Am I Shut Out of BigLaw Forever?
May 4, 2009 by Sweet Hot Counsel
Q: I graduated from a top 15 Ivy League Law School. I wasn’t your top 10% student and I didn’t do law review. My sole philosophy, basically, was to graduate with my mental health intact. I did, however, clerk for a federal judge during 1L summer, summered at BigLaw 2L year, and clerked full-time my last semester as a 3L through a judicial externship program. My 2L summer experience resulted in a job offer, which, of course, was rescinded soon after I took the bar. After finding myself jobless and in debt, I did the unimaginable: I took a job in my home state (definitely not BigLaw market) at a very small, but prestigious, litigation firm, doing BigLaw work for p-e-a-n-u-t-s. The firm mostly represents the government in high-profile political cases. I’ve been working for less than six months. I’m putting my all into this job, and thankfully, I’ve been getting great hands-on experience—as can be expected from a small firm—and have been polishing my lawyering skills, which needed work.
Here’s my question: how do I move on to a bigger firm/market later on? Am I stuck in small firms (re: salary) forever? I never even contemplated doing litigation in law school (my specialty was business regulation), but I fear that if I stay in this firm too long I’ll never see a business related assignment ever again. My one idea is to apply for clerkships in larger market cities, and try to jump from there. I’m grateful that I have a job, and at least I’m not ambulance-chasing. But am I stuck?
A: First of all—and not that you sound particularly panicked—but calm down. You have a job right now, which is definitely better than sitting at home in your underwear, broke, watching reruns of the Real Housewives of NYC, and reminiscing about those halcyon days of 1L Torts. Second of first of all, calm down even more, because you are not stuck. Well, let me clarify: As long as the legal hiring market continues to be the flaming pile of crap that it currently is, you are actually kinda stuck at this local lit boutique. But but but, you’ve only been working there for six months, not six years, and remember: Even though it doesn’t particularly feel like it right now, this horrid economy is only temporary. Things will eventually turn around, and when they do, you’ll be poised to make the move into BigLaw—with an advantage over all those other rescinded 3Ls who haven’t worked at all.
And here’s why: If your resume was good enough to get you a BigLaw summer associate gig and a permanent offer—well “permanent” at least—then it’s still good enough to get you a BigLaw job again. And, even better news: Once things do turn around and the BigLaw legal market actually starts hiring again, that old game of chasing the students with the highest GPAs and zero actual work experience or demonstrable legal talent is going to be over. Even though it’s not necessarily the kind of experience you want, you’re getting tons of it right now at this tiny firm—more than other first years in BigLaw, most of whom spend most of their time nowadays surfing the Internet and placing bets on when the next round of layoffs may happen. Not to mention, when the economy starts looking up, all of those BigLaw associates who also feel stuck in jobs they hate right now, but can’t leave because no one’s hiring, are going to jump ship faster than you can say “in-house counsel.” And when they do, firms are going to be scrambling to fill their shoes with people who fit the BigLaw fancy law-school-resume profile, but also have some actual valuable experience. And that’s where you come in, sweetie.
So, keep your head down and try to soak in as much experience as you possibly can at this place. And if you just can’t stand the boutique anymore, the clerkship idea is more than decent, though it’s probably a bit too late to hook one up for the fall—a prestigious one in a BigLaw market, anyway, which is the only one you’d want, trust me. (You may also want to look into a clerkship with the Chancery Courts in Delaware; Big Firms (their corporate departments, especially) tend to salivate over Chancery clerks and having that on your resume will definitely give you a hiring edge and balance out your lack of corporate experience.) But most of all, just view your current job as a temp or contract attorney gig—something to (productively) fill the time until things turn around. And once they do, you’re OUT…of the frying pan into the BigLaw fire, maybe, but out nonetheless.
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