Yesterday we participated in an extremely interesting panel discussion, Breaking Back into a Large Law Firm: How to Make Your Way Back into a Top Law Firm. It was part of a day-long conference, co-sponsored by the New York City Bar and Vault, entitled Getting Back in the Game: How to Restart Your Career in a Down Economy.
The panel consisted of:
JOHN J. CANNON III, Hiring Partner, Shearman & Sterling LLP;
T.J. DUANE, Principal, Lateral Link;
HELEN LONG, Director Legal Recruiting at Ropes & Gray LLP; and
DAVID LAT, Founding Editor, AboveTheLaw.com.
Write-ups of the discussion have appeared on the websites of the New York Times, Vault, and the ABA Journal. We recommend them to you.
We’ve also prepared our own summary of the discussion, which goes into greater detail than the other write-ups. It tackles such topics as general recommendations for the job search, when to use a recruiter (and when not to), how contract work is viewed by prospective employers, and what happens to your résumé after you send it into the cyber-ether and it arrives at a firm.
Read more, after the jump.
Here’s a rough write-up of the discussion. Please consider these remarks to be paraphrased (unless otherwise indicated, with quotation marks). We’ve focused on the remarks of the other panelists because our comments are accurately captured in Jennifer 8. Lee’s NYT post (and because you hear enough from us anyway).
What recommendations would you offer to people seeking to break back into Biglaw?
JOHN CANNON: Financial services work is on the wane; regulatory work will boom. You should do something that keeps you up-to-date on the latest regulatory developments. Perhaps try to approach a law professor and try to co-author an article for publication.
T.J. DUANE: You need to be patient. A hiring process that used to take two to three weeks will now take two to three months. Firms are looking for very specific skill sets — and they are taking their time about filling positions.
You need to make yourself the most desirable candidate. If you haven’t done so already, rewrite your résumé from scratch. Anything on your résumé that’s generic, that could have appeared on someone else’s résumé — e.g., “drafted asset purchase agreements; prepared witnesses for depositions” — is filler. Get rid of it. If you’re an experienced attorney, you need a detailed deal sheet or representative matter sheet, showing what you’ve worked on.
HELEN LONG: The good news is that some firms are hiring. As a job seeker, you need to be both focused and flexible. You want to be focused, insofar as you shouldn’t have an “I’ll take anything” mindset; you should zero in on opportunities that would be a good fit for you, given your background and experience. At the same time, be flexible. For example, you should be open to internships that could turn into full-time positions.
When should you work with a recruiter?
T.J. DUANE: In limited cases. Candidates who are referred by recruiters come with fees attached. In a boom market, recruiters add considerable value, because they have connections and credibility with the law firms. But this is not a boom market.
You should generally NOT use a recruiter if (1) you’ve been laid off and/or (2) you’re trying to make a transition to a different practice area. You’d be better off finding a friend who already works at that firm and having them pass along your resume to their recruiting department.
If you’re looking to switch markets — e.g., you want to move from New York to a smaller legal market — it may help to work with a recruiter who knows that market.
How can you reenter the workforce after a voluntary absence (e.g., to take care of your kids)?
HELEN LONG: I did this; I took time off to raise my kids. If you take time off from the workforce, you should try to stay in the game somehow. For example, you can organize or attend conferences. You can take or teach classes, which is what I did — I taught business law to undergraduates.
Employers may question your professional commitment when you return to the work force. You should prepare your “elevator speech” — a short, concise explanation about why you’re ready and prepared to come back.
If I’ve done contract work while looking for a full-time job, how will that be viewed by prospective employers?
JOHN CANNON: There’s no stigma to contract work. People need to put food on the table. And sometimes a contract job can lead to full-time employment.
That said, you shouldn’t rely just on contract work. Try to do other things as well — e.g., attend CLE courses, network, try to write and publish in your field, etc.
HELEN LONG: Contract work is fine, but if you don’t want to be a contract attorney forever, then you should try to move on after a few years. It’s better to move on to a small or midsize firm, where you’ll get substantive experience, than not to move on at all.
What happens to job applications and résumés when they get sent into law firms?
HELEN LONG: If a candidate comes through a recruiter, then either I or my manager will review that résumé. We have good relationships with recruiters that we want to maintain.
If an application is simply sent in unsolicited, then a lower-level employee in the recruiting department will review it. A subset of these applications will be forwarded on to me for my review.
If an attorney within the firm forwards a résumé to me, then I will look at it personally. It helps to know someone “on the inside.” That said, most of the time we still won’t have a job opening for that person. “We’re getting a wall of paper…. for very few positions.”
JOHN CANNON: If I get an application that is referred to me by a client or a colleague, then I’ll open up the attachment and read the résumé. If it’s sent in unsolicited, I’ll forward it to the recruiting department.
What about deferred associates — will they really be able to join their firms at the end of the deferral period?
JOHN CANNON: Most firms would be ill-advised to go back on their promises to take in deferred associates. That said, the future is unknown. If you’re a deferred associate, it’s quite possible you might find a new opportunity if you look around.
T.J. DUANE: One option to keep in mind for your deferral year is to work in-house for a company. When you return to your firm, you’ll have a client relationship. (For more details, see here.)
If you’ve been laid off, how should you address that fact in your job search?
HELEN LONG: It’s a question of framing. You can acknowledge that until recently, you were at firm X. In this economic climate, people can draw inferences.
T.J. DUANE: You should be honest about your situation. Dishonesty could come back to haunt you.
Will firms hire attorneys for part-time positions?
This generated grim humor from the panelists. The upshot: firms already have people working part-time. They’re called associates.
Unemployed and Struggling Lawyers Seek Solace [City Room / New York Times]
Getting Back in the Game: Good morning, reality [Vault]
Jobs Are Scarce, But Stay Positive, Experts Tell Laid-Off NYC Lawyers [ABA Journal]