I was a paralegal before law school. I took four years between undergrad and law school, so I knew a herd of practicing lawyers when I was still applying to law school. I thought I had a leg up on everyone; I thought I had it all figured out. But in hindsight, I realize that there was a lot I did not know — not in law school and not as I made my way through seven years as an associate with a top international law firm.
Now as a legal recruiter, I see associates making the same mistakes over and over. I wish law schools would do a better job of preparing students for the practicalities of the legal industry and not just teach the substance of the law. But until they do, here is my list of key points to understand and mistakes to avoid…
Law School & Gearing Up for Practice
1. For the law students out there, first-year grades are what matter for securing a summer associate position that will hopefully lead to a more permanent associate position. But for anyone who may look to lateral to another firm or go in-house eventually (and that is most of you!), second- and third-year law school grades do count. This is especially true for litigators in today’s market. Firms and most companies will ask for your law school transcript when you apply as a lateral attorney. They even on occasion ask for grades from partner candidates. Grades have a tendency to follow you around, so finish strong.
2. Check out bar requirements in advance for any state you might want to waive into eventually. New York, for example, requires that you take the multistate portion of the bar exam at the same time as the essay portion. That means you cannot decide six months later to take only the essay portion — you will have to retake the multistate as well.
3. If you want to become a litigator, strongly consider doing a federal clerkship. This is especially important if you may want to work in a litigation boutique one day (though, of course, you can opt to do a clerkship as a break in your law firm career and not necessarily before starting). If you are a corporate associate, no one cares if you have done a clerkship.
Picking Your Law Firm
4. Law firm prestige does matter. It is certainly not the only consideration, but to lateral to another firm or move to a company, it is very important. You may get much better hands-on experience and training at a smaller firm, but prospective employers usually do not see it this way.
5. Pick practice area wisely, based on your personality:
6. …Based on your academic background: Be sure you have the right background to progress in your practice area. If you have no finance or accounting background or aptitude, corporate work may not be your best option. If you do not have a hard sciences/engineering/computer science background (preferably an advanced degree), think twice about doing science-related intellectual property work.
7. …Based on geographic factors: Do U.S. lawyers do this sort of work where I want to live? For example, if you want to move to a smaller city one day, do not go into finance. On the other hand, if you want to work overseas one day, strongly consider capital markets over other practice areas.
8. …Based on market considerations: Understand the current market and think about where you see the economy heading. I would hesitate to pick a specialty that is too niche or too dependent on market conditions.
9. …Based on your future goals: Some practice areas lend themselves better to going in-house one day, to going into the government, to setting up shop as a solo practitioner, or to working out a part-time arrangement one day. To the extent you know where you want to end up five, 10, or 15 years down the road, pick carefully today. It is extremely difficult to switch practice areas once you start.
10. Understand the various structures of law firms. It may not be a crucial factor for young associates, but you should at least be aware of the differences and the pros and cons of each. For example, lockstep firms may foster more cooperation and less competition among partners but tend to have more institutional clients and may not encourage the more junior associates to learn client development skills. If you enjoy the business side of being part of a law firm and you think you will have an aptitude for client development, you may want to consider a firm with a two-tier partnership track (income partners and equity partners), where you may have a better shot at proving your worth as a business-building partner.
Law Firm Life
11. Do not trust your firm to manage your professional development. They will not. It is not that they are necessarily being shortsighted or indifferent to your well-being, but the reality is that the firm’s priorities are probably not 100% aligned with yours. Perhaps law firms should take greater care in the long-term professional development of their associates (who may be future clients). But until they do, associates must take control of their own professional trajectories, become aware of their options, and…
12. …Do not succumb to inertia. Think about next steps early and often. Whether or not you are happy where you are or looking to make a move, make every choice an affirmative choice. Do not just sit back and let your career drive itself. Take control. Take in information whenever you can. Be aware of your options.
13. Keep up on the latest firm and industry news. It is too easy to get absorbed in your immediate work and neglect the bigger picture. Stay on top of which practice areas are hot and which are not. Keep aware of how well your firm is doing.
14. Knowledge of the law is only one side of being an effective and successful lawyer. You must learn the business side of the legal industry as well. Business development is key to law firm survival. The ability to bring in clients is a key element of making partner and making a livelihood as a partner. Unfortunately, many firms fail miserably at teaching you the fundamentals of client development and encouraging this practice. So be prepared to teach yourself if need be (though keep in mind that whether or not your firm involves you in client development efforts may be a sign as to how long-term they view your employment with them).
The Lateral Market
15. Always keep your résumé up to date (and your deal sheet or representative matters sheet as well) because you never know when opportunity will knock….
16. Be conscious of your deal experience, not just your firm and practice area. If you may want to lateral to another firm eventually, you should have a number of solid years of experience in a practice area and not just a hodgepodge of experience in various areas. Keep your firm bio up-to-date and easy to decipher. As a recruiter, I have read a few lengthy bios and had no idea what that person actually does. If we cannot understand what exactly it is that you do, we are not going to call you. (The flip side, of course, is if you do want recruiters to stop calling you, revise your firm bio so it is indecipherable!)
17. Take advantage of career resources at your law school (even after graduation) and any resources (alumni affairs coordinators, etc.) at your firm. But be discreet about letting anyone at your firm know you are looking around.
18. Do not give notice at your current job before you have a new job lined up and cleared conflicts, particularly if you are lateraling in the same city. I had a candidate who gave notice at his current firm so he would have more time to interview and look for a new job and the firm where he had an interview scheduled immediately pulled the plug.
19. Understand the lateral market. The lateral market is not the same market you encountered as a summer associate applicant. Just because you were good enough to get an offer at a particular firm then does not mean that same firm or a comparable firm will hire you as a lateral. The bar is much higher now. No matter how amazing you may be, law firms will not hire you unless there is a need for your specific skills.
20. Understand that you have a shelf life. Firms are very particular about the class years they are looking to hire. At the moment, the vast majority of litigation openings are for class of 2010, 2011, and 2012. If you are even a mid-level (let alone senior) litigator, you may have a very difficult time making a move. Corporate associates are expected to have a bit more experience before lateraling. Even so, do not wait until you are a seventh or eighth year. You will have far fewer options.
21. If you are given an offer but are asked to take a drop in class year, do not look at this as a slap in the face. You would not have an offer in the first place if the firm does not see you as a potential asset. Although it means you will take a slight hit in salary in the short-term, it also means you will have more time to prove yourself before advancement decisions are made. You will be compared to other associates who are less experienced than you.
22. While prestige can be very important when choosing a first firm, do not put too much emphasis on prestige when looking to lateral to a firm where you will likely stay long-term. Often, the less prestigious the firm, the easier it will be to make counsel or partner. Consider the culture, the platform, and your advancement possibilities before prestige.
23. Be selective when it comes to the recruiter you will work with. Learn about the recruiter’s background before you commit to working with someone (and keep in mind that there is rarely a need to work with multiple recruiters). Do not let recruiters submit you to openings without your pre-approval and be sure to keep an up-to-date list of every firm/company to which you have applied. But of course…
24. Be nice to recruiters. Yes, this is a self-serving point, but it constantly amazes me how many associates are rude to recruiters and do not see them as the potential (free) resources of information they are. Even if you are not looking to make a move anytime soon, make the connection for the future. A good recruiter is an expert on the legal industry. Ask the recruiter to give you an update on the market for your practice area. Seek the recruiter’s advice on getting the right deal experience for your long-term goals or on updating your résumé. Get to know a recruiter before you are in a rush to make a move, and let the recruiter get to know you. Law firm associates are busy people, we get that. I was an associate myself so I know firsthand the pressure you are under. But there is never a good reason to be rude or unfriendly. Which leads me to…
25. Be nice to everyone. I cannot emphasize this enough. You never know when you will meet someone again and in what context. We have had candidates not get offers (and rightly so) because they were rude to the receptionist when arriving for an interview. Law firms operate on a hierarchical structure. But when it comes to how you treat other human beings, there is no place for hierarchy.