BigLaw v. Public Service: Pros and Cons to Consider for Life After Law School

Katie Taylor Updated on May 19, 2019

Deciding which law school to attend was a serious nail biter. But figuring out what to actually do with that law degree?

Eek. Between the presentations from your career services office, phone calls with your college friend who's off saving the world, and the student loan debt balance you've already grown since 1L year, figuring out a career path feels about as easy as lighting a match with your toes. And I know, because I've been there.

Unfortunately, no one can tell you what your right decision will be, but there are some factors that can help you weigh your options. 

BigLaw pros

Putting "Big" in front of something is usually a sign that we're supposed to think it's bad: see Big Pharma and Big Tobacco. But a career at a large firm can be a great choice for lots of people. Here's why: 

1. A six-figure salary

The first thing that pops into your mind when you think about a job in BigLaw: $$$$$. Starting off your first year as a bona fide attorney with a six-figure salary sounds pretty great—especially if you're carrying a heavy debt load. 

Lots of graduates spend a few years at a large law firm making substantial payments toward their student loans so that they can get those out of the way quickly. A BigLaw salary could be the difference between paying off your student loans in 30 years or paying them off in 10.  

2. The opportunity to try different things

If you're not sure exactly what area of law you're interested in, a big firm can be a great place to figure that out. Large full-service firms have dozens of practice areas. As a first-year associate, you will likely be assigned to one or two practice groups, but you may have the opportunity to try out other things as well.

In my first year at a large firm (full disclosure: my only year at a large firm), I was assigned to two practice groups but was pulled onto a case in a different group when they needed additional attorneys. It provided a nice glimpse into various types of law.  

3. High-quality training

Many lawyers agree that there's simply no legal training better than a few years at a large law firm. Demanding customers and complex legal issues are perfect teachers for a young associate, especially because partners often have the time to provide substantial feedback on work product. Some firms even have formal mentoring programs. 

That reputation for training quality lawyers means a position at a big firm—especially a well-known one—can be valuable if you look for another position down the road. Dana Silver Hadl, who left BigLaw to become a directing attorney at a nonprofit, says, "I truly believe that BigLaw gave me the best foundation for my job." 

4. Lots of perks

Large law firms are well-staffed and well-funded, and some of that trickles down to the associates. 

You'll likely have an assistant, all the post-it notes and highlighters you could ever want, someone to call if the printer's not working, free coffee, and free lunches on occasion. You'll get a continuing education budget, and you might even get things like a travel stipend or discounts for the local gym. 

5. Pro bono opportunities 

Working at a big firm doesn't mean giving up the option to use your legal prowess for the greater good. Some law firms have a pro bono partner or committee that finds pro bono opportunities and helps connect associates to individuals or organizations in need. 

Some even offer volunteer opportunities that aren't based in the law at all. At my firm, a group of kids from a local school came in every Tuesday afternoon, and we helped them with their reading. 

BigLaw cons

Of course, every job has its drawbacks, and BigLaw is no exception. 

1. Long hours

There's no way around it. What makes large law firms so successful are the billions of hours their lawyers put in. You'll have a billable hours requirement, and it will feel large. And then you'll realize that you spend approximately 84 minutes each day walking back and forth to the bathroom and partner's offices, that a practice group meeting takes 90 minutes, that you make small talk with the folks around you for about 43 minutes a day and that you can't bill for any of that.  Actually billing 40 hours a week means you probably have to be at the office for 60.  

And depending on the type of law you practice, you may be putting in especially long hours right before a trial (for litigators) or at the end of the year (for transactional folks). 

But not all firms are alike. Jessica Salisbury Copper started at a large firm after spending a year as a state court clerk. Now a partner, she says, "[M]y colleagues have been incredibly supportive of me, my career, and the fact that I have a family. The firm has always been supportive of its female lawyers, and even promoted me to partner while I was on maternity leave. And while the hours aren’t always ideal, I am almost always home in time to have dinner as a family and to give my kids baths and put them to bed."

2. Less on-the-ground experience 

You'll work on interesting cases, but at most law firms, the clients pay the big money to interact with the big-money partners—not with their young associates. That means it could be years before you take a deposition, stand up in court, or even speak to a client. Your writing skills will improve tremendously, but if on-your-feet action is what you're looking for, you'll probably be disappointed. 

3. No control over the matters you handle

Working in any law firm—big or small—that takes a variety of cases is likely to land you in the position of working on an issue or for a client that you find ... unsavory.

For some attorneys, the legal tasks themselves are fascinating enough that they're not particularly concerned about what side they're on. For others, maintaining the moral high ground is critical. 

4. Outsourced costs

One potential result of lots of late nights and weekends at the office is that you may incur costs to keep your life afloat while you're not participating in it.

For instance, if you have a dog that needs to be walked, you may find yourself asking your dog walker to do two walks a day instead of one, or to be on call for last-minute walks if you have to stay late at the office.

Quadruple the cost and stress of this if you have kids. 

Having less time might mean you take cabs instead of walking, you send your laundry out instead of spending hours at the laundromat, you quit grocery shopping and just get takeout. 

That high salary may not cover everything you want it to. Nina Yazdi works in public service, and her husband works for BigLaw. "Is it a lot of money?" she asks. "Yes. Is it a lot of money if you have $220K in student loans at 8% interest with very little tax benefit? No. It just means you’re stuck to a higher salary for a longer period of time in a job you don’t really like and with loan forgiveness in public service, I don’t know that the [BigLaw] numbers make sense."

5. Burnout

Working that many hours is simply hard to maintain over the long haul. Obviously plenty of lawyers do it, but knowing whether you're someone who buckles under the weight of not enough sleep and too many hours at the desk will help you determine whether it's something you can manage.

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Public service pros

The term "public service" can encompass a lot of things—from a position with the federal government or a large non-governmental organization to a role in a small nonprofit or local government. While every position will be different, public service jobs generally share a few perks.

1. Commitment to a cause

Some people—and you know if you're one of them—are deeply driven to work for a particular cause. If you decided to go to law school because you wanted to fight on behalf of the environment or change the way your state government makes policy decisions or represent individuals in poor communities, then you're probably strongly considering a public service position. Fighting for something you believe in can be an incredible high, and it keeps plenty of attorneys at their computers—or in the courtroom—regardless of the pay. 

And even if you didn't come into your 1L year with a particular focus in mind, you may simply like the knowledge that your days are spent working toward making the world a better place. 

2. Better work-life balance

Getting a job with a nonprofit or the government doesn't necessarily mean you'll always be working 9-5, but it does generally come with the expectation that you'll have a life outside the office. 

But keep in mind that some public service positions can be really demanding. When I interned for the public defender's office in Washington, D.C., I spent many a late night eating pizza and helping with case prep for the next day of trial. 

Val Cole, who works as a prosecutor, says "I work very hard, long hours and I still have work/life balance. I have volunteered at my kids’ elementary school every other Friday — all day— for 12 years. I focus on one’s definition of success. Being a lawyer is but one aspect of my life. It is important, but being a mom and an active in my community are also important. I don’t know that I could do all of those things with a BigLaw job."

For many public-interest attorneys, the ability to be home for dinner with the kids or hop out for a quick doctor's appointment is a key benefit to the job. 

3. Hands-on training 

Many attorneys who go into public service love the fact that they get thrown into the courtroom or onto a client call from Day One. Many public service organizations simply don't have the funds to spend a lot of time training young attorneys before setting them to work. 

That means if you're itching to handle your own caseload, take depositions, or draft your own briefs, public service is a great way to do it. You definitely won't be watching from the sidelines. 

Public service cons

For all the benefits that a career in public service offers, there are some downsides to working to make the world a better place. 

1. Lower salary

This one's no surprise. Public service careers tend to come with lower salaries. After all, that's why the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program exists. Choosing a public service job may mean choosing a life where budgeting is more important, where you drive your car until it can't go anywhere, where you rent instead of buy. 

But it's good to keep it in perspective. While you'd be hard pressed to find a public service position that has the earning potential of a BigLaw partner, legal salaries are often much higher than others in public interest positions. Many attorneys in government or larger non-profits can ultimately make six figures. 

2. Less training  

The flip side of getting your hands dirty right away is that you may not (probably won't) know what you're doing yet.

After a year at a BigLaw firm where I didn't speak to a single client, I started a job as a government attorney. On Day One, I got a box of case files from the previous attorney's desk, a bit of instruction about how the process worked, and a comment to let my supervisor know if I had questions. 

They'd been short-staffed for over six months and needed someone handling those cases as soon as possible. There simply wasn't time to have me second chair a bunch of cases and learn from watching. 

3. Burnout 

Unfortunately, working in public service doesn't necessarily make you immune to the burnout that you might expect from a BigLaw job. Certain types of positions require a lot of hours, and the high stakes of the work—especially if you're engaged in a role that determines the trajectory of people's lives—can weigh heavily on your mind. 

Gailon Ebell, a prosecutor in Alaska, has worked in both the big-firm and public-service worlds. "Private work can be very rewarding," he says. "And public work can be soul sucking. Think about the lifestyle that will make you happy." 

Other options

While law school career conversations often get reduced down to BigLaw versus public service, there are other options out there: small and medium-sized firms, in-house counsel positions, and policy jobs. They may be harder to find, but they may also offer a middle-of-the-road option if you're not sure which direction to turn. 

If you talk to lawyers about their jobs—wherever they work—the ones who enjoy their careers generally do so because they (a) are interested in the work they do and (b) like the people they work with (and for). As you begin your job search, remember that there are fulfilled attorneys in every type of position out there. 

And as Allison Harris, a public defender, says "I don’t think it has to be either/or. BigLaw has huge attrition; most associates don’t stay for years and years. You can go into BigLaw and pay off your loans ... and then make the switch to public interest. BigLaw doesn’t offer junior attorneys the same opportunities for courtroom action or client contact that public interest does, but it is good training in smart lawyering and public-interest organizations appreciate having well-trained lawyers down the road. Careers are long and take many, many turns."

Wherever you end up, you will, in all likelihood, be carrying some law school debt with you. Learn how to pay it off faster. And one decision that's not hard to make: refinance those student loans

Published in: Financial Freedom, Paying Off

About the Author
Katie Taylor

Katie Taylor is a content writer and editor with expertise in law and policy, finance, and entrepreneurship. She writes for startups and small businesses about everything from bookkeeping to telecom. Her work has been featured in The Washington Post and SheKnows.com. She is continuing to pay off law school loans and lives in Richmond, Vermont with her wife, son, and an unruly dog. Read more by Katie Taylor

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