Sarah Powell ’06 was a litigator and senior associate at Covington & Burling LLP in Washington, D.C., before joining Duke Law’s legal writing faculty this summer. Now, in addition to sharing her expertise in that area with the students in her 1L Legal Analysis, Research and Writing class and her upper-level writing course, Powell is sharing her insights for achieving success as a large law firm associate in a new book. Biglaw: How to Survive the First Two Years of Practice in a Mega-Firm, or, The Art of Doc Review, was published in March by Carolina Academic Press.
Freelance writer Caitlin Wheeler ’97 – another former law firm associate – talked to Powell about her book.
Caitlin Wheeler: Your book, Biglaw, takes the reader inside some of the largest, most prestigious law firms in the country, and we see these firms through the eyes of new associates. What motivated you to write it?
Sarah Powell: It can be thrilling to work in ‘Biglaw’. It is arguably the height of legal practice: the Big Leagues, the Olympics of law. However, the first year at one of these firms can be disorienting. I wrote this book to give a realistic view of what to expect and to provide practical advice on how to succeed in Biglaw.
Inspiration came from the many, many conversations I had with fellow associates at my firm, as well as friends and colleagues at other firms across the country. We were all having similar experiences and we were all similarly confused. This book is meant to be conversational, to say, ‘Here’s what will happen and here’s what you can do to get the most out of your Biglaw experience.’
Wheeler: What single piece of advice you would give anyone going into their first year at a big law firm?
Powell: Take control of your career. Don’t let yourself be buffeted. Have a plan. There are many different paths available to you in Biglaw but the key is to be proactive and know as much as you can about where you want to go so you can make the kinds of choices that will get you there.
Wheeler: Are there things you can do to develop that plan as a law student?
Powell: Knowing what you want is important. I was a single mother when I started at a law firm. For me, the most important thing was to make sure I could leave the office almost every day at 5:30 to see my daughter. So I chose a firm where I could do that and I could work from home. I also knew from my law school experiences that I wanted to be a litigator. These two factors put me on a career path.
The path was a good one for me. Working [in a large firm] freed me of my student loans. The firm allowed me to be flexible with my schedule and I was able to take care of my daughter on my own. I worked with some brilliant people, and got valuable training that I will be able to use for the rest of my career.
Wheeler: How can a student take advantage of on-campus interviews to assess which firm might be the right fit?
Powell: Ask whether the firm is going to be invested in your legal development. Ask what kinds of cases the upper-level associates are doing. Ask how they are given assignments and how first years are given assignments. Ask what skills they are using. And ask about lifestyle: Ask about flexible hours. If you want to do pro bono work, ask about their policy and how the partners at the firm view pro bono work.
Wheeler: What were some of your best experiences at a big law firm?
Powell: My law firm was very supportive of my interest in pro bono. I was put on a death penalty case—our client had been on death row for years and it was thrilling to be working on the case when his sentence was finally revoked. I also helped a Nigerian woman obtain refugee status. The firm was incredibly generous in time and resources that went into both of these cases. For me, it was exciting and provided real, substantive work.
Pro bono is one of the best things about working in Biglaw. Big firms have great resources of manpower, support and expertise. These firms take pro bono work seriously and some will let you bill an unlimited amount of pro bono time and count some or all of it towards your billable requirements. Pro bono allows you to get the experiences you won’t get on big cases as a junior associate. You can run your own cases and develop real trial skills.
Wheeler: What were some of your most challenging law firm experiences?
Powell: As a first-year I had no idea of the bigger picture, no idea of the value of my work. The key to surviving that initial period is to understand why you’re being asked to make binders, research cases, or review hundreds of pages of correspondence. It is never an arbitrary task. It is vital you do it perfectly, both for the partner on the case, as well as for your own development as an attorney. You must learn to take pride in everything you do.
Wheeler: What are some skills you gained from your years as an associate at a large firm?
Powell: I think lawyers with law firm experience are better prepared for practice at a very sophisticated level. Biglaw is the best at mastering the vast amounts of complex information in its clients’ high profile, bet-the-company cases. It is the best at zealous and complete preparation. The professionalism and approach to practice you learn in Biglaw are invaluable. I had researched and prepared for dozens of depositions before I ever did one on my own. You learn to take pride in your work product. Everything you do is the very best you can possibly do. Everything has to be “perfect” and “now” and “cost-efficient”. You learn to function well under pressure, you are compulsively efficient. These are all valuable lessons, to be used in your legal career, or in any career you have.