Obtaining Outstanding References

A question that sometimes comes up with my attorney candidates is “what is the best way to get great references that will impress prospective law firms, as well as to avoid bad ones that will torpedo you candidacy?”  This is understandable, given that many attorneys lack experience in seeking references, much less in actually writing references or serving as a reference themselves.  Moreover, merely asking for a reference is awkward in itself.  Of course, the candidate does not want to give the person providing the reference the impression that they are trying to “tell them what to say.”  For these reasons, candidates are not comfortable with discussing the content of the reference with the person giving the reference, especially the important subjects of what a fantastic lawyer and person the candidate is and all the other glowing things that the candidate wants the person to say in their reference.  Consequently, most candidates just leave the content of their references entirely up to the persons giving them.  This is a major mistake.

A candidate should attempt to control everything about their candidacy that they possibly can.  This does not mean that candidates should go so far as to try to write or dictate their own references.  Such an attempt would usually not be taken well by the person providing the reference.  Nevertheless, it is both prudent and appropriate for the candidate to provide the person with at least some general guidance about the reference.  In fact, persons who are asked to do references often request that the candidate provide them with such general guidance.  Regardless of whether such guidance is specifically requested or not, however, the candidate should provide this general guidance in the form of all of the necessary information that will assist the person in acting as a reference.  This information includes all the projects the candidate worked on with the person and the specific attributes of the candidate that prospective law firms will want to know about (intelligence, legal skill, work ethic, personality/people skills, quality of work, reliability, ethics, no problems/weaknesses, etc.).  Candidates can even provide “samples” of prior written references (which have been fully “sanitized” of course).  These can be especially helpful to persons who have never provided references before.

In addition, the candidate should not hesitate to directly ask the person whether or not they are entirely comfortable in saying really great things about the candidate across the board.  This is because the candidate needs to learn as soon as possible if the person is merely lukewarm in their opinion of the candidate and/or is otherwise unwilling to provide the candidate with anything less than a full, ringing endorsement on virtually every subject.  Thus, if the person openly acknowledges that they are not willing or able (for whatever reason, good or bad) to give a rock solid reference, or if the candidate has other good reasons to suspect that the person is being less than candid about their lack of enthusiasm, then the candidate should politely and professionally inform the person that it would be better for everyone if they do not serve as a reference after all.  Then the candidate should immediately look for someone who is more likely to give a total “knockout” reference.  Candidates cannot afford to have negative or even just mediocre references in this highly competitive market.  For this reason, candidates should learn the strength of their references and maximize their effectiveness before they apply, not after.

Be Bold and Take a Move of Growth

In the legal profession, we might feel lucky to be where we are at. After all, so many would-be-lawyers are working as paralegals, if not pizza-men. Getting your JD might give you a shiver of trepidation nowadays: there is no promise you will make it in this profession. So you, as an established lawyer, may feel the best strategy is to hold to the familiar, to keep on the familiar track, and not take an unnecessary risks.

If you prefer comfort and will not risk the adventure of new jobs, new assignments, making the lateral move that will challenge you, you will not grow. Maturity is perpetual growing, perpetual improvement. We don’t quit growing until we die. And the brain keeps learning all our lives: the brain is plastic, and you can teach old dogs new tricks.

What matters is having the courage to keep challenging yourself, to throw yourself into situations and arenas where you could fail. Go ahead and fail: so what! Is failure so bad? Worse is it to have never tried in the first place.

If you are psyched out about the new position, if you are wondering, “can I really handle this? Will I just sink like a rock,” then be certain that this is the move you should make. Always do what you are afraid to do. Be confronting those fears, by doing what may even seem foolish or unlikely, we grow more bold and also surprise ourselves: we are stronger than we imagined. You never know how strong you are until you actually try your best, and take on challenges that are just a little too big for you, that require you to go back to the books, to educate yourself, to adjust your skills to meet the new demands.

At first, the old habits will resist and try to talk you out of it. They will quite reasonably remind you that you could greatly fail, you could lose so much. Old habits always have a reason to resist change. Nevermind them. Fan the flame of  the new habit, the new boldness, taking the job you think will make you sink. When you fan this small flame, when you feed it small successes, and give it more and more fuel, it will grow, and soon enough you will have built a boldness to try new and new challenges, to seek out adversity for the relish of the fight, for the sheer chance to expand and grow.

Of course you will fail along the way. Success is paved with countless failures. Use your failures as stepping stones. The stumbling block becomes a stepping stone. When you adjust your assessment of what failure means, what it says about you, when you realize that great people fail more precisely because they try harder and try new things, then you can relax and not be defeated when you lose, not give up when others laugh at you, or pity you. Hold to that inner spark, the inner voice that tells you to keep striving, to raise your head to face bolder challenges.

Take the new position, even if you think you might drown. Dare to seek the promotion, dare to ascend. This is the way to grow as a lawyer, this the way to grow as a human being, and though you might be afraid at first, you will be proud of yourself in the end.

When you force yourself to grow, force yourself into bold new situations, you will summon powers within you that you never suspected existed. You will realize you were more capable than you had suspected, you will have found that there is more to you as a lawyer, as a man or woman, than you previously believed.

 

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What You Really Need to Know Before Accepting An Offer

If you have received an offer- congratulations!  Maybe you are jubilant, maybe you are weighed down with reservations, maybe you are even thinking about turning it down.  In any event, there are some things you need to think about.

When offered a position, the first thing you should do is express your gratefulness to the offer.  Even if you are holding out for a better offer, even if the offer is not at all what you wanted, thank them graciously, and ask how much time you have to make a decision.  You want to avoid mentioning that you are waiting for an offer from a different firm, or are unhappy about their offer.  Simply say thank you, and tell them how much you appreciate their offer to you.  Then hang up the phone, and take some time to digest what has been offered to you, and how that stacks up with what you are willing to accept.

Some law firms will give you their first and last offer up front.  That is because some firms have lockstep salaries for associates and/or strict formulas for determining partner salaries.  If you are lucky enough to be working with a recruiter, they should be able to tell you what kind of a firm you are dealing with.

The next thing you need to do is determine whether you would take the offer as-is.  Again, if this is a firm that has made you a take-it-or-leave-it offer, this may be the end of the inquiry.  However, if you determine that the firm has some wiggle room, you need to decide whether you will ask for something more, and whether getting more will make or break the deal.

If you decide that you would like some extras but will do without them (moving expenses come to mind), I suggest asking (or having the recruiter ask on your behalf) for those extras while making clear that you are not rejecting their offer.  You might be surprised how often firms will throw in extras they have not offered, even when the candidate is willing to accept the offer without the extras.  This is a firm that wants to hire you, and they want you to be happy.  They will generally do what they can to see that that happens.  Therefore, do not be afraid to ask for extras if you want them, but make it clear that you very much want to accept their offer.

The harder scenario is when the offer is not at all what you had contemplated.  I have had many candidates tell me to simply turn down an offer because they didn’t like it.  This is almost never  the best course. Instead, if you are prepared to walk away, why not ask for what you want?  You don’t have anything to lose, and you may have something to gain.  Firms will often do what they can to attract you to the firm.  Things like moving expenses, better life and health insurance and health savings plans, a higher base salary or higher incentives or percentages for partners, a draw or salary guarantee for a limited period- these are all things that many firms expect you to negotiate.  Some firms even offer free or tax-deductible parking.  You need to ask yourself what is really important to you.

It is never a good idea to be combative, and negotiations are often delicate.  If you are working with a recruiter, your recruiter can and should conduct these negotiations on your behalf, after educating you about what options are available, and learning from you what you would like to ask for.  If you get enough of what you are asking for, you may just end up accepting an offer that you would have turned down flat.

Lateral Move or Law Firm Loyalty?

There is nothing more tempting than a lateral move that offers you all the things your company lacks. Just as in marriage, when you take on a girlfriend who is right in all the ways your wife is wrong, you might think, “this is the one for me.” Be sure, however, that you are making the right decision. While the new company may outshine your company in the areas so noted, they may have their own set of problems you never imagined, and now you can’t go back to your original company and you are saddled with all this extra baggage that you have no idea how to handle. Not only do you have new problems you never had to face before, but you are stuck with them, unless you want to move to another company yet again, and risk even further bad surprises.

This isn’t meant to scare you: making a lateral move can be the most exciting career move possible for you at this time. But before you jump, consider some of the advantages of law firm loyalty. Having been part of this firm for so long, you know its quirks, or, as with a spouse, her hidden birthmarks. They may be a little ugly, but you are so used to them that they are even a little bit charming. You know where and how the company has problems, but you are used to compensating for them.

Instead of making a jump to a rival company, you might see if a new position exists or could be created in your own company that will take into account that you are a dynamic individual itching to grow. If your company can grow with you and keep pace with you, this career move might be better in the long run even if a rival company would offer a larger raise. Loyalty pays. Consider it before any career move. Never cease to dream that it could be better, but dream also that it could be better, even here.

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HOW TO IDENTIFY THE BEST ATTORNEY RECRUITERS

It should go without saying that attorneys are not very likely to get great results in their job searches by going with any random recruiter that just happens to call them.  After all, do your clients hire you because you just happened to call them without being concerned about your level of legal credentials, ability and experience?  Or do they trust you with the future of their valuable business because they know that you are one of the best at what you do in your city?

Attorneys should treat their valuable careers the same way their clients treat their businesses.  They should actively seek out and retain only the best recruiters.  Cost is not an issue, so why not the best?  Yet, I sometimes see attorneys working with mediocre (or worse) recruiters.  As with doctors and lawyers, the damage that can be done as a result of using a bad – or even just less mediocre — recruiter can be serious.

The following are some ways to effectively distinguish the great recruiters from the not-so-great (or worse) ones.  A common attribute of top recruiters is exceptional credentials, just like with top lawyers.  Such credentials include attending “top 25” (or better) law schools and a prior legal career as an associate (or even better but more rare, also as a partner) in a top firm.  Of course, not every great recruiter attended a top law school and/or practiced at a top firm.  There are always some exceptions.  Nevertheless, the fact remains that – as with attorneys — the few recruiters who do possess such stellar credentials are much more likely to be in the highest ranks of their profession.  This is because – again as with attorneys — stellar credentials are very strong indicators of exceptional knowledge and ability in the legal industry.

Another key factor is the amount of the recruiter’s relevant knowledge and experience.   Clearly, working with someone who is just a beginner or a “dabbler” in the complex legal market is asking for serious trouble.  The very best recruiters will have about 10 or more years of experience at the highest and most challenging level of their profession (namely, working with partners with business at top firms, as well as being a valued advisor to such firms).

Specialization can also be very important.  For example, a recruiter who specializes in highly credentialed attorneys will be much more valuable to such attorneys than a recruiter who does not.  Similarly, because the issues involved with partners with business are usually much more complex than with associates, such partners should seek out one of the few recruiters who specializes in advising such partners.

Finally, you should consider the size and reputation of the recruiter’s firm.  Although size does not always equate with quality, it is often seen as a major factor.  For example, while there are certainly exceptions, the law firms that are considered the “best” are usually among the largest firms, or so-called “Big Law.” So it is with the big recruiting firms.  In addition, the few top national recruiting firms (such as BCG ATTORNEY SEARCH) are much more likely to employ the most well-credentialed and highly skilled recruiters, just as the biggest and best law firms are far more likely to have the most well-credentialed and highly skilled attorneys.  Moreover, by definition the big recruiting firms will also have much deeper resources and stronger established relationships with far more law firms of every size than a small recruiting firm.

Accepting Your Offer – Start With Momentum

Out of all of the stages of the lateral search and interview process, receiving an offer can be one of the most exciting.  But for some attorneys, it can also be one of the most intimidating steps, because it means things are no longer abstract, and you are truly pulling the trigger and committing to the lateral move, the new salary, the new office and culture, and leaving your old firm behind.  Even attorneys who couldn’t wait to get out the door of their old firm can have moments of hesitation as they contemplate what switching firm’s means in real, concrete terms.

That being said, when you do receive, or even anticipate receiving an offer, you should have already prepared yourself mentally for your decision and be ready to act swiftly and accordingly.  It is fine, and even highly recommended, to review your offer terms, the new firm’s benefits (especially moving expenses and pro-rated bonuses, if applicable), and to ask as many questions as you need to in order to resolve any issues you might have with the offer terms.

On the other hand, once you have satisfactory or at least conclusive answers to your questions, and the terms are all there on the table, it is much better from an optics perspective to accept the offer and move forward quickly and eagerly into your new position.  In other words, you want to start with momentum for yourself, and show your new firm and the partners that you are excited to be there.  After all, even though you have interviewed there, and met and spoken with many of the attorneys, the offer acceptance stage is really your first impression to the firm as a new member of the team.  Your initial enthusiasm and excitement can go a long way towards making the transition smoother both from a logistical perspective, and in terms of getting immediate quality assignments from the partner team, which will help set you up for near- and long-term success.

Hesitating too long, or requesting multiple extensions for the offer deadline without specific and good reasons, can make it appear to a firm as if they are not actually your first choice, or if you have some hesitation to come on board, both of which can unfortunately result in less than a positive first impression.  It also puts the firm in a tough spot, because they likely paused their interview process once they extended the offer to you, and if work is busy and they need immediate help, the partners can become annoyed with any unnecessary delays.

Ask the questions you have, get the answers you need, but when you get to the point where you have all the necessary information and you know what your decision will be, it is better to inform the firm of that decision as soon as possible and start off on the right foot, with energy and enthusiasm.

As always, best of luck with your search!

What Credentials Do the Top Law Firms Consider in Evaluating a Lateral Partner Candidate

As noted in my previous article, when top law firms are conducting initial evaluations of associate candidates they primarily focus on certain “tangible” credentials that can be easily determined at the time of the candidate’s application. These credentials include the prestige of the candidate’s law school, their grades and class rank, the prestige of their current law firm (or company if in house), their billable hours, the current market demand for their practice area and their class year. In making initial evaluations of partner candidates, law firms consider these same tangible credentials with the exception of class year. As with associates, once a firm does decide that it has interest in a partner based on these preliminary “tangible” credentials, the firm will then evaluate several more “intangible” credentials through interviews, references and the like. These more intangible credentials include intellect, skill, personality, reputation, teamwork, drive and “fit.”

However, there is an additional credential that is generally only used for partner-level candidates (and a small number of exceptional senior associate candidates). This credential is the amount of client business that the partner candidate can bring with them to the prospective new firm. This amount is commonly referred to as a partner’s “portable business,” “portable clients” or “book of business.” Law firms typically seek between $300K and $3M+ in portable business from partner-level candidates, depending on the size, prestige and the financial situation of the particular firm. These amounts can sometimes be affected by other factors, such as whether the firm has partner-level work already available and certain other strengths the partner may be able to bring to the table.

Moreover, portable business is, by far, the most important credential for partners. Consequently, partners who have a large “book” are going to be in much higher demand than partners who do not have much portable business. This is true even if a partner lacking portable business has otherwise superior credentials (top law school, top firm, skill, reputation, personality, work ethic, etc.).

The reason for this is related to a fundamental difference between associate and partner candidates. With respect to associates, firms will not hire them unless there is already enough work available to keep the associate fully engaged. The firms also usually prefer to hire junior associates to do the work. Consequently, it is less likely for a firm to seek a more senior associate and very less likely for it to hire a partner level candidate for this purpose. Rather, partners are expected to “bring their own work” to keep themselves fully busy and preferably work for others as well.

For partner level attorneys who are seeking to go in house, however, portable business is not an issue. For some attorneys, the absence of an expectation to bring and further develop a large practice is one of the major advantages of in house positions. On the other hand, this advantage can become a disadvantage when in house attorneys get “downsized” or otherwise have to look for another job in law firms are unable to get in the door because they lack portable business.

How to Land the Best Entry-level Legal Jobs

Most law students feel that they will land a job during on-campus recruitment, but the jobs offered by these law firms are not enough. The average amount of students that will get jobs during an on-campus drive is about 40%. The other 60% will have to seek a legal job on their own. Do not worry, as it is not as tough as it seems if you approach the challenge in a strategic manner.

  1. Through Your Law School Placement Office – Local law firms will send your law school placement office job notices whenever there are vacancies. About 25% of the students will land a job by applying to these jobs. To succeed here, you need to be diligent and targeted. Apply to a minimum of 10 jobs a week when you are still in school; and about 30 after you graduate. Ensure that each application is tailored for the attorney job and company you applying to. Yes, it is time-consuming and cumbersome, but this is what will put you above the crowd.
  2. Network With Alumni – Alumni will always lend you a hand. In the legal field more than 40% of people get legal jobs through networking. Make it a point to contact about 10 people per week and sustain the contact. Networking means you contribute something; hence, always be ready to be of any type of assistance to anyone in your network.Stay in touch with brief emails about your grades, achievements, or even personal matters that would matter professionally. An email once a week or fortnight is good. Always be brief, friendly and make the reading interesting. Try finding out important dates – birthdays, anniversaries, etc. – and wish them appropriate greetings on these days.
  3. Find a Mentor – This might not be easy, but it is very much worth the trouble. Do not go after the big names, for there are too many in line for that. Rather, find your own “diamonds” by investigating the careers of experienced local attorneys. Once you have found 5-10 such attorneys, make yourself useful to them in any manner possible. Latch on to the person you warm up to and work hard to be useful. Take up all the jobs he is willing to hand over to you; make sure you go the extra mile on each one. Whenever there is an opening that might fit you, this mentor will definitely think of you. He will also promote you on his network, and in the legal field a good majority of law jobs are landed this way.

How Pro Bono Can Help Your Job Search

If you plan on making a lateral move at some point in your legal career, and chances are you will make at least one or two, you are going to want to maximize your potential opportunities by gaining the type of experience firms consider valuable in a lateral candidate.  One issue we see a lot with our candidates is that even if they have excellent law school credentials and are making a move from a well-respected firm, they may not have the type or level of experience required of a lateral candidate.

Most frequently, this is because their current firm simply has not afforded them the opportunity to gain that experience, whether it is because clients do not want to entrust junior associates with complicated or high-level tasks, because partners and senior associates hoard work to pad their own hours that could otherwise be delegated, or simply because the firm has so much work in a particular area that an all-hands-on-deck situation arrives and the associate simply cannot refuse the assignment that is not the type of work they would prefer.

One good way to get high-level experience is through pro bono work.  There are obviously other benefits to pro bono work, namely giving back to the community and elevating your firm’s profile, but pro bono can be a win-win for a junior or mid-level associate, because partners are often willing to let the associate handle the entire case from intake through disposition, which allows the associate to get experience beyond what would be typical for their class or experience level on a paying client matter.

As one personal example, I was able to be part of a pro bono trial team and gain the experience of a full federal jury trial, including drafting and arguing trial motions, taking witness testimony and cross-examining adverse witnesses, and presenting exhibits in front of a jury.  All of this was in my first full year of practice at a major international Am Law 100 firm, where that type of work on a paying client matter was usually reserved for senior and junior partners given the numbers at stake.  Had I decided to make a lateral move to another firm, having jury trial experience at such an early stage in my career would be a huge feather in my cap, and would have made my resume stand out relative to competing lateral candidates.

Now, having been an associate at a big firm, I can also understand that it’s often the last thing you want to do to add more work to your plate, especially if your firm places a cap on the number of pro bono hours that count towards your minimum annual billables, but I seriously do recommend seeking out and taking on pro bono clients and assignments that will allow you to fast-track your experience, especially when you are at the junior or mid-level.  It will be a boon to your career whether you stay put, or look to make a lateral move down the road.

 

Finding the Best Advice for Your Legal Career

It’s an ancient bit of advice that you ought to choose your friends carefully: you will end up resembling them. This is just as true for who you turn to for advice. In today’s legal field, with firms downsizing and making their teams lean, you might wonder what move to make, when to make it, and who to ask. Naturally, networking is part of landing the right position, but that doesn’t mean you should give ear to just anybody who wants to talk. You need your standard networking skills plus savvy to who really knows.

After all, the dispirited, embittered, and cynical often want to talk the most, want to blow off steam. If you fall into their circles, they may color your view, make you think the industry not only isn’t what it once was, but never will be again, and that progressing down your career path as you planned is futile. It is easy to lose spirit when you are hanging out with those who have lost spirit. Attitude matters.

So who should you talk to, who befriend? You want, most of all, to take the advice of those you envy, who are in a position you’d like to have. Emulate such people. Humbly ask them how they’ve done it, and pay attention. You might be surprised to learn that they were once in a position similar to yours, and by noting the attitude they fostered, and the sort of decisions they’ve made, you become like them, you become primed to succeed in the way they succeeded.

After all, there is one thing each of us knows best: how we got where we are today. On that topic, we might advise anybody. If a man is an alcoholic, and struggling with his job, and divorced, and full of regrets, he might even have an excuse for all his failings, a legitimate sounding excuse. He did, after all, work it out in his head how he unjustly ended up where he is today. He would be better, however, looking to somebody who also fell into bad times, and found the ladder out.

What we need is not excuses to be the same, or rationalizations for career stagnancy, friends who take our ambition from us and teach us to be complacent. What we need is the kind of dynamic friend, or counsel, somebody whom to inspire us to expand our possibility, to be more. Perhaps such friends are in short supply, perhaps getting such advice is rare, but when you find it, hold on to it, those are the words that matter.

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