What is Biglaw and how do I get it?

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SmokeytheBear
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What is Biglaw and how do I get it?

Post by SmokeytheBear » Wed Apr 11, 2018 11:55 pm

After responding to a ton of posts about how to get biglaw in a thread that had nothing to do with biglaw, I was asked to clean up my comments and post them in one space for possible sticky. Please feel free to suggest edits or offer comments. Here we go:

Many 0Ls go to law school with the hope of getting "biglaw." What I have come to realize after responding to threads on this board and on the previous board is that many 0L's do not fully appreciate the distinctions between and among large law firms. My hope is that the below will help tease out some of the nuances.

1. What is biglaw?:
First, there is the threshold issue of what is biglaw? I've locked horns with a few people on how to define this. While there certainly is no clearly defined term, it isn't so nebulous that we can't have a general understanding.

Some people (and websites, which will be discussed later) want biglaw to mean firms of 100+ attorneys, I don't think that's the right metric. I think what many 0Ls envision when they say "biglaw" is a large, multi office (if not international) firm that pays the Milabnk/Simpson/Cravath scale ("MSC") (please see post directly below for an explanation on what the MSC scale is) (or market adjusted MSC scale, meaning a salary scale for firms in secondary markets that pay lower compared to the major markets due to lower billing rates, lower overheard, lower cost of living, etc. ) that does clean and sexy work. Many firms in the 100-250 range are not making MSC or market adjusted MSC, are not getting those bonuses, and are not doing the same quality or quantity of work that people at "biglaw" firms are doing.

(There is also the not insignificant side issue of firms in this cohort that are on shaky financial ground; there have been countless reports of the viability of many firms in the AmLaw 50-100 range. Because of that, while this guide is focused on "biglaw", I am going to route us toward "decent biglaw", which will be teased out more below).

So is the right metric firms with 250+ attorneys? No, not really, for the same reasons above.

Is the metric just the AmLaw 100? It could be, but that may leave out some firms that should be considered and include some firms that should not be considered.

Unfortunately, I think for biglaw the easiest way to define it is going to be based on their pay structure. For the major markets (LA, SF, SV, DC, Chi, NYC), does the firm pay MSC scale and pay MSC bonuses? If so, you've got biglaw. If not, perhaps it isn't. For the secondary markets (Seattle, Minneapolis, Denver, etc) does the firm pay a market adjusted MSC scale and bonus?

2. How to get biglaw

(a) Choose your market

The next serious consideration if you want biglaw is what geographical market you want to be in.

Broadly speaking, people often divide the markets into "major markets" and "secondary markets." The major markets are generally considered LA, NYC, SF, Silicon Valley (SV), Chicago, and DC. There are some markets that people debate whether they are "major," such as Orange County, Houston, Dallas, Atlanta. Secondary markets include Seattle, Denver, Minneapolis, Portland, Cleveland, and Charlotte. What differentiates a "major" from a "secondary" is also not wholly clear. It is not purely whether the market follows the MSC scale--whereas every major firm in the major markets pays MSC, some major firms in Texas and Denver do or do not pay MSC. Rather, what differentiates the two is a constellation of factors--quality of life, intensity of work, types and sizes of cases and deals, schools they pull from, etc.

(b) Why markets matter
I practice mergers and acquisitions in Los Angeles and I have worked on upwards of 100 deals with co-counsel and opposing counsel in every major market, several secondary markets, and the big international cities abroad. I can tell you from that breadth of experience that practicing in biglaw is generally more laid back in Los Angeles than in NYC, SF, and SV. That said, I can also tell you that attorneys who work M&A in NYC are generally better trained and exposed to sexier deals than attorneys in LA. But this is all generally, because it is often office specific, practice group specific, and partner specific.

While LA is chiller than NYC on average, you might be stuck working for a partner who has a stick up his ass, wants you in the office from 8-8 everyday regardless of workload, and wants you to wear a tie and a Submariner.

The point is that markets matter if you want them to matter. If you don't care what market you are in and just want to make money, then have fun at basically any of the T-13 where you can get a job at a sweatshop in NYC with median grades. But if you care about being in LA, OC, or say Houston/Dallas, that will impact which law school you should go to.

3. Choose your school
Now that you know you want biglaw and you maybe have an idea of a specific market you want to target, you should target a law school that places people into biglaw.

But how do you know which schools place people in biglaw? And how do you know which schools place people in which law firms in certain cities?

It's going to take some work. But presumably you worked hard enough that a T-13 is on the table, so this shouldn't be too onerous.

I honestly think the best way to do this is to reverse engineer the process. Of the dozens of "biglaw" firms out there, I think there are about 30 or so that are "decent" in that they are on healthy financial grounds (see note above about AmLaw 50-100 sinking ships) and provide good opportunities to their associates. To figure out these decent ones, one needs to consult the AmLaw 100 stats. AmLaw publishes data every year on the financial health of firms and changes in headcount. I think this information is incredibly valuable because it tells you how well a firm is doing. I generally look to changes of profits per partner over time, while ignoring things like total revenue. You'll also get an idea of leverage (which is useful for how leanly deals and cases are staffed, among other things), partners minted, etc. Unless you are looking to join a firm that has a very specific practice group, the 30 of these firms are generally fungible in that they pay MSC, they bonus at MSC, the offer good training, and they offer good exist opportunities.

You can do all of this if you're targeting a market too. Pull the AmLaw 100 list and figure out which firms you think are the healthiest or have the best metric that is important to you (as I said, PPP is my favorite). Figure out if your target market has any of those firms, then go to those firms websites and search based on school. This will take less than an hour and basically tell you what you need to know.

Note that some firms in, say LA, might only have a handful of people from, say Michigan. But if they have a few people spread out among different classes, it means that firm recruits at Michigan.

Similarly, if you are dead set on LA, you’re going to have to run the calculus of taking money at UCLA, UCI and USC, which place decently in LA, over, say, Michigan or GULC, which place in LA but with slightly lower grade cutoffs.

Alternatively, you can contact the law school itself. Law schools have a treasure trove of data that they don't publish on their own volition. But you can ask for it. You can ask someone in admissions at school X that you are interested in to put you in touch with someone from career services at school X and ask them "can you tell me which law firms in city Z have alumni from this school?" or "do you have any alumni at firms a, b, or c?" Those are stats that they could give you pretty damn easy, especially if they are trying to woo you.

You can also just ask career services at the perspective school to send you info on which firms and from what offices have participated in OCI over the previous several years. This is a type of list that will have already been prepared, so it's just a matter of asking for it. They should also have yield statistics they can give you.

Alternatively, Above the Law has information on each law firm and which schools they pull from mostly, but I'm not sure how often that is updated. They also don't break down which schools are represented in which offices, so while Kirkland may pull the most of its associates from U of Chicago, that might not be the case for Kirkland LA.

Law School Transparency (LST) publishes somewhat helpful, but very misleading statistics on how many graduates from a law school go on to work in firms with 100+ attorneys. As noted above, choosing a school with the hopes of biglaw purely based on how many students get to firms with 100+ attorneys is a bit misleading.


4. Get good grades
This is the most important part. You gotta get good grades.

We can look at the numbers and say "Duke sends 50% of its kids to firms with over 500 attorneys and that pay $180k+, so all I gotta do is get median and I'll get biglaw." Not quite.

There are nuances to this. The better you do in law school, the higher quality of firm you will have a chance of getting to. While you certainly can get into a firm with over 500 attorneys that pays MSC, that firm might be a dumpster fire burning on the deck of the Titanic. The decent biglaw firms, the quality firms--the kind that you want to be at because they pay MSC, because they match bonuses instantly and don't leave you guessing what your bonus will be or when you will get it, because they train you well, because they won't yank benefits away from you because they need to plug leaking financial holes--are going to want you to have good grades from a good school. Median at Duke likely won't get you GDC or Latham. Median at Duke will get you a firm that pays and bonuses MSC, but I might worry about what kind of meal expense reimbursement policy they have.
LawSSS2 wrote:
Wed Apr 11, 2018 5:16 pm
intro-gamer wrote:
Wed Apr 11, 2018 4:21 pm
Stranger wrote:
Wed Apr 11, 2018 3:48 pm
Rowdy wrote:
Wed Apr 11, 2018 3:40 pm
Last edited by SmokeytheBear on Tue Jun 19, 2018 3:32 pm, edited 8 times in total.

notlegaladvice
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Re: What is big law and how do I get it?

Post by notlegaladvice » Thu Apr 12, 2018 9:59 am

Addendum to "What is biglaw": What is the Milbank/Simpson/Cravath scale?

The MSC scale is the payscale used to determine base salaries for associates. In June 2018, Milbank Tweed raised the base salaries of its [current and incoming] first-year associates to $190,000.00 USD and increased salaries for subsequent class years. Shortly thereafter, Simpson Thacher matched Milbank's raise and provided a special, one-time "summer bonus" that increased commensurate with seniority. A few days later, Cravath, the prior first-mover on associate salaries, adopted Milbank's salary scale for junior associates, matched Simpson's summer bonus, and further increased base salaries for mid-level (fourth-years and above) and senior associates. And so the Milbank/Simpson/Cravath scale was born. Keep in mind that there is wide variability as to which firms match the salary increases in different markets.
SmokeytheBear wrote:
Tue Jun 19, 2018 3:26 pm
New Milbank/Simpson/Cravath Salary Scale:

2017 $190,000
2016 $200,000
2015 $220,000
2014 $255,000
2013 $280,000
2012 $305,000
2011 $325,000
2010 $340,000
firms vary on 2009 and senior

Link to forum discussing new salaries:
viewtopic.php?f=27&t=248

Link to ATL article on which firms have matched:
https://abovethelaw.com/2018/06/salary- ... 2018/?rf=1
* note that just because a firm pays first-year associates at $190k does not mean they pay other associate class years on the MSC salary scale.

Further research on salaries may be done at www.vault.com (which generally lists the base salary of only the main office) and www.nalpdirectory.com (which sometimes breaks down a firm by office and lists starting salary under "Compensation & Benefits" for each).

The Cravath scale is the payscale used to determine base salaries for associates. In June 2016, Cravath, Swaine & Moore (a giant and widely respected New York-based firm) raised the base salaries of its first-year associates to $180,000.00 and increased salaries for subsequent class years. Many, or most, of the largest firms followed suit, either adopting the same pay structure, modifying it slightly, or adopting/modifying it only in certain cities. Before that, associate salaries at the largest firms were on the "Simpson scale," so called because in 2007, Simpson Thatcher was the first firm to increase first-year salaries to $160,000.00 from $145,000.00.

The Cravath scale (with the difference from the Simpson scale provided parenthetically):

1st year - $180,000* ($160,000 + $20,000)
2nd year - $190,000 ($170,000 + $20,000)
3rd year - $210,000 ($185,000 +$25,000)
4th year - $235,000 ($210,000 +$25,000)
5th year - $260,000 ($230,000 + $30,000)
6th year - $280,000 ($250,000 + $30,000)
7th year - $300,000 ($265,000 + $35,000)
8th year - $315,000 ($280,000 + $35,000)

* note that just because a firm pays first-years at that rate (i.e., 180k) does not mean they pay other associate class years on the Cravath salary scale.

source: https://abovethelaw.com/2016/06/breakin ... -salaries/
Last edited by notlegaladvice on Thu Jun 21, 2018 9:17 am, edited 5 times in total.

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Re: What is big law and how do I get it?

Post by SmokeytheBear » Thu Apr 12, 2018 11:18 am

deleted due to introduction of Milbank/Simpson/Cravath Scale.
Last edited by SmokeytheBear on Tue Jun 19, 2018 3:33 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: What is big law and how do I get it?

Post by BearCat » Thu Apr 12, 2018 11:58 am

So to be clear, firms that pay lockstep salary but in secondary markets are not biglaw? Like, a firm that pays 135k starting in STL is not biglaw?

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Re: What is big law and how do I get it?

Post by SmokeytheBear » Thu Apr 12, 2018 12:00 pm

BearCat wrote:
Thu Apr 12, 2018 11:58 am
So to be clear, firms that pay lockstep salary but in secondary markets are not biglaw? Like, a firm that pays 135k starting in STL is not biglaw?
No. Quoting from above: "For the secondary markets (Seattle, Minneapolis, Denver, etc) does the firm pay a market adjusted Cravath scale and bonus?"

Is 135k in St Louis the market adjusted scale? If so, then it's STL biglaw.

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Re: What is big law and how do I get it?

Post by BearCat » Thu Apr 12, 2018 12:10 pm

So your point then is just that firms that pay below the local market are per se not biglaw?

What about salary compression? Does Jones Day cease to be biglaw after like year 3 or something.

ETA - I guess to elaborate, I mean, it sounds like you're just taking issue with LST's metrics because you define biglaw as firms that pay top of the market with big bonuses and with "clean, sexy work," whereas LST defines biglaw as a "desirable outcome" from biglaw that justifies the cost of law school. And like a job at Littler Mendelson is a desirable outcome even though you're not doing clean, sexy tech trans deals or some shit.

I mean, I don't even know what the difference between "market adjusted Cravath scale" and "top of the local market" is, if there is any.

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Re: What is big law and how do I get it?

Post by SmokeytheBear » Thu Apr 12, 2018 12:28 pm

BearCat wrote:
Thu Apr 12, 2018 12:10 pm
So your point then is just that firms that pay below the local market are per se not biglaw?

What about salary compression? Does Jones Day cease to be biglaw after like year 3 or something.
I think it's fair to say that if a firm is paying below the local market, that's an initial sign that it's not biglaw for a host of reasons. Again, there is no clear definition, but simply helpful indicators. And there are always exceptions. For example, I think Bryan Cave pays slightly below market, but most people would consider it biglaw.

Jones Day and their black box structure has always been and will always be a huge *. The party line is that they pay at or above market depending on performance.

Your question also implies a further discussion of the distinction between "midlaw" and "biglaw," which may be something I address later. As had been litigated extensively on the previous message board, midlaw are generally firms that do not pay Cravath scale salary (or market adjusted Cravath). Many people go to midlaw thinking that hours will be easier, but the hours are often just as brutal as biglaw.

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Re: What is big law and how do I get it?

Post by SmokeytheBear » Thu Apr 12, 2018 12:31 pm

BearCat wrote:
Thu Apr 12, 2018 12:10 pm

I mean, I don't even know what the difference between "market adjusted Cravath scale" and "top of the local market" is, if there is any.
"Market adjusted Cravath scale" means firms in secondary markets that pay a lower salary scale compared to the major markets due to lower billing rates, lower overheard, lower cost of living, etc.

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Re: What is big law and how do I get it?

Post by SmokeytheBear » Thu Apr 12, 2018 12:35 pm

BearCat wrote:
Thu Apr 12, 2018 12:10 pm
ETA - I guess to elaborate, I mean, it sounds like you're just taking issue with LST's metrics because you define biglaw as firms that pay top of the market with big bonuses and with "clean, sexy work," whereas LST defines biglaw as a "desirable outcome" from biglaw that justifies the cost of law school. And like a job at Littler Mendelson is a desirable outcome even though you're not doing clean, sexy tech trans deals or some shit.
That's correct. There is a distinct difference between working a firm that pays you a salary that justifies debt and between working at a firm that pays you a higher salary. The fact that one firm pays you less than another is a proxy for many things--lower pay means lower billing rates, which often means they are not competing for the best talent, and which often means they are not competing for the larger deals or more complex cases.

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Re: What is big law and how do I get it?

Post by bk1 » Thu Apr 12, 2018 1:42 pm

Before we could even come to a consensus on what biglaw is, we need to reach consensus on how to spell it (though I think we can all agree that abovethelaw's capital-b "Biglaw" is a crime against humanity). Kidding (kinda).

But overall this is good. One thing I would add regarding the Cravath salary scale is that just because a firm pays first-years at that rate (i.e., 180k) does not mean they pay other associate class years on the Cravath salary scale.

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Re: What is big law and how do I get it?

Post by SmokeytheBear » Thu Apr 12, 2018 1:45 pm

bk1 wrote:
Thu Apr 12, 2018 1:42 pm
Before we could even come to a consensus on what biglaw is, we need to reach consensus on how to spell it (though I think we can all agree that abovethelaw's capital-b "Biglaw" is a crime against humanity). Kidding (kinda).
you're right. i was going to go back through today and make global conformity.
bk1 wrote:
Thu Apr 12, 2018 1:42 pm

But overall this is good. One thing I would add regarding the Cravath salary scale is that just because a firm pays first-years at that rate (i.e., 180k) does not mean they pay other associate class years on the Cravath salary scale.
notlegaladvice wrote:
Thu Apr 12, 2018 9:59 am
Can you edit your post to make that clear?

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Re: What is big law and how do I get it?

Post by emojay_bk » Thu May 03, 2018 12:51 pm

notlegaladvice wrote:
Thu Apr 12, 2018 9:59 am
Addendum to "What is big law": What is the Cravath scale?

The Cravath scale is the payscale used to determine base salaries for associates. In June 2016, Cravath, Swaine & Moore (a giant and widely respected New York-based firm) raised the base salaries of its first-year associates to $180,000.00 and increased salaries for subsequent class years. Many, or most, of the largest firms followed suit, either adopting the same pay structure, modifying it slightly, or adopting/modifying it only in certain cities. Before that, associate salaries at the largest firms were on the "Simpson scale," so called because in 2007, Simpson Thatcher was the first firm to increase first-year salaries to $160,000.00 from $145,000.00.

The Cravath scale (with the difference from the Simpson scale provided parenthetically):

1st year - $180,000* ($160,000 + $20,000)
2nd year - $190,000 ($170,000 + $20,000)
3rd year - $210,000 ($185,000 +$25,000)
4th year - $235,000 ($210,000 +$25,000)
5th year - $260,000 ($230,000 + $30,000)
6th year - $280,000 ($250,000 + $30,000)
7th year - $300,000 ($265,000 + $35,000)
8th year - $315,000 ($280,000 + $35,000)

* note that just because a firm pays first-years at that rate (i.e., 180k) does not mean they pay other associate class years on the Cravath salary scale.

source: https://abovethelaw.com/2016/06/breakin ... -salaries/

Further research on salaries may be done at www.vault.com (which generally lists the base salary of only the main office) and www.nalpdirectory.com (which sometimes breaks down a firm by office and lists starting salary under "Compensation & Benefits" for each).
These bonus numbers are off.

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Re: What is big law and how do I get it?

Post by UVA2B » Thu May 03, 2018 1:00 pm

Those aren’t bonuses in the paranthetical, it’s just the change from the previous $160k scale.

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Re: What is Biglaw and how do I get it?

Post by SmokeytheBear » Thu May 03, 2018 1:14 pm

Did some minor editing. What else would you guys like to see?

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Re: What is Biglaw and how do I get it?

Post by NukinFutz » Mon May 07, 2018 3:45 am

Smokey, UVA2. Thanks for providing this info. Much appreciated!

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Re: What is Biglaw and how do I get it?

Post by SmokeytheBear » Tue Jun 19, 2018 3:23 pm

Bumping for people as OCI bidding approaches.

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Re: What is Biglaw and how do I get it?

Post by SmokeytheBear » Tue Jun 19, 2018 3:26 pm

Link to forum discussing new salaries:
viewtopic.php?f=27&t=248

Link to ATL article on which firms have matched:
https://abovethelaw.com/2018/06/salary- ... 2018/?rf=1

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Re: What is Biglaw and how do I get it?

Post by intro-gamer » Wed Jun 20, 2018 3:07 pm

So I saw a post on the other site that had me thinking (and also scared quite frankly) about the relationship of Biglaw firm financial health and job security. A poster on the other site stated he/she was stealthed promptly after his/her firm matched the MSC scale. Now it’s not clear whether his/her firm was on the healthier/unhealthy end of the AmLaw list (and to be fair, we can’t be totally sure this person’s post/story is true, but it seems quite possible), but I wonder whether we should take into consideration whether firms match the MSC scale and try to predict whether they may trim fat somewhere (associates) to keep the firm afloat.

Is PPP going to still be a good metric for determining this? In some instances, would it actually make sense for a law student to opt to choose a law firm that refused to move to the MSC scale due to financials, versus a firm that did move but seemingly lacks the financial health of the first movers who are seemingly very healthy (MSC et al.)? Def wanna hear your thoughts on this Smoke.
Last edited by intro-gamer on Sat Jun 23, 2018 8:47 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: What is Biglaw and how do I get it?

Post by BigZuck » Wed Jun 20, 2018 4:15 pm

When are you going to do the "Oh so that's Biglaw, how do I get out of it?" thread?

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Re: What is Biglaw and how do I get it?

Post by UVA2B » Wed Jun 20, 2018 4:19 pm

BigZuck wrote:
Wed Jun 20, 2018 4:15 pm
When are you going to do the "Oh so that's Biglaw, how do I get out of it?" thread?
Navigating the second job search (legal recruiters, timing, conflict considerations, new market and bar applications/reciprocity concerns, etc.) sounds like a pretty awesome topic for someone who has lateraled.

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Re: What is Biglaw and how do I get it?

Post by SmokeytheBear » Wed Jun 20, 2018 5:56 pm

BigZuck wrote:
Wed Jun 20, 2018 4:15 pm
When are you going to do the "Oh so that's Biglaw, how do I get out of it?" thread?
Interesting. Will think of it. This hasn't gotten stickied yet, so I'm waiting to figure out what to add here before i do that thread.

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Re: What is Biglaw and how do I get it?

Post by Stranger » Wed Jun 20, 2018 6:35 pm

UVA2B wrote:
Wed Jun 20, 2018 4:19 pm
BigZuck wrote:
Wed Jun 20, 2018 4:15 pm
When are you going to do the "Oh so that's Biglaw, how do I get out of it?" thread?
Navigating the second job search (legal recruiters, timing, conflict considerations, new market and bar applications/reciprocity concerns, etc.) sounds like a pretty awesome topic for someone who has lateraled.
Yeah, maybe it could breathe some life into the lateral moves subforum.

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Re: What is Biglaw and how do I get it?

Post by bk1 » Wed Jun 20, 2018 6:59 pm

UVA2B wrote:
Wed Jun 20, 2018 4:19 pm
BigZuck wrote:
Wed Jun 20, 2018 4:15 pm
When are you going to do the "Oh so that's Biglaw, how do I get out of it?" thread?
Navigating the second job search (legal recruiters, timing, conflict considerations, new market and bar applications/reciprocity concerns, etc.) sounds like a pretty awesome topic for someone who has lateraled.
legal recruiters are scum of the earth

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Re: What is Biglaw and how do I get it?

Post by UVA2B » Wed Jun 20, 2018 7:00 pm

bk1 wrote:
Wed Jun 20, 2018 6:59 pm
UVA2B wrote:
Wed Jun 20, 2018 4:19 pm
BigZuck wrote:
Wed Jun 20, 2018 4:15 pm
When are you going to do the "Oh so that's Biglaw, how do I get out of it?" thread?
Navigating the second job search (legal recruiters, timing, conflict considerations, new market and bar applications/reciprocity concerns, etc.) sounds like a pretty awesome topic for someone who has lateraled.
legal recruiters are scum of the earth
Explaining why would be part of that guide, but it’s still worth discussing for what they do, how they do it, and how to look out for particular crappy ones.

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Re: What is Biglaw and how do I get it?

Post by bk1 » Wed Jun 20, 2018 7:02 pm

UVA2B wrote:
Wed Jun 20, 2018 7:00 pm
Explaining why would be part of that guide, but it’s still worth discussing for what they do, how they do it, and how to look out for particular crappy ones.
Same reason you can't trust car salespeople. Except I don't get Jim Bob from Chevy emailing me 20 times a day because he found my email on the internet.

(But yes, I agree that a guide would be nice.)

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