Law \ Legal

The Extraordinary Journey Of Cece Xie


Cece Xie, a former Biglaw associate who became a bona fide influencer with over 400,000 followers, has had one of the most remarkable stories of balancing content creation with a career in the law. Unlike some of us who left the practice before becoming a content creator, Cece “blew up” on TikTok while working at her day job as an associate at Morrison & Foerster.

I first met Cece virtually at an online creator meetup in 2021. I’m used to being the more “famous” creator in most conversations with lawyers, but this time it was the other way around. It was so surreal to actually meet and talk to her, especially since I’d been following her TikTok account for some time.

Over the next year we stayed in touch, and even co-hosted a CLE for the Washington Bar Association’s Corporate Counsel Section. And a few months ago, bringing the internet and the real world together — we finally met in person at the NAPABA conference in Las Vegas (which was super cool)!

After catching up about all things law and content creation, I realized that Cece’s story involved a lot more than what she usually shares publicly. She’s had such an extraordinary journey. So it was obvious to me that I should interview her to share what it was like going through the process of becoming “TikTok famous” and what she’s currently working on. Which led to this column today.

Without further ado, here’s an abbreviated version of our conversation:

Alex Su: How did you create such a large social media audience as a Biglaw associate?

Cece Xie: TikTok was honestly a fluke — my partner had downloaded TikTok in December 2019 because he wanted to stay in the know about trends, what the kids are talking about — he’s honestly the much cooler one as between the two of us — and I remember thinking that it was just a lip-syncing app for teenagers at the time. My birthday rolled around in April during the height of the pandemic’s first wave, and I was like, “There is no way I can spend my birthday doing the same exact thing that I’ve been doing every other day — I need to do something different.” But there wasn’t anything to do at that time — we knew nothing about COVID, not even if we could meet with people outside, so I decided that for my birthday, I would try making a TikTok. To my surprise, it went kinda viral, and I kept on posting because I had nothing else to channel my creative energy into at the time. It was fun to challenge myself to create different types of video, y’know? Even if my first day in the life of a Biglaw attorney video took me four hours of editing alone. And that was the first video that really, really took off.

AS: Four hours? That’s an incredible amount of work! But it sounds like it all paid off because it went viral. Why do you think that first video did so well?

CX: In retrospect, there’s this huge hunger to know about what being an adult is like, I think. I started getting questions from people about how to get a Biglaw job, whether undergrad matters for law school admissions, and it reminded me of all the questions I had when I was younger, except I never got to see videos from people who had answers to those questions. So I decided to start sharing more about my journey and all of the things I learned along the way, to force myself to start describing the air around me that I had gotten used to and was no longer aware of. And that turned out to really resonate with people.

AS: After going viral did you worry about how it would impact your day job? I mean, I first went viral as a legal tech salesperson. You were a Biglaw associate!

CX: I really didn’t think too much at first about how my TikTok could impact my life at work — I mean, I already had a public Instagram, and I think it’s fairly common for associates of my class to have public social media accounts. My firm at the time had a social media policy, which I took a look at in the early days of creating just to be sure that I was always on the right side of the line. Yes, there is always a risk with putting anything out there in the open, but as long as you stand by what you post in both personal and professional settings, what is there to be worried about? It wasn’t until I got my first media inquiry that I realized my account probably had gotten big enough that it was time to raise it with the firm. They were fantastic about it, actually — they set up meetings with the firm’s PR person for media training, helped me develop a process for both media inquiries and — believe it or not — brand deals, really stood behind me even during the more trying times of being online, like when firm leadership received a hate email about me after one of my posts got picked up by the NY Post and Daily Mail. It was really encouraging and a huge vote-of-confidence in my judgment and my contributions to the firm. I think it definitely helped that I was a midlevel/senior associate at the time, had great reviews, was already doing something besides being an associate (teaching a class at Yale), and had really great sponsors at the firm already. You get a lot more latitude to go off the straight-and-narrow if you’ve already proven to the powers-that-be that you’ve mastered the straight-and-narrow, I think, and my firm at the time really is on the more progressive end, as well, as Biglaw firms go.

AS: It seems like you really knew how to navigate the firm. As an associate that was something I always struggled with, like the unspoken rules of how to get things done. How did you learn to do that?

CX: The only way that anyone can really get the lowdown on Biglaw — through office gossip! But like the good kind, not the cruel or nasty kind that has no place in society. I remember sitting in my office with my officemate and trading information — which partners we had heard were lovely to work with, which partners had blown up at someone we had summered with, which partners were the most generous when it came to summer lunches. It’s hard to learn about things that will be helpful for your specific experience of Biglaw through school info sessions or firm trainings — at the end of the day, the associates and partners whom you work with have the biggest impact on your experience, so you need to dissect things on an individual-by-individual basis. Which can only really be accomplished through directly working with those individuals or talking to others who have worked with them. Even little things like whether this partner prefers Track Changes or a redline wasn’t actually so little, and I figured that I would inevitably make mistakes, so it was up to me to get as much as I could right — even these supposedly little formatting things or arranging everyone in the CC by seniority — in anticipation of accruing enough goodwill so that the mistake I make later won’t seem as large. Every time I was assigned to a matter, I would schedule a coffee or call or Zoom with a slightly more senior associate who had worked a lot with the partner in charge of the matter, and I would ask them about the partner’s work preferences and idiosyncrasies. I did it largely out of anxiety at the time — like I knew that I didn’t know the rules, so I had to really try and learn the rules — but now I see that intel-gathering as helpful foundation-building, no matter the context.

AS: Which all junior associates would benefit from, right?

CX: Totally. As I got more senior, I realized that I all of a sudden was the associate that the juniors reached out to with questions about how to work with certain partners, how to bill time, how to ask for vacation. It was a really bizarre moment, realizing that I had gone from someone who hadn’t known the rules to someone who seemed to know the rules. That, combined with all of the questions I got on social media, helped me recognize just how far I had come in terms of learning both the substantive and cultural elements of Biglaw. And while the specifics of how I navigated Biglaw wouldn’t apply for everyone — because it’s ultimately on an individual basis — I wanted to demystify the process of how I managed to glean the information. Like yes, the details may be different between partners and between firms, but the way of finding out those details — that template for doing so — is relatively static, and I wanted to give people a roadmap to learn what they needed to learn in order to thrive in whatever legal setting they found themselves in. (Examples: see here, here, and here.)

AS: Given that you understood so much about how things work, why did you decide to leave the firm?

CX: This is always a funny question to me, because it’s probably THE most common question I get nowadays, and I don’t think I would get asked it as much if I had left to go in-house or to a smaller firm. I think there’s something about leaving Biglaw for something more uncharted that piques people’s curiosities, which is understandable. Two years ago, I didn’t see myself leaving Biglaw and honestly was low key starting to think about all the steps I would need to take in order to be a serious contender for partner. It wasn’t until I was chatting with a creator friend who then offered to introduce me to her literary agent that I even thought about another career path outside of strictly the law.

The lit agent and I met, and he really liked my book ideas, so I signed with him and the next step was to write the book proposal. Except I was horrible at making time to write the book proposal. Work would be busy, or if work wasn’t busy, I was trying to spend time with friends, attend weddings, sit on my couch and play video games. Every month, I would send my agent an email basically apologizing that no progress had been made. After sending that sad apology email a few times, I realized that if I ever wanted to make this book a reality, I would have to shake up my life somehow — but I was really, really scared to quit with nothing else lined up. It felt like it would be an affront to my upbringing and the very much risk-averse way that I had lived my life up until then. So I applied to a Ph.D. in Law program, got rejected, and then had to seriously ask myself whether I was ready to quit my quite lovely time at the firm for the unknown.

The answer was yes. I had always loved reading and writing — which I think is quite common for lawyers — but had never thought I would get the opportunity, both time-wise and financially, to write a book, at least not until I was comfortably retired. But with this opportunity in front of me, having already jumped the first hurdle of getting an agent, it felt silly to not at least give it a shot — a real shot. I did, of course, talk to people about this decision and learned that returning to Biglaw within two years wouldn’t be a problem, given my practice area and seniority, so it seemed like the downside was even less than what I had imagined. I’ve always been pretty meticulous about planning every second of my life, but I was starting to see, just around me and with my high school and college friends, that the happiest and most fulfilled people had gone off-plan at some point in their lives. So it felt like it was time to choose the unknown path rather than the known, to really push myself out of my comfort zone, to try something that I had always wanted to do but never thought I could.

It was honestly one of the scariest things that I had ever done, made much worse by the slew of armchair critics online who wasted no time in telling me that I was wasting my education, I had taken a more deserving person’s spot in law school and as a member of the bar, I was uninteresting and boring if I weren’t a lawyer. Those voices hurt a lot because on some level, I agreed with them — and it took a good nine months before my inner critic stopped parroting their comments to me.

AS: What are you working on now?

CX: Mostly just trying to figure it out! Now that I don’t have projects and timelines set by partner or client demands, most of last year was a huge experiment. I posted more on YouTube, tried a solo podcast, and finished my book proposal. I tried to pay special attention to how working on each step in those projects made me feel — energized? Motivated? Deflated? Depressed? The plan this year is to take all of that information learned from experimenting and work more on what I like to work on — namely, thinking and writing. To that end, I moved my blog over to a Substack, plan on creating video essays and vlogs for YouTube, and am going to keep on podcasting in some way, shape, or form. And of course, the big project of this year will be writing my book!

AS: Tell us about your book!

CX: I’ve been thinking about Biglaw and the legal industry for quite a while, but the real impetus to put pen to paper came out of an interview I had with a journalist, who was reporting on how the pandemic was impacting Biglaw associates. After I spoke with him, he told me a few months later that they ended up having to cut the story because they couldn’t find associates willing to come forward and speak candidly about their experiences. That was disappointing but not surprising to me — I’m very much aware of Biglaw’s culture of silence, which is what makes lawsuits against Biglaw firms so rare and the whisper network of office gossip so valuable. So I got to thinking about writing about my own experience — and maybe my friends’ experiences — in Biglaw, as a way to break through that culture of silence. When I was researching “comps” [competing books] for my proposal, I was astonished to find that while there was a plethora of novels about Biglaw, there weren’t any nonfiction books about the experience of working in Biglaw. Which was just wild to me, because I love behind-the scenes industry books like “Liar’s Poker” by Michael Lewis and “Uncanny Valley” by Anna Wiener. I got to thinking about all of the stories that my law school classmates and colleagues would share with one another, stories that are valuable commentaries on Biglaw culture and shine a light on the industry’s practices (both good and bad), and started wondering whether I could create a way for people to share their stories in a comfortable way, with someone who has also gone through the machine and understands what that’s like. That’s when the scope of the book became larger, as I really want to capture both the joy and the ills of working in Biglaw, incorporate different perspectives of the Biglaw experience, and ultimately meditate on what Biglaw’s practices mean for us as people and society as a whole, going forward. So if any readers have any notable experiences in Biglaw — good or bad! — and are willing to chat with me about them, I’d love to be a sounding board for those stories or ideas about the future of biglaw.

Alex Su is currently the Head of Community Development at Ironclad, a leading legal technology company that helps accelerate the contracting process. Earlier in his career, he was an associate at Sullivan & Cromwell and clerked for a federal district judge. Alex graduated from Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, where he was an editor of the law review and the student commencement speaker. In his free time, he writes about his sales, technology, and the unspoken rules of the legal industry in his newsletter Off The Record.


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