Big Law for Beginners

26 interviews, 12 second looks, 9 callbacks, 7 offers

My son Asa started work in October. I pictured him waving at me from across the country, wishing me Obamacare, picking up his new briefcase, jumping into his grandparents’ 2005 Chevy that got him through school and driving south to East Palo Alto to begin his career as an attorney. He even went to bed early the night before.

DLA Piper (on left) Silicon Valley

DLA Piper (on left) Silicon Valley

There are fountains outside the firm’s highrise and a Four Seasons steps away. When I went there last year to take pictures—and I understand that not every parent takes photographs of her child’s place of employment—the security guard tensed up. One false move and it’s your ass, small white-haired woman. I chatted him up. My son works in the building! We’re very proud! My friend Gary says he’s a big macher!

How did Asa arrive at global behemoth DLA Piper, where his office has a door, red Ikea sofa, standing desk and a nice view? Asa and I talked a bunch during his three years at Stanford Law. I took notes. He says Big Law means rich people hire you to defend themselves from other rich people who are making their lives more difficult. I’m thinking, Define ‘difficult.’

For most students in the T-13 (top ranked US law schools), getting to Big Law means doing On Campus Interviews (OCI), an interviewing frenzy early the second year of law school. The interviews lead to callbacks, then job offers. Using a lottery system, the law firms pay the schools to interview students. They then decide who they want to see again. When law student and law firm shake hands, the student signs on as a summer associate, and must screw up significantly to not be offered a job with that firm upon graduation. DLA had already asked Asa back after the previous summer, but he wanted to check other firms that were doing intellectual property (IP).

OCI is like speed dating. Thirty-minute sessions back to back, the same interview again and again with different people. Asa did 26. I asked how he managed to keep a smile on his face. It was easy, he said. They’re all nice people. (I have to take his word for it.)

Twelve firms requested a second look; Asa turned down three. His nine callback interviews took him from Silicon Valley to San Francisco, DC and Philadelphia. By Philly, he was running on fumes and just wanted to visit his old roomie, Francis, who’d just started med school. (Hi, Francis!) Doctors-to-be endure a version of this. Our friend Emmagene spent this past fall interviewing all over the lower 48 so she can match and do her residency and become a full-fledged emergency medicine M.D.—the firm but pleasant and often unnervingly young physician who treats you when you land in the ER for some unexpected unpleasantness. They (the hospital interviewers) want you to have questions, she says. I don’t have questions. You seem fine. Your city is fine. Emmagene did feel a bit of anxiety around drinking the appropriate amount of alcohol in the various contrived social settings because You don’t want to be the person not drinking. 

Asa corrects me when I surmise that big law firms are all the same. Some offices are new, some are crazy old, some do a lot of pro bono. DLA employs over 4,000 attorneys on six continents. Someone at DLA is always working, that probably means, unlike in my pink office where the CEO, CFO, CIO, custodial, security, admin staff and board of directors switches off the lights about 11:00pm and heads upstairs to bed.

The thing everybody hears about Stanford and Silicon Valley—that the pantheon will show up—is no lie. Asa: I was talking to this interviewer dude about how I like to be around engineers and computer scientists. Dude: We should get coffee and talk about where you want to go in your career. Asa tells me:

  • He's the former CEO of Napster and we went for coffee.
  • This guy can make my career.
  • And I had to remind myself that I wasn't interested in the kind of career he would make.
  • He's a partner in a huge firm.
  • He just likes to build companies.
  • I'd like to write a book about him, or something.

        Ex-Napster CEO was concerned and reached out to Asa. Ex-Napster CEO said, I know people like you—tech background, computer scientist in the past (ed. note: In computer science, you can have a past at age 25)—who’ve gone to law school and gotten pigeonholed into careers they didn’t want…. So how do you not become the patent clerk or whatever you don’t want to be? That’s easy. You just refuse to do it.

        Speaking power to truth?

        Most students aren’t interested in Big Law until they get wind of the paycheck. In that crystalline moment, a path to pay off their loans appears. Practice saying, I’m really excited to get started in Big Law. Firm A blew past Asa’s version of this line. Apparently, Firm A only hires true believers. Why didn’t you want to work for a firm in the first place, they queried. When Asa first told me about that interview, he said the firm didn’t do the stuff he's interested in. But later he wondered aloud if he was impressed or annoyed by them seeing through him.

        Asa loved the Santa Clara public sector interview guy and longed for what he sincerely called The unbelievably fantastic experience:

        •   They have no money for a formal training program, so you have real cases.  
        •   They put you in a courtroom and you're the lawyer for misdemeanors.   
        •   All sorts of great experiences, like field trips to prisons. (!)

        But it's an unpaid internship and they can't really offer you a job afterwards; they don't have any money. Look at the United States of America where if you’re not already financially comfortable you cannot do good public sector lawyering right out of law school! Over here, Robert Johnson! Have another guitar.

        I ask the American question: How much does your blackness figure in the hiring? Asa said It’s gotta be a little bit black man, but more the special combination of factors that’s a huge deal in IP: a degree in hard science, being into law, wanting to work for a big firm, black guy. I’m the only one, he says, and I’m reminded of his older sister Rae, currently the only African American Ivy League PhD candidate in environmental science. This (period) gets (period) old.

        The Leadership Council on Legal Diversity (LCLD) does what people's lawyerly relatives do at family gatherings—share information about the workings of the field. Asa’s LCLD contact went down his callback list and gave thumbs up to all but one firm. Firm B, it seems, was on rocky ground, having just fired a bunch of people. This kind of guidance is a huge help. All you connected, lawyerly relatives-of-other-people, please go directly to the website.

        Nearing his self-imposed decision deadline, Asa tells me that a competing firm would have to be extra cool [to get the nod]. What are your criteria for coolness, I ask. It’s a feel thing, he replies.

        Firm C: spectacularly uncool. Someone could do a Tumblr. Asa was personally offended by the unfortunate style choices made by the associates and partners at this Bay Area firm, and was shaken by the experience. I don’t understand, he exclaimed. These are the nerdiest people I have ever been around in my life! Super smart, ugly glasses, bad hair, bad teeth. No concept of fashion. Yale grads. (I see you Hillary, Bubba, Clarence Thomas.) They thought I was a good fit!

        He got an offer from his #1 in DC. A few years defending evil corporations at Firm D would make it much easier to go into prosecuting. And there were other black attorneys in the office! But alas, not cool enough, Firm D. Not extra cool. 

        Summer associate offer swag.

        Summer associate offer swag.

        Asa says DLA does a lot of pro bono and the people are nice. They courted him when he got offers from their competitors. Asa had just started his summer stint at DLA in DC when Chief Justice Roberts swung the Supremes to validate Obamacare and the office went nuts into nonstop party. Wikipedia says DLA was 12th largest donor to President Obama’s 2012 campaign. So I'll work some secondhand swag. I'll admit Christmas has a certain sparkle this year.

        A note of gratitude: When you buy a new electronic something, some of the money you’re forking over pays the attorneys who litigate the patents filed for said item. My sincere thanks for your small part in helping Asa pay off his law school loans. Enjoy your gizmo!

        Text Your Mother with the headlines, but call with the deets. She’s got a lot to keep straight now that you’re a big macher.