Posted Aug 17, 2010 11:02 am CDT
Having gone to law school at the University of Texas for lack of a better career option, Ian Graham turned out to be a stellar student.
A BigLaw job was his virtually by right, and when Graham was interviewing, Latham & Watkins stood out, he recounts in a recently published book, Unbillable Hours.
A partner from a competing Washington, D.C.-based law firm distinguished himself during interview season by pulling out a bottle of sanitizer and disinfecting himself immediately after shaking hands; at Latham, associates and partners were pleasant, upbeat and proud of the firm, he writes. Accepting a job there that paid an annual salary $125,000 to start plus a bonus of as much as $50,000, depending on billable hours, seemed like a no-brainer.
Actually working for Latham in California however, rather than being wooed as a summer associate, Graham soon began to realize that working there—or any any other large corporate law firm—might not be a good fit for him.
“I knew I would be working hard. I just didn’t know the work was going to be so seemingly meaningless and boring,” he says of his first four months there, which he spent “numbly” reviewing documents.
Desperate for relief and an opportunity to do something interesting, he volunteered for a pro bono assignment. It eventually offered him a litigation experience most associates only dream of, working with a senior partner and taking major responsibility in a murder case in which a teen had been sentenced to life in prison without parole. And their work resulted in a huge win—the vacation of their apparently innocent client’s conviction on appeal because of ineffective assistance of trial counsel.
The case gave Graham a high profile both inside and outside the firm. But a basic problem remained unresolved: Especially as he focused on his pro bono client, Mario Rocha, and his family and supporters, much of the rest of Graham’s work didn’t seem meaningful. Not surprisingly, Latham also wanted to see Graham involved in productive billable work, and that left him with little time for a life outside the office. So, soon after Rocha’s conviction was reversed, Graham left the firm.
“When I left Latham, in October 2006,” he writes, “only five of the 47 members of my first-year associate class of 2001 remained at the firm. Two of those left within the next six months.”