What do you need when starting a solo practice or a small firm? A huge office in the middle of downtown? The most cutting edge computer? A paralegal and an associate?
You don’t actually need any of those things, but the one that often costs small firms the most headaches in terms of time and money is hiring staff. Many times, new solos or small firms feel the need to staff up right away — they’re lawyers! They have to have a secretary, an assistant, a paralegal, etc. It’s expected. Clients won’t feel comfortable coming into an office without a secretary. But after six months of a low volume caseload, becoming familiar with case management software, and discovering that clients don’t particularly care if you have a secretary, lawyers realize they are wasting money on unnecessary people. Even worse, lawyers might find they hired the wrong people. In a rush to get their office started, they took on whoever first came in the door. Or they only spend a cursory time with the interview process, relying on people’s résumé or referrals. After which they discover hiring the wrong person pulls everyone else down.
So when is the right time to hire someone? And how do you know if they are the right fit?
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).
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?
By way of introduction, I am the founder and managing partner of Duval & Stachenfeld LLP. We are a 70-ish lawyer law firm in midtown NYC that focuses strongly on real estate; indeed, we refer to ourselves as “The Pure Play in Real Estate Law.”
As managing partner I have spearheaded numerous unique initiatives that have distinguished us from other law firms. Many of these ideas were very scary when we tried them out — there was always a fear that we would not only fail but, worse yet, be laughed at. Some of these ideas did not work out so well, I admit; however, the ones that succeeded have been the fulcrum to attract both lawyers and clients to our firm and indeed been the bedrock of our success.
As a relatively small firm playing with the big boys and girls, one would think that our size could be a disadvantage. But that would be incorrect. Smaller players can be flexible and move in different directions. We can take risks and seize opportunities that large law firms cannot logically capitalize on….
File this one under #firstworldproblems. Today we have a guy who got into the University of Chicago Law School and Duke Law School, and he’s getting money from both.
But he’s getting a little more money from Duke… which is about as close as you’ll ever get Duke to admitting that it’s not “the Harvard of the South” because Harvard wouldn’t give you a dime to draw you away from the UofC (no offense, Brian Leiter).
So what should this guy do, other than be happy and email ATL about his good fortune? Well, you probably need a little more information…
This is not a column about getting bloated Biglaw partners into running shape, as much as many of them need the exercise. Instead, let’s focus on another 10K milestone, one that Biglaw associates chase after, spurred on by a number of incentives, ranging from a simple desire to keep their hard-earned jobs to the burning ambition necessary to even aim for partnership: reaching 10,000 billable hours.
In the popular conception, 10,000 hours of practice at any skill is a critical hurdle to achieving mastery. It does not work that way for lawyers, especially those that start out in Biglaw.
As anyone who has started their career in Biglaw knows, the early years are more about survival than anything else. The most critical skill is adaptability, both in terms of being able to handle the lifestyle stresses presented by the Biglaw junior associate experience, and recognizing just how little law school has prepared one for Biglaw legal practice. In fact, I would say that for purposes of tracking personal progress towards the 10K mark, the first year of Biglaw practice (and maybe two or three depending on whether one is in a firm that “rotates” their juniors to expose them to different practices areas) should be thrown out. Consider that time as the foundation that allows for future productive lawyering if it makes you feel better. And first-years would do well to disabuse themselves of the notion that they will be “contributing” or doing “quality” work. Obviously they need to do their best, and perform up to Biglaw standards, but the hard truth is that the first-year in Biglaw is there to force high-flying and well-credentialed aspiring lawyers to humbly confront two uncomfortable questions. First, do you even want to be doing this? And second, even if you want to, are you good enough?
At a law firm, law matters. Law is the center of the institution’s universe, and it’s all everyone is thinking about.
It’s the other functions that don’t matter: “Another email from IT? Telling me about interfaces and gigabytes? Why don’t those clowns leave me alone?”
“Another email from finance hectoring me about time sheets? Don’t those morons know I’m busy?”
At corporations, law (and compliance) is an “other function.” The businesses are concentrating on their businesses, and law and compliance — along with human resources, information technology, and finance — are, at best, a means to an end. If you mirror the other “shared services” and send incomprehensible communications to the businesses, the businesses will soon realize that you’re just one of the pests, meant to be ignored.
Inevitably, if a business person accidentally steps over some legal line, you’ll hear that the business guy had no clue that the line existed: “Yeah, yeah. Now that you’re telling me about it, I understand that we have that rule. But how was I to know? The rule is buried on the fourth page of some impenetrable policy hidden somewhere in our computer system. I spend my time selling; I can’t waste time trying to make sense of your legalese.”
If you don’t sympathize with that guy, then you’ve been a lawyer for too long. His criticism is not just an excuse for having violated the rules; his criticism may well be the truth. How can you change that reality?
Actually, let me clarify that. Email is a fast, open platform that has universal adoption and has changed the world. It’s convenient and probably how 99% of the people reading this conduct their client communications. But email client programs suck. Most of them are horribly designed and have morphed into unwieldy, user-interface nightmares, mostly due to the broken way most people use them.
If you’re like the vast majority of people, your inbox is a source of work. It’s also highly likely that you also treat it as a storage/repository of work. You begin to attempt to organize it. You start flagging things, creating folders, and soon you’re using your inbox as a task management system. Which is horribly inefficient, and not at all what your inbox is designed for. Furthermore, you’ve likely got your email client set to fetch and notify you on some ridiculous schedule, like every five minutes. Meaning that it’s quite possible that you never get more than five minutes into a task before being interrupted!
I have received numerous emails from law students requesting advice about the Biglaw interview day. I once again solicited the input of other recruitment professionals in order to compile a list of the items that candidates should keep in mind on their interview day.
Please recall that, as members of the recruitment staff, we are not the individuals who conduct the interviews; rather, we hear secondhand about the reasons why a candidate is or is not advanced in the process. The following list contains our collective thoughts, but, ultimately, a candidate needs to be true to him or herself during the interview process:
Ed. note: Please welcome Shannon Achimalbe to Above the Law. Shannon will be writing about the journey from solo practice to a larger law firm.
Since my last post, the ATL editors have been busy coveringmultiplelayoffstories. That, along with news that hiring will not return to pre-recession levels, is scaring the crap out of me discouraging. But as every lawyer and law school graduate since 1950 knows, finding any lawyer job is a Herculean ordeal – whether boom or bust. And finding the right lawyer job is like finding a needle in a stack of needles.
Because of my non-peer pedigree and the continuing economic malaise, the traditional method of job searching is not going to work, and I’ll end up getting either nothing or a dead-end temporary job. In order to get the job I want, I’ll need to create and execute a long-term career plan.
I’m sure most of you are familiar with the “shotgun” method of job hunting. Towards the end of my third year of law school, I sent at least 500 unsolicited cover letters and résumés to every law firm, recruiter, in-house, out-house and temp agency my career counselor and I can think of. I must have spent hours customizing each cover letter and résumé for each firm explaining why I should be hired without sounding like a blowhard or a wimp. I took advantage of the free law student bar memberships and went to every networking event I could.
“I never thought I’d end up working as a contract attorney doing doc review in a windowless basement,” my client bemoaned. “But then I read that piece about the lawyer who’s working as a clerk at Walmart. At least I’ve still got it over him in terms of job prestige.”
Well, you know how obsessed lawyers are with job prestige.
There’s a phrase, “the Downward Drift,” that crops up in discussions of serious mental health diagnoses like schizophrenia, and/or chronic substance abuse. The idea is that you are afflicted with serious mental illness, or become addicted to a harmful substance, which in turn leads to a slow, inevitable slide downward in terms of social class. Before long, the wealthy, Upper East Side business executive suffering from schizophrenia and/or severe alcoholism finds himself jobless, friendless, and eventually even homeless, sleeping in shelters and begging for change.
Weirdly, the same phenomenon — the Downward Drift — affects people who acquire Juris Doctor degrees…
If you are considering a virtual law practice, you know that many of today’s solo firms started that way. But why are established, multi-attorney law firms going virtual?
Many small firms are successfully moving part—or even all—of their practice to a virtual setting. This even includes multi-jurisdictional practice spanning several states and practice areas, although solo and small partnerships are still the largest adopters of virtual law.
Can you do the same? The new article Mobile in Practice, Virtual by Design from author Jared Correia, Esq., explores how mobile technology bring real-life benefits to a small law firm. Read this new article—the next in Thomson Reuters’ Independent Thinking series for small firms—to explore how a mobile practice:
Reduces malpractice risk
Enables you to gather the best attorneys to fit the firm, regardless of each person’s geographic location
Leverages mobile devices and cloud technology to enable on-the-spot client and prospect communication
Transitioning in-house is something many (if not most) firm lawyers find themselves considering at some point. For many, it’s the first step in their career that isn’t simply a function of picking the best option available based on a ranking system.
Unknown territory feels high-risk, and can have the effect of steering many of us towards the well-greased channels into large, established companies.
For those who may be open to something more entrepreneurial, there is far less information available. No recruiter is calling every week with offers and details.
In sponsorship with Betterment, ATL and David Lat will moderate a panel about life in-house and we’ll hear from GCs at Birchbox, Gawker Media, Squarespace, Bonobos, and Betterment. Drinks, snacks, networking, and a great time guaranteed. Invite your colleagues, but RSVP fast, as space is limited.
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 seven years. You can reach them by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
It’s that time of year again when JDs are starting to apply for 2L summer jobs and 2L summers are deciding which practice area to focus on.
For those JDs with an interest in potentially lateraling to or transferring to Asia in the future, please feel free to reach out to Kinney for advice on firm choices, interviewing and practice choices, relating to future marketability in Asia, or for a general discussion on your particular Asia markets of interest. This is of course a free of cost service for those who some years in the future may be our future industry contacts or perhaps even clients.
For some years now Kinney’s Asia head, Evan Jowers, has been formally advising Harvard Law students with such questions, as the Asia expert in Harvard Law’s “Ask The Experts Market Program” each summer and fall, with podcasts and scheduled phone calls. This has been an enjoyable and productive experience for all involved.