal time for exercise or what have you (be vague about the activity) in the firm’s system, so that when the partner checks to see if you’re free, he or she does not get the impression that your hands are idle. Optics are an important weapon in the battle to succeed in Big Law.

A young attorney reading this book might say, “Surely, the partners realize I need some time for myself and my family.”

No such luck. This is Big Law, where you are expected to produce an enormous volume of high-quality, error-free legal work quickly and under budget. Your work will most certainly not be confined to ordinary business hours. Twelve-hour days are de rigueur in Big Law, all-nighters are not unheard of, and everyone works at least a few hours while on vacation. 

For this reason, the author suggests this guide be used not only by attorneys deciding whether to join a Big Law firm — and those striving to succeed once they’ve joined — but by the people in their lives. Spouses and other family members will need to understand, to the extent possible, what it takes to thrive. 

Legal recruiters may also find the book useful, as well as clients of Big Law firms, and law school faculty, staff, and administrators, to name a few.

In fact, the author makes it easy, providing a list of those who should read the book in the front matter, as well as a glossary, and a chart with the salient points from each chapter.

The chart is a great feature. It can be used like an index. Imagine you are a newly minted associate headed into your first performance review. You may want to reread that section to arm yourself with knowledge and to ease your stress. Consult the chart. Wondering how bonuses work? The chart will tell you where to read. Want advice about seeking a promotion? The chart will point you in the right direction. Big Law Confidential clocks in at 529 pages, plus a recommended reading list. The chart, a breakdown at-a-glance, should help the book remain useful throughout your professional journey.

But what most impressed this reviewer was the readability. At times, the book is entertaining and possesses a sly sense of humor. Chapter 3, for instance, is called “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” It pulls no punches. 

The “good” found in Big Law includes excellent training, substantive experience in red-meat legal work, the cultivation of valuable personal relationships, and of course, money. Who wouldn’t want to pay off their law school debt in a few years?

The “bad” includes working under incredible time pressure and for absurdly long hours, lack of feedback, toxic culture, and this reviewer’s favorite subhead, “Jerks,” a section that describes the kind of demanding boss/partner all attorneys wish to avoid, the kind that screams and throws staplers.

In the next section, labeled “The Ugly,” the prose turns somber: “Rates of substance use, abuse and addiction in the legal industry are among the highest of any professions and in some cases double the rates for the general population.”

To this, add mental health issues, as well as physical problems caused by extreme work hours that preclude exercise and healthy meals. The author told of one associate who gained 70 pounds in two years.

And finally, the ugliest of all — losing your soul, when a client’s needs or actions do not align with your ethics.

The author caps off this brutally honest chapter with a striking quote: “As one former Big Law associate put it, ‘I have never in my life met anyone who regretted their decision to quit their job as a law firm associate. Never.’”

Another vivid portion of the book comes in Chapter 7, titled “A Day in the Life.” Here, the author gives detailed accounts of a typical workday for attorneys at each level of a Big Law firm, from junior associate to equity partner. First, a so-called “good day” is detailed, when there are no fires to put out and an attorney is left in peace for uninterrupted hours to accomplish work on the “to-do” list.

Of course, these good days are rare. The author’s description of a bad day may be familiar to anyone who has worked in the legal industry: Emails in the middle of the night from an anxious client who needs a problem solved posthaste; senior associates who sit on your brief for days only to throw it back at you, telling you to revise it “ASAP,” yet offering no guidance; mandatory meetings that trap you while your work piles up.

Big Law Confidential also contains a raft of practical information — presented in blessedly concise language — about typical Big Law hiring processes, compensation structures, practice areas, promotion processes, management structures, economics, and client relationships. The author certainly earned the right to call this a comprehensive guide. While it’s a safe bet the bespoke-suited partners are not going to explain what went on in the management meeting to a lowly junior associate, this book explains the realities of the business and offers insights to help a person work better and smarter. It may help them develop a good reputation at the firm, which the author says is one key to advancement.   

In the final chapter, despite frank discussions of the dark side of Big Law, the author says that given the chance to do it all over again, the author would choose the same path. After all, many believe Big Law represents the ultimate in lawyering. And now, this book exists to help.  

Elizabeth M. Bennett was a business reporter who moved into legal journalism when she covered the Delaware courts, a beat that inspired her to go to law school. After a few years as a practicing attorney in the Philadelphia region, she decamped to the Pacific Northwest and returned to freelance reporting and editing.