Ed. note: This is the first installment in a new series of posts from the ATL Career Center’s team of expert contributors. Today, for the benefit of newly arrived (or soon-to-arrive) first-year associates, we have some advice from Ross Guberman on writing for the toughest audience they’ll ever face.
With the help of many clients, I recently surveyed thousands of law-firm partners about the writing skills they want to see associates develop.
Across the country and across practice areas, partners agree on what they’d like to change about associate drafts. I’ve organized their responses according to my Four Steps to Standout Legal Writing. I’ve also included a fifth category that covers usage and mechanics.
A few sample responses follow.
Step One: Concision
Partners say they spend too much time cutting clutter and other distractions from associate drafts. Anything that interrupts the message — wordy phrases, jargon, legalese, redundancy, blather, hyperbole — is a candidate for the chopping block.
I’ve been known to quip, “I thought I was wrong, once, but I was mistaken.” But I realize that my column here on Above the Law has often been “wrong” in at least one important way: I’ve compared apples to oranges.
For example, I authored a “top ten” list of differences between working in a big firm and working in a boutique. But many of the items focused on differences between employee and owner. I compared working where “you get paid either a salary or an hourly rate” with “running your own shop.” I compared “making all the decisions in my cases” with “waiting for a partner to act on my recommendations.” I compared doing the grunt work with making the important decisions.
That strikes me as comparing apples to oranges because all those comparisons actually contrasted being an employee with being an owner. That fundamental distinction accounts for many of the supposed differences between working in Biglaw and working in a small firm or boutique.
But what about associates who are considering becoming associates at a small firm or boutique? That’s the true apples to apples comparison. If you’re not starting your own business, but will instead remain an associate, what are the real differences when moving “From Biglaw to Boutique”?
Associates in both Biglaw and small should give some thought as to who is their most important client. Some might think that their most important client is their biggest or most prestigious one, or the one whose matter has the most at stake. This week at Morrison & Foerster and Quinn Emanuel, yearning associates might name Apple and Samsung, respectively.
Other associates might take a longer view, and answer that their most important client is the one with the greatest potential to offer them future business.
Still others might select the client for whom the associate has the most responsibility. For example, if you are one of three or four associates on several matters, but the primary or sole associate on another, you may view that latter client as your most important.
All these associates would be making a mistake by not understanding who is truly their most important client….
* So now the Tulsa law dean is making it sound like the babysitting gig was just one of the many heroic efforts Tulsa undertakes to make sure students can make ends meet while in law school. This from a school that charges $32,056 per year plus another $7,993 for room and board for the privilege of attending the #99 law school in the land. Oh, but presenting babysitting opportunities is a way that the administration can help. [TU College of Law Blog]
* This is how 90% of my conversations go when somebody asks me if they should go to law school. The other 10% end in fisticuffs and comfort eating. [Constitutional Daily]
* If a law professor uses a hypo this fall based on 50 Shades of Grey (affiliate link), please whip it out (your camera phone) and give us a load (of that hilarious video). [Law Librarian Blog]
Yeah, you read the headline right. We’re talking about the class of 2011. The class that Jim Leipold of NALP thinks probably faces the very bottom of the legal job market. You could make a movie — a horror movie, a goddamn snuff film — about the struggles of the class of 2011.
But there are people in the class of 2011 who did not crash and burn. It’s a struggle, it’s a war, and there’s nothing that anyone’s giving. But… at the end of the day, there are some people who are making it.
Apparently, success is so rare for the class of ’11 that some of them don’t even know how to handle it. Yesterday, the wife of an idiot 3L asked us how to stop her husband from making a huge mistake. Today we’re giving advice to a different person — a woman who has worked hard and come out of the muck and now finds herself in a position of strength.
Most people in the class of 2011 are just taking whatever they can get. Let’s see if we can help this lady with her distinctly “first world problem.” I’m not gonna lie to you, it’s gonna get weird. She has two offers…
Partners love to emphasize to candidates who are interviewing that their firm provides not only “early responsibility,” but also abundant “client contact.” Associates who interview eat that stuff up. “Client contact” sounds like the epitome of what being a lawyer is all about.
But sometimes client contact might not be all it’s cracked up to be. For an associate, talking to a client often has little short term upside and lots of potential downside. If you give good advice, the partner is likely to take the credit for it. If you give bad advice, you better believe you will take the blame.
Once an attorney is blessed with significant client contact, they learn rather quickly that the much-vaunted experience can be rather overrated. More times than not, a ringing phone does not a happy lawyer make. Just consider some of the reasons why clients are likely to be calling….
Associates generally don’t have much room to negotiate salary or benefits in Biglaw. Beyond paying a premium for specialized skill sets (e.g., an engineering degree) or pedigree (e.g., a former Supreme Court clerk), those firms tend to pay a certain amount per class year with little variance among individuals. Among different Am Law 100 firms, there is relatively little variance. A few firms pay exceptionally well and a few others lag below market, but all the Am Law 100 firms have generally similar salary structures.
Not so with small firms, solo practices, and boutiques. According to the Robert Half Salary Guide, for example, the median starting salary for a first year associate at a ten-attorney firm in the San Francisco Bay area ranges between approximately $66,000 and $113,000 per year. That’s quite a spread. Of course, ten-attorney firms also vary so much from one to another that trying to compare salaries across firms often makes little sense.
Small firms thus have considerable flexibility in setting salaries, and associates have significantly more room to negotiate their salaries in the small firm environment. Granted, associates at small firms will tend to make less — sometimes significantly so — than their Biglaw counterparts. Be that as it may, valuing the worth of an associate to a small firm can be complicated.
Often, associates who are used to the Biglaw model both overvalue and undervalue their worth to a small firm or boutique….
The attrition rate in Biglaw is legendary. Since the recession hit, associates are less likely to voluntarily abandon a six-figure job and more often believe that you don’t get up and go until they throw you out the door. On the other hand, since the recession hit, associates are less likely to have any choice in the matter should their firm feel the need to reduce headcount. But especially during the boom years when I began practicing, associates frequently left their firm gigs to do all manner of things, from going in-house, to starting a private practice, to hiking across the country, or moving to Nepal.
I worked in large and medium-sized firms for nearly a decade, and during my tenure, I saw an awful lot of associates come and go. Rarely if ever was I surprised to hear the news. In fact, I was usually surprised that others were surprised. In my experience, there are certain tell-tale signs that an associate is crafting a farewell email….
You detest your boss. You can’t stand your coworkers. You want to die if you have to work another 100-hour week. If that sounds familiar, then you’re in good company with many other attorneys who hate their job. Unfortunately, you’re not going anywhere anytime soon. Maybe you’ve only been at your job for a year or less, or you have no other job prospects at the moment.
When you’re stuck at a job you loathe, what can you do to not only survive, but even thrive in it? Try these tips, provided to you by the experienced recruiters at Lateral Link….
Did you miss me? It has been a few weeks since I last laid down some knowledge on all my small-firm peeps. I was busy studying for, taking, and hopefully passing the California bar exam. During my time trapped in the Oakland Convention Center, I reached out to attorney hopefuls to see what issues they cared about for future articles. They all said the same thing: getting a job. Well, except for one person. A mousy girl who ate homemade ham sandwiches during the lunch break and sat alone near the garbage wanted to know how to land a man. Apparently, she did not think she had a decent chance of passing the bar (or was not actually taking the bar, but instead trying to pick up a lawyer — in which case, bravo, girlfriend).
I cannot really offer any more advice about how to find a job other than networking, networking, and going on informational interviews. Oh, and occasionally allowing yourself a good cry. I can, however, offer some priceless advice for how to get married thanks to a recent New York Times article. Unfortunately for Bar Poser Lookin’ For Love, the advice will not help her find a lawyer husband. It will, however, help her find a husband if she goes on to be a lawyer.
The evolution of relationships between the genders continues. Currently, in law firms, there is an interesting conundrum; balancing the desire for a gender-blind workplace where “the best lawyer gets the work and advances” and the reality of navigating the complicated maze created by the fact that, in general, men and women do possess differences in their work styles. These variations impact who they work with, how they work, how they build professional connections and how organizations ultimately leverage, reward and recognize the talents of all.
Henry Ford sat on his workbench and sighed. A year earlier, he had personally built 13,000 Model Ts with his own hands. Fashioning lugnuts and tie rods by hand, Ford was loath to ask for help. Sure, there were things about the car that he didn’t quite understand. This explains the lack of reliable navigation systems in the Model T. But Ford persevered because he knew that unless he did everything, he could not reliably call these cars his own.
“Unless my own personal toil is responsible for it, it may as well be called a Hyundai,” Ford remarked at the time.
The preceding may sound unfamiliar because it is categorically untrue. And also monumentally stupid. Henry Ford didn’t build all those cars by hand. He had help and plenty of it. Almost exactly one hundred years ago, Henry Ford opened up the most technologically advanced assembly line the world had ever seen. Built on the premise that work can be chopped up into digestible pieces and completed by many men better than one, the line ushered in an age of unparalleled productivity.
Today, an attorney refers business because he can’t do everything the client asks of him.
There are three reasons why this is way dumber than a made-up Henry Ford story…
Ed. note: The Asia Chronicles column is authored by Kinney Recruiting. Kinney has made more placements of U.S. associates, counsels and partners in Asia than any other recruiting firm in each of the past six years. You can reach them by email: [email protected].
Since late last year, things have been booming in Hong Kong / China in cap markets, especially Hong Kong IPOs. M&A deal flow has recently been getting a bit stronger as well. Although one can’t predict such things with any certainty, all signs are pointing to a banner entire 2014 for the top end US corporate and cap markets practices in Hong Kong / China. This is not really new news, as its been the feeling most in the market have had for a few months now and things continue to look good.
The head of our Asia practice, Evan Jowers, has been in Hong Kong for about 10 days a month (with trips every other month to both Shanghai and Bejing) for the past 7 months, and spending most of his time there meeting with senior US hiring partners at just about all the major US and UK firms there, as well as prospective candidates at all associate levels and partner levels, and when in the US, Evan works Asia hours and is regularly on the phone with such persons, as our the other members of our Asia team. Our Yuliya Vinokurova is in Hong Kong every other month and Robert is there about 5 times a year as well. While we have a solid Asia team of recruiters, Evan Jowers will spend at least some time with all of our candidates for Asia position. We have had long standing relationships, and good friendships in some cases, with hiring partners and other senior US partners in Asia for 8 years now.