Associate Advice

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.…

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Have you ever noticed that some lawyers become different people when they get in front of a keyboard?

It’s like a Jekyll-and-Hyde kind of thing. They might be perfectly pleasant individuals in real life, capable of warmth or at least civility to their fellow human beings. But get them in front of a computer with a law-firm template on the screen, and they turn into some sort of lawyerly unmanned drone.

Most lawyers, especially junior lawyers, have an idea about what a lawyer letter is supposed to look like. It generally has fancy lawyerly words like “pursuant to,” and it usually includes lawyerly weirdnesses like parenthetically writing numbers in figures after having just spelled out the numbers in words (“If we do not receive a response for you and/or your counsel in five (5) days …”), and it almost always contains threats about Very Bad Things happening. And they tend to be uniformly douchey.

But here are four (4) reasons why lawyer letters are less effective than phone calls.…

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There comes a time in the career of every law-firm lawyer when she realizes that her bosses are acting like idiots, that “they’re doing it wrong,” and that she could do a better job if she were running her own law firm. Most of the time, that idea goes no further: the lawyer rattles off a few choice curse words, ignores the partners’ shortcomings, gets the work done the way they want it, and lives to fight another day.

But for a small minority, this outburst becomes an epiphany, and then turns into a dream (kind of like Inception, but in reverse), then an obsession, then finally a reality. Others, like me, always knew that they they were going to start their own law firms, and it didn’t take frustration with partners for that idea to form.

So when’s the perfect time to start your own firm? The answer is the same as for the question of when’s the perfect time to start having kids:

Never.

But forget the “perfect” time. When’s the best time to start your own firm?

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I have a temper.

That might surprise people who know me casually, like my professional acquaintances. I work hard to keep it in check. Over the past 17 years as an employment litigator (representing companies), I’ve gotten better at controlling my anger. But it hasn’t always been easy.

Because lawyers can be pretty adept at pissing people off.

In fact, I know many people who left litigation — even left practicing law altogether — primarily because they were sick of dealing with obnoxious opposing lawyers. And I’m not talking about thin-skinned, confrontation-avoiding types. I’m talking about solid, talented litigators who just stopped finding it fun to fight with douchebags all the time.

And this is more of an issue for newer small-firm lawyers, who are much more likely to deal with opposing counsel early in their careers than their Biglaw counterparts. (Maybe someone else here can write a post on dealing with obnoxious document reviews.)

So to help you deal with the toolbags that all litigators face from time to time, here are five tips that I’ve picked up along the way….

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My first job out of law school was at a five-lawyer employment-law boutique: two partners, two other associates, and me. (OK, it was my only job out of law school; I started my firm after four years at this boutique.) The other two associates were third-years when I started. To be sure, they were both excellent lawyers and had already gained much experience working in a small firm with top-quality partners.

(I’ve often said that I’d take a third-year small-firm associate over a Biglaw third-year any day. The Biglaw associates have spent two years reading cases and writing memos; the small-firm lawyers have actually been doing, you know, lawyer work.)

I got along well with both associates, but one of them had more of a hierarchical view of the firm. One day, after I’d been there a couple months, that associate said to me, “I have an assignment for you.”

Being the new kid at the firm, the proper and deferential response might have been “Great. Thanks. Happy to help.” But my answer was less proper and by no means deferential.

And even though it ruffled some feathers, I’d recommend it to any new associate at a small firm. What I said was …

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In the first part of our Career Center “Tip of the Day” series, focused on helping you to achieve a work-life balance in your daily schedule, we provided tips aimed at managing your work to help free up time for your personal life. Today, we feature tips aimed at helping you maintain your personal life. Striking the right balance between your personal life, professional life and social life is essential to leading a successful and comfortable life.

On to the tips for maintaining your personal life…

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Coming off a successful year in which some firms even saw record-setting revenues and profits, many Biglaw associates are now the busiest they have been in recent memory. While this uptick in work may initially be a welcome relief for some, in the long run associates often find themselves struggling to balance an increased workload with life outside the firm.

Today’s Career Center “Tip of the Day” features advice on maintaining work-life balance. Despite what you may have heard, work-life balance isn’t just a program for new mothers. Sure, many law firms aim their work-life policies — like parental leave, reduced hours schedules, and flexible working arrangements — at parents. But the fact is that everyone needs to balance work and life, regardless of whether or not you have kids and whether or not you work at a firm that promotes work-life balance, if you plan to make a career out of Biglaw while staying relatively happy and sane.

We collaborated with Biglaw associates to provide practical tips for helping you to achieve a work-life balance in your daily schedule. The first set of tips is aimed at managing your work to help free up time for your personal life. Next week, we will feature tips aimed at helping you maintain your personal life. Of course, these tips come with the caveat that the nature of Biglaw means that at times the “life” portion of the equation can be non-existent. For example, if you are on trial or closing a deal, you may be expected to work around the clock. But eventually your trial will end or you will complete your deal, and you will have the opportunity to regain some semblance of a life. These tips are geared toward helping you do that.

On to the tips for managing your work…

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In the first four parts of our Career Center “Tip of the Day” series, focused on how to evaluate a counteroffer, we covered the importance of re-evaluating your current employment situation, assessing what the new firm is offering, analyzing the counteroffer of your current firm, and considering the ramifications (both tangible and intangible) of accepting the counteroffer and reneging on the new firm. Our final tip focuses on recognizing buyer’s remorse for what it actually is: fear of the unknown.

On to tip #5….

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Ed. note: This is the latest installment of Inside Straight, Above the Law’s column for in-house counsel, written by Mark Herrmann.

Law firms, and in-house law departments, should be outer-directed.

I realize that I just invented the word “outer-directed,” and sensible people might choose to call this concept being “client-focused.” But “outer-directedness” is broader than mere client focus — and I invented the word, so it’ll mean what I want it to mean.

At a firm, lawyers should naturally be client-focused, in the sense that client work comes first and most internal matters come second. “Outer-directedness” implies not just client focus, but a more general external focus — devoting efforts to impressing the world, rather than to impressing others within the firm.

We should naturally spend our professional time serving our clients. And, in a law firm setting, we should spend our semi-professional time gazing out through our office windows, not peering inwardly down our own corridors. If a case just settled and you have some free time, spend that time impressing the world, not your colleagues. Join a non-profit board, work for a bar or trade association, write an article, give a talk. Raise both your personal and your firm’s profile. That benefits the world and serves institutional purposes. Don’t spend your spare time impressing your colleagues.

We should of course be nice to each other, but that’s civility, not having an undue inner focus. I’m opposed only to the stuff that goes beyond civility, which I’ll delicately call “office politics”….

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In the first and second parts of our Career Center “Tip of the Day” series, focused on how to evaluate a counteroffer, we covered the importance of re-evaluating your current employment situation and assessing what the new firm is offering you, to determine whether it addresses the issues/shortfalls of your current firm. Today we’ll discuss how to carefully analyze your firm’s counteroffer to see if it is really better than the new offer.

More on tip #3…

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