Of course I took an interest in Jordan Weissmann’s Slate articles saying that now could be the best time to go to law school. He argues that because of the continuing drop in law school applicants and the supposed increase or stabilization in law school recruiting, future graduates have a good chance of getting entry-level positions in law firms or those “corporate positions of distinction.” Despite this, Weissmann warns readers that “most people should not attend law school,” and that “some lower-ranked schools will continue to deliver miserable job prospects for their students.”
But Weissmann’s articles — as well as Elie Mystal’s and Joe Patrice’s excellent responses to them — did not adequately address one question that was important to me: How seriously do employers consider experienced attorneys for entry-level legal positions?
Click onwards to read about my personal experience applying to one of these entry-level positions, and my thoughts about the advantages and disadvantages of hiring a newbie versus a veteran….
Over the course of my job search, I applied to seven entry-level positions — meaning that the hiring firm is willing to consider someone with no previous legal experience. Some were attorney positions. Others were “JD Advantage” positions that I would brag to my family and friends about if hired.
Only one contacted me for an interview. It was a small but respected law firm. I happened to know someone who used to work there, and she told me that the managing partner tends to hire new admittees over experienced attorneys. This probably meant that there was something about my résumé that caught his eye, so I had to sell myself on that. I would also have to find out why the firm prefers new admittees, and convince them of my potential value as an experienced attorney. To do this, I thought about the advantages and disadvantages of hiring an experienced attorney.
Being an experienced attorney has several advantages for hiring purposes. First, since I am already admitted to the bar, the firm does not have to pay for my bar review expenses and worry about me failing the bar exam or the moral character evaluation. Also, it is likely that I can get started with little to no training. This means that the firm is likely to write off fewer billable hours and could bill me out at a higher rate than a new associate. Finally, I do have some special skills and accomplishments that the firm can use for their website and marketing materials. I plan to convince the firm that since I have been self-employed for several years, I have business development experience and can handle speaking engagements and publishing papers.
But being an experienced attorney has its drawbacks. I expect to be paid a certain amount and in a certain manner, and it may be more than what the firm is willing to pay. I am not going to accept minimum wage unless I am being trained in a new practice area, and even then, only for a certain period of time. Otherwise, I may as well go back to my solo practice.
Another disadvantage is that my past experience and training may not be compatible the new firm’s policies. For example, a firm that I used to work for took cases to trial whenever possible, and to an extent, I run my practice the same way. But the new firm may prefer to settle as early as possible. For me, policy differences are not a problem as I will just defer to the boss’s orders if he pulls rank. But I suppose for attorneys who like to call their own shots and where bonuses are at stake, it can create possibly irreparable conflicts.
Finally, an experienced attorney may have client conflicts, and thus cannot take certain cases. He or she is likely to be older and may want some kind of work-life balance because of family obligations.
Since I considered the advantages and disadvantages of hiring an experienced attorney, I figured I should also try to understand why an employer would want to hire a new attorney. Obviously, new attorneys are cheap until proven otherwise, especially those who come from lower-ranked law schools. Almost all new attorneys — because of their idealism and curiosity — will enjoy doing the grunt work for a while and can be sculpted into the firm’s ideal employee. And they probably have no spouse or children, which means that they are flexible and are able to work longer hours.
Unfortunately, since new attorneys have no idea about some of the harsh realities of law practice, some may use this to their advantage. For example, there is an evil harpy of a woman who is formally known as “Your Honor.” She is infamous for yelling at attorneys who get on her bad side. When I was a freshly minted attorney, my boss would send me to Judge Harpy’s courtroom where I was berated for everything from being two minutes late to the number of pages on our motions. Once I learned this, well… there was not much I can do about it because I was an employee.
Now for the disadvantages. New attorneys have to be trained and will inevitably make mistakes, no matter how much practical experience they received from their summer associate positions. They will have to spend a lot of time researching the law and drafting and redrafting briefs, motions, and memorandums. Most of this time cannot be billed out to the client.
The other problem is that for some new attorneys, their first job is not the one they really wanted, no matter how much they say or spin otherwise. So unless the firm has something else to offer — a high salary, prestige, superior health insurance, or work-life balance — the new attorney may eventually move somewhere else. For example, I wanted to do environmental defense work, but since no such job was available for someone like me, I accepted a position at a workers compensation firm. My then-boss was great and I learned a lot, but I just did not see myself doing WC work for the rest of my life. Needless to say, I left the firm as soon as I found something more relevant to my career goals.
Back to my story. I eventually met with the hiring partner, and I was ready to answer his tough questions. He asked about my background, my hobbies, and my future goals — personal and professional. I asked him about his distinguished career, the firm’s expectations of their associates, and his opinion of the legal profession in this day and age. He felt sorry for the new generation of lawyers and the burdens most of them have to face. He said that the day of reckoning for the legal profession will come.
I then gave my closing arguments. I wanted to work the firm because it practices in the field I am interested in. I respect the partners’ career accomplishments and I wanted to learn from them. I value long-term relationships over the highest bidder. I want my previous experience to be able to provide new insights and value to the firm and its clients, but I will follow protocol even if I disagree. And in case I am not hired, I wanted to stay in touch in case I needed a mentor.
I meant what I said, but I suspect that he has heard similar pitches from other candidates. I have not heard from the firm since. I made a note to call the managing partner in a month or two.
So do experienced attorneys have an edge over new attorneys when it comes to hiring? Maybe, maybe not. It depends on the employer’s needs and preferences. But if they do, then Weissmann’s argument falls apart. His articles give somewhat contradictory answers. In his first article, he states that “[r]ather than hire from notoriously problematic institutions … some employers might choose to hire underemployed attorneys who graduated into rougher job markets over the past couple of years.” But his second article says that large law firms and some government agencies (like the Department of Justice’s Honors Program) prefer to hire straight out of law school and tend to ignore the graduates who are unemployed and struggling.
As for me, I’ll continue to apply to certain entry-level positions if I think it will lead to a win-win professional relationship. I will have to somehow convince the employers that my experience will bring value to the firm, but I am just as teachable and energetic as a recent graduate. And I’m willing to endure the wrath of a harpy — just let me know beforehand.
Shannon Achimalbe was a former solo practitioner for five years before deciding to sell out and get back on the corporate ladder. Shannon can be reached at email@example.com.