If You Take Their Meaning

From The Practice July/August 2021
Three young lawyers on finding meaning at law firms

In “Money and Meaning in the Modern Law Firm,” Mitt Regan and Lisa Rohrer explore how senior law firm lawyers navigate money and meaning in the increasingly competitive market for legal services. In this article, we consider how members of a different cohort—young lawyers at the very start of the career—conceptualize and respond to the pressures around money and their desire for meaning in their work at large law firms. To help gain some perspective on this issue, The Practice interviewed three young lawyers to understand how they think about money and meaning at the outset of their careers: one law student actively searching for her first law firm position, one new associate who entered his firm during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, and one associate who is in the midst of switching firms (and coasts) in the search for greater meaning. We present these conversations as three vignettes. While each interviewee offered his or her own specific take on the relationship between money and meaning from their particular vantage point, there were nonetheless remarkable commonalities across all three. In the end, we get a sense of how the debate over money and meaning permeates the thinking of young lawyers just establishing their careers in law firms—and some of the factors that are ultimately driving their decision-making.

We should stress from the outset that all names, law schools, and law firms have been disguised. What we can say, however, is that all three interviewees attended law schools in the top 10 of the U.S. News 2020 rankings and that each interviewee is working (or, in the case of our law student, expects to work) at a prestigious corporate law firm. Indeed, we specifically asked each interviewee to confine—to the extent possible—their answers around money and meaning to the law firm sector specifically. We were not asking them to compare money and meaning across employment sectors (for example, law firms versus public interest).

Sandra: The law student

Sandra (again, not her real name) came to law school with public interest aspirations, and emphasizes that she remains invested in those goals over the long term. Through her time so far in law school, however, she learned about the type of early-career training that law firms can offer and has decided—at least as of now—to think seriously about beginning her career in that sector. While she admits that the selection process is daunting and opaque, Sandra has a strong interest in election law and is hoping to land a position at a firm that can help her develop the skills and expertise needed for her to succeed in that area. She is careful to note that she is relatively early in the process and, not having formally summered at a firm, is relying mostly on visible, often rankable, indicators, like location, reputation, and practice area expertise, as well as conversations with classmates, to help guide her selection process. The question for Sandra is which firm provides the best learning opportunities, specifically opportunities that align with her vision of a long-term career. “That’s where meaning enters the equation,” she says.

Do I care about good corporate citizenship in the short term if my long-term goals don’t involve me staying there and I get meaningful training and development?

On the one hand, Sandra emphasizes an “instrumental” sense of meaning. While she does not yet have experience working directly at a firm, she does have a sense of what she wants her career to look like and understands that she needs to gain the on-the-job lawyering skillset required along the way. Meaning for her is intimately connected to whether any specific firm will provide that training and learning she knows she needs. “I think about meaning in terms of the skills that I can gain that will prepare me to go work somewhere else afterwards and the things that will make me a good lawyer,” she says. “I’m looking for meaningful professional development.” She goes on, “the ability to find a firm that really specializes in what I care about and work on it in real time—that’s A; the professional development and learning—that’s B; and the actual experience of if I could work on voting rights stuff in that and then laying the groundwork to go work at a nonprofit after—that’s C.” She punctuates, “that’s what meaning for me would look like.”

Sandra also stresses a more social-minded sense of meaning. “With each firm,” she says, “I wonder: Do they promote women? Do they have people of color who are in positions of leadership or is this a club of old white men? Is the firm diverse?” Referencing previous controversies around mandatory arbitration clauses in summer law contracts, she also stresses the importance of a firm’s wider social impact. Having done her own research on the topic she notes, “I know the firms that have a good climate ranking.” As Sandra explains, it can be difficult to weigh these factors against those more-instrumental considerations. She continues:

When I see that Firm X has a low score on a climate scorecard, but they’re the only firm operating a particular substantive area that I am interested in and have a good training program…it’s tough. It’s a long and a short game. I am sort of thinking through do I care about that good corporate citizenship stuff in the short term if my long-term goals don’t even involve me staying there all that long and I get meaningful training and development? It’s tough.

One factor that is not explicitly entering Sandra’s thinking is the money—or at least the salary. “When I think about working after graduation, I could make $50,000 doing public interest law or I could make somewhere between $190,000 and $210,000 at a firm,” she explains. “The order of magnitude between the two settings is so massive. Once I decided that I wanted to try out a law firm, I really don’t care that one firm is paying $10,000 more.” Indeed, Sandra adds, the fact that top law firms all pay well frees up more of her scrutiny for finding the meaningful work she is looking for. She explains:

If there was a firm that didn’t raise their salary but has the specialty I am looking for and would offer meaningful professional development, that’s fine. These minor variations are just not huge in my mind. Once you’re above some kind of threshold number, to me, the variations are just less important.

That is not to say that the wider questions of a firm’s position on money—or, as Regan and Rohrer call it “monitoring productivity”—do not cross her mind. “There are other things that I think I would care about that I don’t know as much about at this stage,” she says. “Things like how your hours are billed, do pro bono hours count as billable, the number of required hours. I would say that those things would matter more to me than these relatively minute salary differences.” In talking about money, Sandra implicitly makes a distinction between the “money” that hits her bank account and how the firm approaches its business and treats its lawyers more generally—of which hours and billing practices are key considerations. For Sandra, her priority is to find her way to a firm that rewards the value of her work in meaningful ways. “I think that if you have a niche interest and there is a firm that allows you to do that full time—that is a huge draw, she says, “And it’s enough of a draw for me that I would accept less money, if I had to.”

Anthony: A pandemic start

Before coming to law school, Anthony was a business major as an undergrad and then did supply chain work at a large multinational corporation. He loved negotiating contracts with suppliers, and eventually went to law school to do corporate legal work. Anthony graduated at the height of the pandemic and has been working at a Global 100 law firm ever since (we will call this firm “Corporate LLP”).

Anthony was a summer associate at Corporate LLP during both his 2L and 3L summers. “All the firms I considered were heavily corporate focused,” he reflects. “Corporate LLP had an office in Chicago, where I’m from, and that was a major factor for me.” He admits that the firm was not his top choice going into his 3L year, noting that he was hoping to add a firm higher up the Vault rankings to his CV. “But in retrospect,” he says, “I had two great summers.” Anthony also notes that he interviewed with and received offers from firms in New York and Chicago, but that process confirmed that he had found something special in Corporate LLP’s Chicago office’s culture and people—and its proximity to home (which, unbeknownst to him, would have a major impact in the months ahead.) Currently, Anthony is a full-time associate in Corporate LLP’s Chicago office. He joined during the height of the pandemic, and subsequently has been working remotely from home ever since, and has never set foot in the office as a full-time employee, but he is doing the kind of work he went to law school to do.

Even if he could confidently compare firms on racial justice, climate change, and LGBTQI rights, Anthony admits it would then be difficult to do much with the information.

For Anthony, Corporate LLP has a lot going for it, both in terms of culture and work. He stresses that the culture of his office is one of respect and meaningful contribution for all the members of the team. “I worked with a partner for the prior two summers and I was getting real work, and so when I started in January my plate was loaded,” he says. Moreover, like Sandra, Anthony stresses that meaning for him relates directly to the professional development that he is gaining and the type of work that he is doing. “I’ve been really fortunate to get meaningful work and to work with great people in the Chicago office. I feel comfortable asking any question—it feels like the partners and I are learning together—and I think the long runway from the two summers had a lot to do with that ease.” He notes that because he joined during the pandemic and has never set foot in the office, the pre-existing relationships that he had were critical to his current success.

At the same time, however, Anthony is considering his longer-term future at the firm and wonders if the time has come for him to move on. “I’m very serious about being in this for the long haul and doubling down on corporate M&A practice,” he says. For many top M&A lawyers, he notes, that entails practicing in firms that focus specifically on that type of work (and does a lot of it), which his current firm, he admits, is not known for. However, he also worries that the meaning he currently derives from this current job—both the culture and the professional development opportunities—may well be missing in other places, partly because it is so hard to assess this from the outside and with any certainty. He explains:

If there were a perfect world, I would be able to take the people that I’m working with and then put in the best M&A practice. That would be the best of both worlds. That’s the dilemma I had while looking at firms going into my 3L—going back to a place where I genuinely like the people versus going somewhere where I just don’t know how the people are going to be and the type of work I will get. But now, I’m at this point where I really do want to go after M&A work and be the best I possibly can be at it—and that may mean leaving.

When asked how he weighed firms’ commitments to societal issues in his search and decision-making, Anthony is quick to say, “not heavily,” but not for lack of caring. “I’m sure firms are doing these things—at least plenty say they are—but it’s very hard to differentiate the extent of their efforts,” he says. Even if he could confidently compare firms on the basis of their efforts in the realms of racial justice, climate change, LGBTQI rights, and so on—something he stresses is hard to do from the get-go—Anthony admits it would then be difficult to do much with the information. He also stresses that the market dynamics matter—even for young lawyers like himself. “I know that some of my classmates were shocked when they were getting denied by some firms when the hiring market wasn’t so hot,” he says. “So, while you don’t want to go to a place that doesn’t take a stance on those things, sometimes your choices are limited.”

With respect to pay, Anthony notes that his decisions are not driven solely by money, but the fact that there is a relatively standardized baseline is a helpful rankable marker (unlike, for instance, culture, which, while critical, is much harder to assess externally). “For me, they’re all sort of paying around the same,” he says. “If my firm didn’t raise their associate salaries, it probably would have been annoying as we all see how well firms are doing, but I wouldn’t leave because of it. It’s the principle.”

Anthony notes that he is beginning to consider other factors that may portend a firm’s philosophy around money and meaning separate from pay. “I recognize that as a first year, a portion of your time is going to be written off—you’re still learning and to an extent that makes sense to me,” he says. “But if you’re in a firm that places a high emphasis on the billable hour, it can be devastating seeing all those hours of hard work where you think you’re adding value just fall off. It’s just not something I want to experience any more than I have to.”

At the end of the day, Anthony says, he wants to do work that is valued and he wants to do it in a way that stretches him and his skillsets. “That’s what meaningful work is for me,” he says. “I’m not just preparing signature pages all day long, but I also get to do so many other cool things that make the month exciting. At the end of the day, I feel like I’m appreciated by those folks I work with. That is the number one thing.”

David: Shifting to find meaning

David is in his 30s and says he is done checking boxes. In the past few years, he has graduated from a prestigious law school, earned an associate position at one of the most reputable firms in his target practice area, and now he is making a move to a new firm for reasons that might never have occurred to him before he was a practicing lawyer.

In law school, David imagined his legal career taking shape around litigation. He summered at a Global 100 firm, New York Corporate LLP, and spent time at another Global 100 firm as well (not to mention substantial internships at firms spread out around the world, from Asia to South America). These experiences gave him a chance to see how a variety of law firms operated and to learn the day-to-day pace of the job. Indeed, David notes that he was willing to cast the net wide as he was considering life after law school. “There was an opportunity at this new firm that started in Country A, there were some things in Country B, there was a lawyer in Country C that I was talking to—all sorts of opportunities to consider,” he says. “All of which would have been lesser paid positions than the U.S. firms I was considering. All would have given me the chance to work very closely with clients and do great work.” When the time came to make a decision, David joined New York Corporate LLP, a top firm in his expected practice area. From his perspective, he was going to learn from those at the top of their game in an environment of professionalism. On paper and through his initial experiences, it seemed the obvious choice.

For David, however, that opportunity failed to materialize. The meaning he was looking for—professional development and substantive work—just wasn’t there. “It was the first job I had, but coming out as a full-time associate, I had a lot of specialized knowledge in this area,” he says. “But when it came to doing the work, I just didn’t feel like I was growing—which is what I wanted.” He explains:

Honestly, I got very good reviews doing very basic things. I was just kind of copying and pasting things into an Excel sheet—hardly even paralegal-level work. Even that would have been fine to me if I could have had kind of a high-level picture of what was happening in the case and how the work that I was doing—even if low level—was actually affecting that.

David admits that the pandemic may have played a role. “Would it have been different if there were weekly meetings in the office and you could go in and chat? Might it have been different if I had signed a 12-month lease in New York? Maybe,” he reflects. “The fact that that didn’t exist may have heightened my tolerance toward the work not feeling meaningful.”

David turned to his mentors and friends for advice and to revisit how they had approached their own paths. He tried to reach out to some partners in his firm, hoping to spark the kind of meaningful work arrangement that he had been looking for, but he found the internal systems arbitrary, bureaucratic, and ultimately unresponsive. “I think that only compounded my frustrations,” he recalls. “I came in believing in the culture that they had sold me on as a summer, and they really did seem to invest in people. Maybe something changed in that time, because what I found was more of a churn-and-burn model where they are just expecting attrition to be part of what’s happening.”

I ultimately switched from litigation to finance work because I believed it would be a chance to learn some things that actually could be transferable in the future.

The way David saw it, he had a few options. One was to tough it out at New York Corporate LLP for a year or two and make the most of it despite not having the meaningful work he was craving. A second option was to make the switch to another Global 100 firm with an equally stealer reputation to do just what he had set out from law school to do. There was, of course, one major caveat: he had heard about an enormous billable hour requirement. Initially David said he wasn’t particularly concerned. “I was talking to some friends who were three years out of law school and, at the time, I wasn’t busy and felt like I could take on anything,” he recollects. He goes on, “And then they said, ‘Wait a second. There is a serious difference between 2,000 hours, 2,200 hours, and the 2,400-plus hours.’” David realized he needed to take his friends’ warnings seriously. He explains:

I thought a lot about what they said and tried to imagine what I would be signing up for. At 2,000 hours it’s manageable—you work some weekends, but it’s manageable and you can have some semblance of an outside life. At 2,200 hours, you’re still busy but you’re beginning to push it. At 2,400 hours, it’s very, very difficult. And 2,400-plus hours is insane. And I had the offer, and talking to some associates, they were telling me they were working something like 3,000 hours a year. Talking to a close friend—he was saying: “I wouldn’t go there because it’s just not going to be sustainable for your life.”

The third option was to take an offer from a firm with a stellar reputation but in a different practice area than he had originally intended to purse, California Corporate LLP. He had gotten to know a partner there, became interested in the finance work he would be doing as part of a small team, and the firm was interested in launching an international office in an area of the world he was drawn to. “It seemed to put everything together, in a sense that the pay was the same and it was a smaller, niche team that I actually could be a core part of because they didn’t really have a lot of juniors,” David says. As he weighed his options, he posed questions like: Who are the people that I’ll be directly working with? What are the team sizes? What are the opportunities? What does the leverage look like at the different firms? What’s the potential for growth?

What mattered to David was the sense of his work being impactful and valued.

In the end, David left New York Corporate LLP for California Corporate LLP. His desire to do more meaningful work, he explains, was a strong enough motivation to shift his focus to an entirely new practice area on the other side of the country. “I ultimately switched from litigation to finance work, which is a 180-degree shift, because I believed it would be a chance to learn some things that actually could be transferable in the future and also fit in with the background and the skills that I had,” he says.

Did the firms’ societal mission play a role in his decision-making along the way? “The way I view it,” he says, “is that these are firms are in business to service certain types of companies.” He goes on, “Firms talk a big game with pro bono, but once you’re really in there and really busy, I don’t know how much scope you have to do pro bono.” Moreover, he adds, “There are plenty of people who don’t go into Big Law to make a career but instead see it as a way to pay off their loans. For those people, I can see how pro bono would be more appealing. For me personally, those kinds of goals, it wasn’t important.” He also notes that it is hard to accurately assess a firm’s commitment to societal issues, whether sustainability or social justice movements, in meaningful ways.

Money calculations only seemed to enter David’s thinking from a particular angle. “Having a baseline when it comes to the money really removes that as a factor,” he says. “And in my own personal situation, I didn’t have a lot of debt to deal with, so that was a plus. I was willing to consider even going international and take a pay cut to stay within the area that I wanted to be in at the time.” It did not occur to David to seek out a firm that had just bumped its associate pay by a few thousand. (For more on associate pay, see “Upping the Ante (Again).”) Yet, just like Sandra and Anthony, David was nonetheless attuned to the wider context of how firms thought about money and business. Indeed, this aspect was a deciding factor in where he chose not to go. He walked away from an offer from a firm that offered him a competitive salary and the chance to do meaningful work in the area that most interested him because its billable hour requirement was just too much, and he surmised that the culture in that firm was thus likely to be equally unappealing.

What mattered to David was the sense of his work being impactful and valued. He was willing to adjust his expectations when it came to prestige—and even practice area—to get benefits like small team collaboration and what felt like meaningful responsibility at an early stage in his career. “I may end up staying in a law firm long term and seeking partnership and all that,” he says. “I may eventually move on. Either way I’m building a set of concrete skills and hard knowledge of a practice area that excites me, and I feel valued doing it.”

Takeaways from the three vignettes

What should we make of Sandra, Anthony, and David’s approaches to money and meaning in working at large law firms? It is clear from across these narratives that their sense of meaning is closely associated with having opportunities for real professional development, doing substantive work, and beginning to learn the concrete skills critical to their long-term growth. Within these broad desires, meaning was more individualized based on, for instance, long-term career aspirations and practice area. (For more on the personal aspects of meaningful work, see “Working out the Meaning of Work.”)

We also probed the extent to which a law firm’s commitment to societal issues was important to the young lawyers. Interestingly, this sort of “meaning” was important in theory, but was tempered by the inability to accurately assess the extent to which firms were actually making real on their promises.

It is also evident that money is at play, but not necessarily in a “highest bidder” manner. Rather, the fact that there is a relatively small, relatively standardized band of salaries offered by the top firms acted as a visible, rankable marker. As long as firms stuck to a relatively common baseline, nonmonetary factors—culture, development opportunities, and the like—mattered more. At the same time, there was a feeling that other “money” aspects, such as billable hour requirements, were important, insofar as they were proxies for a firm’s wider attitude toward its work culture.

Put together, it is clear that understanding how young lawyers conceptualize the money and meaning paradigm is critical—both for the lawyers as they attempt to choose firms to join, as well as to law firms as they position themselves to attract talent. Young lawyers want money and meaning to be calibrated, and they are searching for clear indicators from firms on each as they make their assessment. Firms vying for top talent ought to take notice.