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Q: I am a first-year associate at a BigLaw firm. For the entire first two months of employment, though I actively seek work, all I have done day in and day out is analyze documents, one line at a time. Is this what being a junior associate in BigLaw is all about? I’m almost hesitant to tell people that I’m a lawyer — rather, I feel like a document analyst. What I’m doing isn’t even considered “doc review” either. Did I really succeed in law school for this? I was a summer associate with this firm, and while I knew we were being given interesting work at the time to help persuade us to join the firm full time, I was at least under the assumption that I would be writing memoranda and researching challenging issues of law on a somewhat frequent basis. To date, I’ve been on Westlaw two times in total. When is it too early to downgrade to a smaller firm that will actually allow me to practice law, without committing professional suicide? Frustrated First Year A: Dear Frustrated First Year: You seem to be beyond frustration and deep into anger that this could be happening to you, a successful law student who anticipated a continuation of the heady days of your experience as a summer associate. Was that a reasonable expectation? Document-intensive matters are common at BigLaw firms. During your summer at the firm, you must have seen what some of the junior associates were doing, or at least heard about it. There must have been opportunities for you to talk with associates about their work. You must also have had access to various associate surveys and Web sites that provide a forum for associate feedback. It is hard to believe that you were completely sheltered from knowing what you could potentially be getting into at your firm. You have choices on how to deal with your current circumstances — stay and give it more time, or cut and run. Two months of analyzing documents is not very long. Of course, if the work is as mind-numbing as you indicate, it probably seems like an eternity. The question is how long this assignment will last and how willing is the firm to break up the monotony by giving you more substantive work. In your inquiry, you indicate that you “actively seek work.” If you have a mentor at the firm or someone with whom you have a solid relationship, perhaps you could discuss your interest in obtaining a substantial research and writing assignment. Ask that individual whether he or she can offer any strategies for lining up that type of work. Consider asking to handle a pro bono matter. Show your interest in using your legal skills. Make sure that you do not whine or complain about looking at documents all day, or act as if you are too good for it. If you are not willing to bide your time at your current firm or have exhausted all possibility of doing anything aside from document analysis, then consider going elsewhere. Keep in mind that there is no guarantee that your next firm will always give you work that is challenging and interesting. Firms of all sizes may handle matters that involve significant numbers of documents to be reviewed and catalogued. You express an interest in going to a smaller firm, with two reservations. First, your premise is that such a move is a “downgrade.” If you consider smaller firms as a step down and maintain an arrogant or superior attitude, you are probably not ready to give up on a BigLaw firm and make a transition to a smaller firm. Think about whether you want to impress people with your credentials and the prestige of your firm, or engage in a law practice that is professionally satisfying. Second, your concern is that you risk “committing professional suicide,” as if going to a smaller firm could be the end of the road for your career. This implies that you would like to make a change and still keep all your options open. Reading further between the lines, you appear to hope that a smaller firm could be a stopping off place for you to obtain experience so that you can return to a BigLaw firm in a few years and thus avoid spending time as a “document analyst.” Many BigLaw firm attorneys happily pursue opportunities with smaller firms. They usually seek a firm that will provide them with more responsibility at an earlier stage in their career and an opportunity to become a partner. They are not necessarily looking to go back to a BigLaw firm. Before doing anything, assess your career goals. Do not act out of frustration, anger, and an inflated idea about your role in a law firm after two months of practice. Consider the type of practice that suits you and whether you can achieve it at a smaller firm. Talk to classmates and other attorneys who work at smaller law firms. Obtain a realistic picture. Sincerely, Linda E. Laufer Linda E. Laufer is a career consultant and former practicing attorney.

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