The billable hour, the prevalence of sh*twork, why Biglaw associates are so unhappy, and the existence of "unicorn jobs"
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why Biglaw is such a miserable experience for most associates. There probably are lots of different sources. But at the end of the day I believe that the business model of law firms—specifically its reliance on the billable hour—is creating all this misery. Specifically it’s generating a lot of demand for what I call sh*twork. And thinking about all this led me to realize that there’s a way to escape this madness. It’s by finding a unicorn job.
Apologies for the stream of consciousness, I will probably have to organize my thoughts in a more coherent way some time in the future. But these concepts will probably make it into the book I’m working on about career pivots and my experience making the move from law to tech.
Here we go.
The impact of the billable hour model
If you generate revenue based on the number of hours worked, you’re going to have an incentive to have your people work lots of hours. The problem is, there’s an upper limit to how much you can inflate hours. For example, if you’re responsible for a hearing, and it lasts an hour, then it’s kind of hard to bill your client for anything more than an hour.
At some point in time, someone figured out that “preparation” enables you to bill an unlimited number of hours. The cap is gone. There’s also no theoretical limit to how many hours you can invest into preparation. The most clever lawyers can come up with all sorts of possibilities which means they can justify lots of work to prepare for those possibilities.
It gets even crazier as leverage—the ratio of associates to partners—increases. If it’s only one lawyer preparing for the hearing, it’s pretty straightforward. But if you have an associate, a counsel, and a partner, there’s probably going to be some inefficiency. You’ll need meetings and phone calls to transfer information, and more time spent resolving disagreements.
The upshot is that you can now bill extra hours for all this work, summarizing of work, and interpersonal communications. It’s likely that two or more team members do duplicative work because. All this time will be billed to the client.
The demand for sh*twork
The biggest surprise to me as a young associate was how much time I spent doing tedious, annoying tasks, like reviewing documents, checking for typos, or building chronologies. I’ll call it sh*twork. I get why sh*twork needs to be done but it’s not why I went to law school. What I didn’t understand then, that I do now, is that there’s virtually unlimited demand for sh*twork.
Every legal matter only has a limited amount of “real work” that needs to be done by a lawyer. Like prepare witnesses for depositions, come up with arguments for your case, or actually going to trial. So the demand for “real work” is quite limited. Especially compared to sh*twork.
That’s because you can justify an unlimited amount of sh*twork for any given matter. The more sh*twork you generate, the more money the firm makes. That’s how you end up in a situation where a bunch of junior associates run around building charts, reviewing documents, or my personal favorite—checking documents for typos and formatting issues. None of these things have a real impact on the case.
This whole sh*twork phenomenon explains a lot of the weirdness about Biglaw, like why they hire students with zero practical legal experience. Biglaw doesn’t need actual lawyers to be their associates. They just need people who can do sh*twork without complaining.
All this is magnified in Biglaw
I don’t think sh*twork is limited to the law firms, or the legal industry. Lots of organizations have sh*twork and force juniors to do manual, tedious tasks. I do believe though, that Biglaw encourages the *most* amount of sh*twork among its employees. To do that, I’ll first describe how Biglaw—the world’s largest firms—actually make money.
Large, prestigious firms offer a premium service—top shelf legal advice—that’s perceived to be differentiated from other ostensibly average firms. Generally though, clients can't actually tell the difference between high quality legal advice and low quality legal advice.So they rely on proxies for quality. Like lack of typos in the work product, how quickly their emails get responded to, or the backgrounds of the lawyers.
This last one is really interesting to me. Biglaw tends to only hire from the best law schools in the country. We don’t actually know if graduates of these schools are actually better lawyers. What we do know is that they have better college grades (which suggests that they work harder than average) and better LSAT scores (which suggests that they’re smarter than average.)
These smart and hardworking students go on to become lawyer at Biglaw firms. There, they get exposed to sh*twork and then at some point, begin to buy into the fact that sh*twork is a virtue in and of itself. They celebrate attention to detail in all the places that don’t matter. They start to lose sight of the fact that they’re not actually producing good work product—they’re just producing *clean* work product.
There’s a big difference between the two. The first time I realized all this was when I read a motion from a non-Biglaw firm in an employment case. The motion was poorly drafted, with typos everywhere, with formatting issues everywhere. Their opponent was a Biglaw firm with a clean, typo-free brief. And yet to my surprise, the non-Biglaw firm won the motion. That experience made me realize that the things Biglaw focuses on are all proxies for quality. All that sh*twork, especially typo and formatting cleanup, is just a way to trick clients into believing that the underlying brief is good.
And there’s an enormous amount of demand within the firm, for someone to do it.
Why associates are miserable?
That “someone” is going to be an associate. The more junior the associate, the more sh*tty the sh*twork is going to be. I don’t believe this comes as a surprise to anyone who’s ever worked in Biglaw, or any professional services firm, really.
What I find most interesting though, is how much those who are exploited buy into the system. It’s not just supervisors forcing juniors to do sh*twork against their will. The juniors are like … into it. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why that happens, and I think it all comes from two different but related sources:
Belief that sh*twork will help develop you as a lawyer. There are lots of manual, tedious tasks that do actually help train you for higher level tasks. In moderation, creating chronologies or reviewing docs for privilege does actually help you prepare to litigate a case. But Biglaw isn’t into moderation-they need people to continue doing sh*twork. So the senior lawyers perpetuate this myth that sh*twork is actually valuable. They say things like “this will train you to pay attention to detail.” You can tell that they know it’s a myth because behind closed doors, the conversations around sh*twork will never be about training—they’ll always be about “paying your dues” or “if I went through it, so should they.”
Juniors are rule followers who prefer to do what they’re told. Remember how I explained why Biglaw hires only from the top schools? That also explains why most junior lawyers never push back on sh*twork. If you graduated from a top law school, you likely followed the “rules of the game” in college, which is how you got good enough grades and recommendations from your professors. If you did well in law school, you probably also followed the “rules of the game” there. Biglaw hiring (and much of other “elite” firm hiring) selects for people who have always followed “the rules of the game” without question.
I believe that the ultimate source of misery is the dissonance young associates (and hell, even senior associates & some junior partners) feel. On the one hand, they’ve done well in school all their life, and made it to the “promised” land at a prestigious employer. And yet following the “rules of the game” at this stage doesn’t lead to success. These are smart, brilliant employees, who would happily work insanely hard if it helped them get to where they want to be.
Instead they are viewed as sh*twork processors. They develop no real skills that are valuable to the market. Which mean there’s no escape, really. Meanwhile, they’ve become addicted to the steady paycheck and respect from the outside world. So they end up staying, far longer than they would have liked.
Is there a way out?
There is. A very small number of people at Biglaw firms have “unicorn jobs” where the nature of what they do cannot be replicated by others. They are key employees that cannot be replaced. Here are some patterns about these “key employees” that I’ve noticed over time:
They’re known by name vs. by their job title. Most partners are referred to as “that partner in M&A / litigation / etc.” But if you have a unicorn job, you’re likely referred to by name, and often just by your first name. Incidentally many of these key employees are rainmakers and industry veterans with a personal brand.
They do Real Work. In Biglaw that means they’re the ones counseling the client directly on a major transaction. Or they’re the ones who are leading the trial team. There are elements to their work that cannot be delegated. For example, if a major Fortune 500 client hired one of these key partners for a bet the company matter, they’re not going to be OK with him/her delegating that work to another partner, no matter how competent they seem.
They get even better at their specialty over time. The fact that their work cannot be delegated means that they will always be funneled to do high quality work. So as time goes on, they keep getting better at that specialty, and at some point their competitive advantage over others in the market becomes dominant. Which further secures their position within their firm.
I want to make sure that you understand that “key employees” with these unicorn jobs are extremely rare. I’m not talking about someone who made equity partner, who earns millions of dollars a year. There are lots of highly paid employees who do not have unicorn jobs, and actually their lives are incredibly stressful. Because to continue to justify their pay, they have to engage in politics, maneuvering, sh*twork, and other games. It can be lucrative but they live unenviable lives.
Unicorn jobs exist at all types of organizations. At the end of the day it’s all about supply and demand. A smart kid with the right educational pedigree is actually not that rare. But if you’re someone with expertise on something that can have a major economic impact to a company/firm, you’re gonna have a very different experience than our hypothetical “smart kid.” Because that’s super rare.
That’s ultimately the secret sauce. You need to develop expertise around a valuable skill. And then create a monopoly around it.
I’ll write more about all this soon.
If you want to me to send you my next essay about unicorn jobs, sign up here:
Please share your feedback! I’m still organizing my thoughts on these concepts and they will definitely play a big part in my book when it ultimately gets published. Feel free to suggest exceptions, or if you disagree with anything I’ve said.
I know that a lot of time gets “marked down” by the firm. But that doesn’t change the fact that there (1) is still an incentive to bill more hours and (2) much of the work won’t get marked down.
There are some exceptions to this. For example, Wachtell Lipton probably delivers better M&A advice than a Biglaw firm that rarely handles big transactions. But those examples are few and far between.
You’ll probably have to quit your job—whether it’s in Biglaw or elsewhere—to find your personal monopoly and unicorn job. The competition for “real work” is just too fierce within a large corporate bureaucracy. Having said that I do think there are some people who are able to rise above it all. These are people who generally fit into the organization culturally (which often means you look a certain way, or come from a specific kind of background) and are good at corporate politics. Other than these exceptions, generally you have to leave, and very often go off the beaten path to develop some expertise. I’m still organizing my own thoughts on this.
I really appreciate this blog and especially this post. I am in my third year of law school, going part time, and I am trying to avoid some of these traps that you write about. I am thinking about focusing on Patent Litigation, do you think it is a unicorn job?
This article is such a breath of fresh air.