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Making the Grade in Law

Growing as a Lawyer – A Perspective in Hindsight

I am on a mail-list for a blog called “Above the Law” and I receive their headline news every other day. As they’re based in the US, it arrives early in the morning and is there when I wake up and start reading emails.

Yesterday, I was emailed an article which set out a “Departure Email” written by a 5th year attorney who was leaving his first job at a law firm and going elsewhere. He appears to be leaving on good terms and wishes his colleagues and firm well for the future.

What was really interesting is his perfect description of how you grow as a lawyer, from being really nervous about helping people and hoping you know what you’re doing, to suddenly looking back at your work and realising that you are doing all of the things you were worried about in the first place with each and you can answer any question or problem in your field and action a client’s instructions in an economic and professional way.

Here is his departure memo….enjoy the read:-

Departure Memo Of The Day: A Love Letter To A Biglaw Firm

By David Lat

Mar 3, 2015 at 1:08 PM

Good-bye, and good luck to you!

Working at a large law firm comes with its challenges, but it comes with its rewards as well — and not just the monetary ones. You can burnish your résumé and set yourself up for your next job. You can make friendships and professional connections that you’ll carry with you for years. And you can learn a great deal, about lawyering and about life.

Learning how to be a lawyer is the theme of this lovely departure memo from Debevoise & Plimpton. As I recently observed, “Which Biglaw firm generates the best departure memos? If we were to hold a contest, Debevoise & Plimpton would surely be a finalist.”

I don’t have much to say about this eloquent and heartwarming farewell (other than to wonder what they’re putting in the water at 919 Third Avenue). Res ipsa loquitur; read it for yourself below.


If you came to the firm directly from law school, and you’re anything like me, you didn’t feel like a lawyer when you first began working at Debevoise.

As a brand new first-year associate, you have an office and a secretary, a blackberry, electronic access, a chair with wheels, a set of legal pads and only a very vague idea of what exactly you do for a living. Most of the time it all feels like pretend. “I’m a ‘lawyer,’” you tell your friends, with audible scare quotes.

And at some point, fairly early in your first year, you get your first phone call from a client with a question. Here, suddenly, is an actual, professional, grown-up business person calling you in the apparently sincere belief that you will be able to help them with their legal issue.

You cannot help them with their legal issue.

Not only do you not understand the question, you can barely hear the person speaking over the voice in your head yelling “How should I know!? Why are you calling me!? Go ask a lawyer!” But somehow you sense that this is likely an unsatisfactory response. Instead you stammer out a handful of words that almost certainly include the phrases “checking on that” and “discussing the matter internally.” You hang up the phone and immediately lunge for the nearest midlevel associate.

This experience repeats itself several times over the next few weeks.

Then, one afternoon, just as your relationship with the telephone has truly begun to sour, its ring having taken on slightly menacing overtones, you receive one of these calls and you suddenly realize that YOU KNOW THE ANSWER. You know the answer, and this serious, professional, grown-up business person on the other end of the line does not! The shock is so great you almost forget to speak. But you do speak. And they thank you. And as you hang up the phone, it dawns on you that you have just given actual legal advice. Just like a lawyer!

And so it goes. Soon you find yourself speaking up in a meeting, because you have an issue to raise that no one else seems to have caught yet. And you’re able to draft a few lines without checking a half dozen models first, because you have good idea of what the provision needs to say and the best way to say it [side note to junior associates: check the models anyway]. And perhaps most importantly, when someone calls with a question, you’re completely comfortable with the fact that you don’t yet know the answer, because you can check on it, and you can discuss internally, and you’re confident that with the help of your colleagues, you’ll be able to resolve the issue. One day, without your realizing it, the scare quotes drop off: “What do I do? I’m a lawyer.”

Or maybe this wasn’t your experience. Maybe the words you’re thinking right now are the same as those of the first written feedback I ever received as a first-year associate: “Am I missing something, or is this completely wrong?”

Regardless, what I’m trying to say is that, Debevoise, not law school, is where I learned to be a lawyer, and I can’t imagine a better place to do that. You learn to be a lawyer at Debevoise because from day one you are treated like a colleague, lacking sometimes in knowledge or experience but never in ability or value.

I’ve been astounded by the brilliance and dedication of the people I’ve encountered here, by the depth of your commitment to doing good work, and by the strength of your support for your colleagues. I’ve been around enough to know that it’s a combination of qualities that shouldn’t be taken for granted.

Five years is longer than I honestly expected I would be here, but all of it was time well spent, and even though it’s come time to take my legal career in a slightly different direction, I’ll always be grateful for the opportunity and the experience.