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Spotlight: A Life in Big Law

SuitsThe classic post-law school career dream often involves a vision of a well-compensated, career-driven professional climbing the ladder at a high-powered law firm.  Big law firm jobs are still something many students are striving for (although those at some schools have the edge in the hiring process with specific firms), so our spotlight today focuses on an attorney, Kelly Neal, an associate at the firm of Buchanan Ingersoll and Rooney, who successfully made the decision to pursue big law– and the information, advice, and best practices she can share with you as you start your law career journey.  Without further ado, let’s check out her answers to our questions:

1)   Why did you decide to join a firm?  Did you know you wanted to target a big firm job when you decided to go to law school?

When I started law school, I was really still exploring what direction I wanted to take with my legal career.  By the end of my first year, I decided I wanted to practice law so I focused my search on law firms of all sizes.  Although I looked at larger and smaller firms, I found myself gravitating to the larger firms because I was still not quite sure what type of law I was interested in practicing and the larger firms had more options.

After completing a summer associate position at my current firm, I realized it was a good fit for me.  It is a larger firm but not too large, and had a number of practice areas that I was interested in and would be happy doing.  During the summer program I had the opportunity to meet people in the different practices and was able to take on projects from different areas.  Although now I’m focused on one field, it is still valuable to have a broad range of expertise in the firm.

2)   Is your job what you expected?

Honestly, yes.  Although I didn’t fully understand the particulars of daily life (which can differ significantly for people within the same firm, even) I had a general idea of what the job would be like based on my time in the summer associate program.  What I did not expect was how hard it would be to adjust to not having built-in holiday and summer breaks anymore.  Students: cherish those breaks!

3)   Do you think law school prepared you for your job?

In terms of practical skills, not entirely.  Law school does not prepare you to keep time or manage co-worker and client expectations, let alone teach you what to do in a particular case or transaction.  To be fair, though, short of instituting an “apprenticeship” year (which I think is a fantastic idea) there’s only so much practical training that can be done in the classroom.  That said, I do use much of the substantive knowledge I gained in law school on a regular basis, and I have actually come across some of the more obscure legal principles in practice that we covered in law school (Rule Against Perpetuities, anyone?!) so law school did give me at least some practical training.  My school also focused on legal writing, which is critical in practice.

Theoretically, law school did prepare me for life as a lawyer in many respects.  In law school I learned that, if you want academic success, you need to work for it.  I also learned that, in addition to success in terms of grades, building a network of friends and contacts is invaluable to a fulfilling academic and personal experience.   The same is true after graduation.  To achieve professional success, you have to put in the leg work.  But putting in the hours alone does not necessarily equate to overall success.  Maintaining and building personal and professional relationships after graduation will always benefit you.  You can’t predict which of your classmates or friends may go on to be a judge, a politician, a general counsel for a business, etc..  Your professional reputation begins in law school, so stay on good terms with your classmates and co-workers.

4)   Were there any clinics/experiential learning opportunities at your school related to your field?  Did you use them?  If so, how did they help you?

Unfortunately I did not take advantage of these opportunities as much as I should have. I’d encourage any law student to get experience with writing or in the courtroom, if possible.  Even if a law student wants to avoid litigation entirely, at least a minimal level of knowledge will help should they ever end up in a courtroom.  On my first trip to court, I was distracted by the simple things, for example, where to stand when it was my turn!  If I hadn’t opted-out of taking a trial advocacy class (rookie mistake) I would not have been in that predicament and could have focused more on the substance of the case.

5)   Why would you recommend students consider a career at a big firm?

A large firm – if it’s the right fit for you – can be an excellent place to build your career.  You can learn a practice area and build your skills and relationships with the resources of a large firm behind you.  Even if becoming a partner at a large firm isn’t your ultimate goal, you can always move on to a smaller firm or solo practice, an in-house position, judicial position, or something else entirely, down the road.  If you’re concerned about the workload, think of it this way: there will likely never be a better time to take it on than when you are fresh out of law school.  Also, there is never a guarantee of a steady, comfortable workload in a firm of any size; it’s simply the nature of the beast.

6)   What are the biggest positives and negatives about your current job?

Positives: I am constantly learning, and I have the privilege of learning from top-notch attorneys doing top-notch work for sophisticated clients.  My firm also staffs matters efficiently, so I’ve been getting hands-on learning experience and client exposure from the beginning.  Finally, I like my co-workers.  This factor should not be underrated; it can make or break any job.

Negatives:  Keeping time is a real bummer. There is nothing enjoyable about tracking your day in 6-minute increments, but for now, at least, it’s a necessary evil.  Also, the price you pay for working on larger, sophisticated matters is that the job is not 9 to 5.  The legal field can be very competitive, so the commitment you are required to put in for the client can be overwhelming, especially at first.  When your client needs to complete a multi-million dollar financing transaction or get a court brief filed by a deadline, the work can’t just come to a halt when the standard business day ends.  This means that putting in the evening and weekend time is inevitable at one point or another.  The key is to make sure that you work with good people who respect their own personal and family time as well as yours.

7)   If you had one piece of advice for somebody pre-law school who is interested in working for a larger law firm after law school, what would it be?

Work hard, stay humble, and be a kind person with whom others will want to work.

Special thanks to Kelly Neal for taking the time to give us some really thoughtful answers– and a lot for you all to think about!  If you are interested in learning more, leave your thoughts, comments, or questions in the comments section below.  Remember that if you are considering Big Law as a career field, your first year grades are the key to getting the inestimably important summer associate positions that often lead to real job offers, and stay on top of your work– it will be good practice for life in a law firm!

Kelly NealKelly Neal is an associate at Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, and concentrates her practice in bankruptcy, creditor’s rights and commercial litigation.  She earned her J.D. at Duquesne University School of Law, where she was a summer associate at her current firm and graduated near the top of her class.  When not working, Kelly relaxes by watching an absurd amount of terrible reality programming and experimenting with the many different ways to consume melted cheese while retaining her dignity.



Christine Schrader

About Christine Schrader

Christine Schrader is one of Kaplan's highest student-rated LSAT experts, as well as an overzealous fan of Jurassic Park, professional tennis, caffeinated products, and cheese. She is embarrassingly fond of the LSAT (best standardized test ever!), and very good at Trivial Pursuit, '90s edition; science is still out on whether the two of these are related. She is happy to field any questions you might have about test day, law school, pop culture references, or Beatles lyrics.

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  • Order_of_the_Coitus

    DO NOT go to law school unless $200,000+ in non-dischargeable student loan debt, no job, and living in your parents’ basement is your idea of fun. Law school is a scam.

    • Christine Schrader

      It’s true that all law degrees do not confer the same kind of “automatic career” that they once did– that being said, the only way to become a lawyer is to go to law school. Working to ensure that you are going to the best law school with the least debt is actually still a great option in terms of career choices; what isn’t a viable option anymore is to consider law school as a back-up plan, or to assume that all law degrees are created equal, or to be willing to pay full sticker price to a law school with the understanding that the debt is as good as discharged by a really high salary. The law school choice is the right one for a lot of people, even in this market: the people who are willing to study like crazy for their LSATs so they can get into a great school with high employment numbers (which they know all about because of the extensive research they did before deciding where to apply) with a great merit-based financial aid package; the people who plan to use a rolling admissions timeline to their advantage to up their chances of admissions; the people who are going to work extremely hard in law school and get great summer positions, internships, and connections; the people who are fully versed in the difficulties in the legal job sector, and know exactly the kind of course they need to plot to be successful. For those people, a law degree is an excellent place to apply their talents, drive, and ambition. The attorney I interviewed above is someone who is well known for her ability to plan well, work extremely hard, and take advantage of all opportunities that come her way; she is exactly the kind of person that is still able to find consistent success in a difficult field like law.

  • Brian Boisier

    Good advice!