For Associates: A Love Letter

Dear Other Associates,

We’ve probably met before. I’m the guy down the hall who eats lunch with his door closed. And the woman on the other side of the building whom you haven’t seen in a week. I’m the first-year who is still flush with the possibilities of this profession. I am also the seventh-year who already knows the partnership review has a foreordained result because I haven’t done anything other than supervise document reviews for three years running.

And I am also the one writing huge checks for my loans every month.

We all know the practice of law is not for everyone, but we all thought it could be for us. Something about it moved us. Maybe it was something noble, like the opportunity to help someone who is in really desperate straits. Maybe it was the idea of joining a longstanding and prestigious profession as one of a long line of officers of the court. Maybe it was the stunningly large paycheck. (Let’s be frank: that never hurt.)

Kinda hurts to realize that 90% of us will be out of a job before we can turn it into a stable career, eh?

There isn’t much point in writing up the reasons this feels so wrong. Many of you already know the problems you’re facing, and why there is a subtle feeling of betrayal lurking behind your eyes. Do any of the reasons in this letter sound familiar to you? Some may not, and that’s cool. But if some do, take it seriously.

Perhaps you don’t even know yet. Maybe this is a career you are determined to pursue. You’re far in, and you have an internal constituency: people who know you do good work and who keep coming back to you for it. Things are looking okay, for the most part.

It doesn’t really matter why you got into a big firm in the first place, or whether you are feeling comfortable there. By about your third year, then maybe closer to your fifth, you should be gut-checking anyway, and figuring out what your next steps are. That’s just smart career management.

I have a special affection for people at this stage in the profession–I was there, I knew a lot of people in this same position, and it’s fucking scary sometimes. Because I love you, I want you to know a few things:

  • You are damned intelligent. Not everyone can get into the position you are in, and it takes some real chops to do it.
  • You aren’t a dipshit. Trust me, that is a rarer commodity than it should be.
  • You are incandescent. It sounds hokey, but there really isn’t a better word for it. With the proper catalyst, you can shine. Your light will illuminate great works of art of whatever sort, and can give light to people who desperately need it. You aren’t mundane–you have this capacity within you.
  • You are not alone. If you are hurting or feel like you are trapped, you need to know that there are all sorts of people who can and will help. Even if you can’t see them, take it on faith–they are there.
  • You are entitled to find or make a fulfilling career. (Yes, “entitled” is a loaded word.) A fulfilling career won’t be handed to you on a serving dish, but you should never be trapped in a line of work that is killing you, literally or figuratively.
  • There are people who genuinely just want you to be happy, regardless. It may be your parents, your spouse, your children, your friends, or your recommenders (honestly!), but there are people who truly just want for you to shine.

These are concrete things–yes, even the hokey ones. They are honest assets for you to take stock of. So many people I know forgot about these things, and they can honestly be transformative if you take them seriously. 

Nothing about this situation–the legal job market, the prospects for big firms, the partnership outlook–is easy or fun. Because I like you a lot, I want to put my arm around your shoulder in a non-harassing way and offer a few thoughts so you can make the best decision you can in the situation facing you.

If you love something, let it go: I am not pushing you one way or another. Give them roots and give them wings: here is some honest talk about what is facing you as an associate in BigLaw, and here are some thoughts for how to turn that situation into something rewarding. Get up early to go to work, and smile while you’re doing it. Have lunch with other people and laugh a little too loud. See the light behind someone’s eyes and kindle it. Enjoy what you do every single day and tick off on your fingers how exactly you are helping real people.

I don’t think that’s impossible. I think it’s something we should see, together.

Warmly,

Justin

 

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