How Many Firms Should I Apply To?

This question has multiple meanings, and thus multiple answers.  If asked with respect to a job search in general, the obvious answer is “as many as is necessary to find the right job.”  But not all job searches are the same.  There are some job searches where the attorney is reasonably happy where they are and thus is not “actively looking” for a new job.  Nevertheless, for purposes of exploration, education and other good reasons, the attorney is taking a look at select firms in order to compare them to the present firm.  If it turns out that the attorney finds something significantly better during their more limited search, then they will make a move.  If they do not, then they will stay where they are for the time being.

But with respect to the more common open-ended search for a new job, the question I hear most often from my candidates is how many firms should I apply to initially?  The usual answer to this question is “as many as you can handle.”  Once again, the goal in a typical job search is to find that new job as soon as possible.  This means you should work as hard and as long as it takes to accomplish your goal.  On the other hand, there are necessary limits that you must recognize.  The two biggest limits are time and energy.  If you are still working full time (or more realistically for an attorney, more than full time) you are only going to have so much time and energy that you can dedicate to interviews and other necessary aspects of the search.  If you are unemployed, however, then you will have much more time and energy at your disposal for your job search.  Consequently, you should put some kind of appropriate limit on the number of initial applications based on these two limiting factors.

The other factor is the strength of your credentials.  Are you likely to generate a significant number of interviews from a relatively small number of applications?  If so, you do not need to send out as many initial applications to get to your estimated limit of interviews that you can handle at one time.  If, however, it is more likely to take a larger number of applications before you get an interview, then you should take that into account and maximize the number of initial applications that you send out.  As interviews come in, you continue to manage your time and energy limitations in determining how many subsequent applications to send out.

The other reason you should have as many applications as possible – both initial and subsequent — is that you want to be able to interview with as many firms as possible.  In this way, you can best learn about different firms and educate yourself on what kind of firm works best for you and your practice.  If you just jump on the first offer that comes along, there is a possibility that you have not had a chance to fully investigate your options.  On the other hand, there can be very good reasons for accepting that first offer.  One good reason would be if offers are going to be very few and far between, and this option is likely to be your best option.  Another good reason would be that you just happened to have just hit upon the right firm on your first try.  This is unusual, but it does happen.  In that situation, you do not need further investigation.  You have already reached your goal.

The Timing of Transition

I speak with countless attorneys who tell me they would like to switch practice areas, some very early in their career, and some many years beyond law school.  Those who are more than 1-2 years out of school will invariably say they are “willing to start over as a first year,” or “take a big salary cut” to get into the practice area they want, and believe that firms will jump at the opportunity to get a “discount” on an experienced (in another practice area) attorney for a first-year salary.

Plainly and simply, jumping to a new practice area is a very difficult, and often entirely unrealistic move to make.  The following are just a few reasons why:

-Structuring and client optics.  I have written more extensively about this before, but at the bottom line, most law firms do not want to hire more senior attorneys at a “discount.”  Maybe one or two years adjusted from an attorney’s graduating class year, especially if that attorney has been in house, which most law firms do not view as the equivalent in work experience or training relative to years spent at a large law firm.  But by and large and medium size firms tend to be fairly rigid in their class year composition (smaller and boutique firms less so).  Reasons include wanting to structure their practice groups and overall attorney staffing to ensure a consistent flow of promotion and advancement at the appropriate class and skill level; not being able to justify higher billing rates on their client matters by staffing more senior attorneys (and on the flipside wanting to avoid the optics of a client wondering why a Class of 2002 attorney is being billed out at a first-year rate and the perception of that attorney not being “good”); and wanting to avoid turnover when a more senior and skilled attorney gets bored doing lower-level work and sees another lateral opportunity on the market when the economy improves.

-Training.  It costs a lot for a firm to hire and train an attorney, and even if you are one of the best mid-level litigators the 21st Century has ever seen, a firm with a dire need for a mid-level transactional associate because of a large client matter is not going to want to spend the time or effort required to re-train that attorney into an entirely different practice group.  They also cannot justify billing out that attorney at their appropriate class year if the attorney does not have comparable skills, in which case you are talking about a class year discount, which gets into the issues in the section above.

-Perception.  If you are 4-5 years out of law school, and all of a sudden want to switch practice groups entirely and “start over” from the bottom, just imagine for a second how that is going to look to a prospective employer.  Will they be overjoyed they get a more senior attorney at a discount, or will they be wary that this candidate did not demonstrate the foresight to pick the right practice area to begin with, or have the fortitude and commitment to stick it out and be successful in their current practice area?  Most job seekers tend to employ at least a little bit of wishful and creative thinking, which is great when you are trying to market yourself to a particular position where your skill set might not be an exact fit, but this can be a liability if it leads to being completely unrealistic in terms of your lateral job search.

All of this is to say that if you are going to transition to an entirely new practice area, say from litigation to transactions, it can be done (and I have placed a number of candidates in this manner), but it must be done within your first two or so years of practice.  Any later than that, and you begin to run into the huge wall of issues above.

On the other hand, if you are wanting to transition into a practice area that is at least moderately related to work you were doing before, say going from commercial litigation to labor and employment litigation, or going from corporate transactional work to technology transactions, there is a lot more potential to have this be a viable option even 3-5 years out in your career.  Any more senior than that, and it becomes an extremely difficult proposition if you are targeting medium to large size law firms.

The broader lesson is to really think hard about what type of practice you want to have before leaving law school, and try as hard as you can to get into that practice area, or at least a closely related practice area, because there is a fairly small window of a couple of years to make a large change once you have started your career.

Modesty is Not the Best Policy

Attorneys are generally risk-averse.  Because of this tendency, in interviews, we want to manage the expectations of whoever might hire us so that they are not disappointed once they figure out we are not fluent in all aspects of our practice.  Therefore, often, attorneys lead by talking about what we can’t do, rather than what we can do.  This is a mistake, and it is also completely unnecessary.

I spend a decent amount of my time talking to my candidates about selling themselves effectively during an interview.  Some people do this well naturally, some even need to be toned down a little.  But in most cases, attorneys have a tendency to undersell themselves during an interview.   This is especially true of junior-level attorneys who lack confidence in their overall abilities.  I have also seen it in attorneys who have taken a career break, are trying to expand a very specialized skill set, or are trying to transition to a different area of the law.

Instead, always lead with your strengths.  The direction of this discussion, in an interview setting, is often up to you, because the interviewer will ask something open-ended like, “Tell me about your experience.”  You can start by talking about the area in which you have the most expertise, or the area in which you have the most interest, describing your relevant experience.  Let your enthusiasm come through during this discussion- this is another great tool in selling yourself effectively.  If you have experience that is not exactly on point but translates well to the job you are targeting, be sure to discuss that experience and point out that it is similar to whatever duties you may be asked to perform. While I am not suggesting that you should ever represent that your experience is greater or different from what it actually is, you can do yourself a lot of favors by emphasizing the positive in this manner.

Let your interviewers follow up on areas of experience that you may not have mentioned.  If you do not possess the experience they are asking for, again, talk about similar work that you have done in another area of the law, and point out in detail how it might translate to their practice.  If you really feel that you have no skills to offer to a certain part of the set required, you can simply say so, or point out that you are willing to learn.

If you are interviewing, it is because someone at the firm saw something on your resume that they thought they could use.  Emphasize that thing, whatever it is.  Don’t spend time telling them about everything that won’t help them.    They probably want you for what you can already do, so focus on that and don’t worry about the rest.

Preparing to Answer Key Interview Questions

When preparing for a law firm interview, one of your primary goals is to anticipate and prepare for virtually every significant question that the firm is going to ask you.  Of course, not all interview questions can be accurately predicted.  But many can, at least in terms of the general subject matter.

In fact, the essence of every law firm interview of an attorney candidate can be boiled down to just ten primary points or issues.  Many – if not all – of the substantive questions that you will be asked will relate in part to one or more of these ten points.  This means that if you are fully prepared to respond to each of these ten key points, you will be well on your way to delivering a knockout performance.  In short, what each law firm really wants to know about you is:

(1)    Are you able to fully perform the job at a consistently high level?

(2)   Can we always depend on you to get the work done whenever or wherever necessary?
(3)    Will you work hard to be as profitable for the firm as possible in terms of keeping yourself busy, hours billed, business developed, etc.?

(4)    Will you always be fully professional and never make the firm look bad?

(5)    Will you always be someone who is personable and easy to work with and not a jerk?

(6)   Are you really enthusiastic about obtaining this job for the long term?

(7)   Will you be a “team player” that generally fits in to the firm’s culture and values?

(8)    Will you respect our authority and allow us to manage you?

(9)    Will you gradually grow and improve and become more valuable to the firm?

(10)   Do you have any “red flags” that we would want to know about?

Of course, every candidate is different, and as a result the particularities of every interview are going to be different.  Consequently, there is no “one” proper way to answer any specific question.  But the best way to prepare is to be able to persuasively explain why you meet all of the ten points described above.  Then you are ready for virtually any reasonable, relevant question that comes along.

In other words, you do not need to memorize every conceivable question that could be asked at an interview and their corresponding answers.  You just need to be ready to fully address the various important aspects of the 10 key points, as well as any additional key points that may be relevant to your particular interview.  Once you understand the true purpose of each question, you are well on your way toward forming an excellent response to it.  In short, by the end of the interview you want to be able to persuasively assure the firm that you are a great candidate with no significant “red flags” on any of these ten points.

Know Your Coworkers Personally

There is a sense in the business world that success is like water: keep swimming or you drown. If you let yourself grow content that makes you lazy and complacent; you cease to be competitive and you get picked over when promotions are being handed out. Only if you keep the competitor’s edge and elbow your way to the front will you get noted. Not that you have to be aggressive, but you do need to be assertive, and that means being friendly, but not so friendly that you would sacrifice an opportunity to a friend who deserves it less.

Yes, all that is true, but nevertheless, one can love his job and love his team as well. You don’t  necessarily have to let anybody walk all over you, but try to stop competing for a minute, and truly to appreciate the team you have around you. Of course your coworkers are more than lawyers and paralegals. They are fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, sons and daughters. They have hobbies, the have interests. They probably have political, religious, and philosophical identifications as well. Above all, they are individuals. Taking the time in your advancement as a lawyer to appreciate these other qualities in your coworkers won’t distract you from their business self. Far from it. It will help you appreciate their quirks all the more, anticipate how and why they make their business decisions, figure out what ultimate makes them tick.

So let yourself professionally love your coworkers. I mean respect them for who they are, and all they are, as persons who have a life that is outside the job, but that colors and characterizes how they work as lawyers.

By knowing people personally and caring for all they are, not just their professional self, you will have made a human connection, a connection that relates intimately with the business world as well. Open up your heart a little. Professionals do this. They care. There is nothing shrewd or ruthless in mixing love and business: keeping in touch with the human element the only way to keep excited about the job.

Traveling For Interviews – Who Should Pay?

If you’re currently on the lateral market and looking for a job, whether it’s opportunistically or out of necessity, one of the most difficult things can be managing your time and budget – typically the timing is the most difficult part to manage if you are currently employed, as an attorney in an in-demand practice area can be extremely busy.  And if you are out of work, or have recently relocated without a new position in hand, managing your job search on a budget can be quite difficult if you are relying on your savings and have no new guaranteed income to count on.

Both of these factors come heavily into play once you get to the point in the job search where you begin to field interview requests, and especially if you are looking to interview or land a job with a law firm that is not where you are currently located.

When the market was booming, all types of attorneys were heavily in demand, firms were flush with cash and willing to pay interview and relocation costs for almost every promising candidate because the competition for top candidates was tough, and firms were missing out on tons of potential revenue if they had an opening that remained unfilled for months on end.

A couple of years ago when the market crashed, many firms were laying attorneys off rather than hiring, budgets were tight, and candidates were lucky to get an interview at all.  Firms had their pick of candidates in most all practice areas, and thus adopted budget-saving practices of only interviewing local candidates, or requiring candidates to front their own interview travel expenses, and often their own relocation expenses.

Now that the market has recovered a bit, and we are seeing increasing demand for lateral attorney talent, we are in somewhat of a hybrid situation where top firms are willing and able to pay a candidate’s travel costs for interviews and relocation costs for new hires, however a lot of firms have not yet had the confidence or desire to come all the way back around.  Having learned to be cost conscious, and having not yet begun to miss out on top candidates due to competition from other firms (it is still a “buyer’s market”, although I believe we are approaching somewhat of a tipping point once again), there are a large number of firms who are still sticking to interviewing local candidates only, or who will not pay travel expenses for interviews, and even some firms who do not make it a practice of paying relocation expenses for a candidate from another city.

Because there is no established practice, you as the candidate really have to decide on how you will approach this dynamic.  If you really want a position and you are in a competitive market, it can be very much worth paying  a couple hundred dollars to fly yourself out for a second round interview that might land you a six-figure offer.  On the other hand, if you are only looking opportunistically, you may decide it is not worth the cost, and turn down firms who are not willing to pay those expenses.

I still advocate to my candidates that they be as proactive as possible in their job search, and be willing to pay their own expenses if the firm will not, because we have not yet reached the point where most, or even many, candidates will have their pick of a number of interviews and offers.  The market has come back in a major way, but it is not quite there yet, and if you are serious about your search, you should do whatever you can to give yourself every competitive advantage, including being willing to pay your own travel costs.

Pro Bono Work Is a Wise Strategy

One of the best way to receive good gifts from life is to give good gifts to others. If you do pro bono work regularly, not only will  you build good karma with your higher power, but you will be networking. Those you work with will know that you care for more than a paycheck; you also care for justice. Ironically, this can help your paycheck.

Pro Bono work is the best way to network, for you will be impressing judges and those who are happiest in the legal profession: those who do it for the love of justice, who do it to help people. After all, helping others is more fulfilling than even the heftiest paycheck. Volunteer work is part of a healthy lifestyle.

Nevertheless, the spiritual always walks in step with the material, and you will find that the more you cheerfully give to others, the more others will want to cheerfully give to you, and will give you the connections you need to land the sort of job you thought you could never get. Mind you the new job might look like a compromise, but gold is hidden in ugly ore.

Don’t do pro bono simply to network and serve yourself. If you do, and those things don’t happen, you will turn sour. Do it for the sheer love of justice. You will find that your day will come.

End your job search here!


Casting A Wide Net

When I first started practicing law, I joined a small (75-attorney) single-office litigation boutique in Washington, DC.  It was a very collegial place, and everyone knew and respected one another.  I (and other junior associates) were invited to partners’ homes for dinner, and partners came to my wedding.  We all played on the softball team.  One of the reasons I chose this firm is that I knew I wanted this type of friendly, laid-back environment, and I did not believe it could be achieved in a large firm.  So, what was I to do when my firm announced plans to merge with a Very Large Firm?  My colleagues and I were devastated when the merger was announced.

We were all pleasantly surprised to find that very little actually changed after the merger.  Plenty of little things changed, but, because the large firm basically just absorbed our DC office and added very few people of its own, it felt mostly the same.  The partners were just as friendly, the associates just as happy.  But one thing that did change was the type of associate that was willing to look at our firm.  Suddenly, we had a reputation as being a “big firm.”  It was strange because to us, we were still the perfect place for someone who wanted to work in a small firm.

The point of the story is that I believe that many associates missed a great opportunity to join our extremely pleasant firm, because they felt that they already knew what a big firm (like ours) was like.  They were wrong!   If they had kept an open mind, applied, and come in to talk with us, it would have been easy to explain that our office was not a typical big firm office.

The same is true in your job search.   You might think that a mega-firm is an awful place to be, or, similarly, that a small firm does not do sophisticated enough work for you, based solely on their size.  Instead, I would advise you to dig a little deeper.  Firms are proud of their firm character, whatever that is, and they want to attract people who fit into that culture.    Take the time to look at the firm’s website.  See who their clients are.  Read what they advertise about what type of culture their firm has.  Talk to your recruiter, if you are working with one, to find out what you can about the firm’s culture, and whether you might like to apply there.  The point is, don’t rush to judgment about a firm without knowing more about it.


Two Hot Niche Practice Areas – Executive Compensation & Employee Benefits, and Technology Transactions

I’ve written a lot in the past about larger events in the overall economy eventually driving a hiring cycle in particular areas of the law, and want to give a current example of two niche practice areas that are very hot right now in the current market: Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation, and Technology Transactions, and even more specifically within the latter sector, Data Privacy.

First, Executive Compensation & Employee Benefits (and to some extent ERISA) is extremely hot right now.  If you are at a small or mid-sized firm with solid expertise in this area, and have been looking for an opportunity to make the jump to a large Am Law firm, now is probably the best time in recent memory to attempt that lateral upward move (and of course BCG is happy to assist).

With the ongoing market recovery, corporate and transactional law started to come back in a big way.  Deals were happening, companies were merging, new companies were being formed on a regular basis (especially in hot start-up hubs like Silicon Valley and Seattle, and even now in Los Angeles and New York), and along with those mergers on the business, finance, and securities side, these companies are needing expertise on issues relating to executive compensation packages as they try to lure and retain talent.  This is especially true for international companies that may be dealing with compensation and employment laws from a wide variety of jurisdictions.  You can almost always count on the executive compensation and employee benefit sector to pick up steam in the wake of an upward trend in corporate hiring, and right now is no exception.

Similarly, Technology Transactions is currently very, very hot.  If you have technology transactional experience, such as licensing, outsourcing, and experience related to mergers, acquisitions, etc., for technology companies, you should definitely take a look at your options on the lateral market.  Even if you are not actively looking, or are happy where you are, it will be a good long-term career exercise to see whether there might be firm with better work or future partnership opportunities.  BCG can help you find these positions.

Technology transactions has become an extremely hot market for lateral attorney movement for a lot of the same reasons – with corporate transactions, mergers and acquisitions, venture capital, and corporate formation all on the rise the past two years, and the fact that the technology sector has been driving a lot of the current economic growth, it makes sense that there is a strong demand for attorneys with particular expertise in this area.

Along with general technology transactions, a new sub-niche now has more demand than ever before – expertise in data privacy.  While there are only a couple of firms who can boast truly comprehensive expertise in this area, many firms have at least a couple of partners who service clients with legal needs in data privacy, and we only expect that demand to increase as data collection becomes a bigger factor in terms of corporate profits, as well as a part of the overall cultural zeitgeist as technology becomes a larger part of our lives each year.

If you are an attorney with expertise in either of these areas, it would be well worth speaking to a recruiter to see what your options might be on the lateral market.  And if not in this area, think about how your own career trajectory might align now and in the future with overall market trends – it is a good thought exercise that will help you plan your career, and possibly a forthcoming career move.


How Important is Future Promotion when Considering an Offer?

Our candidates often ask us how important it is to weigh future promotion prospects (either to counsel or partnership status) when considering a law firm opportunity and whether they can reasonably expect to get a commitment from law firms regarding such progression prospects. In truth, it is almost impossible for a firm to predict the future by guaranteeing that progression will happen, even where associates perform at the highest level. No firm can realistically or accurately tell you today what your progression prospects are years from now, especially if you have not yet begun working for the firm.

There are simply too many factors that must be considered and too many unknowns.  Factors that impact progression prospects include, for example:  the practice group’s future profitability; the firm’s overall financial condition and related ability to promote additional associates; the home office’s “sign off” on a particular progression prospect; your performance over the years; the overall state of the economy; the future “class year spread” in your group; and a host of other considerations.

Of course, there are certain things you can do to increase your odds of progression including, for example, working with as many partners as possible (even across offices), putting in the hours when needed, helping to develop business and producing consistently high quality work product. It is also a good idea, where possible, to develop expertise in a niche sub-specialty, as this is a great way to make yourself indispensable to your firm and its clients.

Because it is so difficult to accurately predict what things will look like in a particular practice group years down the road (or even to guarantee what the state of the economy will be), I would suggest focusing on alternate, but related, criteria when contemplating a lateral move. Since no firm can guarantee you today of your progression prospects years from now, instead focus on the following:

  • How busy is the practice group today?
  • What is the group doing to grow its presence and further develop its client base?
  • Does the practice group have a clear strategy for the future?
  • Is this a positive and nurturing work environment?
  • Have other associates successfully progressed through the ranks?
  • Do the practice group leaders have a history of going to bat for their associates and helping them achieve progression?
  • Do the practice group leaders work with their associates to ensure that they are checking all of the boxes they need to check in order to progress, including, for example, making sure associates work with a wide range of partners and have some exposure to the home office?
  • Does the firm host firm-wide events and/or encourage associates to travel to other offices, including the home office, in order to meet other members of the firm?

If you can affirmatively answer most if not all of the above questions, then the progression odds are in your favor, although it is never possible to guarantee such things years in advance. But by drilling down on the above details, you can obtain a far more accurate sense of your long-term progression prospects than could be gained by directly asking a question that simply can’t be answered this early on.

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