I met Debra Snider on Twitter in a conversation about women & large law firms.  That conversation led to a spirited email discussion, which we’ve broken down into four blog posts.

After a distinguished 21-year legal and business career, Debra became an author and speaker.  As a lawyer, she handled corporate and securities transactions for two large law firms and a real estate syndication company, then was Executive Vice President, General Counsel & Chief Administrative Officer at a $20 billion publicly held commercial finance company.  Thus, she has the perspective of someone who has been an associate at a large firm, an in-house staff lawyer with management responsibilities, a partner at a large law firm, and a client of many law firms, large and small.

Debra is the author of the well-received novel A Merger of Equals, which is set in the business world.  She has also published two business books: The Productive Culture Blueprint (an American Bar Association Career Resource Center publication that offers a blueprint, complete with case study, checklists and other practical tools and tips, for building sustainable strategic productivity into the in-house law department and enduring, effective relationships with outside law firms); and Working Easier, an organizational design toolkit.  Debra’s website is loaded with free career and other resources in addition to more information about her books, her background and her popular speaking topics.

Ron: I was not expecting this from you: “IMO training, opportunity, career development & networking far better in BigLaw, even with all its shortcomings.”

I have been advising lawyers for 25 yrs. Many of them were making a transition from BigLaw. During that time I heard so many stories of dissatisfaction (long hours, boredom, abuse, no training, no feedback, no responsibility, no creativity) that it led me to believe there was NO value to the experience in BigLaw.  Do you think that in BigLaw over the last 10 years (and especially now) there has been (will be) training, opportunity, career development and networking?

Debra: I absolutely believe there is superior training, opportunity, career development and networking in large law firms.  There is a great deal that those firms can and should be doing differently for both themselves and their clients, but they continue to be the places offering the best concentration of sophisticated legal work and fine legal minds.

Ron:  I wonder how that can be verified.

Debra: I thought this was self-evident, but since you ask, I’ll give you my thinking.  I believe that good lawyers are characterized by the kind of judgment and knowledge that comes from exposure to and experience with a variety of matters for a variety of clients in a variety of industries, all supervised in the early years and informed in later years by a variety of experienced lawyers, whether senior associates or partners.  The breadth of the experiences is as important as the depth.  A volume shop is – in my opinion and based on my experiences as a rookie, an associate, a partner, and a client – the best place to find and take advantage of the necessary variety.  There are no doubt fine legal minds working on sophisticated legal matters outside large law firms, but the concentration of these in the large law firm context offers the variety of exposure and experience that is essential to developing breadth, depth and judgment quickly.  (More on all this below.)

Ron: Do you truly believe that the generic graduate of BigLawSchool who has taken a position with BigLaw is exposed to a “variety of clients” and receives a “variety of practical experiences”? I don’t think so!!

Debra:  Then you are mistaken or misinformed.  I’ll repeat – that experience and exposure are there for the taking. If the generic graduate does not find them, he is not looking.  Why on earth would big law firms hire and pay outlandish salaries to newbies if they had no intent to use them?  It defies logic to suggest they are merely evil cabals designed to turn innocents from public interest practice for no good business reason.

In my opinion and based on my experiences, and given my belief that concentration and variety of matters are the hallmark of practical lawyer training, the evidence in favor of BigLaw as an obvious and proven place to gain the exposure necessary to become a good lawyer is overwhelming, both as a fact and in theory.  The easiest place to find concentration and variety is a volume shop that considers it a responsibility to hire, train, and make money from new lawyers, and is betting the health of its long-term business on doing so.  Do you honestly think garden-variety nonprofits have the money, the interest, the responsibility or the ability to hire and train lawyers? Or, for that matter, do solo practitioners as a rule?

Ron:  I usually point out to clients the website of a friend who used to be with Proskauer who, for the last 30 years in a firm of 4 lawyers handles complex litigation.  I have also read stories over the years about the excellent legal work performed by a small group of lawyers who have left BigLaw for autonomy, higher income, more flexibility, etc.

Debra: I have no problem with small or solo practice as the second phase of a career.  I, too, know many such practitioners and they are terrific – thanks, I believe, to what their BigLaw training and experience added to their innate intelligence and skills.  Remember that I was a General Counsel, as well as a BigLaw associate and partner, so my experience is based not only on my own training, but also on my work with outside firms as their client.  While big firms were the best choices for labor-intensive matters that required a lot of lower-cost associates and paralegals to get the job done effectively and efficiently, “refugee firms,” as we called the smaller outfits comprised of former BigLaw partners, did an excellent job for us on various other, equally complex, but less labor-intensive matters.

Our original conversation, however, was about lawyers going into small or solo practices right out of law school.  I can’t imagine any client willing to hire such a newbie solo practitioner, no matter how intelligent, for any matter of consequence – business or personal.  A small firm populated by recent grads would be equally incompetent.

Ron:  I have two reactions.  The first is that the small firms that were formed from those who left BigLaw might be places where the training and opportunities for growth might be better.  While you make a good point about the difficulties or starting out as a solo, these small firms might be a far better option than a BigLaw firm.

Debra: If the partners in these small firms were committed to training rookie lawyers, and the firms had both the necessary variety of work and the time and the money to allocate to training, they would be wonderful options.  Some of them may well be, although the ones I know of haven’t considered this approach to be economically feasible from the standpoint of the firm.  They have operated in this regard the way my law department at Heller operated.  We realized it was neither cost-effective nor appropriate from a corporate financial point of view for us to allocate Heller resources (dollars and staff time) to training new lawyers when we could easily hire experienced ones who could not only hit the ground running, but also bring with them knowledge of other clients and businesses.

As far as I know, there is nothing stopping small law firms that want to take on the responsibility for training rookie lawyers from recruiting them out of law schools.  If you’re right that law students are aching for alternatives to BigLaw, these firms ought to do very well at law schools, even if they do have to offer reduced salaries.

Ron: Second, there are a number of areas of law and representation which are not the province of BigLaw such as plaintiffs in personal injury matters, tenants and cases against large corporations. Lawyers who want to represent these clients have no option of working for BigLaw. Those with claims in these areas have no option of being represented by BigLaw. The lawyer will either start on his own or work with and for a small firm. There is no evidence that any BigLaw lawyer is more competent to handle a police misconduct case than Michael Avery who has for his career been a solo or small firm lawyer. I could with a little research name hundreds of competent capable lawyers who have started out on their own or with one or two others.

Debra:  I’m sure you can.  But would you have hired any of them to represent you or any other client on Day 1 out of law school?  Surely not.  Lawyers who want to represent clients in the kind of matters you enumerate above have to be trained somewhere. Unsupervised on the job training is unfair to clients and probably unethical.  The problem with solo and small practices – and I agree that this is a societal problem – is that they rarely have the interest or the wherewithal to train rookies.  BigLaw won’t train rookies specifically in these matters, but it may still be a viable option for 2-3 years, in that it will offer rookies the exposure and experience necessary to become able to think and operate like lawyers – not to mention giving them the paychecks that will allow them to reduce their debt burden and make it easier for them to step out on their own when they feel ready.  And, moreover, why not let small, solo and public interest outfits benefit from BigLaw’s training nickel?

Perhaps you feel differently, but I would never entrust an important personal matter to an untrained lawyer.  If I were to get divorced, I’d want you, not some kid who’s handled only a few cases.  And I’m not looking only for depth of experience when I engage a lawyer; I’m also looking for breadth of experience.  For instance, I’ve had huge problems even with experienced lawyers on residential real estate matters.  The work these lawyers do has been routinized – which is good because it keeps costs low – but they only know how to do what they do all the time, and even then only if it fits the mold.  For the 1-2 out of 10 situations that presented an unusual issue or otherwise didn’t fit the routine, they were lost.  Absolutely lost.  I had far more ability to puzzle out the solutions than they did even though they had vastly more residential real estate experience.

Honestly, I don’t think we have much disagreement here.  A good, experienced, thoughtful lawyer is just that regardless of how he or she got there.  The issue we’re discussing is how best (most effectively and efficiently) to get lawyers there.

Ron:  Let’s go back to that.  I don’t know what you mean when you say that BigLaw is THE place where lawyers develop “the necessary judgment, perspective and experience.”  Many of my clients have given me a different picture of life as an associate and junior partner at BigLaw, one that allows for very little decision-making authority, no room for creativity, no autonomy, no meaningful responsibility.

Debra:  The necessary training is there for the taking at big law firms.  Perhaps we have a different definition of how lawyers are trained.  In my opinion, training does not start with creativity, autonomy or decision-making.  It’s also not about seminars, writing programs and other continuations of impractical law school tactics, although those do sometimes exist (and are typically ridiculed by associates) at big law firms.

Training starts with exposure, experience and responsibility.  Any BigLaw associate who’s told you he had no meaningful responsibility has no clue what meaningful responsibility is for a rookie.  Let me give you an example.  One of the tasks I had as a corporate and securities newbie was due diligence.  It was my responsibility, for example, to review and schedule a company’s loan agreements.  It would certainly have been possible to treat this job as a secretarial one and simply put factoids like loan amount, maturity date, collateral and the like into the little boxes for them on the schedule.  Instead, I used the opportunity to see how loan agreements were constructed, how one differed from another depending on the lender or the collateral or the loan purpose, how the covenants and notice and indemnification provisions worked, etc.  I asked my colleagues questions about the why’s behind all this paper and verbiage.  I used my brain and the brains around me to turn this work into the learning opportunity it surely was.

Two points here: first, the opportunity was mine to recognize and take, not someone else’s to highlight for me; second, many, many of the senior associates and partners I worked with did, in fact, highlight learning opportunities and happily made themselves available to help me learn and grow.  I did the same for every associate I ever worked with.  Within a year or two of approaching my “secretarial due diligence” tasks this way, I had plenty of client contact, decision-making authority, autonomy and room for creativity.  I was by no means alone or unusual in this regard.

One of the problems refugees from big firms suffer is, I think, a lack of understanding about how one goes about succeeding in that environment.  One of my partners used to say, “If they need help, they’re not good enough.”  That’s obviously overstated, but it is reflective of a general attitude, and too many of the post-1985 or so law grads I saw, both as Hiring Partner and as a deal lawyer in the Corporate Department, were oddly passive about their own careers.  They seemed to expect a rewarding career to be delivered to their desks.  They had trouble with the truth that a rewarding career is something we must each identify and pursue for ourself.

Large law firms do not coddle.  Someone seeking to succeed needs to understand that the rules of the game require taking initiative, figuring out what kind of work he or she wants to do & going after pertinent assignments, demonstrating genuine interest in learning the craft, getting involved in recruiting and pro bono and firm committees and business development and all the other indicia of a full range of involvement, and so forth.