Ed. note: This is the latest installment in a series of posts on lateral partner moves from Lateral Link’s team of expert contributors. Abby Gordon is a Director with Lateral Link’s New York office. Abby works with attorney candidates on law firm and in-house searches, primarily in New York, Boston, and Europe. Prior to joining Lateral Link, Abby spent seven years as a corporate associate with Cleary Gottlieb, focusing on capital markets transactions for Latin American clients in New York and for the last five years for European clients in Paris. A native of Boston, Abby holds a J.D., cum laude, from Georgetown University Law Center and a B.A. in government and romance languages, magna cum laude, from Dartmouth College. Abby also worked with the International Rescue Committee as a Fulbright Scholar in Madrid, Spain. She is a member of the New York Bar and is fluent in French and Spanish (and dabbles in Portuguese and Italian).
Recently, I wrote a post on the 25 Things All Young Lawyers Should Know In Order To Not Screw Up Their Legal Careers. A number of lawyers contacted me after the post ran to ask if I could further discuss some of the points, and in particular, those relating to choosing the best law firm and the best practice area.
Choosing a law firm and a practice area is a big decision. While 62% of lawyers move firms within their first four years of practice, your career path will likely be clearly shaped by your first job as a lawyer. I cannot stress enough how difficult it is to switch practice areas once you have started your legal career. It is not impossible, but it can be very difficult. Some firms are much more flexible than others in letting you dabble in various areas before committing to a practice area. In fact, certain firms never officially require you to choose a group. However, it is extremely rare for associates to find opportunities to switch from one firm’s practice area A to another firm’s practice area B. If you are lucky enough to have this opportunity, you will almost inevitably be asked to take a haircut in class year.
So what are the major factors you should consider in choosing a firm as a summer associate or first-year associate?
There are a number of factors to consider in choosing a law firm and prestige is only one of them. But all other factors being (nearly) equal, starting at a more prestigious firm can only open doors down the road. Remember that I am talking about your first job as an associate. When choosing a firm to which to lateral, a firm with which to potentially spend the remainder of your career or at least law firm career, prestige may not be nearly as important as factors such as opportunities for advancement or exit opportunities.
The reason the prestige of your first firm is so important is simply that your next prospective employers will see it as important. You may get much better hands-on experience and training at a smaller firm, but prospective employers usually do not see it this way. When you are at a well-known firm, your training and experience is a known quantity.
Remember that groups within a firm can rank much higher in prestige than the firm on the whole and it will generally be the prestige of your group that counts. This can be particularly true with niche practice areas (for example, investment management, appellate litigation, real estate).
Which practice area is most suited to your personality?
If you are going to stick with law long-term, it is absolutely essential that you enjoy what you do. It may be tempting to pick a practice area because it’s “sexy,” because of the opportunities for international travel, or because the partners are pushing you in a certain direction. But if your gut is telling you that you do not enjoy the substance of that practice, change while you still have the chance.
Beyond your genuine interest in the practice area, consider lifestyle factors. Some groups generally have a steadier and more predictable flow of work (litigation or trusts and estates, for example) whereas others have a very unpredictable workflow (most corporate practices, and in particular, M&A).
Certain practice areas also tend to attract distinct personalities or cultures. There are of course exceptions to the rules. But you are likely to find more charismatic, outgoing, or at times aggressive personalities in litigation, or perhaps on an M&A team. You may find more timid characters in tax or on an intellectual property team. In certain practice areas (such as litigation), you may work primarily on large teams, whereas in more niche practice areas (tax, for example), you will likely be working on smaller teams or do more individual work.
Groups differ across firms and even across offices. Firms have reputations for being intense, quirky, fratty, snobby… These are generalizations but self-selection can help to turn these stereotypes into reality. Pay attention to the personalities of those who interview you to gauge the general demeanor and culture of the group you will be joining and how your personality will mesh.
Consider your academic background.
Your pre-law academic background may make you more marketable in certain practice areas or may impose a glass ceiling on your career advancement prospects. Be sure you have the right background to progress in your practice area (or at least be aware that if you do not have this training, you will be facing an uphill battle).
A finance or accounting background or aptitude will be extremely useful for most corporate work and for tax. You will be expected to have a general understanding of company finances. You will be expected to read, understand, and check financial statements for accuracy. As a capital markets lawyer, I often turned to my calculator or an excel spreadsheet. As underwriters’ counsel, I worked closely with the accountants. As issuer’s counsel, I worked closely with the company’s treasury department. I was expected to catch any mistakes they made.
It used to be that general litigators could make their way into intellectual property litigation with little trouble. Nowadays, it is very difficult to advance within an IP group without a hard sciences background. Certainly for patent prosecution, you not only need a hard sciences/engineering/computer science background, but very often you will need a Ph.D. in one of these fields.
Tax and trusts & estates generally require an LL.M. If bar review class put you over the edge and you never want to take another class as long as you live, avoid these practice areas.
Where do I want to work, now and later in my career?