Keeping It Real: No Plans for Partnership
I am a fifth year M&A associate at a big firm in New York. I frankly never planned to stay as long as I have. I was a Poli-Sci major in college and ended up at a decent law school. I picked a JD over an MBA because I am not the number-crunching type. I heard that a couple of years at a big firm could punch my ticket to an in-house job at a company, and I wouldn't have to start at the bottom.
In-house jobs look much more appealing to me - better hours, less stress, and good money. It drives me nuts when the client goes home after a long day of negotiations, and we are left to turn all the documents around. I have worked my share of all-nighters on long deals, and I am pretty good at hiding my boredom and disgust with the monkey work that lawyers do all day. The partners like me here, and my reviews are okay. The pay is good, they pay for dinner, and I take a car home every night. It could be worse.
The reality is that I have massive amounts of student loan debt - $120,000 to be exact. I need the bonuses and the "special bonuses" as long as I can possibly eek them out of this place. Once I get the debt under control, I am out of here.
I just wonder if I should give my firm a heads-up that I have no interest in making partner. My two partner mentors have been asking me to get involved on committees and client pitches, but I'm hesitating. Honestly, I don't want more work. Should I let them know that I am not long for this place?
Flying under the Radar
Your question couldn't have come at a better time. With the economy in a precarious state, the truth is that no associate (or partner for that matter)
is really "flying under the radar."
In the law firm world, lawyers are essentially all under the watchful, all-seeing eye of Google Maps. Literally, with computerized systems, attorneys' billable and non-earning time is recorded and can be parsed a dozen different ways. Beyond the numbers, firm partners have an uncanny ability to follow their associates' activities. And every associate, whether or not he believes he is keeping a low profile, has surely left an impression on his supervisors, colleagues and staff.
You've been at your firm since graduation, and, from the sound of it, have worked long and hard to earn a good reputation. You have a tremendous amount of professional good will wrapped up in your law firm, your sole professional employer. But while you might think that you're flying under the radar, but I wonder whether you've been as stealth as you think. Is it possible that your attitude might be showing? I am concerned that your behavior might be screaming, "I don't want to make partner!"
Unfortunately, when an associate sends that message, even unwittingly, it may be interpreted as not being dedicated to the firm - period. I don't know whether your firm operates under an "up-or-out" model - that is, associates who are not identified as "partnership material" at a certain point are asked to leave. Without being too dramatic, if your firm is an up-or-out place, I fear for your professional future.
While you are concerned about giving your partners a heads-up, I see a few signs that might have already led your partners to conclude that you are a short-timer. It might not be Colonel Mustard in the Conservatory with the Candlestick, but you are leaving Clues, as follows, with a Capital C:
I once was a law firm associate, and I understand the irony; partnership seems like the joke about the prize at the pie-eating contest&more pie. Being at the top of the law firm food chain might have held attraction back in the day, but now it means the same long hours on client work, plus the stress of rainmaking and crushing administrative responsibilities. I also know many law firm partners who never envisioned themselves in that role, but now genuinely enjoy the challenge of building and running a business.
Many associates are honestly unsure of their career plans, and others really don't know what the life of a partner entails, but turn out to be well-suited to the client relations, deal development and management work at that level, while the associate work bored them silly. In other words, some people make lousy associates, but great partners; they've got to slog through the associate part-and do a great job, to get to the good part. I would ask you to keep an open mind.
Until you are ready to take your next step, you must be completely dedicated to your present position. In a rough economy, the standards automatically rise, both for the quality and quantity of your work product and for the intangibles - attitude, level of engagement, having your "head in the game." Picture all of the M&A partners discussing you and your colleagues in the group. How do you fare when compared to your peers? You said that your reviews are "okay." Are you being overly modest? If you are brutally honest with yourself, and you read between the lines, are your reviews all that they can be? Are you exceeding expectations (where associates should be)? Can you think of specific instances mentioned in your reviews where you went above and beyond? In BigLaw 2008 at these salaries, that is par for the course.
The Hours (and Non-Earning Hours)
You didn't mention what your hours are, but I get a sense from your depiction of your work that you are not at the top of the charts. If I had to guess, I would surmise that you are doing enough to earn your bonus - assuming your firm has a bonus threshold - and not much more. You might figure that it's a waste to work one hour over your target - sort of like studying more than you need to just pass the bar exam. Why bother when there's no extra credit for a perfect score?
The problem with that thinking is the law firm world isn't a pass/fail place. There's a constant ranking that takes place within each class. The invisible law firm hierarchy really takes shape as the large associate classes thin in the mid-level years. The junior associates who were just along for the ride wash out, and the lawyers who are genuinely interested in practicing begin to step up. You have reached that "fight or flight" point in your career. I would venture that there are few members of your summer class still at your firm. According to a recent NALP survey, by the fifth year, 78% of associates have left their first law firm.
For those who do stay and reach the mid-level ranks, expectations change. Ideally, firms want all associates to be good corporate citizens from the start, volunteering for non-earning activities like recruiting, mentoring and business development. (Some firms have gone a step further and made this time count toward bonuses - a clear indication of its importance.) For mid-levels, engaging in non-earning work is not an option but a necessity. If most of the associates around you are participating in firm or bar association committees, helping partners with client pitches or attending recruiting events, your lack of involvement will stick out like a sore thumb.
Your partner mentors should not have had to invite you to participate in these activities. Now that they have, however, dive in with enthusiasm. Your involvement is not tantamount to a pledge of partnership interest, just as their invitation to a client dinner or leadership training program is not a promise that they will make you a partner. The unspoken contract of law firm life is that both sides work to optimize their own interests, and as long as both parties benefit - the firm from your work product and you from the training, compensation and professional contacts - you stay put.
You can probably attest that you have an opinion about every lawyer at your firm, whether or not you've worked with that person directly. Think about it: Who are the associates in the class above yours who you think are aiming for partnership? Which associates have one foot out the door? The latter group may not realize that they are telegraphing their attitudes with every cynical remark about "soul-crushing due diligence projects."
As a mid-level, junior associates look to you as a role model, and morale is contagious. Your quips may be popular and greeted with laughter, but are you viewed as a leader? Worse, if you are not committed to the firm, you may be giving junior associates on your deals short shrift in training and mentoring. Before you groan at the idea of "wasting time" training associates when you don't plan to stick around, consider this: The deal management and training experience you gain now will benefit you immeasurably in your future jobs. So feel free to spend time patiently explaining deals, reviewing documents and offering counsel to the next generation; you can do it out of pure self-interest.
Now a word about in-house options...
Since you see yourself finding long-term job security in-house, a few thoughts on that: In-house positions are often misunderstood as bastions of stability, but often the opposite is true. Remember that as a member of a corporate legal department, you are an expense to the operation, part of the overhead, just like the HR department or the cafeteria. Lawyers are crucial to protect the company from risk and keep the wheels of commerce spinning, but they don't produce revenue for the organization.
As a result, when cost-cutting measures are contemplated, the legal department, like other non-revenue-producing groups, often comes under fire. In rough economic times, outside counsel budgets also undergo greater scrutiny. More legal work is brought in-house, and often must be handled by the existing legal staff. This can drive up hours and stress, usually without additional compensation.
Speaking of compensation, when a lawyer moves in-house, base pay often falls, and a larger part of compensation comes in bonuses, stock options or other forms. In a robust economy, corporate employees share the wealth, but in lean times, total compensation can dip significantly. In-house lawyers also don't enjoy lock-step salary increases and bonuses each year. Associates coming from law firms must do a bit more financial planning in making the transition.
Coming Full Circle
Ironically, where many associates view an in-house position as their career destination, we recruiters are being contacted by more and more in-house lawyers seeking a way back in to law firm practice. Some have found their jobs eliminated by corporate mergers or cost-cutting measures. The recent sub-prime debacle has seen the elimination of countless in-house legal jobs, and the bloodletting hasn't stopped.
Others find their professional opportunities curtailed or are bored by their day-to-day responsibilities. This is especially true if an associate moves in-house too early. In-house legal departments rarely have the time or resources to engage in extensive professional development or training. Junior associates can be frustrated when they become pigeon-holed in a limited specialty, or are assigned to contract review or other mundane work. A litigation candidate of mine recently interviewed on her own for an in-house compliance position. Her prospective employer warned her of the job's instability and relatively humdrum work. The work struck her as both stressful and boring.
There are fantastic in-house opportunities out there, but you should choose carefully. The best move is being tapped by one of your own clients (another reason to demonstrate a positive attitude at your current firm). Law firm partners are often asked by their clients to recommend a seasoned associate to move in-house. Only the most highly-regarded associates are tapped for these positions; the relationship with the client (and future business from that client) is riding on the recommendation.
Your financial situation - a boatload of student loan debt - is an all too common one, given skyrocketing tuition costs and the high cost of living in New York. Money is never a good reason to stay anywhere (a job, a marriage, even an apartment). It always starts to feel like a trap, and it doesn't take long for the resentment to show.
Having the freedom of career choice is a tremendous opportunity, and it opens doors to professional exploration that you might have thought were unavailable to you. Those attorneys who "live like students" and make paying off their student loan debt a priority early on are in a far better position when they reach their most marketable years, which is just where you are now, by the way. We at SJL certainly don't purport to be financial planners, but your debt load seems high for your level of seniority. You may have family or other obligations that made faster repayment impossible, but had you dedicated your annual bonuses to debt reduction, it would seem that your debt would be low if not eliminated at this juncture.
I hope that you are making a distinction between your public and private debt. Your federal loans were probably issued at an extremely low rate - perhaps as low as 3% per annum. There is no need to pay those loans off; you can make better use of the money (paying off high-interest credit card debt first, next seeking out higher interest rate investments). Consider only your private debt, where the interest rate is higher, 10% or more, and it makes sense to pay it off as soon as you can. Make it a priority to pay off the higher interest student debt now, and your will earn the priceless freedom of career choice.
Always move from a position of strength - when you have professional and financial stability on your side and plenty of good will stored up at your firm.
I wish you well in your career journey. Please keep us posted on your progress.