Insider Advice for Law Students and Laterals

by Rachel Marx Boufford | May 22, 2013

Next month, Vault will release its annual Top 100 Law Firm rankings. Nearly 17,000 associates from across the country participated in our survey this year, rating their own firms on quality of life issues and rating other firms on their overall prestige as well as regional and practice area strengths.

In addition to our usual questions about culture, associate/partner relations, training, pro bono and more, we asked associates for their advice to candidates evaluating their firm as a potential employer. While some of this wisdom was firm-specific, we also gleaned some valuable tips that apply more generally to law students and laterals undertaking the job search. Below are some of our favorites.

It’s all about the people:

  • “All things equal, I think that the single most important and determinative factor when choosing a law firm should be how you connect with those you will be working with—the people. That is probably what differentiates firms the most. From 30,000 feet we are all very similar. It is the individuals that make up and ultimately determine the personality and culture of a practice group within a firm and the firm itself as a whole. That needs to be a good (almost perfect) fit for you.”
  • “Aside from basic compensation considerations, law students should choose firms based almost solely on who they'll be working for. It's the only thing that really determines your happiness once you start practicing.”
  • “Focus on the type of people you would like to work for—as distinct from people you would like to get drinks with—and who will take a real interest in your personal development.”

Focus on your target office and practice group:

  • “Be aware that billable expectations, work/life balance, and workload all depend heavily on the office and practice group. These are not firm-wide characteristics.”
  • “I would advise to not think about a large law firm as having a particular culture across the entire firm. Instead, each office and practice group has its own personality, and that should be more important than the ‘culture’ that the firm projects as its firm-wide culture.”
  • “Experience will be highly group-dependent. Speak to associates from the specific group you are considering joining.”

Make sure you’ll get the work you want:

  • “I did not realize the implications of being placed into a specialty group right when you start practicing. I think there are advantages and disadvantages to being a more general practitioner that I wish I knew before working at my firm.”
  • “Make sure if you are set on a practice area that the firm you're joining is willing and able to place you there.”
  • “I made my decision based on the quality of work I was going to get to do and the people. It doesn't matter much if it is a $100 million case or a $10 million case, but it does matter what you are doing on that case and who you are working with.”

The economics matter:

  • “One thing I wasn't sophisticated enough to know to think about when evaluating firms is to consider a firm's client base. With the world economy as shaky as it has been, you'll want a firm that can weather economic storms by not having to rely on one or a few types of clients.”
  • “Management of the firm is most important. Don't go to a firm that is deeply in debt. Debt-free firms should be looked upon most favorably.”

Other important considerations:

  • “Look to paternity/maternity benefits and pro bono hours caps to see if the firm genuinely puts its money where its mouth is or is just doing the minimum to appear family and pro bono-friendly, even if you don't think you want kids or are not interested in pro bono.”
  • “Think about what you want to achieve at your first job. Do you want to learn the most about X and get headed down the road of being an expert there? Just get litigation experience? Just get paid? Try to think long-term about your career early on and fit in your first job into that map as well as you possibly can.”
  • “When looking at compensation, look beyond the first two years.”

And once you’re there…

  • “Ask any and all questions as a summer associate; everything is fair game and perhaps most transparent during that time.”
  • “At any firm, you have to set your own personal boundaries.”
  • “Be a self starter and specialize, or you won't like it no matter where you go.”

Filed Under: Job Search


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