Tough Markets (Part II) - What Are My Chances of Getting a Job at a Big Law Firm as a Litigator?

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I am a 6thyear litigation associate at a mid-size firm in Chicago. I did not go to a big name law school, but I got stellar grades (3.9 GPA). I am also an outstanding litigator. What are my realistic chances of getting a job at one of the prestigious high-paying firms?

What are my chances of getting a job as a litigator at a big law firm?


Frankly, not good. See the explanation below.

In my previous article, I explained how new candidates often overestimate their market value. While this is understandable, it is also important to get a truly realistic assessment of your market value at an early stage from an experienced legal recruiter. In my prior article (Part I), I focused on partners and senior attorneys. This part will focus on associates.

Of course, firms will expect that you meet a level of competency. The truth, however, is that you could be Clarence Darrow and the firms will not care much. They primarily look at other factors, such as:(1) associate year; (2)prestige of your law school and your grades; (3) prestige of the firms you have worked for; (4) the demand for your practice area and your experience; (5) your personality and how well you interview; and (6) whether you have any "red flags."

With respect to the first factor, at about 1-2 years out of law school, you are a "junior associate." At 3-4 years or so, you are a "mid-level associate." And at about 5-7 years, you are usually a "senior associate." After that point, firms begin to consider candidates to be too senior to be any kind of associate. Generally, firms strongly prefer more junior associates to senior associates. Senior associates that join a firm often create tensions with other senior associates in the firm who will soon be up for partner. Plus, firms do not like considering associates who have only been around a year or two for partnership. Sometimes firms will ask senior associates to "step back" a year or two. This factor is not in your favor as a 6th year.

Factors two, three and four are not highly favorable either. You did not go to a big name law school, but that factor will be at least partially ameliorated by your sparkling GPA. You also indicate that the prestige of your current (and past) firms is decent but not great. That can help you get into a comparable firm, but it will be an impediment to getting into the more highly prestigious firms that you seek. As for the fourth factor (the market demand for your practice area and your experience), this will unfortunately work against you as well. Litigation demand has been slow for years. If you were in a hot area, such as corporate or IP/electrical engineering, this factor would be very much in your favor. The final two factors, five and six, do not usually arise unless you are able to obtain an interview (which will be tough in the prestigious firms in your case), or if you have an apparent "red flag."

From this summary of the associate market, associate candidates can learn several important lessons. First, in general, the earlier you go on the market the better. The longer you stay at your firm, the lower your market value falls. Second, it is better to be in a practice area that is in high demand. Third, prestige in terms of law school and firms matters. Fourth, red flags must be avoided. Fifth, interviews are also important, but you won't get one unless you are sufficiently strong on the other factors.

Summary: I did not go to a big name law school, but I got stellar grades (3.9 GPA). I am also an outstanding litigator. Can I get a job as a litigator at a big law firm?

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