Q) I’m a mid-level associate in a big firm, where I’ve done well. I generally have no complaints except one: I’m surrounded by brilliant and powerful people, all of whom are incredible attorneys. Two attorneys on my floor advise Fortune 100 CEOs. One attorney regularly advises Congress, another is friends with very well-connected politicians. My complaint, actually, is not much of a complaint but a realization. I am a sidekick among superheroes. While most days it does not bother me (and I genuinely enjoy the success of my peers and colleagues, and they obviously care for me and for my career), there are some nights at home over a glass of wine where I wonder: could I do more and “be more,” especially at a firm with less notable talent?
A) This question will nag you for the rest of your career unless you resolve it, hopefully soon and for good. And to do that you have to answer a basic question every elite attorney, athlete, or professional has to answer: what price my limit?
I’m not saying I was ever in your shoes. I wasn’t. After awesome promise, I was a solid lower-tier associate in a top tier firm. I was the Chris Weinke of the firm, all top credentials and flash but not much as a big firm attorney after that. Just being honest.
But, to you. It’s a classic case of an elite attorney realizing limitations and forecasting a future of relatively limited potential. And I really mean relatively, as in you can be making $2 million per year or $2.4 million per year. But, before now, you probably had what many considered limitless potential. Tops in your class from first grade through third year of law school, with plenty of honors to go along with the academic success. But in the rarified world of a true BigLaw associate, there are ultimately limits. Or at least relative limits, especially among superheroes.
This question is not a whole lot different from others in the legal profession. It’s just higher up along the food chain. Are you comfortable being a sidekick? Is it OK to be a core part of a team but, for the most part, just a part of the team? For some, that’s groovy and you actually enjoy not being in the spotlight or having immense pressure associated with being the constant go-to, either for work or for social or political connections. For others, it really eats at your core. And you could be a sidekick in a five-person firm, a sidekick at Wachtell or Kirkland, or sidekick Free Spirit to main guy Captain America. Same issue.
I cannot answer it for you. It’s something determined by intuition and gut, over your nightly glasses of wine. But if I were you and you are happy with your work and your colleagues (sounds like you are), ride the sidekick gig, invest conservatively and wisely, and see how you feel in five years. If things haven’t changed and you have the capital and resources to do it, go in-house. Or do something completely different. Just don’t go bitter.