Career Advice

A guy walks into a conference room:

He’s wearing a custom-tailored suit and a shirt with monogrammed cuffs. His pocket square matches his silk tie. His cufflinks are diamond-studded, and the watch is a Rolex. How do you react?

Choice one: “My goodness, this fellow is stylish and obviously rich. He must be a great lawyer.”

Choice two: “All hat; no cowboy. If this clown were any good, he wouldn’t have to worry so much about appearances. Who does this fop think he’s fooling?”

I know that the conventional wisdom instructs people to dress for success; I’m only partly convinced . . .

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What the hell happened to the ding letter? When I was coming up, you would interview for a position, and maybe get a callback (inclusive of a nice lunch). If the firm was interested, you’d get an offer, if not, a thin envelope with a “ding” letter. I collected mine like badges of some sort. Some bar in Manhattan used to give you a free drink for every ding letter.

Eventually, I grew up a bit and threw them away. I had no need for them, and they were simply letters of rejection.

Over the years, something happened to the common ding letter: it disappeared. Now, you’re lucky if a company informs you that they received your application packet. Some go all in and state that they’ll keep your information on file and if someone finds you attractive enough, they will give a call, but don’t hold your breath. After talking to many applicants and folks in the job market, my real question is this: “what the hell happened to common decency?”

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Ed. note: This is the latest column by our newest writer, Anonymous Partner. In case you missed his prior posts, they are collected here.

I want to a be a Biglaw trial lawyer. If you could care less about trial work, but are in Biglaw, feel free to substitute whatever word you want for the word “trial” in the previous sentence — M&A, IPO, appellate, etc.

Why trial work, other than it seems like a good way to put my lack of nervousness when speaking publicly to productive use? Because I have always enjoyed days spent in court, and no matter how much fun it can be to take a contentious deposition or argue a motion, there is simply nothing like the atmosphere, teamwork, and total focus that a trial commands. Toss in the ability to avoid unpleasant obligations by saying “I am prepping for trial,” and the chance for a long vacation afterwards, and you get a great deal Biglaw-wise.

Since Biglaw is not the ideal training ground for trial work, I realize that I need to very flexible and patient if I realistically hope to have a trial practice down the road. In the meantime, I will continue looking for opportunities to work on trials, and I am willing to do some unorthodox things to accelerate my current pace of one trial every five years.

But first, some context….

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The title of today’s column comes from an e-mail I recently saw. The e-mail read, in its entirety: “Thanks for providing a copy of the statute. Do you have any advice?”

That cracked me up. (I crack up easily.) Doesn’t this e-mail exemplify a recurring problem among lawyers asked for advice? Someone asks a question; the lawyer locates the relevant statute; and the lawyer then sends along the text of the statute as though that answers the question. The lawyer may have provided information, but he almost surely did not actually help the client (which was probably the goal).

I’m not sure whether it’s laziness, cowardice, or incompetence, but something causes many lawyers routinely to transmit information without supplying legal advice.

Here’s another example (which also cracks me up):

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Ed. note: This is the latest column by our newest writer, Anonymous Partner. In case you missed his prior posts, check them out here and here.

I really enjoy the writing of Dr. Atul Gawande, the New Yorker contributor who is also a practicing surgeon. For one thing, surgeons are very interesting creatures — in many ways, they are the trial lawyers of the medical field. Just like trial lawyers (and generally litigators who do more than just brief writing), surgeons need to acquire certain basic technical skills, but the true measure of their value lies in their ability to achieve, through the exercise of leadership and artistry, a favorable result for the client or patient. And just as it takes years of residency and fellowship for surgeons to transition from technical proficiency to artistry, so too must the aspiring Biglaw first-chair trial lawyer undergo a seemingly interminable apprenticeship on the road to courtroom glory. (At least surgeons never lack, due to the frailty of the human body, practice subjects. Biglaw trials are harder to come by — but that is an issue for future exploration.)

Back to Dr. Gawande — something he recently prepared caught my eye. In early June, Dr. Gawande was invited to give the commencement address at Williams College, and his remarks were posted on the New Yorker’s website shortly afterwards. In his talk, Dr. Gawande argued that avoiding catastrophic outcomes — e.g. a stalled career, a Dewey, etc. — is possible, but only if the decision-makers are capable of recognizing the risks of their current paths and able to practice the “art of rescue”….

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I had lunch recently with a guy who’s looking for an in-house job. He was complaining about how tough this is: “Recruiters don’t do you any good. They’re focused almost entirely on moving lawyers between law firms; they don’t know about in-house jobs. The recruiters who get retained to do job searches for corporations are working for the corporation, not you. If you don’t match the criteria the corporation laid out, they don’t want to talk to you. How the heck does one land an in-house job?”

Surprisingly, I’d never thought about this issue. (I wasn’t looking for an in-house job — or, indeed, any job at all — when I landed in my current position.) Because I’d never considered how one obtains an in-house job, I had no idea what the answer was. So — always thinking of you (and searching for blog fodder) — I picked the brain of a headhunter-friend.

How, I asked the headhunter, should a lawyer go about looking for an in-house job?

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“Could be a brooch, a pterodactyl…”

The line above is from Airplane, a 1980 comedy that is regularly included in all-time top ten movie comedy lists.*

“Johnny” is the character who utters this and many more scene-stealing lines; he owned each scene in which he appeared, and was played by the late Stephen Stucker.

Each time he was on screen, and there were far too few appearances, you were drawn to watch him just to see what he would say. He nailed every line, and the audience loved him. My friends and I would regularly quote the movie in our younger years, as it signaled a paradigm shift in movie comedies –- riotous farces that contained foul language, sexual innuendo, and brief nudity. Among this genre, and ground breaking at the time were Caddyshack, The Blues Brothers, Stripes, and Porky’s.

These movies helped American movies evolve from the mid-’70s “cinema” into the early ’80s “blockbuster.” While these films broke boundaries and changed the rules, and even seem quaint by today’s standards, they’re still funny. But, back to Mr. Stucker.

While it is difficult at best to steal scenes in Biglaw, and be the person that folks remember (for the right reasons of course), it is even more difficult in-house. When you first transition, you are usually entering a company with policies and procedures, uncharted politics and a set hierarchy of power. You find your place soon enough and begin to learn from those that came before.

It is hard to stand out….

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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

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Two years ago, my company had to hire a lawyer to serve as our head of litigation for EMEA (Europe, Middle East, and Africa). We weren’t using a recruiter, so we had to locate candidates the old-fashioned way — by putting the word out. I called one of my former partners (a 60-ish corporate partner, who did a lot of work with European clients) and asked if he could spread the word in Europe that we had a position open. He startled me:

“You don’t have to do a job search. I’ll do that job for you.”

“Excuse me,” I stammered. “You do M&A work. You speak only English. You’ve never litigated in a common law country, let alone a civil law one. How could that job possibly make any sense for you?”

“Managing litigation isn’t very hard. It’s really a matter of knowing how to handle the outside lawyers. And given all the time I’ve spent doing deals in Europe, I have that skill down cold. Let me be your head of litigation for EMEA.”

I had forgotten entirely about that conversation until I had lunch last week with a 40-ish litigator at a different Vault 20 firm. He, too, didn’t understand that corporations are different from law firms; at corporations, the specifics of your work experience matter . . .

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As regular readers of this column know, my son, Jeremy, took a pass on law school: “I really love you, Dad. But basically you help big companies that did it get off the hook.”

Now, if I mention to physician-friends that my son’s in medical school, those friends often react the same way: “God love him; I hope he enjoys it. But I’d never go to medical school these days. Between the insurance companies, the hospital administrators, and the government, there’s no longer any joy in practicing medicine. It’s hard to treat your patients, and it’s hard to make a living. I suspect that things will only get worse over time. I loved being a doctor, but I sure wouldn’t want to be coming out of medical school today.”

I guess that means that today’s college graduates should think hard before deciding to go to medical school. Cross medicine off the list of desirable career choices.

And everyone in the legal profession knows the story about law . . .

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