My tenth year law school reunion is coming up next month. And with the benefit of a decade, I can now admit I was pretty superficial when it came to picking the law firm where I spent my 1L and 2L summers, and ultimately where I worked after graduation. I picked my employer based on the perception of prestige and one specific ranking guide, at that.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not terribly hard on myself about what I now view to be a mistake. And I don’t think I made a disastrous decision given that I was 24 and had no meaningful work experience to speak of. Like many of my classmates at the time, I looked at the list of firms coming to recruit on-campus and they were virtually indistinguishable from each other on the basis of pay and practice areas. So I did what everyone else was doing: I read the Vault Guide and went to the firm that seemed most selective and highly ranked.
I recently was reminded of Vault a few months ago when I started building my new company, http://www.fairygodboss.com. Since my site is built by women for women to review their employers, I was naturally interviewing many, many women about how they picked the companies where they worked and what mattered to them in terms of both taking — and staying — in a particular a job. Even though Fairygodboss is not exclusively for attorneys and not exclusively about law firms, I naturally talked to many of my former law school classmates and female attorneys whose input heavily influenced how I’m building the website. Repeatedly, I heard that most law firms — especially the prestigious, large corporate ones — were still attracting students on the basis of the Vault Guide rankings. I know that the law is a conservative profession where change occurs rather slowly, but I assumed that in the intervening decade of the internet and information revolution, Vault would have lost its grip over student decisions.
What I discovered was that female law students interested in BigLaw were still making decisions based on prestige. When pressed, I heard variations on the same theme: “The firms all pay the same, and all seem to offer the same benefits so I basically picked based on rankings.” To be fair, some women I interviewed conducted further research and looked at things like Working Mother magazine’s “Best Law Firms for Women” or considered data such as average profits per partner, or even investigated NALP gender statistics. But most did not go that far. The law school career services offices continue to offer Vault guides, and students apparently still lap it up.
Ultimately, I’m writing this post for my early-20 something self and everyone like her. I am writing to warn her to think carefully before picking a law firm based on prestige (especially defined by Vault, alone). Prestige may seem like a logical way to go and many people have previously made university and law school application decisions on that basis. However, this is no longer school. Your life will be largely spent at the company you choose and your happiness and professional success will depend a lot your choice of employer. Therefore, its only sensible that you should try to balance the prestige factor against other information. Find out what its really like to work somewhere. Get this information any way you can: ask your friends, former alumni, current associates. Ask about the billable (and non-billable) hours, the culture, the management committee, and the environment.
Do all of this and you will be better informed than most of the women I interviewed. Even then, it will be hard for any of these well-meaning, helpful people to tell you how their life compares to others (because by definition they only have their experience, which is typically at a single firm). I have made sure BigLaw firms are well-represented in Fairygodboss’ database and I hope attorneys will review and share their experiences for the benefit of all future associates. We read reviews all the time when we make decisions about much more trivial things (like Amazon purchases or Yelp-rated restaurants). Its time we also take the time to share and find out information beyond just ‘prestige’ rankings when it comes to picking our law firms, or any other employer for that matter.
(Reprinted from my blog post on Ms JD’s blog here. Ms JD is a non-profit dedicated to supporting the early careers of female attorneys with a lot of helpful industry resources and articles, so check them out if that describes you.)