What are the important differences between working in a law firm's headquarters and working in a satellite office of a firm located outside my city? I'm a second year law student at a Top 25 law school. I know that I want to work in the New York office of a large, global or national firm when I graduate next spring. My advisor has explained to me that this is the best way to get sophisticated work that will open as many doors as possible later in my career. And let's face it, public interest work isn't going to help me with those mountains of school debt. But I'm torn between two options.
I pursued a number of summer associate positions during my first year and landed a job with the New York office of a great firm based in another major city (Firm A). I had a great experience, the people were all really nice and the firm extended me an offer to return the following summer. I agreed to return for at least part of the upcoming summer, but felt like working at a more prominent New York-based firm might present me with more good choices later in my career. So last fall, I accepted an offer to work at a top-tier New York-based firm (Firm B) for the first 12 weeks of this summer. I'm excited about this opportunity, but what if I don't like Firm B as much as Firm A? Should I just suck it up and go with the "better" firm? Will I be as marketable with Firm A on my resume as I would with Firm B? Is it too early in my career to be worrying about these things? How can I tell what type of firm is best for me?
Big Apple or Bust
It's never too early to begin planning for your future. But times have changed since the days of the white-shoe Wall Street firms dominating the New York legal market. Indeed, in 2007, according to the American Lawyer, just three of the top 10 and seven of the top 25 law firms (in terms of gross revenue) were "New York firms." But each had at least 130 attorneys in New York and all but seven had over 200 lawyers there. No longer can you judge a firm by the address of its headquarters. So, in order to chart the best course for your career, you'll want to consider a range of factors and circumstances and examine how those might mesh or clash with your work style, personality and goals. Whether or not you reside in your firm's main office may affect the balance of these factors in important ways, but there are no hard and fast rules here. These are issues you need to research and evaluate in order to figure out how they may impact your professional experience.Where will my work come from?
Many global and national firms have dispensed with the concept of a headquarters in favor of a "one firm" philosophy (with many going so far as to taboo the words "satellite," "branch" and/or "regional" in reference to their offices outside the limits of their original home city) and many non-New York based firms have shifted the focus of their future growth to New York. But at firms where the Big Apple is not the historical headquarters there could be a residual effect on the source and flow of work assignments to associates in the New York office. If a significant percentage of your workload is being administered and supervised by partners that you can only speak to on the phone or by email, then there are a few practical issues you should consider.If your firm's former headquarters is located in a different time zone, for example, you may be asked to start your work day earlier and/or finish it later in order to meet the demands of those partners and their clients. And while keeping less traditional hours may not bother you in the least (after all, BigLaw isn't exactly known for its nine-to-fives), a geographic gap will usually make your supervising partners less accessible - not an ideal setup for a junior lawyer in search of hands-on training and/or mentorship, which could be critical not only to your professional development, but also to your long-term your prospects at the firm (more on this below). Then there is the issue of travel - will much be required? And will you at least have the opportunity to visit the offices of the partners you work for on a regular basis? Regular travel to and from your firm's primary hub may alleviate some of the concern about the issues above, but ask yourself whether a nomadic existence, at least for the next few years, is compatible with the life you intend to lead.
Where is the firm's power center?
Another development in the "one firm" age has been the flattening and dispersal of management functions in law firms. While most firms cling to at least some form of hierarchy, you'll want to know where the organization's power brokers (official and otherwise) spend the majority of their time. These individuals include managing and hiring partners, department chairs, compensation committee members and significant rainmakers. If you can identify two or three such partners in the New York office with whom you'll have an opportunity and a desire to work, it may not matter that the firm's founding fathers first hung out their shingle more than 2,000 miles away. If, on the other hand, New York partners tend not to be involved in major firm decisions, you're going to want additional comfort that management is focused on and committed to the success of the New York office.
In addition to the practical benefits of working in the same office as the source of your work, there are benefits to knowing and being known by the partners, who the firm, at large, could not do without. When evaluating what effect absentee management may have on you, here are just few of the questions that should be at the front of your mind:
- How many New York associates have made partner in the last five years? How many in the last two years? How many in your practice area?
- How do the professional support staff and general firm resources in the New York office compare to the offerings in the main office? (Hint: if you were not able to visit the main office during your summer at the firm, ask the midlevel and senior associates who have.)
- Are New York associates paid at New York market? Historically, how quickly has the firm matched New York salary raises?
- To the extent that bonuses are discretionary, what factors are considered and where does the final arbiter sit?
- What programs are in place to provide New York associates access to and opportunities to work with firm leaders in other offices? How many partners and associates actually participate in such programs?
Where are the firm's clients?
The communication technology revolution has enabled most firms, large and small, to service clients around the world, often without significant travel. But Blackberries and video conferencing have also put old school, face-to-face, personal service at a premium, not only for law firms as entities, but for individual lawyers as developers of future business. So where your firm's clients reside and do business may have a substantial impact on the trajectory of your career.
When evaluating a firm with a home office outside of New York (or a New York-based shop, for that matter), develop your knowledge of the firm's clients, particularly in your intended practice area. Find out not only where they reside, but where they transact business and, if at all possible, whether their executives, managers and/or in-house counsel have strong personal relationships with partners located in New York. Outside of such long-standing relationships, learn about what efforts are being made to grow and develop new business in New York and the extent to which associates are allowed or encouraged to participate. You said in your letter that keeping long-term options open was important to you. Assuming that you'd like those options to include both partnership at your firm and working as the client, instead of for the client, someday, the geographic location of your clients and prospective clients could be crucial.
Where does the firm's flame shine brightest?
Young attorneys often place too much emphasis on such amorphous concepts as prestige and reputation when selecting their first professional home. But that doesn't mean there isn't a lot to be learned from how outsiders view your firm. In your case, it may be all the more important that your firm's positive buzz doesn't fizzle the further you get from the mothership. But don't just listen to anyone who decides to wax philosophical about the link between off-the-hook summer events and good associate mentorship.Your friends and classmates may occasionally be great sources of information about the law firm market, but for every useful tip, there are sure to be nine doses of unfounded gossip. Carefully vet your sources of information. Even better, take advantage of Chambers, Vault, AmLaw and other media outlets, which rate firms' individual practice areas and, sometimes, individual partners. What substantive work is your firm best known for? Do the firm's New York office and its partners receive accolades for their work in these areas? Read surveys of actual lawyers from the firm. Do the associates you know in New York say the same things as the associates from the home office?Remember, there's more than a little speculation involved in planning your career, and choosing between home office and branch office is no exception. It's very good that you're taking the time to consider how this decision might shape your future, but don't lose sight of the forest for the trees. Use your time as a summer associate at each firm to learn not only how to do the work, but how it feels to be an associate at the firm. Trust your instincts. After you've considered the available information about a firm, if you believe you'll be happy with your work, your colleagues and your clients, chances are that you'll have found the firm that's right for you.Best of luck with your decision and stay in touch.
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