Why I Quit Big Law  2 Cents from an Ex-Corporate Lawyer

Why I Quit Big Law 2 Cents from an Ex-Corporate Lawyer

Bar & Bench

By Ex-Corporate Lawyer

I took a loan and went to law school so that I could have a big corporate job; Today I am doing a big corporate job just so that I can pay off that loan”, read the Facebook status of a friend of mine who is always full of wise thoughts.

In August 2011, I joined a big corporate law firm, in fact one of the biggest and most reputed in India. Like many others, I had an educational loan. In May 2012, having paid off my educational loan, I am out of the Big Law scene and chasing my dreams. A couple of weeks after I left Big Law, I got a call from my friend Raghul Sudheesh who works with Bar & Bench, asking me for my story. He wanted me to write on why I had quit Big Law. As I sat down to write, I realized my story has no bad boss, no bad team, no bad work culture, no work pressure, no moral high ground to take, none of the ingredients that make a usual ‘why I quit xyz’ story.

I had a perfect boss, some of the work I did was interesting, timings were great and I was well appreciated for my work. So there is nothing spicy in that story. I was about to abandon the whole plan when a thought crossed my mind – may be the fact that I quit Big Law with malice towards none puts me in a position of advantage from where I can objectively talk about what makes people quit Big Law. May be I can talk about a dozen or more or ‘putting in paper’ episodes I watched as a neutral observer. May be, I can also objectively assess why my decision of quitting Big Law, despite being called illogical by many, is ‘dillogical’ (apologies for that ripoff). That is what this piece is about – objectively narrating the incidents I have seen and offering my Rs. 1.136 (as of June 28, the figure would probably have gone up by the time you read this) on the attrition rates at Big Law.

Before, I get into why I quit Big Law, I need to mention in brief what I do currently. I cannot reveal too many details. But in short, I am working with a small firm that practices certain niche areas of my interest (not corporate law) and am thoroughly enjoying my life. I love the work I do, adore the people I work with and enjoy each day in office to the core. I intend to pursue a Masters in my chosen area sometime in the near future.

When I joined Big Law in August, I joined along with around thirty other fresh recruits. Most of us were fresh out of college and many of us were visibly excited about taking the first step into the legal profession. Our heartbeats could be heard loud and clear in the silence of conference room where the HR Manager explained with the aid of graphs and grids (and many other statistical aids) where our careers would go in the next eight years. I could see many of my colleagues looking at the charts intently to assess how long it would be before they would occupy the coveted glass cabins. Over the next week we were taught how to hand over business cards, how to eat with chop sticks, how to sit (“poetry in motion”), how to stand, and in short, how to fit into the corporate world. Happy hours at TGIF (10.30 pm to 12.30 am on weekdays) was an opportunity to brag to each other about the ‘cool’ matters we were on and the large sums (with uncountable number of zeroes) that were involved in the transactions.

Fast forward a couple of weeks, murmurs could be heard from many of the new associates. Many were talking of the ‘insane hours’. Some were talking of the ‘work culture’. Many were hatching assassination plans for their bosses (the most interesting one was when a friend came up with a detailed procedure to distil an apparently unrecognizable poison from tobacco to be mixed in his senior’s coffee). Many were talking of what they were ‘meant to do’ in life. A couple more of moths later, the first one to resign from my batch of associates left for a foreign firm. As we bid her farewell, many were calling her lucky and expressing their wishes that they had been the ones to leave. Breaks on the smoking balcony became regular cribbing sessions where people would talk of nothing but leaving the firm. By the time I left Big Law, at least 15 of the new recruits had made their way past the door. After I left, I hear many are serving their notice periods.

So what changed from August 2011 and May 2012 in Big Law? Why did I and many others quit Big Law?

High Expectations?

One often hears about the insanely high expectations that Big Law has from its young associates. Apparently this translates into a lot of stress and result in the high rate of attrition. Is this true or is it a myth like many other things said about Big Law?

In my experience, this is simultaneously true and false.

If one is speaking of quantity of work, yes. Big Law expects a lot from its associates for the kind of money it pays. There are many who are stuck at work weekend after weekend. There are people who consider themselves lucky if they get 4 hours of sleep a night. My favourite Chinese restaurant made a killing from delivering dinner to associates who stayed up late into the night. While this was true for a large number of associates at Big Law, it was fortunately not so for me. My team believed in finishing work and heading home early. I can count on my fingers the number of nights when I have stayed back till 10 pm. There have been at most two holidays when I was required to be present in office. So, on this front, I would say that the amount of work I had and the number of hours I put in were optimal (or even below optimal). There was never any stress arising from this.

What about qualitative expectations? Did Big Law require me to be a great lawyer or demonstrate the potential to be one? There was certainly a lot of focus on the quality of work. But unfortunately, the word ‘quality’ here translated into good Google skills, good formatting skills and the ability to write without spelling and grammar errors. In my personal opinion, the legal skills required were very minimal. I kept getting praised (and received a good bonus) for tasks that could have been accomplished by the average law student in India. May be, my seniors thought of this as a way to be kind to me. But for someone who dreams of being a great lawyer, this is not the ideal training ground. I became good at locating circulars and case laws. I became good at perfectly aligning and formatting a document. But the amount of legal reasoning skills I used in my entire time at Big Law was less than what I would use on a single moot or project in law school. I became worried that this system would soon set me on a path to becoming an average and self content lawyer.  This is not what I wanted to be. And this was the single most important reason that shaped my decision to quit.

Work Culture

This happened sometime during my notice period. A friend of mine appeared on the smoking balcony and announced in a hushed tone that he had ’put down his papers’. I was really shocked to hear that coming from him as he had not hinted at any intentions of quitting before. A horror story unfolded over the next couple of minutes. His senior was angry (justifiably or otherwise) with him. She yelled in front of the whole wing, “You are not afraid of me and I have a problem with that. You should realize I can fire you if I want”. He retorted that he did not see the need to continue in a system built on the foundation of fear and gave in his resignation immediately. While this incident fits the descriptions that I largely hear about Big Law, I must add the qualification that this was one extreme incident and does not demonstrate a trend.

In fact there is nothing called the work culture of Big Law. Each team within Big Law has its own work culture and plays by its own rules. While the incident narrated above is one extreme, I was pleasantly surprised when two partners at Big Law invited me to their offices to wish me the very best in the career line I had chosen and were very supportive. On the one hand, there were teams which gossiped in Café Coffee Day till 7 in the evening and then stayed up till 4 in the morning and bragged about the amount of work they do. On the other hand, there were teams like mine which believed in a no-frills, no-nonsense culture where work was to be finished off at the earliest and people were to head out to lead their respective personal lives. But the teams of the latter category were rare. I have even heard juniors cribbing about the de facto mandatory team parties and team movies which occupied every minute of ‘free time’. There were teams where leave was a right and there were those where leave was expressly stated to be a privilege.

Having said that, it is important to note that there are still common threads that connect these teams. One such thing was the depth to which an almost feudalistic hierarchy was entrenched in the system. For instance, I have not heard many people within Big Law refer to the head of the institution by his name. He was always referred to as Boss even in drunk conversations amongst the junior associates. Even an associate who wanted to speak ill of the head, would say “Boss is xyz” as though he was ‘You Know Who’. This perhaps comes across as trivial. Given the man’s seniority and out of sheer respect for the heights he has attained, I would probably have preferred to address him by something respectful if I ever had the chance to interact with him (sadly, I never had). But, the ‘You Know Who’ attitude, in my view, was symptomatic of a deeply seated hierarchy. Another evidence of this was the way documents travelled up and down. Work travelled from partner to principal associate to senior associate to A3 to A2 to A1 to A0. Once the assignment was completed by the A0, the document travelled from A0 to A1 to A2 to A3 to Senior Associate to Principal Associate to Partner. I am not sure whether so many levels of review is an efficient and optimal manner of allotting human resources. But, I claim to be no expert on this. Despite my work being well appreciated, I have never seen a client, spoken to one over the phone or even sent out an email to one ever. May be, from the firm’s perspective this makes the best sense given the high stakes involved in each matter. But for me, did it meet my training needs? The answer was no.

Alternate callings and systemic errors

I think it is unfair to blame Big Law for all the exits that are occurring currently. There are many instances where the exit has more to do with things other than Big Law itself.

For instance, I know people who quit to prepare for the civil service, become journalists, write books and do a lot of other things. Some of us (me included to a large extent) quit to pursue a different area of law. Why did these people then join Big Law?

This is where systemic failures come in. I do not need to elaborate on the steepness of the current fee structures at various national law schools. Joining a corporate law firm like Big Law becomes the default option for anyone who has incurred a bank loan or any other financial liability for the payment of fees. No other career choice would have enabled me to clear off my educational loan in less than a year. This results in a lot of people with no real interest in corporate law landing at Big Law by default.

So, is it only the people with educational loans that land up in Big Law without an interest in corporate law? No. Look at any coverage on legal news sites about campus recruitments. There is invariably a line which goes, ‘x students opted for litigation and other options’. Now scroll down to the comments section and see a bunch of allegations on how ‘x’ was the number of students who failed to get jobs and how it was masked as ‘litigation and other options’. There is something in the psyche of our law schools that judges success and achievement by whether or not one makes it to a big corporate firm. This has resulted in a herd mentality where anyone with any chance of making it to a firm, does so. There are of course some very commendable exceptions, but those remain exceptions. The absence of any career counseling facilities in our law schools provides a fertile ground for the growth of this mentality.

These systemic failures and issues do result in a bunch of ‘flight risks’ landing at Big Law and making it to the door in no time. At least in these cases, it would be unfair to blame Big Law for the attrition rates.

My Rs. 1.136

So, does this mean I advocate students not joining corporate law firms? Not at all, all I am saying is, the current culture where people rush into corporate jobs needs to be revisited. Big Law is a great firm if one has the taste for corporate law. I have heard people say that corporate work gets interesting over a period of time. What I am not in agreement with is the current herd mentality where every who can somehow get into Big Law tries and gets in irrespective of aptitude.

The way I view it is this. If one is particularly interested in doing something, it would be stupid to sacrifice it for a Big Law job. Take the risks when you can. If you fail in all the risks you take, there is always the option of joining Big Law at a later stage. May be you will have to take a position junior to your contemporaries. Who cares? Even at the starter level Big Law pays enough for its associates to more than survive. The fact that you tried taking those risks could be worth a lot in hindsight.

Image from here.

PS: The author spent very little time at Big Law. He is aware that the things he has seen may not be representative of Big Law and the inferences he draws may be inaccurate. May be, one day the author will grow older and wiser and see the error of his ways. But till then, these are the author’s personal views based on his personal experiences. Anyone basing their career choices on this (or on anything other than the results of their own observations and inferences there from) does so at his/her own risk.

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