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What Law Firms are Looking for in a New Associate

published November 12, 2008

David Galbenski, Esq., President and CEO, Lumen Legal
( 34 votes, average: 4.7 out of 5)
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<<The head of Barnes & Thornburg LLP 's Chicago office, Mike Rust, was quoted in a recent Wall Street Journal article on this subject: "Now, when we look at our staffing, we ask, 'Who is it that we need?' If we need a restructuring lawyer, we'll go out and hire one as a third-year or as a lateral attorney. It's 'just-in-time inventory.'

What gives a young attorney an edge when seeking a position with a law firm these days? There are certain qualities, skill sets, and specialties that can help a candidate stand out. For starters, if you have expertise in technology, you instantly become very valuable due to today's e-discovery challenges, especially those related to class actions. With e-discovery, it's not the legal equation, but the practical question of how to retrieve and evaluate huge quantities of electronic documents that can be highly technical.

Some practice areas are more in demand than others. IP (Intellectual Property) law is just one of the hot and emerging areas within the profession. If you have an undergraduate engineering degree, patent work is a natural IP focus area. Other areas of top job growth are health care, venture capital, energy, elder, antitrust and environmental law. There also are subsectors showing promise, such as the new phenomenon of global-warming practices at some law firms. Regulations are here to stay, and the "green movement" continues to migrate environmental initiatives to new industries.

An important question to ponder early on is: do I want to be a litigator or a transactional attorney? Formally assessing your strengths and interests can help you determine which areas might be right for you.

If you presently work for a firm but are seeking a new employer, the potency of your experience may be the driving factor in landing a top spot as a lateral hire. Firms today are looking for employees that can bring in new business, work effectively with a team, and maintain strong community relationships at the same time. Balancing this kind of workload takes commitment and a willingness to develop new skills when necessary.

Geoff Smart, co-creator of the topgrading philosophy of talent management, and author of the book Who, advises law firm job-seekers to emphasize stories where they've worked well in a team-based setting, because it's the big differentiator between success and failure in law. Brains are a given. Teamwork is the rarer quality that differentiates a great candidate from a bad one.

Law firms tend to overemphasize academic accomplishment and woefully underemphasize the importance of hiring people with client development skills, relationship management skills, and teamwork skills. As a result many firms find they have very smart people who can't get clients and who can't work with their teammates.

When interviewing, answer questions directly. Many lawyers build to their answer, but the best lawyers take an “answer-first” approach, which is refreshing to the interviewer. Finally: network, network, network. A large percentage of law firm hiring happens by personal introduction, not campus interviewing or headhunting.

If you're unsure of what interests you the most, consider building expertise by being a contract attorney. Contract work is flexible to meet your work-style preferences, and it can give you a taste of a different specialization. It lets you practice law without the complications of office politics and billable-time quotas.

Contract work can also be a bridge to your first full-time job in the law profession, a supplement to a solo practice, or a way to reenter the profession after your career has been interrupted. If you are between jobs and looking for a way to keep your hand in, temporary assignments can provide income while enabling you to maintain or expand your skills.

About the Author

David Galbenski, Esq., is President and CEO of Lumen Legal, a specialist in the legal services industry, providing contract attorneys to both corporations and law firms. Lumen Legal also performs complete E-discovery and document review projects using a variety of cost-saving resources.

Mr. Galbenski founded the company in 1993, and has guided the development of one of the industry's most innovative database-driven human resources systems with over 375,000 legal professionals.

He is also the Chairman of the Global Board of Directors of the International Entrepreneurs Organization (EO), with over 6,400 members (120 Chapters) in 40 countries.

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