Law firms

Just a typical lapsed lawyer (J.D., Northwestern ’68)

Lawyers turn into ex-lawyers for a host of reasons. The transition can be voluntary or not. We all know that erstwhile attorneys have successfully gone on to become, among thousands of other things, consultants, teachers, writers, and entrepreneurs. Late last year, in partnership with our friends at Adam Smith Esq., we reached out to lapsed lawyers to ask them their personal stories. Why did they choose the law in the first place? Why did they leave? What are they up to now? Do they regret leaving the practice of law? (A whopping 93% said “no” to that last question.)

We were quite pleased with the level of response to our survey: 430 former (or “recovering”) lawyers shared their stories with us. The tales they told us bring to mind a sort of inversion of Tolstoy’s line about happy and unhappy families. Those who were positive about their time spent practicing had a diverse range of experiences; those who were unhappy mostly tell the same story.

Read on for the details.

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Ed. note: This is the first in a new series, “Across the Desk,” from Bruce MacEwen and Janet Stanton of Adam Smith Esq. and JDMatch. “Across the Desk” will take a thoughtful look at recruiting, career paths, professional development, human capital and related issues. Some of these pieces will have previously appeared, in slightly different form, on AdamSmithEsq.com.

As noted in the American Lawyer recently, the lateral recruiting boom of recent years continues unabated. As the Am Law article points out, “At the same time [as they’re focused on hiring lateral partners], firms appear to be homing in on their poor performers. Nine out of 10 survey respondents said their firm has ‘unprofitable’ partners, and seven out of 10 said their firms have partners at risk of being deequitized or ‘put on performance plans.’ As one survey respondent put it: ‘There are too many partners without sufficient billable work.'”

Now, wouldn’t you think it would make sense — if firms are worried about underperformers — to pay some attention to associates as well as partners? After all, some of those associates should, speaking theoretically at least, be your future partners.

Yet there’s unrebutted evidence that firms look at the wrong criteria when hiring associates….

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Around here, one can’t mention the concept of something being “overrated” without reference to one of the weirdest and most enduring ATL comment memes, a play on the late, great Hitch’s assertion that the four most overrated things in life are “champagne, lobster, anal sex, and picnics.” So who are the, um, lobsters of Biglaw?

Last week, we had a look at what our audience considered to be the most underrated Biglaw firms, by practice area. Today, inevitably, we turn it around and have a look at what you’re telling us are the most overrated firms.

Among other things, our ATL Insider Survey asks attorneys to nominate firms with overrated practices within the respondent’s own practice specialty. Litigators nominate litigation departments, etc.

To be sure, these survey results need to be taken with some buckets of salt — we realize that, for some, answering this question might be a chance to take an easy shot at a more successful rival or competitor. Of course, there are crazy people who will tell you that such paragons as Benjamin Franklin or Tom Brady are “overrated,” but that probably says more about the person making that statement than anything else. But that said, these survey responses are a fun glimpse at which firms Biglaw attorneys think are more sizzle than steak….

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If you could end a legal dispute by including a picture of a puppy in an email, would you do it? If the other party promised to do what you want if you send him a picture of a puppy, wouldn’t you at least try? What’s the downside? Everybody loves puppies (except Mitt Romney). I don’t want to sound like Winston Zeddemore, but if someone asks you for a puppy picture, you say yes.

A lawyer for Lockheed Martin evidently doesn’t share my desire to get along with others. When confronted with a domain registration dispute, a private citizen agreed to transfer a domain to Lockheed, so long as the company’s lawyer included a picture of a puppy in one of his emails.

The lawyer didn’t respond appropriately, and now there’s a whole Gizmodo post on the dust-up. Pictures of pets 1, stuffy lawyers 0….

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‘We’re going to a new firm!’

Even in a world where “Who’ll be the next Dewey?” is a Biglaw parlor game and the general legal job market hits the bottom and keeps digging, there still are a few bright spots for the industry. Some examples: law firm associate classes, though contracted, appear to have stabilized, revenues for the largest law firms grew by the highest rate since 2007, and lateral hiring is back in a big way.

According to NALP, the volume of 2011 lateral hiring was up by nearly 50 percent compared with 2010, with associates accounting for almost three-quarters of the lateral traffic. Obviously, the data is not in for this year, but according to one veteran headhunter we spoke with, the revived lateral attorney market has continued through 2012. Admittedly, this trend is not a bright spot if one believes that a fast-flowing lateral market is a key ingredient in the recipe for more Deweys. But at the very least, we are in a better environment for those looking to make a lateral move.

Unlike much of the labor marketplace, legal recruitment generally has not migrated online. In the large firm context, would-be lateral attorneys continue to require the specialized knowledge and carefully cultivated relationships of the legal recruiter. Today, the ATL Career Center launches its Practicing Lawyers section, which features a Recruiter Directory, a new resource for those of you looking for greener pastures. After the jump, check out the founding members of the Directory….

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...to take a survey

Last Thursday, we opened our ATL Firm & School Insiders Survey and so far, so good. We’ve heard from students at nearly 100 law schools and lawyers at about 200 firms. As previously noted, this survey is one of the first data-gathering tools we’ll be using to create a new, expanded ATL Career Center. While we’re pleased with this initial response, of course we encourage all of you who haven’t yet to take 3-5 minutes and head over here to take our absolutely confidential survey. Thanks in advance.

To all non-law firm attorneys: thanks for your insight regarding your law school alma maters. Please know that we are looking forward to asking about your professional experiences soon, whether they be in government, non-profit, in-house, academia or elsewhere.

As our data accumulates, we look forward to slicing and dicing it in myriad ways, in order to find patterns of interest to our readership, but more importantly, for useful insights for anyone researching legal education and careers.

After the jump, we share a handful of early trends in the survey data:

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uncle sam

...to take a survey

Later this year, Above the Law will be launching a new, expanded Career Center. The new Career Center will be a resource for students and lawyers at all stages of their careers, and in all areas of legal practice (i.e., not just Biglaw). But we can be sure that news and insight into life at firms and schools will continue to be ATL’s bread and butter. With that in mind, today we open up the ATL School & Firm Insider Survey.

I assume a common reaction will be, “What with — among others — Vault, Chambers, U.S. News, and Am Law, why the hell do we need yet another employer/school survey?” Fair enough. And yes, all of the existing surveys have their merits. All of them produce useful content for students and potential laterals.

We do believe, however, that when it comes to information, the more the merrier. Moreover, the ATL survey is distinctive in some fundamental ways, and we’re going to justify its existence….

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Every year, in honor of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament (Pervis Ellison is not walking through that door, Louisville fans), Above the Law runs a law-related bracket. Law firms or schools advance based on the outcome of reader polls.

Last year was a particularly fun tournament. We crowned the Douchiest Law School in all the land. Duke won (big surprise), but even now people at UVA are still pissed and effectively demanding that we redo the poll to take into account their recent douchtastic behavior.

But there is a more important bracket that needs a second look. Back in 2008, we asked you to name the Coolest Law Firm. Guess who won.

In 2008, Above the Law readers declared Latham & Watkins to be the “coolest” law firm in the country. Yes, that Latham.

That was three years ago. Lehman was still a respected investment bank back then. Does anybody want to try this again? Let’s get to it…

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We told you this day would come. Way back in July 2009, we reported that the rankings behemoth, U.S. News & World Report, would soon be ranking law firms. In February 2010, we reported that the American Bar Association — so toothless in the face of U.S. News’s law school rankings — was worried about how this new U.S. News product would affect the profession.

Well, for better or for worse, the day has finally arrived. As of midnight (give or take a few minutes), U.S. News went live with rankings of 8,782 firms across 81 different practice areas. From their press release:

These inaugural rankings, which are presented in tiers both nationally and by metropolitan area or by state, showcase 8,782 different law firms ranked in one or more of 81 major practice areas. Full data is available online for the law firms that received rankings, from the largest firms in the country to hundreds of one-person and two-person law firms, providing a comprehensive view of the U.S. legal profession that is unprecedented both in the range of firms represented and in the range of qualitative and quantitative data used to develop the rankings.

It’s like Christmas morning — if only Santa were a jolly red prestige whore. Let’s get to it…

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As the Baby Boomers continue to age, we’ve been documenting their reluctance to gracefully leave the Biglaw stage. One would think that all these lingering old people would at least be a good mentoring resource for the younger generation. Kash suggested as much when we debated the topic earlier this year.

But an article up on American Lawyer this morning suggests that aging Americans don’t view “mentoring” the young as part of their job description. A former Kirkland & Ellis partner, Steven Harper, writes about the mentoring gap in Biglaw. His starting point is an interesting article from former Reagan speechwriter, Peggy Noonan:

Commemorating the 50th anniversary of Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird,” Peggy Noonan, writing recently in The Wall Street Journal, hit on an important truth that law firm leaders should heed. In lamenting what she called the national need for “adult supervision,” Noonan wrote, “there’s kind of an emerging mentoring gap going on in America right now … a generalized absence of the wise old politician/lawyer/leader/editor who helps the young along, who teaches them the ropes and ways and traditions of a craft.”

Dear Baby Boomers, please look to your own house before you criticize Gen Y for its Twitter-aided navel gazing…

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