June 20, 2005


I'm now at law firm #2. My final week at firm #1 was predictable -- lots of social events, less work, an all around good feeling to leave on. They are clearly professionals at this thing.

Firm #2 is bigger than firm #1 or the firm I worked at last year. In fact, it's a larger organization than all but one of my previous employers, including my consulting clients. This results in some very predictable big-firm cultural differences between firm #1 and firm #0. It's also interesting to note that some of the stereotypes about big, small, and medium-sized firms do not apply.

For example, I've seen the following choices when it comes to office space and can honestly say that each has its benefits and drawbacks:

  • A clear hierarchy from partner through senior associate and down to secretaries with the typical extremes of corner offices and gorgeous views as well as partial cubicals and all the in betweens.

  • An egalitarian system whereby most attorneys have identical offices and those with "nicer" ones are only there by accident, not seniority. Additionally, many paralegals and support staff end up in offices that are very similar to the attorneys.

  • A mediocre mixture of the two, where no one who isn't an attorney has a certain type of office, but beyond that, it's kind of hard to know the pecking order without doing your research. Similar stories for support staff, only they have a glass office ceiling, so to speak.

But, what I've noticed more, (much to my furniture/architecture-focused sister's content, no doubt) is that the distribution of offices has way less of an effect on my perception of the layout and culture than the choice of walls. I've seen the following three types of walls to divide attorneys from the rest of the office and one another, and I've found that it has a much larger effect on the overall culture than the orientation of the offices:

  • Real Walls. Real doors. Open door policy. Walk down the hall, look in, see the person and wave. If the door is closed, you know it's serious.

  • Glass Walls. Real doors. No need for an open door policy. If people want your attention, they stand in front of the glass and gesticulate wildly. If you are on a call or deep in thought, you stop, motion back, and people get the message, whether it's 5 more minutes, go away, or something in between. Also, depending upon your computer orientation, each person who walks by can see what you are reading at all times.

  • Glass walls with blinds. People choose the blind orientation that they like. Those who like the blinds drawn usually have an open door policy. Those who like the blinds open often close their doors when they were busy. Occasionally, people close both their blinds and their doors. You know not even to knock at that point -- just send an email.

I have noticed these various degrees of differences for so many things: expense coverage, printers, secretary coverage, furniture (obviously expensive, trying hard to be simultaneously expensive but not overbearing, and alternatively worn down and brand-spanking new), artwork, free/vending drink policies, free/vending snack policies, in-office services, library services, and more. It's amazing to me how much these things define what the office feels like long before you get to know the people. Career services and all successful attorneys I know say you should decide where you want to work based on the people, but I'm noticing that the environment says a ton to me about the people that the people themselves don't even know. And when I try to get to know the people, I can't help but notice that on some level they are busy, at least vaguely aware that they need to be covering their butts, and, in general, not my "friends." This is not to say that they will not grow to be so. But, to pretend otherwise and choose a future career based on the "friends" I've made this summer seems odd to me. I'd rather decide by the environment, how I feel overall, and the work. But that's just me.

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