An Open Letter to the Law Firm Class of 2012

by Angela Kopolovich | October 23, 2012

Dearest Incoming Junior Associates,

As thousands of you, newly-minted lawyers, step into your shiny offices for the first time this fall, the sighs of relief will echo through the book-lined halls of law firms all over the country. "I've made it! All those years of school, law review, moot court, clinics, and clerkships were all about getting here; and I have arrived. Whew!" And as the ink begins to dry on those new business cards, you feel as though you can finally take a deep breath and begin settling into the life you’ve dreamt about all these years. Well… not so fast.

Starting a job may feel like the end of the road, but it’s really just the beginning of a new one. Unfortunately, much of what you’ve learned up until now has not really prepared you for this journey. In addition, the truth is, you might begin looking for greener pastures before you even know it. According to a recent Forbes article, ninety one percent of Millennials (those born between 1977 and 1997) expect to stay in any given job for less than three years. With that in mind, let’s review some things you can do to succeed in your current job, while also positioning yourself to make a smooth transition when the time comes to make a change.

First some basics (a lot of the following information is really just common sense, but when the work piles up and sleep becomes an unimaginable luxury, you’ll need to be reminded):

  • Be concerned about making a good impression with everyone you encounter at the firm. This includes being courteous to your office-mates, respectful to the administrative staff, and delivering excellent work product on each and every assignment.
  • When visiting a partner’s office or attending a meeting, come prepared to answer questions on current assignments, and to take notes on new ones. Carry a pen and notepad with you, always.
  • Manage the expectations of those who depend on you. If you have committed to working on an assignment, keep partners and senior associates apprised of your progress, especially if something is going to prevent you from meeting deadlines. Partners are usually amenable to extensions. By setting reasonable expectations of what you can accomplish, and then delivering on time, you will earn not only their trust, but also their respect.

These are fundamentals of good law firm citizenship—adhere to them, and you will get stellar reviews (which are crucial for success in your current firm, and important when applying to other firms).

Now that you understand how to be a good worker bee, you should know that on occasion you will be faced with issues that are not so easily handled. They require a more nuanced approach. One common problem goes something like this: “I was originally offered a position in litigation, but when I got here, they stuck me in corporate. It’s been six months; what should I do?” Another variation on this theme is, “I agreed to join the firm as a litigation associate, but now realize I’m not cut out for it. Can I switch to something else?” You can see how the issue of transitioning practice areas here is tricky; you don’t want to make waves early on (especially in this economy), yet you’re not sure how long you should compromise.

Here is the accepted wisdom—if you’re going to switch practice areas, you have to do it while you’re still young (in lawyer years). Law firms categorize attorneys by class year. As you get older, firms expect you to possess the requisite skills and experience for your respective year. Any significant time spent doing X will make you, necessarily, less experienced in Y. In addition, when you are reviewed, you are going to be compared to others in your lateral year. Therefore, if Mr. Stuck-In-Corporate transitions to litigation, as he was originally promised, the time he spent doing M&A work will be considered wasted. Furthermore, when compared to other litigators at his level, he will be lacking six months of litigation experience. That puts him at a real disadvantage—both in his current firm, and as a candidate for other firms. Transitioning practices any later than that can result in even harsher consequences—a lateral step down (read: demotion), or difficulty finding another job in an already hyper-competitive market.

However, this is not a bright-line rule. Most senior level attorneys will tell you they have spent time working on matters outside their practice, which has broadened their horizons and ultimately made them better lawyers. I’m not arguing to the contrary. Having a well-rounded practice is certainly an asset, but any more than, say, six months outside your intended practice area can create long term issues for your career. So, before you start decorating your new office, spend some time learning about your practice group, think long and hard about what you really want, and make a strategic long-term decision—before it gets to be too late.

Angela Kopolovich is the Managing Director of Alegna International, a boutique attorney recruiting firm. A former practicing litigator with a large global law firm, Angela now specializes in placing attorneys with law firms and corporate legal departments, around the country and abroad.  She can be reached at angela@alegnainternational.com or via Twitter @Recruiter_Law.

 

Filed Under: Law | Workplace Issues


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