The Basics of Being a BigLaw Associate

Lawyers Examining Documents in Court

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For many law students, a job in a large law firm (“BigLaw”) is the holy grail, the dream job, the “how you’ll know you’ve arrived” experience. But is working in BigLaw all it’s cracked up to be? What do large law firm associates do all day, anyway? Are the hours worth the money? Let’s break it down.

What Do BigLaw Associates Earn?

It’s true that BigLaw associates make a very respectable living, particularly outside of high-cost-of-living areas such as New York City or San Francisco. Starting salaries for incoming first-year associates are $160,000 plus bonuses, which vary by year.

But most BigLaw associates work hard for that money. At many firms, associates are expected to bill (not work, but bill) at least 2,000 hours per year. In addition to the long hours, associates are “on call” at all times which makes booking vacations, attending family dinners, or even trips to the gym unpredictable at best!

What Do BigLaw Associates Do?

What are BigLaw associates doing in all of their time in the office? In the early years, most associates support more senior associates and partners and typically do a decent amount of grunt work. (Although this is changing as clients increasingly refuse to pay for first and second-year associates and legal process outsourcers take over routine document review tasks.)

As a first or second-year litigation associate, you might be asked to review documents in response to document requests from opposing counsel to see if they’re responsive to the request and to see if any privilege applies. Contract attorneys will often do the first level of review (or a computer), so you might be tasked with doing a second-level review, essentially to check the work of the first-level reviewer. This work is notoriously tedious, but it is a good way to meet your billable hour quota!

Litigation associates in the early years will also prepare responses to other types of discovery requests, such as interrogatories and requests for admission and they’ll review discovery responses from the other side. They might also coordinate and help supervise the work of outside experts, helping them understand the case and write the necessary expert reports. And, if the case involves depositions, young associates will often prepare the more senior attorney who takes or defends the deposition, drafting potential questions and preparing binders of useful information to bring the deposing attorney up to speed. (In many cases, they’ll also help prep the witness, since they’re closer to the case and have a better sense of what’s likely to be asked.)

In general, the role of a young associate is to be the eyes and ears of more senior attorneys, digging into the facts of the case and getting everyone the information they need to evaluate which legal arguments should be made adequately. As young attorneys progress, they’ll gradually be tasked with more complicated tasks, including legal research and drafting memos to the court.

On the corporate side, the situation is similar. As a very junior BigLaw associate, you might spend much of your time doing due diligence, which is document review in a corporate context. Here you’ll be looking to make sure the documents underlying a transaction support the numbers in the deal. You might also be responsible for assembling and checking all the documents in a deal, a critical task in a world where one misplaced comma can mean millions of dollars! As you progress, you’ll take on more responsibility for negotiating the actual terms of the deal, leaving more junior folks to handle the minutia. 

Working as a BigLaw associate is demanding, and much of the early work can be tedious. But, it pays well and looks good on a resume, so law students are still lining up for the jobs!