January 11, 2011 | File under: Advice and Lessons • On the Job • Schooling
For people who enter law school to secure a job at a law firm, those three years are really just an extended interviewing process. At least the first two years are, as many people enter their third year with a job offer in hand. And law schools waste no time: the search for a job begins practically the moment one enters their first year. From then on, it’s a nonstop parade of career fairs, campus visits, cocktail parties and fancy meals.
Of these events, the wining and dining ones are particularly illuminating. You can learn a lot about the Big Law Firm life by observing people sipping glasses of fine wine and munching on expensive crudités.
To be fair, business networking is not one of my favorite activities. Despite its apparent utility, forced small talk with strangers, usually requiring some sort of boasting to get noticed, has always seemed artificial. So I approached the few of these events I did attend in law school with a hearty dose of skepticism.
During my first year, cocktail parties, intended as “meet and greet” events with law firms were weekly, sometimes twice-weekly, events. Attendance was optional, of course, and I probably went to no more than two or three as they grew old quickly. Sometimes they were held in banquet rooms at the law school and were catered by the school’s dining services, which contributed to the redundant quality of these get-togethers.
At the cocktail parties, a handful of associates and a few partners from the law firm would deliver the usual lines about how great their firm is: sophisticated legal work, prestigious clients, smart lawyers, “family” feel, quality of life, blah, blah, blah. They dressed in snazzy suits and handed out fancy business cards. Only the most eager associates would attend —- those who were most proficient at putting on a good face for the firm to attract the most promising students. Occasionally, you would be able to see through the glossy exterior and spot someone who appeared worn out or slightly jaded, but the brevity of these events enabled the firms to put their best face forward. Sometimes the conversation would linger long enough for the law students to get in a few words edge-wise, but for the most part it was all about making the pitch.
Social dinners are much more revealing than cocktail parties. These outings allowed firms one-on-one wining and dining time with potential job candidates and took place further along in the interviewing process, usually after or shortly before an offer for a summer position had been made. The dinners (or lunches) provide the firms the chance to really pull out all the stops. In New York, where I attended law school, law students were treated to meals at the finest dining establishments. The more hyped the restaurant, the better. The law firms liked to demonstrate that being an important lawyer at their firm exempted you from the months-long reservations list at the city’s eateries.
Again, the firm will recruit a few of its team-player associates to feed the law student company propaganda and rich dishes. It’s usually not hard to round up willing associates, as expensive meals are among the few perks at these firms that provide time outside the office. Three-course meals are obligatory, as you are encouraged to go all-out on the firm’s dime. Sometimes the associates will jokingly complain of packing on a few pounds from being treated to a few too many dinners consisting of foie gras and molten chocolate cake. They usually neglect to mention the overindulgence is accompanied by twelve-hour (or more) workdays of complete immobility.
Unlike the cocktail parties, dinners out with law firm associates provide more of an opportunity to pose some questions that will deliver insight into life “on the inside.” Typically, I would ask a few questions most students ask. What do you like most about your job? What are the hours like? Are you satisfied with the work you are given? I can’t say any of my questions ever elicited overtly negative responses. Nor did I ever receive particularly candid answers. Nearly one hundred percent of the time, the lawyers reported the aspect of their job they liked the most was either “the interesting work” or “the great people I work with.” Generic, and probably a total lie. Is that the best they could come up with?
You really need to read between the lines in the conversation and observe your company carefully to see what these people’s lives are like. For example, one associate explained to me that her hours were “not that bad” and she felt that she could enjoy her weekends because the firm provided her with a Blackberry (this was in the early days of the device) that would allow her to spend that time away from the office. Riiiiiight. So basically, she was still on call and expected to make herself available for work should the firm come calling. In addition, I heard many stories about ordering take-out from fine restaurants on a regular basis (code: never eating dinner at home), how great it is to be able to have your laundry folded by the laundromat (code: forget about time for basic household chores), and the short commutes home at night via the firm’s car service (code: 11 p.m. is too late to wander onto the streets to find your own way home, at least in New York City). These were the references I remember most from those events.
Moreover, many of the associates I dined with appeared tired and a bit haggard beneath their artificially enthusiastic demeanor. That was no surprise to me; I knew junior associates were the ones the partners liked to keep “on hand” in the office well after what I would consider a reasonable bed time. These people rarely saw the light of day except during their morning commute and perhaps a brief run to a nearby deli for a sandwich for lunch. If their firm didn’t supply a cafeteria where they were encouraged to buy food, solely for the purpose of discouraging wasted billable hours. And forget about exercise. Unless their office building was equipped with a gym, which they probably didn’t have time to use anyway.
So, after several courses and a few shared bottles of classy wine, the dinner would end and you would be invited to contact your dining companions if you had any other questions about life at the firm. I would leave these events full, of course, but also a bit uneasy about the culture I had entered into as a soon-to-be lawyer. It was gluttonous, it was intense, and it was showy. It was also not me at all. I never did accept any of those firms’ job offers, as I concluded I was just not BigLaw material and instead chose to work for a small law firm without all the bells and whistles. I didn’t miss the decadent meals; all those dinners had left a bad taste in my mouth that still remains after many years.