How to Survive Biglaw with ‘Career Warfare’

Blueprint JD Book Review
Career Warfare by David F. D’Alessandro

Career Warfare encourages law firm associates to focus on what’s important –  personal brand.

Who knew that one of the most useful books about surviving Biglaw rarely mentions it?  A colleague recommended that I read Career Warfare: 10 Rules for Building Your Successful Personal Brand on the Business Battlefield to get a better understanding of Biglaw life.  I began reading with trepidation since I generally despise the abstract “love yourself” nonsense dispensed by most self-help authors.  

However, I was pleasantly surprised to find this was not the case with Career Warfare. Authored by former Fortune 200 CEO David F. D’Alessandro, Career Warfare gives you 10 common sense rules to guide you career.  Though D’Alessandro’s advice is applicable across a range of professions and levels, below are the key takeaways for a junior associate: 

#1 - Actions Define Your Brand

In Biglaw, you’re judged by what you do – your work product, professional appearance and treatment of others.  Excuses, even good ones, are ultimately self-interested.  They’re reasons you believe the rule or expectation shouldn’t apply to you.  Put another way, excuses are why you think your personal life is more important than the lives of the attorneys who have to cover for you.  The single best thing you can do for your career is deliver on-time, quality work.

As a junior associate, your actions should highlight your honesty, judgment/discretion, enthusiasm for and quality of your work, and follow-through.  Beyond that basic brand, you can add your own unique flair (e.g., whether you are a recruiting darling or pro bono pioneer).

To make yourself unique, look beyond your immediate best interest for ways you can contribute at work.  Every associate is eager to work on high visibility matters.  You’ll get caught in a stampede if you try to distinguish yourself that way.  Instead, humble yourself and take on the projects most folks avoid – non-billable articles or client development.  Making yourself useful in small ways will help you stand out when quality assignments get doled out.

 

# 2 – Be Honest in Your Failings

As a junior associate, you are best served if you get out in front of trouble and admit any mistake you’ve made in work product.  Bad news travel fast, and it’s better to fall on your own sword than to be clobbered with someone else’s machete.  Likewise, shifting blame will cause you to gain the wrong type of enemies.  So, fess up, offer to correct the error, and move on.   Do not wallow in guilt or become an annoying martyr.  Remember, if you can’t let go of the last crisis, you aren’t a good candidate to handle the next one.

#3 – Senior Attorneys Copilot Your Destiny

Senior attorneys, who frankly don’t spend much time thinking about you, determine your law firm life.  So, how do you get them to love you?   Put yourself in their shoes.   Most are looking for someone who helps them work less while making them look good.  That means no gossiping about how you’re overworked or under appreciated.  At the same time, you can’t become a “yes” associate either.  People value the truth when it’s directly, tactfully, and timely delivered.  So, hone your diplomacy skills.  

While you’re paying your dues, you should expect something in return – opportunity.   Aim for skills that are valuable whether or not you decide to leave your firm.  For example, in addition to lawyering skills, you should seek client interaction, project management and communication opportunities.  Notice, I didn’t mention pay.  That’s because Biglaw junior associates are paid handsomely and have incomes that typically place them in the top 10% of U.S. households. Don’t believe me? Use this NY Times Calculator to see where your associate pay stacks up.

 

#4 –Figure Out Your Biglaw Boss and Act Accordingly

D’Alessandro encourages you to engage in a bit of armchair psychology to figure out your boss’s type.  While his depictions are useful, I found the following typography by Eric Shannon at LatPro, most applicable to Biglaw:

6 Types of Biglaw Bosses

 

Type

How to Spot Them

How to Work with Them

The Control Freak

A senior attorney who doesn’t like delegating decisions, no matter how small.

Give frequent status updates and send a draft of any correspondence for review before it goes out.

The Autocrat

A senior attorney who is completely self-interested and never satisfied with your work.

Accept criticism gracefully. Figure out their career objective (e.g., promotion to partner, working on choice projects) and make it yours.

The Blame Fixer

A senior attorney who is the first to shift blame when things go wrong or take credit for your work when things go well.

Document every interaction – assignments, timelines, etc. – to cover yourself if things blow up.

The Soft Heart

A senior attorney who tells you that you’re doing a great job, then throws you under the bus on your review.

Ask for frank feedback and be prepared to initiate that conversation by discussing your concerns.

The Politician

A senior attorney who delegates all of their work so they can schmooze the higher ups.

Be the competent person that hides their substantive failings (you’ll get tons of responsibility) and study their networking style.

The Team Builder

A senior attorney who is competent, but open to feedback and fair about giving work.

Be prepared to share ideas and be an engaged member of the collaborative process.

 

While management styles are often more multifaceted than this, sorting out your senior attorney’s core behavior can help smooth your transition to Biglaw.


#5 – Don’t Get Caught Up in Your Own Hype

Most Biglaw associates have healthy egos.  Their academic prowess is undisputed and their bright future anointed by a Biglaw job.  Unfortunately, it’s too easy to lose perspective when you surround yourself with fellow Biglaw folks.  When everyone is making six figures, conversations about affording the basic necessities don’t happen. 

However, success isn’t about cocooning yourself in privilege.  True success – the meaningful, changing lives kind – happens when you use your success to understand, appreciate and impact others.  So, don’t be Ebenezer Scrooge (or Scrooge McDuck for the literary-challenged).  Give back to your community often and with joy. Also, find someone – a friend, family member or loved one – who will keep you humble.

 

#6 – Fight Mediocrity

This is a familiar tale for some mid- and senior-level associates.  They start out hungry junior associates and quickly slide into Biglaw oblivion, having worked thousands of hours with little to show for it.

Your Biglaw experience is about you as much as it is about the firm.  A robust, evolving career development plan can ensure you remain engaged at work and ready to take on the next opportunity. A good career plan helps you (1) identify your strengths and weaknesses, (2) establish practical, specific and measurable goals and (3) determine how to further the firm’s goals while achieving your own. 

As you determine your career plan, don’t lose sight of your peers.  I hate to bring competition into the mix, but even at these alleged “lifestyle” firms, your brand is being compared with the brands of your fellow junior associates.  An easy way to start to establish your strengths and weakness is by comparing yourself to other junior attorneys in your associate class and/or practice group.   Which of you is sought out for work?  Has good rapport with senior attorneys?  Has a better understanding of the law or firm politics?  Alternatively, you can take a personal inventory of your skills by following the instructions outlined in step 2 of our mentoring post.


#7 – Know When To Get The Hell Out

 

D’Alessandro paints a bleak picture of the end-game at service-based employers such as law, consulting and accounting firms.

“The basic dynamics of these places is that the old take advantage of the young.  They hire the best and brightest right out of prestigious schools.  They may pay these people well, but they force them to grind away 14 hours a day, six days a week for years, generating big bills for the firm’s clients, at work that may be well beneath their abilities, under conditions that can be cold, unfriendly, and demeaning – all on the off chance of making partner.” 1

Before you envision a sea of top law school victims, let’s be clear.  Most junior associates’ resumes will benefit from the prestige and experience that Biglaw brings.  So, where do some associates go wrong?  They get emotional and forget this is a business where virtually all associates are fungible.  Instead, they are certain they will be among the less than 3% of associates that make partner.  After they get passed over, it is a scene straight from Dreamgirls.  They they channel their inner-Effie and shout “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” as they are pushed out in favor of a new star prospect.

The reality – it is highly unlikely anyone will make partner, and sadly those odds become even starker for women and people of color.   So, if this is your goal, come prepared to take on that challenge.  Most importantly, be honest with yourself about your chances and don’t be afraid to look for richer – whether your metric is financial or something feel-good – opportunities elsewhere.

 

#8 – Be Consistent

It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently. –Warren Buffett

You don’t get a day off from building your brand.  It only takes one negative impression for someone to torpedo months, even years, of hard work.  So, be consistent in your interactions with everyone.  Counting the folks you meet during your commute, security, secretaries and other staff, peers, senior attorneys, and clients, you can have up to 20-40 interactions a day.  They all matter and deserve respect.  For example, it’s no secret that a legal secretary can sink you with a negative comment to a partner.  So, whether you’re operating on human decency or pure self-interest, reveal only your best self during each interaction.

 

#9 – Don’t Leave Your Hometraining at Home

Etiquette doesn’t save lives but it can save your career.  Sadly, Biglaw is elitism – academic and socioeconomic snobbery – at its worst finest.  So whether it’s your table manners, attire or conversation, be sure that your behavior doesn’t scream “I don’t belong here!”  Last, please keep your personal life just that.  Do not share how you had a dance battle at the club or picked up someone at a bar.  While no one will begrudge you your dancing skills or “player” profile, sharing these experiences at work will cause folks to question your judgment.

No, it isn’t fair that you’re subject to such shallow judgments.  So, while you should work hard to avoid others’ quick judgments, you should also be careful not to engage in any of your own.  Keep your school snobbery and other biases under wraps.


#10 – Be Hated for the Right Reasons

Some junior associates believe that being a neutral worker bee is the secret to success. D’Alessandro explains that this strategy is bound to fail, as no one is universally liked:

“You will make enemies because you are short or you are tall, or because you are a woman or you are a person of color.  You will make enemies because of your education – either you didn’t go to the type of school that is in favor now, or you went to a better school than your peers and will suffer because they are jealous. . . . You will make enemies just because you exist.” 2

So now that you know you’ll have haters no matter what you do, it’s okay to take a stand.  At the same time, don’t feel the need to fight everyone’s battles.  Put your credibility to work preserving your self-respect or, as you become a mid-level, championing a promising junior associate.  Remember, you’ll have to live with yourself long after your Biglaw stint is done. So, no playing fast and loose with your dignity.

 

As with any book, some advice fell flat for me.  For instance, D’Alessandro believes that working for an entrepreneur can hinder your brand building efforts.  I disagree.  I’ve personally had great experiences working for entrepreneurs; the lack of hierarchy leant itself to robust assignments, meaningful responsibility, professional coaching, and one-on-one mentoring.  Overall though, I thought the book to be an outstanding resource and highly recommend it. 

Biglaw isn’t all bad.  But it isn’t all champagne toasts either.  Do you have any tried and true tips for Biglaw survival? Let us know in the comments.

 

 

 

Notes:

  1. Career Warfare, p. 114.
  2. Career Warfare, p. 146.
The following two tabs change content below.
Melinda Hightower

Melinda Hightower

Founder and Chair at Blueprint JD
Melinda Hightower is passionate about legal diversity, literature and community activism. When she’s not busy earning her keep as an attorney, she operates Blueprint JD, Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to building diversity in the legal profession.

SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS