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March 10, 2009


Dear SJL,

I am a mid-level associate at an AmLaw 100 firm in NY. It's difficult to ignore all the press about associate lay-offs, and I'm starting to worry that it might happen at my firm, too. I know there are no guarantees, but is there anything I can do to decrease the chances that I'll find myself among my laid-off peers?

Nervous in New York

Dear Nervous,

Thank you for writing in with a question that I'm sure has crossed more than one associate's mind during these last months. The fact that you're considering how you might be proactive in this tough economic climate indicates that you are already on the right track. Tempting as it might be, crossing your fingers and hiding under your desk until the uncertainty passes is not a wise strategy. Now is the time to show that you care – about your professional development, about contributing to the firm, about being a good corporate citizen and, by virtue of those things, about keeping your job. Implementing a self-sanctioned 4-day work week or daily 2pm happy hour is not the way to keep your job in a slow economy; making clear that you're someone the firm wants to have on their team when this cloud passes is. It's time to employ a strategy to make yourself an MVE – a "Most Valuable Employee." Wouldn't it be great to transition back into a robust market with your standing at your firm not only intact, but stronger than ever? Here are some ideas to consider to make good use of your downtime, and raise your associate-stock in the process.

Make Yourself Indispensable

If asked, most associates could probably point out which of their peers are known as the "go-to" associates. You know who I'm referring to – the people with whom you're happy to be staffed on a deal, the people whose hours tend to be strong because they're consistently in demand, the ones who take pride in their work and who tend, over time, to have access to the most interesting matters and clients. You could also likely point out your colleagues who fall more squarely in the category of "Corner-Cutter" or "Work-Dodger"; you might love hanging out with "CC" or "WD" at a summer event, but are less than thrilled to find yourself staffed with them on a matter because you know that you'll likely have to work harder to get the job done when they're on your team. Well, if these categories are apparent to you, you can imagine how obvious they are to the decision-makers at your firm. I suspect you can see where I'm going with this one.

I encourage you to take a step back and consider into which box your colleagues – at both the partner and associate level – would place you. Try and think about this as critically as possible, because in an economy such as this it matters more than ever. Associates who are able to get by when work is voluminous and all hands are needed on deck might find that their luck has run out when tough hiring/firing decisions need to be made. Make it difficult for the firm to imagine letting you go. To the extent you're one of the "go-to" folks – great job – keep it going. To the extent you fall at the other end of the spectrum – or think you might – use this as an opportunity to turn that reputation around.

Write an Article or Client Memo

One of the frustrations voiced by associates with whom I speak is that while they are ready, willing and able to get their hands dirty, there's just no work to be done. I mean, what are associates to do after organizing their inbox and finally sending those redwelds from the case that settled 4 years ago down to records where they belong?

While using this time to get your administrative affairs in order is not a bad thing, undertaking tasks that advance your professional development and raise your firm's profile from a marketing standpoint will surely garner more attention, and in the process raise your professional stock. One surefire way to do this is to write an article that's relevant to your practice area. It can be published in a legal periodical, or can be among the client memos on recent legal developments that most firms distribute and post on their websites. I'd recommend trying to come up with some ideas on your own, and doing some preliminary research to see whether the topic has been covered before (in the case of the legal updates, it's ok if another firm has covered it, as long as your firm has not yet done so). You can then approach a partner with whom you have a good working relationship to see if they'd be willing to supervise your efforts and/or help you find someone else who might be interested in doing so. Marketing professionals within the firm can also assist in figuring out which periodicals might be interested in publishing your article – and might even know of some upcoming themes for which articles will be solicited by these industry newspapers and magazines.

Stay ON - Not Under - the Radar

Don't assume that people are paying attention to how busy you are. Check in regularly with the assigning partner, and any other partners or senior associates with whom you typically work. Introduce yourself to partners you haven't worked with before and let them know that you'd love to have an opportunity to work together. When you see a conflict check that piques your interest, reach out to the relevant partner(s) and let your interest in working on the matter be known. And in all cases – knock the ball out of the park on your performance.

Use this opportunity to see if you might broaden your practice experience. It does not necessarily make sense for a mid-level corporate associates to seek out doc review (though if this is the only help needed, it doesn't hurt to be a team player), but it does mean that it might be time for a securities associate to see if the M&A or bankruptcy practices could use an extra set of hands. If you're a real estate finance associate, consider striking up a conversation with the partners who do "dirt" work. You know the politics of your firm best, so be mindful as you find your way. It might be worth approaching one of your partner-mentors to get their thoughts on how best to approach this or to make the appropriate introductions. Keeping the line of communication open with the partners who can be your best advocates is wise. It gives them an opportunity to help you formulate a strategy to maintain and strengthen your standing at the firm. Don't be bashful – showing you care about keeping your job and about being a value-add reflects the type of focus and initiative that partners look for in associates, and in their future partners.

Pro Bono

You can be sure that the number and variety of pro bono clients in need of assistance will not be slowing anytime soon. Use the opportunities created by these eager – and grateful! – clients to broaden and deepen your professional skill-set. Ideally, find some work in your practice area. I recognize that this will be easier in some practices than in others. To the extent you can't find appropriate pro bono projects within your firm, I suspect there are agencies/organizations with whom you can connect who can send relevant work your way. I know that firms don't all view pro bono equally – some count the hours for bonus consideration for example, and some do not – but if you're able to find projects that are relevant to your practice area, you can use this downtime from high billables to continue to build your skills. You should of course, check to see whether your firm is open to taking on new pro bono client relationships, what the process looks like, who might be able to supervise your efforts, etc. I know a number of associates for whom this strategy has worked well, allowing them to strengthen relationships with partners they hadn't worked with closely before. Keep in mind, however, that when things pick up again you can't just drop the matter and move on. Try not to bite off more than you can chew, but be mindful that to the extent you're not billing time, you're also not building skills.

Crisis as Opportunity

Someone once told me that the Chinese symbol for crisis is the same as the one for opportunity; that concept has always stuck with me, and it merits application here, as well. While it might seem easier to ride it out and see what happens, there's something very satisfying about feeling empowered in your professional life. The associates who take advantage of this time to make sure their development stays on track and to strengthen their standing at their firm are not only more likely to find themselves employed during and after this rough patch, but have a better shot at touching the best work when it comes in the door. Whether the economy is strong or weak, there's no time like the present to lay the groundwork for a dynamic, stimulating and successful career.

Please do keep me posted of your progress. Good luck!
Stephanie G. Wechsler


Stephanie joined SJL as a Managing Director in 2007, after more than four years of general corporate practice with Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel LLP. Stephanie currently focuses on assisting associate-level attorneys with placement at law firms in the New York metropolitan area. Stephanie graduated with distinction from Cornell University with her B.S. in Human Development. She earned her law degree from the University of Pennsylvania Law School, where she was an Articles Editor of the Journal of Labor and Employment Law. As a practicing attorney, Stephanie gained experience advising clients on a wide array of matters including mergers and acquisitions, securities compliance and general corporate matters. Prior to joining SJL, Stephanie worked at Gilda’s Club Worldwide, a non-profit cancer support organization. Stephanie’s abilities as a recruiter derive from her commitment to helping candidates realize their professional potential, her understanding of associate life and her appreciation that a successful career is not always linear.


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Filed Under: Workplace Issues

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