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Big Firm Hours

August 21, 2010

Earlier this week, the ABA website posted an article on a plight of a former Latham associate who went on to memorialize his experiences in a book entitled “Unbillable Hours.”  The article summarized the associate’s experiences at the big firm, with the focus being the positive experience the associate had with the pro bono work he did, despite the fact that such work was unbillable.

There is no denying that “big firm” associates work long hours, sometimes upwards of 60-70 hours a week.  Of course, they are not the only lawyers who work that much.  Government attorneys (e.g., prosecutors and public defenders), attorneys at smaller firms, and even solo practitioners at times also have to work very long hours.  But big firm associates are less likely to receive any sympathy because they get paid “the big bucks” for all their work.  Nevertheless, if you’re joining a big firm or already an associate at one, know that you will be working long hours, that you may find yourself working late on Friday nights/Saturday nights/Christmas eve/etc., and/or that sometimes the most you will see of your family and friends is when you see their pictures on your desk at work.

But there are obvious benefits to working at a large firm, other than just the six-figure salary and four- to five-figure bonuses (if those aren’t enough, that is).  Because you’re not the only associate there, all those long hours may lead to some good friendships; plus, it’s nice to have resources like large teams of assistants and attorneys on cases so you’re not short-staffed like other attorneys may be; and having a big firm on your resume is typically indicative that you did well in law school and this is not a point missed by most future employers.

On the off chance that these benefits are not enough, however, big firm associates looking for something “more substantive” can make the most of their experience by taking on pro bono work, like the Latham associate in the ABA article.  Sure, when you’re billing crazy hours taking on a pro bono case may not seem like an idea that will help your situation.  And certainly taking on more work is not ideal for many young associates (especially if you are working with partners who may not appreciate your efforts and will instead will pile on more billable on your plate).  But if you are able to manage your billable case load, taking on a pro bono case is a great way to manage your own case from start to finish.

Many big firms proudly boast of their commitment to the community and are encouraging, at least on paper, of their attorneys taking on pro bono work.  So it’s no surprise that the numerous non-profit organizations that offer legal services are always looking for attorneys in the private sector to take on a case pro bono.  In addition to client contact and developing strategy, you will essentially be in charge of your own case.  From writing motions or briefs to presenting arguments in court, the range of experiences the case offers may differ but needless to say, it will all be very beneficial.  Even if the pro bono case is not in the same area that you currently practice, worry not because the referral organization will typically be able to help you with training materials and information.  Plus, this is a great way to get some experience in an area that interests you but in which you haven’t been able to dabble thus far.  All this, plus you are helping someone in a dire situation who will no doubt appreciate your help.

So if you are going the big firm way (or the firm way in general, big or small), take charge of your career by not only doing well on the billable work but also gaining more experience through pro bono work.  If you still need some incentive, check if your firm will allow you to use some of your pro bono work to count towards billable hours … double bonus!

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