Career Satisfaction – Secondment vs. Big Law

When I was in Law School during the 90’s, there was fierce competition among the brightest and hardest working students to graduate with the title ‘summa cum lade’. Only the best academically were in the running for the highest salaries at the biggest law firms.

These dedicated students did not seem discouraged by the long hours they knew would be required of them if they were successful in securing employment with a large and prestigious law firm. They wanted the financial gain and status of working for a heavy weight.

Sometime after I graduated law school the term ‘Big Law’ came into use as a reference to these juggernaut firms. The demands of becoming summa cum lade are no different than working in Big Law. Both require extreme dedication – and extreme work or study hours.

According to Yale Law School, most firms require lawyers to work between 1,700 and 2,300 billable hours per year.  Greater demands are placed on lawyers in Big Law than in smaller and more rural firms. At the upper end of billable hour quota spectrum BigLaw firms are requiring lawyers to bill 46 hours per week if you factor in a two-week vacation.

Anyone who has worked billable hours as a lawyer knows that an attorney generally cannot charge for all the time he spends in the office. Some might say an attorney can realistically expect to charge for 3 out of every 4 hours worked in the office during a day without any major interruptions. That makes a 57.5 hour work-week not including time for things like continued legal education, pro bono work, writing articles, staff meetings, and long lunches.

The trade-off is an entry level Big Law annual salary may be $160,000 in larger cities. If an associate can maintain the breakneck pace for a number of years, partnership is a possibility. With those kinds of demands, not every law student is bent on being summa cum lade so they can have a shot at Big Law.

There’s also attorneys who pursue Big Law for neither financial gain, nor prestige.  Some attorney’s may endeavour in Big Law for idealistic reasons. Many of the great contributors to American jurisprudence successfully climbed the Big Law associate ladder. These law firm institutions are the most connected and powerful. Several modern U.S. Presidents and many famous politicians worked in Big Law. An attorney with a strong desire to leave a mark or have an impact in the private law sector may passionately pursue a career in Big Law.

Judging by a 2013 study, happy attorneys driven by passion, or satisfied work horse lawyers, are in the minority. Fordes Magazine cites a study by the organization CareerBliss which ranked the happiest and unhappiest jobs in America based on the following factors: relationship with the boss and co-workers, work environment, job resources, compensation, growth opportunities, company culture, company reputation, daily tasks, and control over the work one does on a daily basis. 

CareerBliss ranked “associate attorney” as the unhappiest job in America.  “Associate attorneys stated they felt most unhappy with their company culture. In many cases, law firms are conducted in a structured environment that is heavily centered on billable hours. It may take several years for an associate attorney to rise to the rank of partner. People in this position rated the way they work and the rewards they receive lower than any other industry.”

Unlike money, it is difficult to measure the value of the prestige of belonging to a Big Law organization. For some it is the highest pinnacle of achievement. It seems that many of those successful in Big Law are hard-wired to withstand long stretches of 12-hour work days. For them Big Law may be their ticket to happiness. The CareerBliss job happiness study, however, might cause some law students to reconsider the pursuit of a career in the Big Law pressure cooker.

I recall during law school an associate position in a large and prestigious law firm was the crème de le crème career path. After spending several years in the legal industry as a solo litigator I started thinking my inhouse counsel colleagues had the best gigs. Their pay was very good, and their work-life balance seemed the best in the business. These lawyers were working from 9 to 5 and never on weekends.

In 2009 I was a decade into my legal career and fed up with the billable hour game. I moved to Perth, Western Australia, and was certified as a lawyer after a year of study. I found inhouse work as a contracts specialist building mega-projects in the resource industry. While living in Australia I learned about ‘Secondment Law,’ also spelled ‘SecondmentLaw’

The noun “secondment” comes from the U.K.’s military describing the temporary reassignment of an officer from his regiment to some other extra-regimental appointment. In the legal industry Secondment Law is the placement of a lawyer in a client’s business to perform as, or alongside, inhouse counsel. The attorney is ‘seconded’ for a set duration and the secondment firm is paid on a fixed weekly or monthly rate. That means no billable hours and lawyers go home at 5:00 p.m.

Secondment Law first took hold in the U.K. and has been growing in Australia, Singapore, Germany, and more recently larger cities in the United States. We believe InSource Law is the first Secondment Law firm in Nevada

The income level among secondment attorneys varies widely and generally falls below that of Big Law lawyers. The nature of secondment work is diverse and the seconded attorney’s income should reflect the lawyer’s experience, ability, complexity of work, and market factors. Also, assignments are of varied duration, so attorneys may experience some down time when working in Secondment Law. Part time work is also common.

Then there are other comparison factors including work-life balance. I am not aware of any studies assessing job satisfaction among seconded lawyers. If the CareerBliss findings accurately portray reality, and associate lawyers really are the unhappiest employees in America, lawyers and law students who value a work-life balance over prestige and income would better serve themselves by considering Secondment Law as a career alternative.

What we do know about secondment attorneys can be read in a growing body of online articles. Here’s some of the stuff I’ve read:

  • Seconded attorneys develop strong attorney client relationships as they work directly with the client’s project team.
  • A deeper understanding of client business operations and needs are gained through secondment.
  • Secondment is becoming popular among mothers re-entering the practice of law following maternity.
  • Senior lawyers who do not wish to fully retire can find flexible assignments and share their expertise.
  • Lawyers who value a work-life balance enjoy the flexibility and certainty of the secondment law work schedule.
  • Secondment can be a solution for resume gaps.
  • Secondment attorneys feel more appreciated by their client.
  • Clients were better able to produce discovery in complex litigation with the help of a seconded attorney.
  • Fee disputes are reduced when the client observes the attorney at work.
  • Clients are better able to comply with attorney directions and recommendations when working alongside their lawyer.
  •  Attorneys felt as if they were part of the client team and enjoyed working with a more diverse group.
  • Attorney’s learned more about industries and real-world business structures and procedure.
  • For some attorney’s secondment opens the door for permanent inhouse counsel positions.

Like a business, individuals should make decisions based on their core values. For those who value prestige, a large salary, and like the law firm work atmosphere, Big Law associate attorney may be the most satisfying work. My core values, however, are weighted in favour of a better work-life balance. Also, I value personal contribution and am enjoying being part of the Secondment Law movement as it benefits clients and lawyers.

So, under this short comparison between Big Law and Secondment Law, which career path is the winner? For me the answer is clear. I encourage attorneys about to enter the practice of law, or those who are considering a change, to consider alternatives like Secondment Law and seek a career path that reflects one’s personal values.

Kevin Walsh

Lead Attorney & Owner

1Source Law LLC





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