Associate Advice

Tom Wallerstein

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….

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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….

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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.

Let’s get to it….

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This week, Lateral Link Director Tricia McGrath shares the inside scoop on what fifth years need to do to make sure they stay on track to become partner, and avoid the pitfalls that come with being passed over continually.

Law firm economics changed substantially over the past decade. Law firms now run like “businesses,” in corporate America parlance. In the last few years, many associates at top firms who thought that they were “on track” for partnership were unexpectedly passed over. Unfortunately, market conditions suggest that many more will be passed over in future years.

As a recruiter, I frequently speak with senior associates who were on the wrong side of partnership decisions, and as a result, realized the “out” side of the firm’s “up-and-out” policy. Many of these overlooked associates are now wondering how the train went off the track so quickly. Don’t the years of solid billables and strong reviews account for anything? For most of these associates, their best-case scenarios are a new position at another Biglaw firm with a three-year partner look — often going in to their new firm as a fifth or sixth year — or an in-house position at significantly less compensation (in most cases). Often, neither of these options is particularly attractive for the candidate.

How can you protect yourself from becoming a senior associate who has been passed over, has no business, and has limited job prospects?

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This is a real drink in a real glass with enough ice that it'll be appropriately watered down for networking.

There’s a list that’s been going around the past two days that purports to be A Drink-by-Drink Guide for networking events.

Don’t get your hopes up. It’s not really drinking advice for legal networking events. It’s regular advice for legal networking events that happens to use the word “drink” — instead of “level” or “number” — to demarcate the five tips in the article.

It’s fine advice, especially if you are so awkward socially that you can cool off a hot craps table simply with your inability to execute a high-five.

However, as a functioning alcoholic (emphasis on FUNction), I’ve got some real advice on how alcohol can help get you through these painful and boring networking events without being so terrified of not getting a job that your scent of desperation makes everybody want to stand three feet away from you.

Here’s how to look cool and confident while knocking back a few without getting so sloshed you end up on Above the Law in the morning….

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Tom Wallerstein

Success in Biglaw often is measured by the size of an attorney’s “book of business.” Not surprisingly, having a book of business is also the best way to ensure the success of a private practice. The bigger the book, the greater your exit options. So whether your goal is to make partner or to open your own firm, everyone knows that the key is to develop a book of business.

That is easy to say, but virtually impossible to do in a big firm setting. Many big firms handle only matters in which the amount at stake is in the millions of dollars. This means that the prospect of an associate landing such a case is slim; a client would never entrust a multi-million dollar dispute to an un-tested associate. Associates are told to attend networking events, but what is the prospect of meeting someone who just so happens to have a ten million dollar dispute laying around, and who has not yet staffed the matter, and who is willing to entrust the matter to a junior associate he just met?

Once upon a time, mentoring relationships were strong, and firms were loyal to their associates. A loyal associate could hope that the partner for whom he or she worked would encourage clients to develop a relationship with the associate and allow the associate to claim ownership of future engagements from that client. If nothing else, a loyal associate could expect to inherit clients from a retiring partner.

Alas, the traditional method of building a book of business no longer works for most associates. Firms now sometimes go so far as to actively discourage associates from forming too-strong relationships with clients, lest the associate leave and take the client with them. And even if an associate is fortunate enough to get client contact, clients are likely to develop loyalties to the partner on the matter, even if the associate is doing most of the work. Unfortunately, just because you do good work doesn’t mean that over time you will magically develop that elusive book of business.

To make matters worse, it’s often impossible to predict future business, especially for litigators. If a client hires you for a patent dispute and pays you $1 million in fees in 2011 before the case settles, does that mean you have a $1 million book of business, even if you have no reason to expect any business from that client in 2012? How can you guarantee repeat business from any client, especially in litigation? Do you need a three or five year average? Those are long time frames for associates.

With all these challenges, how can an associate ever hope to make the rain they will need if they want to open their own firm?

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Now that Thanksgiving is almost upon us, some of you may already be thinking ahead to the winter holiday season. That’s precisely what you should be doing if you want to take more time off than just your firm’s designated holiday days. For some associates, the holidays are a good time to use your vacation days, but you will need to plan ahead if you want your vacation to be a real break from work.

The Career Center, brought to you by Lateral Link, has compiled a list of the top five tips to help you have a happy holiday season away from the office….

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I told you last week that today’s column would focus on “how to get my attention.” And I’ll let you know in a bit.

But first, let’s play “Which Biglaw Anecdote is True?” Here are the options:

(1) A partner at Law Firm A regularly has his briefcase sent to his home in a limo;
(2) Law Firm B is chock full of lawyers of all faiths and backgrounds, but holds its summer outing at a country club known for being “restricted”; or
(3) Attorneys at Law Firm C take a helicopter from the 34th Street heliport in Manhattan to a hearing in Connecticut — and then bill the client for it.

Which story is true?

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We enjoy giving our readers the occasional peek behind the Biglaw curtain. Last month, for example, we shared with you the internal interview manual that Sullivan & Cromwell provides to its attorneys who conduct on-campus interviews at law schools.

Today, in a similar spirit, we take an inside look at the annual review process for attorneys at Skadden Arps. We’re into the fourth quarter of 2011, so these reviews are not far away.

In this special report, we’ll provide general observations on the Skadden review process, highlight noteworthy comments from leaked attorney evaluations, and show you a few reviews in their entirety (redacted to remove lawyer and client names). This information should interest Biglaw associates who want to know what partners look for junior lawyers, and it should also appeal to partners at other firms who want ideas on how to structure annual reviews.

If you’re interested in learning more about performance reviews at one of the world’s biggest and best law firms, please keep reading….

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Ed. note: This post is by Will Meyerhofer, a former Sullivan & Cromwell attorney turned psychotherapist. He holds degrees from Harvard, NYU Law, and The Hunter College School of Social Work, and he blogs at The People’s Therapist. His new book, Way Worse Than Being A Dentist, is available on Amazon, as is his previous book, Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy (affiliate links).

I was hiking in Iceland this past summer. We were pretty high up – around 1,000 meters – and it was raining hard, high wind, snow on the ground.

“Damn, it’s cold,” grumbled one of my American companions.

An Englishman behind us stumbled over a patch of frozen volcanic ash. “There’s a clue in the name, mate,” he offered helpfully.

Some things are so obvious they really don’t need to be explained anymore. Like it’s icy in Iceland. Like it sucks working at a big law firm. You kinda ought to know that by now — which is why interviewing 2L’s feels so heart-breaking.

I should know; I’ve been listening to senior and mid-level associates for the past month, telling me how much it sucks interviewing 2L’s….

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