It’s very difficult to get a job as an associate in a small law firm. First of all, there is a lot of competition. Many of you are between jobs. Many are at Biglaw jobs looking to get out. Many of you are finishing up law school and are still looking.
Don’t get me wrong: it’s also hard to get a job at a big firm. I know. But the path there is at least more straightforward: Go to a Top 30 (or so) school. Work hard. Finish in the top 20% or so in your class (the lower your school ranks, the higher grade ranking you need). Wear matching shoes to your on-campus interview at the start of your 2L year. Don’t get slizzard at your summer-associate firm functions. Pass the bar. Sell your soul. Collect your buck sixty.
Yes, yes, I know. It’s not that simple, and the large firms do look for other qualities, too. But no one in my class who met that top 20% threshold failed to get a Biglaw summer-associate job.
The path to small-firmdom is more circuitous. And by “circuitous,” I mean “there is no path.” It’s certainly not about being smart, working hard, and getting good grades and a good education. Those are table stakes.
But I’ve identified the ten traits that make the best candidates for a small-firm-associate gig. See what they are after the jump.…
In the 13 years I ran Shepherd Law Group, I hired a total of 11 different lawyers (plus another seven nonlawyer staff). In addition, as a management-side employment lawyer, I advised and represented several law firms, large and small. I have a pretty solid idea of who works out and who doesn’t. So if you run a small firm (or are thinking about doing so), here’s my advice on whom to hire. And if you’re looking to become a small-firm associate, here’s my advice on what you should be like.
The best candidates to work as a small-firm associate have some or all of the following ten traits:
1. Sense of humor
I cannot overstate how important a sense of humor is. If I’m interviewing you and I detect a humor deficit, you have no chance of my hiring you. I truly believe that a sense of humor is a sign of advanced intelligence. I’ve met plenty of very smart people who lack a sense of humor, and I’m always less impressed with them. But show me that you can be funny and that you understand and appreciate other people’s humor (read: mine), and you get a big check mark on the pro side of your ledger. Plus it makes you more fun to have in the office, and that’s extrememly important, too.
I value individuals and what makes them different. Your job as a candidate is to show me how you stand out, which means I want to know what makes you unique. It’s human nature to try to fit in and be like the rest of the herd, but that quality will not help you in your job search. Think of TV commercials. I bet you can’t recall a single individual ad for a car company, because they all blend together. The ads that stand out are the ones that are different from their competition.
3. Eye sparkle
This is the hardest to describe but the easiest to notice in person. Management guru Tom Peters has described this eye-sparkle factor as one of the most important traits to look for in hiring an employee. It appears in a person who looks you in the eye and conveys his or her engagement with you and what matters to you. It shows warmth and empathy and fun. It’s missing in a person who smiles only with the mouth instead of the whole face, if you know what I mean. Like Potter Stewart and pornography, you know it when you see it. Of all these ten traits, it’s the one that many people will write off as hokey, but it’s one of the most important.
I want to know that you are good at interacting with other people. Show me that you are a social animal, that you have the ability to make friends and that you won’t hang by the wall at networking events. For me, the fact that you have a bunch of LinkedIn connections and Twitter followers and Facebook friends is a positive sign. Same with being involved in organizations like law-school groups or bar associations. This shows that you know how to deal with people, a skill that we need in law firms and one that is often overlooked.
I have no use for a Debbie Downer. Life’s hard enough without some Eeyore telling me that it looks like rain. I prefer to surround myself with people who believe things are going to turn out well. Clients tend to prefer people like that, too.
Not a trait often used when talking about lawyers, but one that I think is important. Creativity is useful in writing a brief, in strategizing over a case, in doing legal research, and in marketing the firm. Creative people also tend to be more positive and engaged, looking for better ways to solve the clients’ problems.
This is a particularly good trait to have when job-hunting. It’s also crucial to practicing law. I have more respect for someone who will keep trying to find that elusive case while doing a research project than I have for someone who gives up after a few futile searches. Lawyering is hard. I need to know that you’re going to stick with it.
I’m less interested in having people who wait around until I tell them what to do. I’d rather see them jump in on their own and try to solve a problem. Sometimes they might outstep their bounds, but that’s less of a problem to me then timidly waiting for instructions.
This is probably the single most important trait. If you don’t have self-confidence, you can’t be a good lawyer. Go do something else. Your self-confidence tells the people you interact with — clients, opposing counsel, judges, coworkers — that you believe in yourself and in what you’re doing. People are more likely to accept that you’re right if you show that you believe you are. I think that self-confidence is difficult to teach, but I do believe that it can be developed and fostered. But I’m more likely to hire you if you walk in the door showing that you have it. Caution: This is not to be confused with arrogance, which will lead you right back out that door.
Finally, you need to show me that you care. I don’t mean that I want you to tell me that you’ve dreamed of being a small-firm attorney since you learned how to read. I mean, I want you to show me that you care about things. It can be almost anything. I respect and appreciate passion, even if it’s for something I couldn’t care less about (like soccer). (Actually, if you have passion for soccer, you have no chance with me. Having a passion for a game that can end in a naught-naught tie just tells me you’re strange. Or European.) If I know that you are passionate about something, then it’s easier for me to believe that you will care about our firm, our clients, and their problems.
I’m not saying that you have to have all ten traits going for you. I’m just saying that these are the things I look for. (And I believe other small-firm owners do too, whether they know it or not.) What you need to do is look for ways to demonstrate some or all of these traits during your job-seeking process. Obviously, it’s difficult to show them on your résumé (so spelled). You may be able to highlight a few in your cover letter. Your best chance, of course, is during the interview, or better yet, during an informational interview.
I’m glad you got decent grades, went to an OK law school, and work hard. But what I really care about is your personality, and whether I’d be comfortable having you interact with my clients. And whether I could stand to work with you every day. These ten traits would show me that I could.
Jay runs Prefix, LLC, a firm that helps lawyers learn how to value and price legal services. Jay Shepherd also spent 13 years running the Boston management-side employment-law boutique Shepherd Law Group. He writes the ABA Blawg 100 honoree The Client Revolution, which focuses on reinventing the business of law, and Gruntled Employees, a workplace blog. Follow Jay on Twitter at @jayshep, or email him at email@example.com.