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Stop Selling Yourself Short: Are You One of BigLaw's Grinders with Blinders?

It's time to reimagine your BigLaw career

In our experience, BigLaw attorneys generally fall into three categories: the True Believers, the Disenchanted and the In-Betweeners. The so-called True Believers are those who live and breathe BigLaw. They see mega IPOs and bet-the-company lawsuits not primarily as stress-inducing situations, but as thrill-seeking opportunities. For the True Believer, a weekend of quiet relaxation means reading up on market trends. A night out with friends means networking cocktails with like-minded professionals. A vacation means a few days in a city hosting an industry-sponsored conference. True Believers have no desire to ‘turn it off.’ They are in it for more than just the money: the high-stakes matters are so exciting to a True Believer that he or she would probably stay in BigLaw even if it only paid half as much. Naturally, there aren’t too many True Believers in our industry. It’s simply far too stressful of a job, and most of us are willing to subject ourselves to this much stress primarily, if not entirely, because of the correspondingly high compensation.

The second group of BigLaw attorneys are the so-called Disenchanted. The Disenchanted are those who can clearly see that there is no long-term path for them in BigLaw, and are in it only for the resume line or to achieve a certain financial milestone (e.g., pay off their student loans or save for a downpayment). Every bit as intelligent and driven as their True-Believing peers, the Disenchanted may simply find the time demands of BigLaw unreasonable, or the often-austere BigLaw structure suffocating. The Disenchanted may not want to wait another 5-10 years before getting the opportunity to appear in court on behalf of their clients. Or their hearts may steer them towards less lucrative practice areas that prioritize issues of social justice. Whatever their reasons, some know they’re Disenchanted from the outset, while others only reach this realization after the adrenaline rush of their junior associate years runs dry. Either way, the Disenchanted know that they have an expiration date, and count the days until they hit their milestone so they can get out.

The truth is that the vast majority of BigLaw attorneys are neither fully True Believers nor totally Disenchanted, but lie somewhere on the spectrum in between. We ourselves are In-Betweeners, having experienced both the highs and lows of BigLaw over the years. There’s so much that we like about BigLaw, but also plenty to dislike. At times it is rewarding, and at other times it is dull. We have witnessed both heartwarming displays of kindness and cringeworthy displays of callousness. We have worked for both reasonable clients and unreasonable ones. Life and work in BigLaw is, for most BigLaw attorneys, like the opening lines from A Tale of Two Cities: 'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us….’ Over the course of many years in BigLaw, we have felt both happy and sad, both fulfilled and unfulfilled, both fortunate and unfortunate. Most BigLaw attorneys, if they are being truthful, will tell you that they have felt emotions at both ends of the spectrum too.

While there is nothing inherently wrong with being an In-Betweener (and intellectual honesty will compel most BigLaw attorneys to admit that they are just that), we know from personal experience that life as an In-Betweener can be perilous. Why? Because absent clearly defined goals and strategies, you lack direction and purpose. The True Believers and the Disenchanted at least know what they want. But you? You’re not sure of much of anything. Do you double down? Or do you throw in the towel? Your answer to that question changes every month or every matter. Unlike the True Believers, professional success in BigLaw will not be enough to provide you with a fulfilling life and, unlike the Disenchanted, you’re also not so disillusioned with BigLaw to the point that you will take aggressive and proactive action to improve your situation. If you’re not careful, you’ll become one of BigLaw’s many Grinders with Blinders.


‘As soon as I wrap up this deal, I’m going to update my LinkedIn and do some interviews,’ a loyal Grinder said one Wednesday afternoon. She hadn’t left the office since Monday morning, having spent the last two nights in a sleeping bag under her desk. She kept a toothbrush and change of clothes in her office for just such occasions. ‘No way am I going to stay here until I’m a senior associate.’ But the Grinder was working for busy partners, who were working for busy clients. The busy deal stayed busy for weeks. And when one busy deal closed, another busy deal opened. Some were better than others. March became April. April became May. One year ended. Another began. Fast forward seven years and, while the Grinder’s job title may have changed, her job description hasn’t. She still hasn’t found the time to update her LinkedIn profile or interview, but she has made peace with her situation.

‘I’m not interested in partnership. It’s far too much work,’ another talented Grinder once proclaimed. ‘I have a great life already. My wife and I go to all the new restaurants. We had front row seats when LeBron was in town. We take amazing trips to Europe and South America. I want to have enough time to do all this stuff.’ But the Grinder kept working on high-stakes matters and kept getting excellent reviews, so he kept right on grinding. Years later, he was elevated to partnership. ‘The Elders were pleased with my work and they really encouraged me to pursue partnership,’ he would explain. ‘Since I was already doing partner-level work, I think I had to throw my hat in the ring.’ Now there’s a lot more income, but a lot less time for fine dining and front-row seats, and it’s been at least two years since he’s taken a vacation. Did he get what he wanted? No matter—there’s no time to think about that now.


The thing about BigLaw is, it’s far too easy to end up chugging along year after year, living a life that you did not intentionally choose. Neither wholly satisfied nor dissatisfied, the Grinders with Blinders may look back years later and wonder, ‘How exactly did I get here?’ If that’s you, then it’s time to stop selling yourself short.

Because, bottom line, if you are giving all your time to something that you are not truly passionate about—whether you’re an associate, counsel or even a partner—then you are selling yourself short.

As a BigLaw In-Betweener, being honest with yourself means acknowledging that your true passion isn’t BigLaw. If it were, you’d be a True Believer. In our work-first society that glorifies individuals who are intensely passionate about their jobs, admitting that your BigLaw job is not your true passion can feel like a personal failure. But that's nonsense—being honest with yourself isn’t a failure at all. Failure is giving up on your real goals and dreams. In fact, acknowledging to yourself that BigLaw is not your true passion can actually be incredibly freeing, allowing you to begin the process of reflecting on what your true passions really are, and thinking about whether BigLaw can help you build a path to get there.

If you have a strategy for how you’re going to use BigLaw to get what you really want, then it’s okay to be an In-Betweener. We remain firmly in that category today! We've leveraged our BigLaw careers to get what we wanted, which was a path to financial independence and significant amounts of personal time to hike and photograph the wildlife paradise that is the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. And so it works for us. What’s not okay is to be one of the Grinders who are too busy to come up with a better plan for themselves or are too blinded by praise and prestige to notice that they’re unwittingly living a life not of their own choosing.

These days, the one-size-fits-all career path is dead. It’s simply unacceptable to thoughtlessly coast through your BigLaw career while not actively working towards an extraordinary life. You owe it to yourself to introspect, get a plan and stop selling yourself short.

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