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Staying Put In Your Current Legal Firm and Learning Is the Best Option In Recession.
by Kevin Quinn
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<<For most attorneys fresh out of law school, associate status is the most obvious way to start a legal career. You sign up with that firm you clerked at during school, practically kill yourself trying to bill 60 hours a week, yet, at the same time, you pull in pay checks that make all those sleepless nights bent over your "Evidence" law books thinking "Why me?" worth the trouble.
Of course, things change for many attorneys. Maybe around your second or third year, when you are still stuck with the same ridiculous standard for billing hours that you created when trying to show off in the first few months, your attitude about your new job may start to sour. You could realize that what you are doing is incredibly tedious, perhaps you want to remove the futon from the office and start sharing your nights with your family, or maybe the partner you are assigned to is just a relentless jerk. Well, these are all perfectly valid reasons to start consider making a lateral move. The questions you have to ask yourself, however, are whether you can find something better based on your experience, whether now is the time where you can get the best position, and what a new position can do for you.
It used to be unheard of for attorneys to switch firms. Recently, an entire career spent working within the same four walls has become more the exception than the rule. The need to relocate, recession-related cutbacks, unhappiness with a work situation — anything can contribute to the need to move to a new firm. In fact, most of the larger firms in the country have a special lateral hiring director in the human resources department that specializes in looking for qualified attorneys that were raised by other firms to join their firm. Many of these lateral hiring directors hardly have to look very hard, though, as any large firm will have lateral associate candidates climbing up the walls to get a chance to see what life is like in a different environment. What differentiates those attorneys who get the new jobs from those that are stuck where you are? Several factors:
Academic Performance — To some firms, you could be 15 years removed from law school, worked at the most prestigious firms in the country, and they will still demand to see your transcripts. While it is mostly more of an East Coast phenomenon to place a huge emphasis on education, where you went to law school and how you performed there is going to be considered in the decision to hire you. If you recently got a decent job out of an average performance at a fourth-tier law school, you might want to hang onto that for a while, especially in an economy like this one. Additionally, if you have done anything else in the academic realm - such as write an article that was respected in the legal community or get an L.L.M — that certainly helps your cause.
Work Experience — Obviously, firms that are looking to hire will want to know what you have been up to since you graduated from law school. If you did not choose to go into the legal profession immediately after graduation, firms may think you lack the motivation it takes to be at a top firm. Unless you are really good at explaining things away (which can be a large part of being a lawyer, anyway, so it should be a good test for you), this could be a huge bump in the road. Life experience outside of the law can be seen as a positive thing, however, depending on how you frame it.
If you are currently an associate in good standing at a top firm, they will want to know what kind of progress you have made in your position and what kind of impression the partners in your firm have of you. If a job search is being conducted covertly, you probably won't be asking for letters of recommendation, so you will have to show your worth to your current firm in other ways. One way to do this is to emphasize the amount of responsibility given to you, within what time frame you were granted significant responsibility, and how that relates to other associates of your year. If you are in your first year at a large firm, for example, and you were allowed client contact or you are billing one of the firm's largest clients, that shows that they respect and trusted you (or that they are incredibly short-handed). It never hurts to have billed an obscene amount of hours, either - but don't emphasize that as a selling point if you are trying to move to work less, as a new firm will probably expect the same effort of you if allow that firm to.
Portable Clients — Did you do some work for Microsoft and they loved you so much that you have vowed to never ever let you go? Well, take them with you and any firm would be glad to have you. If you are a first year associate, a lateral hiring director will probably not expect you to show up with a million dollars of business in your pocket. If, however, you are a partner or a senior associate, it may be difficult to find a position if you can't promise to bring in any new business. Besides bringing in money to your firm, bringing old clients to a new firm gives you the endorsement of satisfied customers.
Your attitude - Not coming off well in the interview process is certain death to any job hopes. It may sound trite, but no one will want to hire you if they don't like you. Even the stodgiest law firm, where you could walk the halls for hours and hear nothing but typing behind closed doors, will pretend (and maybe even believe) that the firm emphasizes collegiality, at least on some level, and they want people who will at least give an appearance of fitting in. Enthusiasm is also important to show. You might want to let the firm know that nothing makes you happier than staying up until 2 a.m. working on case files (especially if it is true).
Being in the right practice area - There may be little you can do about it now, but in tough economic times, what practice area you are in is the major factor deciding which attorneys are going to get a job. If you are currently working in a variety of practice areas without specialization, then you should start playing the hand that is getting the most work at the time to find a new job. As it stands, quality litigators are always in style, while the recession has absolutely destroyed the market for corporate attorneys. There is hope for anyone with great credentials, but a lot of firms are laying off highly qualified attorneys that they are loathe to let go of, so they will not be likely to hire replacements, no matter the quality of the attorney. It all comes down to how much work a firm has in a certain practice area, and you might want to investigate that before you approach a firm, as you do not waste your time pitching yourself to a place that is about to gut itself.
Is now the time to move?
If you have a secure job in a firm that doesn't treat you too badly, then why throw that away for a chance at another firm that could be just as bad (or worse)? The grass may always seem greener on the other side, but right now, if your firm is not laying you off, the greenest grass might be the stuff under your feet. The job market is not great right now, with a lot of qualified attorneys who just got walking papers searching for their next career opportunity and a lot of firms not really looking to take on extra bodies, so staying where you are may be the best option. If you feel like you may never make partner there or that you are under-appreciated and overworked, well, as bad as it is, you might want to just ride it out until the economy gets better.
That being said, it never hurts to look, as long as you are covert about it. No attorney looking for a new firm should ever let anyone know at his or her current firm know as it could lead to disaster if you don't get hired somewhere else. Partners want to think that you love it there, and if there is evidence that you do not, you will either be let go or buried in the most menial tasks. You wouldn't tell your current mate or any of his or her friends that you are going to cruise the bars, hoping for something a little better - don't fool yourself that your commitment to your firm is taken any less seriously by the higher-ups.
Many firms are, in fact, still hiring. Lateral hiring has overtaken law school recruiting in many firms across the country as firms seek to take on more experienced attorneys. In order to be hired in a down market, you need to have excellent credentials, or you have to be willing to settle for less. A rainmaker is welcome anywhere, so if you have business of your own that you can carry to a prospective hiring firm, the chances for finding a new position increase exponentially. If you are looking to move after your first year of hell at a giant firm, you might try looking for smaller firms or maybe even government positions, if you can handle a lower salary.
What are the advantages of a lateral move?
Believe it or not, there are many reasons to consider a move that may actually make your career more viable. Besides the obvious - unhappiness, the hours are too long, that you are working at a firm that does not like the work you do, thereby making career advancement impossible, there are several other reasons to move to another firm where your talents may be better appreciated.
Erasing failures - If, in your first few months of work at your current firm, you made some sort of snafu that did no real damage except to your reputation within the firm, and did not get you fired, the partners may be less inclined to advance you. While you could just remain there, hoping to erase the memory of past errors by working like a dog, you can simple erase these things by starting over with a clean slate. Minor errors don't usually follow you, unless you are prone to making them again.
Higher compensation - One of the main reasons to move jobs is, of course, more money. A salary structure may already be in place at your current firm, and it can be a more daunting task to try and renegotiate that than to just go out and find someone who will pay you more for your skills.
More interesting work - Most firms seeking lateral hires will want someone who can jump in and take on work that is more advanced than the entry-level tasks that you may still be doing at your current firm. Of course, an associate is not likely to come into a new firm as a partner (unless he was close to making the leap at his old firm), but you can significantly increase your responsibilities, depending on the firm you choose.
Switching practice areas - Perhaps the nature of your current practice area no longer appeals to you. It is usually easier to switch gears when you are moving than with your current firm. It is hard to re-establish oneself as a litigator in your firm when you have been doing corporate work for years.
These tips are, of course, not the final say in lateral movement decisions. Occasionally, attorneys move to firms that many would consider out of their league. Other attorneys move into situations that are seemingly no better than the one they were trying to get out of, or even into worse situations. Only you can decide whether a move is a prudent decision given your background, marketability, and current situation. Whatever you decide, it is perfectly natural now to try out a few firms before you find one that seems like a permanent fit.
Please see the following articles for more information about law firm jobs:
LawCrossing has the most listings of any job board I have used. It's actually a great site. The website had a lot of detail. It’s nice that you don't have to go through a recruiter if you don't want to. You can actually contact the law firm directly for the positions listed. LawCrossing had a ton of great features.