I work at the largest law firm in my state and I tend to think of it as "Biglaw." But, because I live in a provincial area, my firm is not really what people mean when they say "Biglaw." What people mean are the big law firms in places like New York City, Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., and other major cities. These are the places that hire the top students, the students who graduated "summa cum laude" or "magna cum laude" from the most prestigious colleges and law schools. These firms pay new graduates in the range of $150,000 a year as a starting salary. In return, these young attorneys (according to the stereotype at least) devote all their brain power to spending long hours on tedious tasks such as document review (i.e. looking through boxes upon boxes of documents and identifying those that should not be produced to the other side due to attorney-client privilege, or summarizing the documents, etc.). The conventional wisdom has it that these young attorneys are miserable automatons who are wasting their passions and abilities in exchange for prestige and a high salary.
The whole set-up is very confusing to me, mainly because it doesn't seem to make very good business sense for a large firm to burn-out and waste precious human capital in that manner. On the other hand, some of the things I hear from people who have been-there-done-that seem to bear out the stereotype. I was harassing opposing counsel at another firm the other day to ask where the heck are his client's answers to the interrogatories I sent out (interrogatories being written questions that the other side in a law suit is required to answer). Opposing counsel said that his associate had just spent three years as a litigation associate at Biglaw, so she was struggling because she had never been asked to work on interrogatory answers before -- a fairly basic task for a litigator in my line of work. A close friend of mine said that in her two-and-a-half years in the litigation department at Biglaw, she never once had the opportunity to even write a complete legal research memorandum for internal use by other lawyers at the firm! At most, she would be asked to research and write a portion of such a memorandum, and she would certainly never prepare interrogatory answers or actual pleadings, communicate with opposing counsel, or get anywhere near a deposition or a court room.
On the other hand, I just spent a long, but lovely day, at a Metropolis out of state, hanging out with some folks who are senior associates and junior partners at Biglaw. These were people maybe 7 - 10 years out of law school, and they seemed extremely engaged in their careers. They seemed to have developed areas of expertise and to have acquired some actual litigation experience (although not actually taking cases to trial). Even though I have been to court a lot more than they have and have questioned many more witnesses, I would view any of them as formidable opponents if we had cases against each other. So something is not adding up.
I am definitely on the outside looking in. But my theory is that Biglaw prepares you for a very specific type of litigation -- the type of litigation that is vast and complicated and involves lots of moving parts (multiple parties perhaps and events spanning years). All those tedious hours of document review at the beginning of your career do teach you something. You learn through immersion in the team effort (I imagine) to understand how to organize and manage the representation of a client involved in such litigation. You learn how to organize and manage vast quantities of documents. You observe how lawyers go about distilling all the information contained in hundreds of thousands of documents to the key points that would be presented at a hypothetical trial. (I say "hypothetical" because most of these cases settle, yet settlement is very much informed by what one believes will occur at trial.) I wouldn't say that this is a waste of brainpower, however much it may seem that way when you've just spent twelve hours straight weeding through some boring contract documents.
And clearly, these firms have some way of providing additional experience to these young lawyers so that they are able to move up the food chain and handle more complex tasks. And once you rise to the point where you are lead counsel on one of these cases, I imagine that it is both challenging and interesting.
So I am not sure that it is right to create this view of miserable, unfulfilled drones at Biglaw versus the happy non-Biglaw attorneys all engaged in meaningful and challenging work. I think it comes down to what kind of law you enjoy practicing. The problem for someone like me is that I adore the drama and challenge of a courtroom practice, so it would be tough for me to be in a Biglaw situation where I am likely to become partner before ever trying a case. (Heck, I am going a little stir-crazy now because it's been a year-and-a-half since I have had a trial.) For someone else, the big but slow-grinding cases might be ideal; I can see people loving that challenge of distilling something extremely complicated down to its essence so that a judge and jury can understand it.
But then let's add to our analysis the wild cards of prestige and money. There is no doubt that Biglaw is at the top of the heap when it comes to those two motivating factors. That's where a lot of people go wrong. A lot of young lawyers perhaps don't love the type of work done at Biglaw but they force themselves to stay there because of the salary and because they might feel like a failure if they move down the hierarchy of the legal profession.
One of the real reasons of lawyer unhappiness is in my humble opinion is the extremely hierarchical nature of the legal profession. That innate human desire to be at the top of the hierarchy -- that belief that perhaps one is even more morally worthy if one is at the top of the hierarchy -- drives the decision-making of far too many attorneys. From that very first year in law school, you start moving either up or down that set hierarchy. The ideal is to go to the most prestigious school, and get the highest grades, and be picked for Law Review (the most exclusive student-produced journal at one's law school). Those early markers of prestige stay with you for the rest of your career and can determine whether you wind up with the $150,000-a-year starting salary or whether you have to scrap it out with the rest of us hoi polloi. Often it is assumed among law students and young lawyers that everyone wants that starting associate position at Biglaw, and that not wanting it is a sign of lack of drive and lack of ambition. People often feel compelled to seek that brass ring regardless of their personal interests and predilections. Heck, I am not immune to it. I tend to be insulated from it in my provincial bubble, but in the Big City I find myself immediately computing where people are in the hierarchy. And that kind of sucks.
What it really comes down to, though it can be hard to remember, is that BigLaw is neither better or worse necessarily than other types of practices. It is just a different kind of practice and one that happens to be considered desirable because it yields more income. If that's the kind of practice that turns you on, that's great! If it's not, get out of a racket that makes you miserable. There are other ways to make sufficient money to covery your student loans and live a comfortable life.