This week in the Bigger than Biglaw, Neena explores how her tenure as an associate at large, name-brand law firms provided her the tools to be successful as a solo in a shared law office space.
While under the employ of a large-multiservice firm, I consistently asked myself: “How do I add value to firm?”
When you work as an associate at a large firm, you are conditioned to be grateful for your job. In this poor legal economy, there is an ever increasing pressure to justify your position.
When I left for greener, more independent pastures, I found myself in a state of discontent for months prior to my exit. I knew I had all the skills for the partnership track, but your fifteen year partner track is all about control. You operate under the false impression that you control your own destiny. It is rarely explained to you that you actually are at the control of others decisions.
Firms want you to add “value” to them. The thing is, the value they seek is purely quantifiable. They have one rule – make them money. I have overheard executive partners speaking with admiration and reverence about an associate’s high billables, rather than their legal acumen or stellar ethics. Large firms, in my experience, tend to have high overhead and political structures that need the navigation skills of an America’s cup winner during a level 9 storm.
I had been adding value to my firms. But, as my discontent grew and my partner likelihood shrank, I started to play around with the syntax.
In the beginning, I wondered: “How do I add value to the firm?” Toward the end, I wondered: “How is the firm adding value to my life?”
The latter question was much harder to answer than I thought. The lack of an answer is one of the many reasons I chose to pursue self-employment. At first, I thought choosing self-employment meant isolation. One of the many perks of working at a large firm is the ability to have a hallway conversation or bounce an idea off another associate. I have found I could re-create a “the perks of a firm environment” for myself with a combination of shared law office space and bar association committee work.
I didn’t choose self-employment out of bitterness. I still look back at my time at a large firm with a certain fondness. In fact, I feel as though my time working for someone else has made me a better attorney and businesswoman.
I honed important skills working at larger law firms that I continually implement in private practice. These include:
Keeping Track of Time
It may sound simple. When you work for yourself, keeping track of your time can be anything but. As a solo attorney, you are responsible for every aspect of your practice, including billing. This can be complicated because you may be researching for one client and you have to stop everything you are doing to deal with a phone call from a panicked client. The time you spend on each client is easy to lose.
Although I have previously written about my disdain for the billable hour system, the fact that I have been conditioned to a point even Pavlov would appreciate to account for time spent on clients is a huge asset to my practice. It enables me to work more efficiently, especially because most of my cases are flat fees. I have to account for my time’s value and balance that with the flat fee.
Learning My Worth
In addition to knowing what my time is worth and how to manage it effective, working at large multiservice firms enabled me to learn my worth and channel it toward my own practice’s success. I told you how I started at a small general practice. I did not know my worth during my first job. I was grateful to have a job. As my career progressed, so did my feeling about myself, my legal skills, my value and my worth. I didn’t have to seek job offers out, they were presented to me. Finally, I knew it wasn’t worth it to work for someone else anymore.
Expanding my Knowledge Base
I found that one of the best perks of working at a firm was the easy access to mentors or supervising attorneys who helped me expand my knowledge base. You can teach yourself the fundamental building blocks of your practice area, but nuances and best practices are learned in a more timely fashion from a great mentor who has been practicing for a while. Learning the nuances of different aspects of law gave me the confidence to know I would not be pigeon-holing my solo practice.
This sense of found self-confidence gave me the foundation to start my own firm. In a bizarre way, the job offers were a validation of my skills. If I was performing so well that someone else noticed, why could I not do the same thing and notice myself.
Neena Dutta is a corporate immigration attorney with the Dutta Law Firm, a firm she founded after leaving a Biglaw associate position with a prestigious New York firm. Neena is a client in Law Firm Suites’ executive suite for law firms in Downtown, New York and her weekly blog series, The Dutta Diaries, explores the thought process that goes into leaving a Biglaw job for the world of solo practice, and her experiences since making this career altering shift.