So, you’ve arrived. You’ve been on-boarded. You’ve received your work i.d. and your email account has been activated. You’ve located the nearest bathroom. You’ve committed your secretary’s name to memory. You are eagerly awaiting your first assignment.
So how do you assure that you have the best summer possible? A summer where you have the chance to truly assess whether or not you like Biglaw (as opposed to a summer focused on whether Biglaw likes you)? A summer where you end up with an offer at the end?
Astute Biglaw associates, and their fellow associates at boutiques and smaller firms, share an understanding with Tyrion Lannister. For those who don’t watch Game of Thrones, nor read the books upon which the popular series is based, Tyrion (played by the Emmy-winning actor Peter Dinklage) is the proverbial “second son,” whose father serves as the de facto ruler of the kingdom. His sister is the Queen Regent whose taste for wine matches only her disdain for her younger brother.
At this point in the series (spoiler alert — skip down two paragraphs if you are not up to date with the show), Tyrion stands on trial for alleged regicide. Rightfully skeptical of his chances of exoneration by the tribunal standing in judgment of him, Tyrion elects for “trial by combat” as a means of proving his innocence. While a smart choice, Tyrion is far from capable of physically defeating the literal “Mountain” man that his sister and accuser has selected to represent the “State” in Westeros v. Lannister. He needs a champion.
And he finds one, in the form of a visiting Prince who nurses a longstanding grudge against both Tyrion’s family members, and the man who will be his co-combatant — lucky for Tyrion, as his previous attempts to recruit others to stand as his champion had failed. When we see him at his moment of salvation, he is a desperate man, jailed, facing capital punishment at the hands of a blood-starved beast who disembowels malnourished slaves for sport. The appearance of a champion may not improve his situation all that much. But it gives him hope, and with hope comes the will to carry on.
Law firm associates may not have it quite as bad as Tyrion, but they share in common with him the need for a champion to secure their future….
I begin my quest for a fulfilling job by revisitng my alma mater’s career development office (CDO). When I was a law student, the CDO was unhelpful. This was because during my law school’s annual on-campus interview period, even the small firms and local government agencies wanted only the top 10% of the class. So the CDO tried its best to help me and the rest of the peasants scrounge for whatever was left. At this point, the Biglaw dreams and in-house wishes ended, and we were preparing for our multi-season starring role in Lifestyles of the Poor and Unknown, sponsored in part by IBR.
So I was not expecting much from the CDO as far as job leads were concerned. And since I am well past the all-important nine-month deadline for post-graduate employment, I expected the counselor to tell me the cruel truth — that there was nothing the CDO or my law school can do for me — EVER. So to ensure that my visit wasn’t a complete waste of time, I emailed the secretary ahead of time, telling her that I wanted to talk to the career counselor about a number of things other than any available job openings.
The social dynamics within Biglaw firms can mirror those found in pre-colonial Puritan societies. Long working hours in harsh competitive conditions, hierarchical command structures, and a recognition that the group is only as strong as its weakest member. Common features of both your local Biglaw firm and Plymouth, Massachusetts, circa 1650.
Smallpox may no longer be the threat it was to the pilgrims, but Biglaw associates (and increasingly partners) are susceptible to career killers just as deadly. Reputation is everything in Biglaw, and decisions about someone’s suitability to remain employed in Biglaw are often made on the basis of (sometimes undeserved) labels that can attach to someone with the adhesive grip of a miracle glue from a late-night informercial. Yes, Biglaw lawyers can find themselves branded with the equivalent of a scarlet letter. Just like young Hester Prynne, but rather than being branded with an “A,” Biglaw folk get tagged with one-word denigrations of their fitness to reach the promised land of partnership.
There are plenty of one-word adjectives that serve as partnership (and often employment) disqualifiers for those in Biglaw. And just as there is no “I” in team, there are not many favorable descriptors for Biglaw lawyers that start with that letter. Intelligent? Everyone in Biglaw is, at least relative to the large majority of the human race. Inspired? Better suited to describe someone in public interest law, rather than a regulatory expert skilled at carving out exceptions for clients that want to circumvent the very rules that the rest of society is expected to abide by.
With unemployment rates still high for new law school grads, incubator programs sponsored by law schools and bar associations are gaining traction. Not to be confused with the profit-generating incubators common in the business and start-up world, the law school incubator concept, conceived by Fred Rooney at CUNY Law School, subsidizes new law school grads to start their own practices to provide “low bono” legal services.
In exchange for deeply discounting their fees, grads receive low-cost rent and training from more experienced attorneys. After 12-18 months in the incubator, these now practice-ready lawyers can move on to a position at a non-profit or continue to operate their firms on their own. Since the first law school incubator launched back in 2007, nearly two dozen others have cropped up at law schools and bar associations across the country.
For the past couple of days, I’ve been at a conference held by Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System (IAALS). The purpose of the conference was to kick off a year-long project entitled Foundations For Practice that was being helmed by Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers (ETL), a subset of IAALS. ETL is trying to determine the fundamental skills that new law graduates need to make them as appealing as possible to employers directly after they graduate from law school — i.e., how can law schools make sure that their graduates have skills that are valuable to future employers.
IAALS gathered a diverse group of lawyers to discuss the issue. Present were public defenders, judges, former ABA presidents, attorneys general, public interest lawyers, general counsels, Biglaw partners, and small firm lawyers such as myself and fellow Above The Law columnist Carolyn Elefant. We were there to give our perspectives on what were the skills we thought were necessary for new lawyers. Obviously there was strong general consensus as to what skills were necessary for new lawyers to have.
Ed. note: This is the latest installment in a series of posts on lateral moves from Lateral Link’s team of expert contributors. Kristina Marlow is a Director with Lateral Link’s D.C. office who brings almost 20 years of experience in the Washington legal market to her work with associate and partner candidates. Prior to joining Lateral Link, Kristina spent a decade at Gibson Dunn, first as a litigation associate and then as the D.C. office’s hiring manager. A Michigan native, Kristina earned her J.D., cum laude, from Georgetown University Law Center’s evening program and a B.A. in Journalism from Michigan State University, where she was named “Outstanding Senior.” She also worked as an appellate clerk, as an economic analyst for the federal government, and as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune.
The job seeker had done (almost) everything right: Graduated with honors from a top law school, clerked for an appellate court, practiced at an “A-List” firm, and then went to a government agency to top off his experience and make him partnership material. Imagine his shock when I advised him that landing a general litigation position in Biglaw now that he was 12 years out of law school would be tough without a book of business. After all, he had seen the “revolving door” in Washington; how could it be shut now, he wondered? I conceded that many attorneys in D.C. do move with ease between government and private practice, but that the ones he read about in the Washington Post were high-level officials who firms know will bring in business. “And I’m just a worker bee,” he acknowledged….
Today I continue to address some of the questions that I have received from you by email. Once again, I note that these are simply my personal views on the questions presented.
1. How do law firms assess job moves on a résumé, particularly when the moves were dictated by life circumstances (such as the need to follow a spouse into a secondary legal market)?
There is an unspoken belief amongst many recruitment professionals that a candidate who has moved around too often is a problematic candidate. Whether this is true or not, recruitment professionals view a fifth-year candidate who has already been at three firms as easily discontented. The thought then becomes — why would this candidate be happy at our firm? How are we any different than his or her previous employers? While candidates are often able to explain their moves (e.g., personal circumstances), recruiters then question the depth of experience that a candidate has had to date. Is a candidate who has stayed at one firm for five years more experienced that a fifth-year associate who has moved firms three times? In my experience, employers always favor the former candidate. Partners like loyalty and depth of experience, be it actual or perceived.
2. How long after graduation should an associate remain at a less than ideal job in a secondary market before submitting a résumé to a Biglaw firm in a more desirable location, such as New York or Chicago?
I am making plans to attend several conferences and major bar association events for the remainder of the year. My primary goal for attending is to meet people who will provide job leads. But I also hope to meet potential clients, industry leaders, mentors, referral sources, and possibly a shopping companion. The problem is that attending these conferences can be expensive, especially if you are a solo practitioner paying with your own money. But I believe with proper planning, I can make the most of it without breaking the bank.
When I was a newbie lawyer, I dreaded going to conferences. This was because the costs of registration, travel, and lodging were high, and the lectures were boring, obscure, or both (which was mostly the case). I went only because everyone told me that I should introduce myself to the attendees, offer my services, and possibly get a job offer or referrals. So I went, tried my absolute best to stay awake and learn something, and gave my elevator speech and business card to everyone I met. I even paid extra for the dinner reception where I listened to the keynote speaker ramble on and on about her pro bono work. After I left, I sent everyone I met a follow up email and requested a meeting over coffee or lunch. Most ignored me. Others politely declined. And the few I met in person were genuinely good people but probably not going to help my career. After spending several thousand dollars with no immediate results, it can get discouraging and frustrating.
Now that I am more seasoned, I still dread going to conferences, but my approach has changed….
The legal industry is being disrupted at every level by technological advances. While legal tech entrepreneurs and innovators are racing to create a more efficient and productive future, there is widespread indifference on the part of attorneys toward these emerging technologies.
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: email@example.com.
We at Kinney Asia have made a number of FCPA / White Collar US associate placements in Hong Kong / China thus far in 2014. Most of such placements have been commercial litigation associates from major US markets, fluent in Mandarin, switching to FCPA / White Collar litigation. Some have already had FCPA experience, but those are difficult candidates for firms to find (this will change in coming years as US firms are now promoting FCPA / White Collar to their 2L summers who are fluent in Mandarin and have an interest in transferring to China at some point).
Legal Week quoted Kinney’s Head of Asia, Evan Jowers, extensively in the following relevant article here.
There is a new trend in the market, though, where mid-level transactional US associates, fluent in spoken Mandarin and written Chinese, are interviewing for and in some cases landing junior FCPA / White Collar spots in Hong Kong / China at very top tier US firms.
When the LexisNexis Cloud Technology Survey results were reported earlier this year, it showed that attorneys were starting to peer less skeptically into the future, and slowly but surely leaning more toward all the benefits the law cloud has to offer.
Because let’s face it, plenty of attorneys are perhaps a bit too comfortable with their “system” of practice management, which may or may not include neon highlighters, sticky notes, dog-eared file folders, and a word processing program that was last updated when the term “raise the roof” was still de rigueur.