From the Armed Forces to Practice: What It Is Like to Practice in BigLaw as a Veteran was originally published on Firsthand.
In recognition of Memorial Day and all of the Servicemembers who enter the legal profession after serving, we asked Gibson Dunn associates Andrew Paulson (Palo Alto), Crystal Weeks (Washington, DC), and Kiel Sauerman (Dallas) to describe their experiences as veterans working in BigLaw. We hope that this discussion will help assist Servicemembers, veterans, and prospective JAG Officers, who are either contemplating law school or thinking of transitioning to the private sector after serving, in understanding how their experience translates in the private sector and what associate life is like at Gibson Dunn.
1. How has your military experience contributed to your success as an attorney?
Crystal: Certainly the research, writing, and briefing skills I developed as an Intelligence Officer in the Army come in handy on a daily basis, but I think the most valuable tool I carry with me is my understanding of the importance of being a team player. When you are deployed and living and working with the same people every day for over a year, you learn how to get along with just about anyone and how to capitalize on the strengths of your teammates. As an attorney, in a profession that can be full of ego, I think people find a little “selfless service” and commitment to teamwork refreshing. Even more than that, the ability to work with a diverse set of personalities is an often overlooked but essential skill for effectively practicing in a BigLaw setting. So many matters, from complex litigation to multi-layered transactions, require many attorneys to work together toward a common goal, while finding ways to leverage their complementary expertise and assets. The empathy and underlying respect for others essential for working as a team member (or team leader) have proven particularly valuable to me at Gibson Dunn, where our free market system of work allocation gives attorneys more of a choice in whom they work with. As in many aspects of life, “people skills” can go a long way.
Kiel: For me it’s all about stress management and perspective. Tight deadlines and low error tolerance are par for the course in the military and practicing law. Knowing how to manage those aspects of the job and, like in the military, a willingness to take ownership and accept responsibility go a long way toward not only making partners and other attorneys respect and trust you but also in maximizing learning opportunities and feedback (which make you an even better attorney). As far as perspective, besides the obvious contrast between the type of tasks the jobs require, I’ll just say that, from a work-life balance perspective, my worst day of my worst week as a lawyer is without question 100 times better than my best day six months into a nine-month deployment away doing circles in the Pacific Ocean.
Andrew: As a JAG, I was fortunate enough to serve as both a prosecutor and a defense counsel, trying dozens of courts-martial. Although my cases as a JAG were much different than my cases here at Gibson Dunn, trials are generally the same at their core. Having had that trial experience, I am much better able to see how all the other components of civil litigation fit into the overall trial strategy. Additionally, the Air Force places significant responsibility on its officers; there were times when I was the only lawyer available to provide legal advice on a critical issue. This early and significant responsibility gave me the confidence to take on significant responsibilities here at Gibson Dunn even when some things were outside of my comfort zone.
2. How did your status as a veteran factor in the BigLaw interview process?
Crystal: More than anything, my military experience gave me something to talk about in interviews outside of the standard discussions of law school courses, writing samples, and internships. Interviewers seemed genuinely fascinated by my combat deployment experience and in hearing about the parallels between intel analysis and legal analysis. Talking about this gave me a chance to present myself as a more complete candidate, as well as to share concrete examples of resilience and success. Additionally, in at least one case, my military experience helped me find common ground with an interviewer. As I would hope other firms do, Gibson Dunn puts a lot of thought into pairing interviewees for callback interviews, and one of my interviewers had not only also been in the Army, but had been assigned to the same Division as I was, at nearly the same time. That helped break the ice during the interview and also helped me realize that the firm was a good fit for me.
Kiel: If your resume is properly crafted, questions regarding military experience are essentially guaranteed softballs through all phases of the interview process. Simply being a veteran made me stick out as a nontraditional prospect with “life experience,” and interviewers during the screening process were happy for the break in monotony. I expect I got callback offers over peers with similar or better academic credentials just because screeners remembered talking with “the veteran candidate.” Callback interviews can be a lot about fit and the ability to carry on a conversation, so at the very least, it was easy to avoid awkward silences by discussing life on the ship, nuclear reactors, deployments, and foreign countries.
Andrew: I left active duty from the Air Force JAG Corps in August 2018 and began interviewing for civilian jobs shortly thereafter. I found that most BigLaw firms were unfamiliar with the court-martial process and the type of legal advice that JAGs routinely give to military commanders. Although I clerked and worked at another BigLaw firm prior to joining the JAG Corps, my experience was untraditional, and, as a result, I found that a lot of BigLaw didn’t know where to put me . . . until I interviewed at Gibson Dunn. Everyone with whom I interviewed seemed to truly value my trial experience as well as my training as an Air Force officer. In addition to being able to speak authoritatively about my trial experiences, I was also able to talk about the incredible life experiences I had gained while living at bases across the world—something that was truly unique.
3. How has working in BigLaw differed from what you expected?
Andrew: I will defer to Crystal and Kiel on this one. I previously worked for a BigLaw firm prior to joining the Air Force, so this question is not really applicable to me.
Crystal: When I was debating the path I wanted to take after law school, part of me thought that I wouldn’t find working in BigLaw to be fulfilling after 10 years of public service. That has not been my experience so far. I have found all of my work to be rewarding; I am getting world-class experience on high-stakes cases, tackling some of today’s toughest legal issues. At the same time, I have had the opportunity to take advantage of fulfilling pro bono work to help people in need, including veterans. For example, I was able to participate in a “Wills for Veterans” clinic and am preparing to take on a pro bono case before the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims.
Kiel: I am continually impressed by the caliber and quality of people that work in BigLaw. I expected BigLaw to be more of a solitary profession without a lot of levity, where everyone keeps their heads down and does their work by themselves while chained to a desk. In actuality, it has been very easy to develop camaraderie and has been refreshing to be able to collaborate and banter with smart, kind, funny people who are all in the same boat and pulling towards the same objectives.
Andrew Paulson, Kiel Sauerman, and Crystal Weeks—Associates at Gibson Dunn
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