BY JONAS BLANK
Working in New York City is a statement of who you are and what you stand for.
Yes, that’s a bold statement. But our nation’s financial and cultural capital is a city of bold statements, big ideas, big egos-and some big headaches. Few people “end up” in New York; Manhattan, especially, is an island of out-of-towners. In all different walks of life, people come to New York with a sense of purpose, with a sense of urgency and the need for a challenge. It is almost always a conscious choice, and one that is not without its difficulties.
The clichés about big firm life in New York are endless, and most of them are partially true. In interviews the firms will tout themselves as doing the most sophisticated, “cutting edge” work, as having the most diverse and deep practices, and having the highest standards. Detractors (especially students who turned down NYC firms to work somewhere else) will deride the long hours, the high stress and the abominable cost of living. And interviewers from other cities will simply tell you that their practice is just as “sophisticated” but that their “culture” is more “laid back.” (Try to get them to explain how they accomplish that trick).
The truth, of course, is that there is “cutting edge” work to be had in many firms in many different locales. But when it comes to the amount of it, New Yorkers are probably right – there certainly isn’t a greater amount of cutting edge work anywhere else. Especially in corporate law, quite a lot of very, very complicated deals get done in New York. Being the nation’s financial center, that is to be expected.
As for the lifestyle considerations, the rumors are true – New Yorkers work long hours. But they also work different hours than many of their colleagues. In exchange for leaving later at night, attorneys generally arrive at work a bit later, too. And unlike their counterparts in suburban sprawls like Los Angeles, more of a New Yorker’s workday is spent actually working instead of sitting in traffic, thanks to the best public transportation system in the nation. It’s not uncommon for a New York corporate lawyer to pull a few all-nighters a month, or even a week, on a deal, and a busy litigation department can mean 11 p.m. is an early night. Another heads-up there: It’s not uncommon for lawyers in general to work such hours, either. New York hours may be worse, but how much worse depends much more on the business cycle and the particular practice area than anything unique to the location.
Similarly, New York firms tend to be high-stress environments, but so are most law firms. Among the hundreds of attorneys who work in a typical New York firm, there will likely be a few bad apples who haven’t yet mastered the art of appropriate employer-employee communication. But while there may be the rumor of the occasional “screamer” around the office, it’s also true that the vast majority of your colleagues (if you choose the right firm, at least) are likely to be among the most generous, most accomplished, most interesting people you will ever meet or have the privilege of working with. They are the kind of people who like to challenge themselves and like to be at the forefront, in whatever they are doing.
Ultimately, choosing New York is a choice of more than what kind of work you’re doing and how long you’re doing it. Choosing New York is choosing an experience. There is a mentality in the City of being “the best.” Most people, or more people, there are actively trying to be the best not only that they can be, but the best in their field, period. That translates into many different facets of the New York experience, from the quality of that little restaurant on the corner to the competence of your dry cleaner. Everything, it seems, works just a little bit better.
The single most compelling reason to come to New York, though, is the city itself. A New Yorker never lacks for new places to go, new things to do, or new things to learn and experience. You could live a lifetime in the city and scarcely claim to truly know it well, and the City can satisfy almost anyone’s cravings. You can go there for the best selection of the highest quality restaurants anywhere, for the unbelievable shopping, for the museums, for the art galleries, for the bars and clubs open almost all night. Most importantly, you can go there to experience the people, whose diversity and intensity never ceases to amaze.
As for summer associate life, New York is a really great place to enjoy on an expense account. Even in a down economy, many firms are still very generous-generous enough that you might even get sick of eating at the best restaurants in the city. However, the tighter job market does mean you will be expected to do some serious work. While it might not amount to pulling your weight the way a first-year associate does, it is not uncommon at some of the largest firms for summers to work some late nights and even weekends-especially if you spend a lot of the week taking full advantage of the firm’s events. Your work is taken seriously, and as such, is expected to be of the quality of anyone else at the firm. For Harvard Law students, offers are still more or less yours to lose, but if the quality or quantity of your work isn’t up to par, you won’t be seeing an offer, either.
In the end, New York is not for everybody. But those who take the New York challenge-and it is the most common post-HLS destination-will find that they will learn a great deal about themselves, about life, and about the law.