Writing skills are key to being recruited in Legal Firms
by Teresa Talerico
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"I wish I could say I had this highly refined sense of what was important in a law firm," said Mr. Charlson, firmwide recruiting chair at Heller Ehrman, LLP. "At the time, I really didn't. I always remember this when I'm trying to recruit associates from law school. A lot of kids don't know that much about different law firms and why one might be better or different than another."
Mr. Charlson, also a securities litigation shareholder at Heller Ehrman, recommends applicants consider everything from their ease with potential co-workers to the firm's mission and overall atmosphere.
Based in the firm's Silicon Valley office in Menlo Park, CA, Mr. Charlson joined Heller Ehrman in 1986 and became a shareholder (the firm's equivalent of partner) in 1992. He also spends time at the New York City office.
Q: What do you look for when hiring associates?
A: We look for indications that a person has the raw intelligence to do the job. We like to take on some very, very difficult cases. They take creativity; they take solid thinking—strategic and tactical. Good writing skills are extremely important. Beyond that, we look for people who want to do the kinds of things we do. If a person wants to do family law, they're not going to be happy here.
Q: What are the common stumbling blocks for new associates?
A: From my perspective as a litigator, the biggest thing I see is that young associates don't do a particularly good job of being evocative writers. Their writing, even when they're writing a brief, tends to read more like a research memorandum. They'll anticipate arguments that could be made the other way. They'll present the law in a way that is simply not as forceful as it could be in advocating our client's position. That's something law school tends to push. You tend to look at all sides of an issue. That's not a bad thing. But when you present things to a court, you have to remember there's another side whose job it is to present their argument.
Some associates are better able to take the assignments they get and make something of them, even if the assignment, on its face, might appear to be somewhat dull. Document review is perhaps the best example. It is a given that document review is going to be pushed disproportionately toward the junior people. You can bemoan that fact and think, "Gee, I'm not going to be a real lawyer," or you can look at that as an opportunity to understand the case thoroughly and make yourself indispensable to all the things coming down the pike—the depositions, the oral arguments. The most successful associates are those who take personal responsibility for their own professional development.
Q: What was your most humbling experience as a new lawyer?
A: When I was a summer associate, I had a job at Newsweek in their legal department. I was given this file and told, "Please extinguish our security interest in this set of copyrights." I didn't have the foggiest idea what security interest was. Once I figured that out, I went back to the attorneys involved and said, "What do I need to do?" They said you just have to file a UCC form. I had no idea what that meant. I found out I could go to a stationery store and get a UCC form. So I went, and the stationery guy said, "What state are you talking about?" I had to go back and look at the file and figure out the states. Then, when I filed the form, I got it wrong four times before I finally got something the state of New York would accept. That was pretty humbling because a normal securities paralegal could do this in about 10 minutes. It took me about eight weeks.
Q: How can new lawyers handle that frustration?
A: It's important to remind yourself that you've made it through law school and you've actually passed the bar exam, so you can't be a complete idiot. That's probably not the right word to use, but there's some reason you are where you are. The main thing I would have done well to do is not feel like I needed to know everything the first day I walked out of law school and not feel like I was stupid to ask for help from people who had been around the block.
The other thing that is really important is doing it once yourself. One of the things that's easy to have happen in a big law firm is there are people who do things for you—for example, a citation check or getting a motion on file. These are things a paralegal or a secretary might do for you. In my experience, it's really important that I know how to do it. If you have an appreciation for the process, it'll mean you won't be doing things like editing a brief at five minutes to 4 and being upset that your paralegal wasn't able to get it on file on time.
Q: Who is your favorite lawyer in film, literature, or television?
A: I was always a fan of Atticus Finch, but I also kind of like "My Cousin Vinny." I used to like "Perry Mason" when I was a kid. I always thought the lawyer who was going for the underdog was a very sympathetic character. I'm not sure I'm in that position these days. But in my pro bono work, maybe I've got that role.
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