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.

Build an Online Personal Brand – 3 Top Tips

It is very important if not critical that you build a strong online presence and brand name as a professional if you want to be seen as an expert and the best in your niche. Contrary to common belief, building an online personal brand is not difficult. It is however time consuming and it requires regular and constant updates and tweaking to keep the search engines are interested and attracted to your information.

Building Your Online Brand Name Is Easy

You are not on the net you do not exist for most people out there who require a competent and expert attorney such as yourself. Do not let such opportunities to pass you by just because your name does not come up on a Google search. Here are a few critical tips to promote your brand name online:

  1. Start With The Fun Part – do you have a Facebook id? Get a professional page created. It will take less than 15 minutes and you will instantly be broadcasted among your friends and their friends as an attorney in your line of expertise. You do not have a Facebook id? Well, it is time you got one because this is by far the quickest growing and most popular social media site online and hence, it will give the highest level of visibility and promotion.
  2. Get a LinkedIn Account – the next huge leader for networking online for professionals is LinkedIn. Simple, to the point, and excellently designed to promote interactive networking, LinkedIn is the place you should be if you want to be widely known professionally.
  3. Boost Your Name’s SEO-ability – type your name inthe Google search bar and see what you get. Unless you have done your homework you will get precious little. To ensure that you project the right professional image you need to search-engine-optimize your name. You can do this by:

a. Getting your name registered online – get your name based or or anything that appeals to you while at the same time spells out what you are/ what you do. This can take as little as $10-$50 per year and it is money and time well invested.

b. Posting Articles Based On Your Experience – use free article submission directories to post articles with advice, introspection, case studies, etc. Aim to come across as an expert in your field.

c. Setting up a blog to your domain and update daily – it does not take more than 20 minutes to update something of interest. You owe that much to your promotion campaign. Write about various aspects of your profession and always SEO the text.

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.

It’s Not All About What You Say

Between being an attorney on the recruiting committee of my former law firm and my career as a legal recruiter, I have interviewed hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people in my lifetime.  Keep in mind that there is much, much more to an interview than questions and answers.  This is not article about what to say during an interview.  It is an article about how to say it, and how to present yourself well without saying a word.

  1. Carriage.  This can’t be said enough: first impressions can make or break the interview.  That moment when you walk in the door, if you fail to make a good impression, you may just sink the interview.  So, how does one achieve this?

Make eye contact.  If you avoid eye contact with your interviewer, not only might you give the impression that you have something to hide, you also appear fearful.  If your interviewer perceives you as afraid of her, she instantly demotes you to an inferior position in her own mind, making you unworthy of her confidence, and, ultimately, the position you seek.  Making eye contact inspires confidence in you, and also creates an instant bond between you and your interviewer.   Shake hands, smile, and use your interviewer’s name.  These things also create an instant bond within the first five seconds.  If you end up with a less-than-outgoing interviewer, you will know it in the first few minutes.  You can always back off and maintain distance after the initial handshake, but you can’t make up for a lack of forthrightness if it is expected.  Obviously, using the interviewer’s name a few times not only lets them know that you know who they are and value their time.  But there’s more: at the end of the interview especially, saying, “it was great to meet you, Mark,” will jog Mark’s memory as to your name.  If he can’t remember, you can bet he will peek at your resume the moment you walk out the door, and that’s a good thing.

  1. Authority and Directness.

During the interview itself, remember what your mom told you:  Don’t stutter.  Sit up straight. Speak clearly.  When asked a question, take a breath, pause, and think about your answer before you slowly begin to speak.  And when you do speak, remember to make eye contact with the person you are speaking with.  This conveys seriousness and sincerity, and your answer will appear more genuine.  Running off at the mouth will often get you into trouble, so remember that it is far better to say less and say it with authority.

  1. Enthusiasm for Your Practice.

When I conduct mock interviews and counseling, attorneys often cringe at the suggestion that they get excited about their practice.  No one is asking you to change your personality or act like a chirpy gameshow host.  But your enthusiasm for your area of practice needs to be apparent.  This is your career- and no one wants to hire someone who is in the wrong the career.  Interviewers constantly ask stock questions like, “what has your favorite project been at your current firm?”  or “what do you like most about your area of practice?”  They are asking this for a reason: they are trying to get a feel for what you like, and how that fits with what they do.  But they also want you to be happy at their firm.  Show them that you truly like what you do, and could also like what they do.  Again, I’m not telling you what you should say here; but the way you talk about these topics is very important.  No matter what you say substantively, let them see your enthusiasm for the practice of law and for your area of law.

  1. Confidence in Yourself.

All of the above skills will help you convey what really matters: the fact that you can do this job.  An interview is not the time for modesty- it is the time to make them want to hire you.  For some reason, from the time we are law students, we are taught that interviewers are out to sabotage us- that they are looking to trip us up with trick questions and doublespeak.  Not true!  When you walk in to an interview, the people meeting want to meet you, and are thinking about hiring you and working with you for many years.  You’ve already made the initial cut, they’ve decided you’re a credible candidate, and now it is up to you to let them know that you have the right skills and are a dependable associate.  They are waiting for you to tell them what you can do, so tell them!   For example, when an interviewer asks you what your greatest asset is, don’t hold back!  List several!  You can always phrase it in terms of what someone else said about you so it seems less like you’re tooting your own horn.  When an interviewer asks you what your supervisors would say about you, discuss all the positive feedback you’ve gotten from them.  Pick out the highlights and talk yourself up! No one is going to do this for you, so tell them that other people have said you’re smart, competent, and dependable.  Don’t make the mistake of failing to let them know why you are the one they want to hire.