Sector stereotypes can make finding the best fit difficult when it comes to choosing a career path after law school. However, three Michigan Law alumni who are leaders in large law firms returned to campus recently to set students straight about what it means to work in the private sector. From the benefits to the pitfalls, this year's Pogue panelists, Daniel Reidy, '74, Lydia Kelley, '89, and Elizabeth Sharrer, '80, shared a candid conversation with Michigan Law students about the world of Big Law and how to succeed as a young associate.
"There are many good things about Big Law firms that are worth considering," said Reidy, partner at Jones Day in Chicago. He said two myths have discouraged many young lawyers from pursuing a career in Big Law, the first being that it can be hard to make partner at a large law firm. "It is an outdated misconception, especially in these years following the recession. We still need good lawyers, and it's good to aspire to [making partner]," he said.
The second myth Reidy set out to debunk right out of the gate was that people at large firms do not lead fulfilling careers. To prove otherwise, he used himself and his fellow panelists as examples. Reidy discussed his own experience, which began with nearly a decade spent in the U.S. attorney's office for the Northern District of Illinois. "Work life balance will always be a struggle, no matter where you go—private or public sector. However, there are a lot of great things about practicing law at a big firm—cutting edge legal work, top-notch clients, and working on exciting issues with billions of dollars at stake. There are many opportunities for those magical moments that make [the hard work] worthwhile," said Reidy.
Kelley, partner-in-charge of McDermott Will & Emery's Chicago office and chair of the firm's diversity and inclusion initiatives, shared another myth-busting fact about law firms. Most have advanced professional development programs that include mentorships within the firm. Both Kelley and Sharrer, partner and firm chair of Holland & Hart LLP in Denver, encouraged students to seek out firms with such programs and take advantage of them—they are great launching points for professional networks.
As a rule of thumb for every new lawyer, Kelley and Sharrer also recommended students seek out mentors both in and outside of the organization. The easiest way is reaching out to co-workers you already have a connection with, like other Michigan Law alumni. There are Wolverines at every noteworthy firm who would be happy to share their experiences and offer advice, said Sharrer. "Just look around. One of the people sitting in this room might be your mentor someday," added Kelley.
For students aspiring to become partners, panelists listed the qualities of a star associate on the right track. Both Kelley and Reidy stressed the importance of taking control of your work and career by thinking like an owner. Reidy said, "The best lawyers and the best partners at a firm are really busy people who will love you if you make their life better. And you make their lives better by taking ownership, getting it done really well, and paying attention to detail."
Law is a relationship business, and people skills are essential, added Sharrer. "Interacting, listening, being respectful, having some things to talk about outside of the law: these things matter a lot."
To this point, Sharrer discussed another aspect of firm life that is not often considered by incoming associates: the business of Big Law. She explained that while the business model for firms was basically unchanged for many years, recent developments in technology and information access have changed that. This unstable environment is an opportunity for the younger generation of lawyers to showcase their skills and knowledge base outside of the law. "It is a much more 'client in the driver's seat' business than it used to be. Every law firm in the country is feeling that change in one way or another," said Sharrer. "What you can bring to those issues is an understanding of what technology can do—which law firms are only just now starting to figure out—to change the way processes work to automate things for clients. To look at every matter and think of how we can do it better, more efficiently, and cheaper."
Reidy concluded by reminding students that their Michigan Law training can be leveraged in many ways. "When you come out of a place like this, you have an amazing skillset and you can take it in 10,000 directions," he said. "It would be foolish to not be open to making a career in Big Law. The training is amazing, there are amazing people there, and you have a big perch from which you can do great things."
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