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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Looking Ahead to Make Choices Today

There has been plenty of research to suggest that the more choices we are given, the more likely we choose nothing. We become frozen by options. We no longer get that gut hunch for any of them: they all seem equally likely, or unlikely. How then to choose the law firm you are looking to work with? There are, after all, endless factors to consider, and you might simply choose whatever looks likely and hope for the best.

Take the time, nevertheless, to list your values, to imagine the sort of lawyer you want to be ten years from now. Get a sense of who and what you want to be. What is that person like? How does he behave? What sort of experience will he have had? By developing this image of your future self you will have created a purpose for yourself. Having a purpose means having a basis for a strategy.

Knowing your purpose helps you wade through all the options and snags that might come up, questions about location, pay, what to specialize in, what cases to take, and who to work with. Its like having a compass through the wide range of opportunities. Once you know who and what you want to be, things become much simpler, and choices become stronger. Rather than being tugged by the wind, you are walking towards an objective.

Holding to that image of what you want to be, you will have trajectory, and will one day look back at your legal career as a thing of purpose, rather than of chance and accident. You will see a line of of goals achieved. You will see a line of necessity throughout the years, instead of an indeterminate meandering that ended up nowhere in particular. Your career will have made sense.


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Initially, firms look at the credentials that are both the most tangible (or easily measured) and the most accessible, as they are normally contained in an associate’s application. These include the prestige of the an associate’s law school, their grades and class rank, the prestige of their current law firm (or company if in house), their billable hours, their practice area and their class year. The associate’s undergraduate record is also considered, but this is usually less important.

Top law firms look for associates who attended law schools that are typically ranked in the “top 25,” and more preferably in the “top 10.” While the exact ranking order of “top” law schools varies, there are three law schools that stand apart from the rest. These are Harvard (most often #1), Yale and Stanford. These three schools are usually followed in varying order by other “top” law schools such as Chicago, Michigan, Columbia and Virginia. Generally speaking, the higher rated the law school, the less importance is given to grades and class rank. The reverse is also true. These means that associates who did not attended a top law school will usually need high grades and/or class rank (including law review) before a top firm will seriously consider them.

Similarly, law firms look at the prestige of the associate’s present law firm. As with the top law schools, some law firms are more “top” than others, and their ranking vary. Nevertheless, and again as with top law schools, there are a certain firms that are consistently cited among the best or very best (Kirkland and Skadden come to mind as obvious examples). For example, the “AmLaw 200,” which includes the 200 largest firms in the nation as determined by the American Lawyer magazine, is considered to be a general indicator of top law firms. There are also some exceptional smaller firms that are widely thought to be among the “top.” Firms are also interested in the associate’s number of billable hours because it demonstrates work ethic.

With respect to practice area, a law firm’s level of interest in an associate will be affected both by the general level of demand in that area as well as the particular firm’s needs in that area. Associates that happen to be in a more “hot” area are thus more likely to obtain attention from law firms. Finally, firms also take into account the associate’s class year. This is because law firms tend to favor associates who have been out of law school no fewer than 2 years and no more than 5 years. As a result, associates that are only 1 year or less out of law school or are 6 years or more out of law school will usually generate relatively less interest from law firms.

Once a firm does decide that it has interest in an associate 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, general writing and lawyering ability, personality, charisma, teamwork, ethics, motivation, drive and “fit.”

Clearing Conflicts: The Final Stage

Conflicts are often an afterthought in the lateral job search process, which is understandable since it is fairly rare for a conflict to present an insurmountable barrier to switching firms. It is only when a conflict would significantly impact the firm’s relationship with an existing client and/or prevent a lateral attorney from being fully staffed on necessary matters that a conflicts check results in a non-offer or an offer having to be withdrawn. That being said, it happens frequently enough to warrant a brief discussion here about how to handle the issue when it arises.

Running conflicts typically used to be the second-to-last stage in the offer process, the last stage being a references check after an offer was accepted and conflicts had cleared. Many firms, and especially large firms with lots of clients, have begun running a preliminary conflicts check as part of the interview process, and will request that candidates selected for an interview fill out a conflicts form to bring with them for their in-person interviews.

I personally think this is a smart move on the part of firms, and very helpful to candidates, because the worst situation possible is for a candidate to accept an offer and give notice to their current firm only to have a conflicts issue prevent them from joining the new firm. Now they no longer have a new job and have either left their previous job or have at the very least alerted their current employer that they are looking to move elsewhere, which can make personal and professional relationships quite difficult to say the least.

It should thus be fairly obvious that I absolutely advocate not giving your notice until your conflicts have fully cleared and your new firm has given you the green light to move forward. No matter how bad things are at your current firm, and no matter how eager you are to move on, you do not want to be stuck with no new job and now no old job.

Similarly, and especially these days when the hiring process has become so protracted (see my earlier articles on this subject), you should be alerting your potential new firm of any new or additional matters you are staffed on after you have filled out your initial conflicts form but before your new firm has fully cleared your conflicts and let you know it is okay to give your notice. Again, it rarely happens that a brand new matter presents an insurmountable issue, but because it has happened before and will likely happen again to our candidates, it is absolutely worth mentioning here.

In sum, you should: a) fully and completely fill out your initial conflicts form whenever a potential new firm provides or requests one; b) make sure to keep your prospective new firm apprised of any new matters on which you are staffed until everything has fully cleared and you are given the green light to give notice to your current firm; and c) absolutely do not give notice to your current firm until everything has been fully cleared so as not to risk losing out on a new position while potentially losing your existing position.

As recruiters, while we do not have control over conflicts, this advice can be critical in making a smooth transition to your next firm.

Orienting Yourself In your Legal Career

Amidst the competing agendas partners hold as part of a firm, and the Chance opportunities that present themselves to you – a promotion you only sort of want, a new position you have to take because your old position has been eliminated – it is easy enough to lose your bearings in the legal world, and end up following a career path that is as jagged as a lightening bolt. How to resist this? How to ensure your career track remains on the trajectory of increased power, greater standing, greater pay, greater respect?

Take the time to write out your ultimate career goal. Why, after all, did you join the legal profession? Take that initial inspiration which you had before you even joined a law school, and update it, making a goal worthy of a lifetime’s plight. That, now, is your career goal.

Having made your goal, type it up at the top of a paper. Underneath that, write your five or so “virtues” or the principles you strive to develop as you advance in your career.

Finally, under that, name a personal hero, and find an inspirational quote from him or her if you can.

Having made this “Orientation Sheet,” use it every morning over coffee, to ground yourself in your Goal and your Means, and every time you read it, each morning, use your imagination to fill it out and think about its possibilities. A plan can help skirt panic and set in hope.

Having such a solid goal in mind, you will have a polestar to guide you as chance and happenstance tries to misdirect you on your career track. You an always ask, “When I make this next decision, which choice is most aligned to my goal, my purpose?” Answering always in the direction of greater power towards your goal, you will never fall astray, but achieve, step-by-step, the purpose you first began when  you chose to enter law. Keep your eyes open, career opportunities arise when you know what you are looking for.

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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Do the Due (Diligence)

One of the most important parts of being a good legal recruiter is paying close attention to the legal market and recognizing trends as they are forming so you can best guide your candidates to the most promising opportunities. In the course of my job, I see a lot of resumes, and I also like to pay attention to trends in resumes (e.g., how many resumes we are seeing from each practice area, which can indicate a slowdown or pickup in demand in a given sector, if we are seeing frequent resumes from particular firms, which can indicate a firm undergoing a major slowdown in business and/or dissatisfaction with firm leadership, etc.).

One trend I’ve noticed over the course of the past few weeks is a lot of attorneys looking to make a move very shortly after they started their most recent position, some in as few as 2-3 months out from their last start date. This doesn’t necessarily reflect a particular trend, but it does trigger a reminder for something I always stress to my candidates, and something that is important to your job search whether you are working with a recruiter or going it alone: it is imperative that you do your due diligence on a firm or other employer before accepting an offer.

It can be tempting to skip this step, or to pull the classic “grass is greener” move and believe that another firm or employment situation is better than the one you are currently in, ignoring signs that it might not be, or that you are just jumping into the same situation that you are trying to escape. But landing in a new job situation that is just as bad as your old one is actually a much worse position to be in, simply because now your options for making another move are MUCH more limited, simply because multiple moves on a resume is a HUGE red flag for potential employers.

There are many ways to research potential employers to find out if they are a good fit and/or a significant improvement over your current position. But don’t make the first move possible simply because you are unhappy where you are. You want to make a smart move that will hopefully fix some, if not all, of the issues with your current position. A good recruiter can help you with solid intel on the market and particular firms, but at the end of the day it is really up to you to do your own due diligence, and you skip this step of the job search process at your own peril.

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