There are Many Paths to the Summit

I, like many law school students, thought Biglaw was the ticket, the pinnacle, the rubber stamp that lets folks know I had made it. I assumed working at a massive law firm would scream to all who know me: “Look! I have arrived! I am worthy! I am smart!” This bias speaks to the deeply competitive nature of just about every person who makes the decision to pursue a career in law. We want to win.

Like many other modern businesses, Biglaw relies heavily on prestige and brand management. And therein lies the reality: Biglaw is simply a well-worn private practice business model, which can be a brutal one for its attorneys. For clients, it is a very costly one. The health of the business depends on quantity: many associates are billing at a high rate and keeping insane work hours to support the partners, who must also work more than full-time hours to maintain the pace and volume in addition to developing the business. If said billing continues at pace, all of this will keep the firm running, the nice offices furnished, and the legacy (rainmaker) partners well paid and – and this is important -- at the firm. All the foregoing Herculean efforts are in service of the model. Does it work? Associate attrition rates aside, it absolutely does. And Biglaw can scale for their clients pretty darn well.

But what does the model cost? It costs the many hours its associates and partners spend working not just on client work but on administrative obligations. The pressure to meet billable expectations is well-documented and knowingly crushing. It costs money and time to keep up appearances; the ‘Joneses’ to be kept up with other Biglaw firms competing for the same work. It costs untenable and expensive associate attrition rates. It costs that precious thing that is lost when businesses get so big that they can’t be agile or flexible: they can no longer easily pivot to support the entrepreneurial spirit of their employees; they can’t flex up or down with a market shift. Billing by the 6-minute increment cuts into personal time. And these days most households require two incomes to make ends meet, so no longer is there a proverbial ‘wife’ at home to fill all the childcare and household maintenance gaps (shout out to all the wives and partners who indeed were the unsung shadow employees of a bygone law firm era and to all the current stay at home wives and husbands). Why does the Biglaw model persist if it is not in touch with reality? Because those at the top are indeed making enormous sums, and those at the bottom are looking upward, incorrectly assuming that if they work hard enough, they will eventually be up there with them (which peak may never materialize, as any contract partner will attest) and the many-years-long climb well worth the view.

If we zoom out, we can see that this model is a mirage. It feeds the wealth of those at the top and arguably costs the sanity of everyone. What is the solution? To my mind, it is what many young lawyers are already doing: they’re looking elsewhere, they’re thinking beyond the typical path, they’re pushing back against the sameness, they’re asking their bosses why things are still being done the way they have always been done.

I was lucky enough to follow my long-time mentor into a firm that approaches the practice of law differently and I am grateful that I did. My firm, Summit Law Group (Summit), is a low-overhead, member-only firm, and it works. With decades of verifiable proof, Summit's unconventional model has supported its partners through the ups and downs of life, in and out of the office. As a member-only model, all attorneys are equally valued and valuable from day one. You can flex up or down depending on the time of life you are in. You can take risks. You can dedicate yourself to client service and are afforded the professional latitude to tailor those services to your client's needs without wading through a lot of red tape.    

More and more modern firms are shifting away from the traditional model, refusing to accept that you need big overheads and giant paychecks for the few paid for by the sweat of the many.     

So, as a mid-career, happy partner with 3 young kids at home to boot, and a husband with his own busy career, thank you, Summit, for being my extended family and for supporting me in my law practice and my broader life. For treating me like I am valuable for so many reasons. and sees more than my ability to bill time. For allowing me to be a lawyer AND an entrepreneur in equal measure, all under the same roof. 

I challenge all attorneys at the start, middle, or pinnacle of their career, and all clients and potential clients, to question the model of the firms they work for and engage in completing their legal work, respectively. Ask whether it works for you and your business. Ask questions about what you are paying for (with your cash, as a client, and your efforts as an attorney), and make sure you can see the value. Ask whether the firm is modern, innovative, and, for the attorneys within them, personally sustainable in the pursuit of a long, fulfilling legal career. Then act.

Jessica Mitchell is a partner at Summit Law Group PLLC and is also the practice group lead of Summit Law Group’s Real Estate Group. If you want to reach out to Jess with questions about joining Summit or engaging her to handle your commercial real estate legal needs, email Jessicam@summitlaw.com or call 206-676-7011.  

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