From Law School to BigLaw to BigFI(RE?), Part 1

If you’re in BigLaw, the following path might look pretty familiar to you:

Step 1, achieved around age 22: Obtain undergraduate degree (let’s say it’s a bachelor in science) in Underwater Basketweaving or some similar degree path (we’ll call this the B.S. U.G. Degree). You may or may not take out some student loans in this step, depending on where you went to school and the scholarships you got.

Step 2 [which you may or may not do], from ages ~22-[?]: Spend a couple of years unsuccessfully attempting to make money with your B.S. UG Degree. In thinking about how you can stop eating Ramen every day and actually service your student loans, you decide that law school is the best option. Perhaps you think this was because you have fun arguing with people, or some similarly cliche and terrible reason; perhaps it’s because you actually do have some valuable insight into what it’s like to be a lawyer (perhaps because of this Step 2 job, perhaps for some other reason). You prep for the LSAT (or, increasingly, the GRE) (or maybe you don’t–plenty of people take it mostly on a lark), and get accepted into a T14 Law School that makes BigLaw a reasonably likely outcome.

Step 3, starting at ages 22-25 or so and ending 3 years later:

  • Start Law School.
  • Kill yourself studying (and drinking–there’s a lot of that in Law School).
  • Get lucky enough to get good grades in your first year (and yeah, I’ll fight anyone on this, luck has a LOT to do with the grades you get) such that you are likely to get a BigLaw job in the ridiculous exercise that is the On Campus Interview Process.
  • In the summer between your first and second years of law school, (a) get some kind of legal job, with a very high percentage chance that it pays exactly nothing; and (b) get offer for BigLaw Summer Associate position on the basis of (1) Feelings; (2) your first year grades; (3) your ability to spin a story about how relevant your 1L summer position was; and (4) if you did Step 2, a potential leg up based on your real work experience between getting B.S. UG Degree and Law School.
  • Comparatively skate through the second year (unless you are trying to earn Prestige Points by keeping your grades high and/or joining Law Review).
  • In the summer between your second and third years, get paid a ridiculous sum of money (around $32k, ish?) to work at BigLaw firm doing nothing of value for 8 weeks after your second year–probably blow way too much of that money because it feels like Monopoly Money–and probably get a permanent offer from BigLaw firm to join the firm after you graduate.
  • Skate through what is the 100% worthless and unnecessary third year of law school (unless, again, you’re trying to rack up those Prestige Points).
  • Graduate with JD at end of Year 3. Hooray, you are now a lawyer eligible to pay several thousand dollars (which will be reimbursed by your BigLaw firm) to study to take the test that actually determines whether you get to be a lawyer.
  • Spend most of your pre-bar-exam time drinking, realizing in a panic 2 weeks before the bar that you have not studied at all. Study a bunch.
  • Congratulations, you don’t find out whether you actually passed the bar for months.

Step 3.5 (optional), starting at ages 25-28 or so: If you acquired enough Prestige Points, got really stellar grades, and were really lucky, take a year off for the privilege of working for a judge for comparatively little pay (but a seriously transformative experience for most people–I am not slamming judicial clerkships in any way here), partly because you know your BigLaw firm is going to give you a $50k clerkship bonus when you start, anyway. Maybe you change which BigLaw firm you’re going to.

(I am not including Step 3.75 for a Supreme Court clerkship here. If any past or future SCOTUS clerks are reading my blog, can I have your autograph?)

Step 4, starting at ages 25-29 or so: This is it. The big day. You’ve graduated law school and have your J.D. You’ve taken the bar. Maybe you’ve done a clerkship and are collecting your $50k Prestige Points signing bonus (which still puts you somewhat behind in total pay to people who skipped the clerkship). You are now, officially, a BigLaw Lawyer (at least assuming that you don’t end up landing in Step 4.25). The day you walk in the door, you begin making an annualized salary of $160 170 180 190k (I can’t keep track anymore; note, the linked page also referenced “special” summer bonuses–and it appears they were special, as they did not repeat in 2019). That doesn’t include year-end bonuses (unlike the “special” summer bonuses, these are pretty regular, outside of 2008-style financial meltdowns)–in 2018, those started out at 15k (and, depending on the firm, are annualized for your starting year).

(If you did Step 3.5, you’re starting out on the second-year salary scale. Still doesn’t make up for the difference in salary in that first year.)

So, what do you do? You go and upgrade your apartment (or, perhaps if you want to really screw up, you buy a house), buy a bunch of awesome liquor, maybe a car, duh! You’re a high-flying lawyer, now! Don’t forget the custom-made suits.

Oh, wait. You probably have more than 200k, and perhaps more than 300k, of law school debt, on top of whatever you took out for undergrad, before even accounting for interest.

Oh, wait. As Step 4 progresses, the 12+ billable hour days, day after day, continue to tick along. You begin to forget what real “free time” means, as you set the email activation sound on your phone to something quieter given the fact that it is basically a constant stream. Who knew you would have to work this hard to justify the absolutely ridiculous salary you’re being paid?

Oh, wait. For most people, BigLaw is not forever–you’re highly likely to leave after a couple of years. Not just your first firm, but BigLaw in general. For some, that is voluntary. For some, that is not. And equity partnership? That’s for a very, very small percentage of the people that start out at the firm.

So, about those “oh, wait” issues. You had better realize very early that you want to be in the group of people that can leave BigLaw, if they want to; and if they are forced to, it won’t cripple them. What does that mean? It means that you must declare war on the loans that got you the job in the first place.

Part 2 will discuss that war.

Step 4.25 (god, I hope you’re not here): Crap, you failed the bar exam! The firm will give you some time to study to take it again, and failing it once won’t kill your career. Failing it twice probably will, though. No pressure. The only good aspect of Step 4.25 is that if you find yourself here, and if you pass the bar on your second go-around, you will have faced the prospect of a Career Grim Reaper, and that, hopefully, will make you more fervent in the Great Student Loan War to come.

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