Navigating the Free Market System
I am a first year associate at a large firm in New York. After spending a summer at the firm, I still wasn't sure what practice area to choose, so I opted to take advantage of the firm's unassigned program. The firm uses the program as a big selling point in recruiting, but I'm worried that it will put me at a disadvantage. My class is pretty large, and most of my classmates have already picked practice areas and are developing tight relationships with partners in their groups. I have taken a few projects in each group, but I don't really know anyone very well.
What makes me even more nervous is the "free market system." We are encouraged (forced) to seek out work ourselves, and this program favors associates with strong personalities who are comfortable schmoozing with partners. (Frankly, some of these associates are gunners - the same kids who sat in the front row in law school.) I am pretty laid-back, and this just isn't my style. Even in the summer program, I kept a low profile. I did my work, got my offer - but I wasn't going to suck up to the partners. Now that the economy is looking shaky, I am freaking out. If my firm starts looking for junior associates to fire, I'm afraid the unassigned associates like me might be the first target. The gunners might have it right - now that there is less work to go around, they seem to be getting all of the good work.
I would still like to try more corporate work, but I don't want this free market system to ending up sinking me. Should I just pick litigation (or bankruptcy) and call it a day?
Bitten Off Too Much in the Big Apple
You've asked a great question. First, I want to acknowledge that your firm is laudable for having a program that allows you to experiment with different projects in your first year of practice. Programs that offer associates the opportunity to gain exposure to different practice areas are extremely valuable and increasingly rare.
Law firm economics favor specialization and economies of scale; it is more cost effective to have junior associates pick a specialty, develop expertise and do the same work over and over. In fact, many firms are moving toward greater specialization - having junior associates placed not just in a transactional or litigation department, but in a sub-specialty like project finance or securities litigation right off the bat.
Needless to say, most law students don't know that they want to be project finance lawyers or securities litigators coming right out of school. Some students genuinely find a great fit in school or in the summer program and stick with it, while others end up making the wrong choice and trying to "re-tool" down the road. You have the opportunity to figure out what practice area is right for you in the context of the realistic practice of an associate - not the summer program - and that is a huge bonus. Many practice areas, particularly transactional fields, simply don't lend themselves to summer projects, and law students end up with an unrealistic notion of what the day-to-day work of a lawyer in that field will entail.
Your firm's management seems to appreciate that there is value in allowing junior associates to make better decisions - that by giving lawyers more time to explore their choices, they will ultimately be happier and enjoy longer tenures with the firm. You made a sensible choice in joining this firm given your own uncertainty about your career goals. The unassigned system will only work from your vantage point, however, if you know how to navigate the program and make the most of it.
I have worked with many associates over the years who have availed themselves of unassigned programs at law firms, and there are countless examples of lawyers who have had epiphanies about their practice area choices. Some were convinced that they were born litigators until they experienced the reality of large firm motion practice. They had already discounted corporate work until they discovered that you didn't have to be a number-cruncher to enjoy the people contact and excitement of M&A work. Others found an unlikely passion for ERISA, bankruptcy, tax, or labor that would have remained forever hidden had they not had the risk-free opportunity to explore these fields through an unassigned or free market program.
You do have to manage the process intelligently, especially in an unpredictable market. You want to have the chance to complete your experimentation and make an informed decision about your practice area, not have the economy make the decision for you. To borrow your gastronomic reference, I would recommend that you think of your experience not as a buffet from which you graze and nibble, but as a series of well-orchestrated courses in a gourmet meal. At the end, choose your favorite course, but be sure you've befriended every chef along the way.
I use this analogy because I sense that you might be doing a bit of dabbling - a project here, a project there. This may have been acceptable in the summer program, but it will not serve you well as an associate. You should be more deliberate and mindful about the process, and you should concentrate on one practice area at a time if possible. That way, you can be a reliable source of support for follow-on assignments for your supervising attorneys.
Introduce yourself to the partners in the practice group, express your enthusiasm for their work and seek out multiple projects. Your goal is to give everything you have in both effort and attitude on every project. You may ultimately decide that this is your field of choice, so you must be taken seriously as a prospective future member of the department from Day One. The very nature of being in the unassigned group means that you are ambivalent about your practice area, but you don't want to telegraph your ambivalence to these attorneys in your approach to their projects. (Your implicit message should be: "I enjoy a variety of areas, including yours; I am trying to identify the area that is the best fit for my interests and skills.")
Attitude is crucial in this process. Smart, highly-credentialed lawyers are plentiful, but the one factor that sets apart the truly extraordinary associate is a positive attitude. I sensed just the tiniest bit of scorn for the associates (gunners) who have grabbed all the good work. I wasn't such a big fan of the law students who sat in the front row either, but I think their sycophancy had more to do with insecurity than anything else. In law firms, the currency of greatest value is relationships: Partners and their clients, partners and associates. And you are right - when the economy takes a dive, the value of that currency shoots way up.
Your classmates who have chosen practice groups may have indeed already bonded with the partners and senior associates in the groups. That doesn't mean that there isn't room for you to leave lasting impressions and develop important relationships as you work on your assignments in each group. The work you perform as a junior associate is often not rocket science, so the degree of enthusiasm you bring to each assignment - and your willingness to take on unpopular projects (dull due diligence) at inconvenient times (weekends and holidays) will set you apart.
Most firms with free market systems have some administrative component to ensure the work is being properly allocated and associates are finding the work that interests them. The administrator charged with this duty is also instrumental in communicating with the assigning partners to make certain that all deals and cases are promptly and adequately staffed. Having a close and positive working relationship with this administrator is crucial; these gatekeepers can provide invaluable information and access to plum assignments. They are under considerable pressure to meet the staffing needs of the partners, so the associates in the unassigned pool who consistently turn down work may find themselves at the end of the list. You should cultivate a reputation as a "go-to" associate with this administrator; when plum assignments come her way, you are more likely to receive a call offering you the chance to join the team.
Whether the work is being allocated through a central administrator or more informally, those associates you see as hogging all the "good work" have probably fostered reputations as hard-working individuals with unfailingly positive attitudes. For some of them, the free market system sometimes works a bit too well; they have a hard time saying no, and the laid-back associates who keep a low profile end up leaving them overburdened with too many deals or cases. If you step up and offer your time, a more democratic allocation of work is likely to follow. If you dedicate yourself to getting to know the partners and senior associates in the group on a personal level, they are more likely to turn to you when a great project comes along. If you take the time to learn about their work and see how interesting it is, expressing your enthusiasm should come much more naturally.
Approach this process from the perspective of exploring your future career path and enriching your own professional development--completely self-serving as it may be--and it should be exciting and inspiring. You are, after all, charting your legal future. You've dedicated years of schooling and a tremendous financial investment to reach this point. Your introduction to law firm life is the reward for all of your hard work. Use this time to discover a practice area that is engaging and intellectually stimulating and find a group of professionals who will be your supervisors, mentors and, ultimately, your colleagues. One day, they may even be your partners.
There is nothing you can do to change the state of the economy, and worrying about it won't help. Instead, channel that energy into educating yourself about your firm's work, and what areas of transactional practice are looking bullish at present. Perhaps your firm has a booming sustainable energy practice, or a private equity health care practice with plenty of life in it. Doing your homework and talking to the partners in the group (in that order) will help you learn what corporate fields look most likely to offer plenty of deals and opportunities to learn in the next few years. Since you are still undecided, it doesn't hurt to build bridges in litigation and bankruptcy, but try not to let jitters about the economy guide your thinking. The market will fluctuate, and you are seeking a practice area focus to last a lifetime; think long and hard about what fields best suit your natural skills, personality, and interests.
I wish you all the best of luck in this process. Take it bite by bite, and you are likely to find your favorite dish. Just don't forget to thank the cook.