TOUGH MARKETS (PART III) – PATENT AGENTS

In my last two articles, I explained how new candidates often overestimate their market value.  While this is understandable, it is also important to get a realistic assessment of your market value at an early stage from a good legal recruiter.  In Part I, I focused on partners and senior attorneys.  In Part II, I focused on associates.  In this final part (III), I will address patent agents.

In order to determine whether to make an offer to a patent agent candidate, law firms primarily looks at five factors.  They are:  (1) Whether the candidate has a high level degree in a technical area that is in high demand, such as electrical engineering (EE) or computer science (CS) or similar degrees ; (2) Registration as a patent agent with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO); (3) At least two years of patent prosecution experience; (4) the candidate’s personality and how well they interview; and (5) whether they have any “red flags.”

Some further clarification of these factors is in order.  First, with respect to the first factor, other types of degrees, including mechanical engineering, biology/biotech and chemistry, are currently in lower demand.  But there is at least some demand for them, including some recent growth in those areas.  There is virtually no demand for most other types of degrees, however.  In addition, the higher level of the degree, the better.  With respect to the second factor, the way to become a registered patent agent with the USPTO is to take and pass the patent bar examination.  As for patent agent experience (especially at the larger and more prestigious law firms), this is critical for the nearly all patent agent positions.  Firms usually define such experience as preparing and prosecuting patent applications.  I see a great many “prospective” or “entry level” patent agent candidates who entirely lack such experience.  With only a few exceptions, they are truly in a tough market.  The great majority of law firms, especially the larger and more prestigious ones, will simply not consider them, no matter how great their other qualifications may be.

With respect to these “entry level” candidates, I advise most of them to search the smaller law firms on their own (many of these small firms don’t use recruiters anyway).  The smaller firms are more flexible and less competitive, and thus more likely to consider a patent agent candidate who lacks patent agent experience.  If successful, they can get the necessary experience and then apply to the larger, more prestigious firms if they wish.  In addition, they should apply for and pass the patent bar as soon as possible.  Failing to do this gives firms the impression that they are not serious about their desire to become a patent agent.

Is The Grass Really Greener?

Among the reasons attorneys seek to leave their current firm, many attorneys find themselves overworked, under-appreciated, suffering from a lack of meaningful assignments, or the all-too-common scenario of being stuck with the prototypical “nightmare” partner or practice group.  When seeking to escape such a situation, it is important for your job search to evaluate the factors that led to it, and to do what you can to ensure that you will be happier in your next position.  To be cliché about it, you want to move onto truly greener grass, rather than jumping from fire to frying pan.

In counseling candidates on their job search, I always try to figure out what was/is the problem at their current position (assuming their move is out of dissatisfaction rather than following a spouse who got a new position, moving for family reasons, etc.).  Many attorneys believe that all large firms are the same, or that an escape into “in-house” is the answer, because there is a widespread belief that all in-house positions are superior, less stressful, and lower hours than law firm positions.  But that is simply not the case.

I have counseled attorneys who went in-house, and found that it did not live up to their expectations, and want to return to a law firm.  Depending on your practice area, your time in-house, and the type and level of experience you gained at your law firm prior to going in-house, it can be a difficult time to get back into the law firm world.  In-house is not a panacea for your practice woes.  It of course does work out for many attorneys, who find themselves happier and more fulfilled, but you would be surprised at the number of attorneys I speak to who “escaped” to go in-house, and then had their company move headquarters, reduce staff, or fail to offer them meaningful assignments, promotions, or bonuses, and they end up regretting their decision.

Similarly, many attorneys believe that the reasons they are miserable at their current large firm means that they would be identically miserable at any large firm.  Again, this is very much not the case.  Who you work with can make a night-and-day difference in your career satisfaction and quality of life.  Unfortunately, this is not always in an attorney’s control, especially at a more junior associate level, but through your own research, working with a recruiter, and the interview process, you should be able to get a sense of general workplace satisfaction.  And do not hesitate to reach out to colleagues or classmates within a firm you are considering to ask about partner reputation.  Partners, beware, word really does get around about who is good to work with/for, and who is to be avoided if at all possible.  Associate turnover is costly, and it is simply good business practice to ensure that you are treating those who work on your behalf fairly and respectfully.

It can be a tricky proposition to explain a move if it is simply a personality problem, however.  Even if it is 100% the “nightmare” partner’s fault, and they have driven away four other associates like you in the past four years, fronting that dynamic as your reason for switching firms is definitely a red flag because, fairly or not, it is still very much considered the role of the associate to stick it out under pressure and please the partners.  You are better off focusing on why the new firm offers you better practice opportunities, and unfortunately, to likely tough it out for enough of a period of time that it does not look like you are simply firm-hopping, and thus may be a liability for a new firm to bring on.

Finally, if your dissatisfaction simply stems from the fact that you do not like the practice of law, then it is entirely possible you would not be happy at a new firm.  Legal practice can be very rewarding and lucrative, but it is certainly not for everyone.  In that case, you may be better off seeking out a career counselor rather than a legal recruiter.  But I would definitely advise speaking with a recruiter first, as a good recruiter will be able to help you determine whether greener grass does exist in the legal profession, and it likely does.

When You De-Value Yourself, Others Will Too

I recently worked with an attorney who had been laid off from her firm.  Understandably, she was devastated- this attorney had graduated magna cum laude from law school, was multilingual, and was obviously a hard worker.  Aside from the emotional devastation, however, this attorney, who was not long out of law school, also had some debt to deal with.  She called me and asked whether she should accept a position with a large law firm- as a paralegal.

I told her I did not think it was a good idea.  Here’s why.

Although financial dire straits are very real, and I don’t want to be insensitive to that, it is important to understand that when you devalue yourself in the marketplace, others will devalue you as well. I told this attorney that once she accepted a position as a paralegal, she would in fact become a paralegal, and it is very hard to change people’s mindset once they have mentally put you in that category.

Here’s an example.  I once worked with a J.D. who had a Ph.D. in Chemistry from an excellent school.  She had gone to law school with an eye towards becoming an IP prosecution attorney.  However, she had not done well in law school (though her chemistry credentials were top-notch), and she took a job as a patent agent in a small practice.  She performed other functions as well, some of which were administrative.  She worked in this capacity for several years, and when she decided to move to a larger market, she contacted me.  However, I couldn’t get a single interview for her as an IP attorney.  I then tried marketing her as a patent agent, but once firms figured out that only part of her job had been prosecuting patents, they lost interest in her.   No one wanted to hire her as an attorney because she was working as a patent agent, and no one wanted to hire her as a patent agent because she had also been working partially as the firm’s administrative assistant.

Here’s another example.  I worked a wonderful attorney several years ago who spent 10+ years as a paralegal in a large firm before going to law school.  He worked part time at the firm, throughout law school, as a paralegal.  When he graduated, the firm told him that they had no attorney positions for him, but that they would promote him when one became available if he would stay on as a paralegal.  The firm actually made good on this promise; he agreed to stay on as a paralegal, and was promoted to Associate after a year or two.  He worked as an attorney at this prestigious firm for a couple of years.  However, when the downturn came, the firm told him that they could no longer support his associate position, and he was demoted back to a paralegal position.  Even after he had practiced there was an attorney, the firm never quite stopped viewing him as a paralegal.

I understand that when faced with a tough financial situation, it can be tempting employ a one-in-the-hand philosophy.  However, understand that it can truly hurt you in the long run.  If you can, it is better to hold out for something that is an actual attorney position.  If you do accept a lesser position, you may find it hard to get out of it.  This is especially true if you are looking to advance within that firm- i.e., you are hoping that after awhile, they will see how fantastic you are and promote you to an attorney position.  This rarely happens because the longer they see you belonging to one category, the more they feel you belong there.  Additionally, the more attenuated you get from your law practice, the more employers begin to feel that your skills have become rusty, and you no longer know how to practice law.  This might seem unfair or untrue, but I have seen it happen many times.

In sum, I do not encourage attorneys to accept non-attorney positions.  I honestly believe that doing so will hurt your career in the long run.  I would encourage attorneys having a tough time finding a job to do everything they can not to put themselves in this position if they ever hope to practice law again.

Hitting the Ground Walking

When a law firm lists an open position and attempts to hire new attorneys, by and large in the current (still cautious) economic climate, they are doing so because they have an abundance of available work, either in the form of existing matters, or ancillary matters from an existing client that the firm would like to retain but does not currently have the needed expertise to service.

Most lateral associates expect and believe that they will hit the ground running and be immediately busy, and thus immediately integrated into the practice group they are joining.  If this does not happen immediately, however, it is very rarely a cause for concern.

Firms tend to take different approaches to lateral associates, depending on the level of experience and the practice group, but frequently the initial days or weeks of a new position are dedicated to getting that attorney oriented with the firm’s administrative processes (training on computers, introductions to secretaries and support staff, training on firm policies, file management systems, benefits review and selection, etc.).

Additionally, if a practice group was hiring because they are incredibly busy, this may ironically lead to a delay in you receiving your first assignment(s).  If a partner and associate group is swamped with a closing on a deadline, or has briefing and a trial coming up, they may simply be too focused on the immediate tasks at hand to be able to assign and oversee your first client matters.  Partners under pressure and under deadlines frequently tend to assign their immediate work to their current “favorite” associates, who are known quantities, even if those associates are otherwise currently overworked.  You may have to wait for a break in the action to break into the action.

Partners may also have a sense of how they will use you from the search and interview process, and you may have been selected because you can jump right in and be an immediate contributor based on your background and skill set.  It is also possible that you were selected for hire because you have some of the skills needed for the current client work, but also additional impressive credentials and experience that the partners would like to utilize, but are not sure how immediately, or need to pitch the client for a new matter that you can uniquely handle.

There are some client matters where clients have only “signed off” on particular attorneys, or a particular number of attorneys, and it can take some time and effort by the partner to get another new associate approved to work on the matter.  I had this happen frequently, on both sides, one occasion where I was slow and available for work but it took a couple weeks for the client to approve adding me to the already considerable roster of billing attorneys on a 50-state class action, and once where I was hit with additional assignments on top of an already massive workload because the client wanted me to handle all of the research given my existing familiarity with the case, even though there were other associates willing and able to pitch in.

If you find yourself without a lack of immediate work, and this is a concern for you because of job security reasons, the best thing you can do is to let partners know you are available, take the time and effort to introduce yourself to as many partners and associates as possible to ask what they are working on and figure out what matters you may be able to contribute to, and in the meantime perhaps write an article, do some client networking, or do other work that would be helpful to marketing efforts, raising your profile, etc.

Remember, the firm hired you for a reason, and did not bring you on to pay you a very large salary to sit on your thumbs.  You will get work, even if it is not immediate, and when you do it is up to you to do the best job you can so the work keeps coming at your new firm.

TOUGH MARKETS (PART I) – PARTNERS AND OTHER SENIOR ATTORNEYS

Candidates who are starting out in their search for a law firm position often overestimate their market value.  This is understandable.  Both positive thinking and self-confidence in your job search are to be generally encouraged.  However, it is also critical to get a truly realistic assessment of your market value, and thus your chances of landing a good job, at an early stage.  This is another area where a good, experienced legal recruiter can be invaluable.

In this first part of examining types of candidates that regularly find themselves in a “tough market,” we will focus on the group known as “senior attorneys.”  I mean “senior” in a very broad sense, in the way the law firms define it.  At about 1-2 years out of law school, you are a “junior associate.”  At 3-4 years or so, you are a “midlevel associate.”  And at about 5-6 years, you are a “senior associate,” a title that may extent several years further, depending on the firm.  After that point, firms consider candidates to be a “senior attorneys” – generally meaning too senior to be considered as any kind of level of associate.  Many senior attorneys are, of course, partners in their law firm (whether share or income).  Many other attorneys at that level, however, are not partners for whatever reason.  They may be of counsel, in house attorneys, government lawyers or solo practioners.  The term “senior attorney” covers both of these groups – both partners and non-partners that are too senior to be considered associates.

I frequently tell my senior attorney candidates that their value in the legal market in primarily dependent on three key factors – portable business, portable business and portable business.  Attorneys at the senior attorney level are generally required have portable business of about $500K for smaller firms up to $3M+ for major firms before they will even be considered.  In other words, the candidate must be able to at least keep themselves fully busy.   Of course, the senior attorneys who have substantial business are more likely to be partners in their firms (although there are many exceptions).  These candidates have high market value, and will often have a choice on where they can go.  Similarly, it is the non-partner attorneys that typically will not have substantial business (although again, there are exceptions).  Regardless of their title, it is the candidates who lack sufficient business who are in a tough market.  Many of these attorneys assume that because they are highly skilled, have a great reputation, possess more experience, etc., that this will greatly increase their market value.  In many industries, they might be correct.  Not so much in the legal industry, however.  Unless there is a highly exceptional situation where a ton of work is “falling out the door” and cannot be done by an associate, firms will have very little interest in senior attorneys who lack business.

What can senior attorneys without business do in this tough market?  Again, a good recruiter can be helpful in attempting to find an exceptional opportunity where portable business is not required.  One approach that will NOT work is to apply for associate positions.  Senior attorneys sometimes tell me that they are more skilled and experienced than the associate candidates, and some are even willing to work for a lot less money.  Even if true, the firms never hire them in an associate slot.  A better approach is for the senior attorney to network on their own in order to find the exceptional situation (where sufficient work is available to keep a senior attorney fully busy) in the smaller firms.  These firms, which often do not work with recruiters, are more likely to encounter this situation and to be more flexible in their hiring.  Candidates can also look in-house, which does not require portable business but is another tough market in itself.

Telling Your Story

In the legal world, credentials and experience are extremely important, and often determinative as to what types of opportunities will be available to you for both short and long-term employment.  But when I am evaluating whether to work with a particular candidate and how successful I think they might be on the lateral market, one of the first and most important things I need a candidate to tell me is why they are looking to move jobs.

You would (or maybe you wouldn’t) be surprised at how many would-be candidates either have not given this question sufficient thought, especially given the fact that they are making a decision that will impact their lifestyle and career for many years to come.  As a would-be lateral candidate, you are asking other people, other professionals, to buy into you, to invest time, effort, and in the law firm world a whole lot of money, into you.  On top of the credentials and experience a firm needs to service its client base and expand its future business opportunities (and too many candidates make the mistake of not understanding that firms are absolutely a business first and foremost), you need a compelling story.

When I was interviewing for law firm jobs, I found myself across the desk from the chair of the litigation group at the head office of the firm I would eventually join (and which is now the largest firm in the world).  Yes, he looked at my resume and saw my law school, my journal membership, my appellate clinic experience, and everything else on the single page intended to provide the best possible window into my background.  But what the interview and conversation really focused on was my perspective on what it meant to be a litigator.

It has been nearly a decade since that day, so this is not a direct quote, but what I simply told the partner was that, when boiled down to its essential elements, the heart of being a litigator is simply telling a story.  Your client has a story.  The other side has a story.  And your job is to take everything you can within the case, the facts, the law, the psychology of the judge (and jury, if applicable), and to tell a convincing story about why a decision for your client is the correct outcome.  Much to my delight, since I was trying to convince this partner to hire me, he sat back in his chair, smiled, and said “that’s exactly how I look at litigating too.”  Yes, there is a lot more that goes into it in terms of technical details, discovery practices, evidence, the applicable law, but at the end of the day, as a litigator you are telling the best story you can.

Circling back to your own career as a would-be lateral candidate, you need to be able to tell your own story convincingly enough that the people in charge at a firm, and preferably your top choice of firm, want to bring you on board.  Let me rephrase that – you do not just need to tell your own story convincingly, but you need to have a convincing story to begin with.  And that can take a lot more thought and a lot more work than most attorney candidates might imagine, or would like to invest in their own search.

So why are you looking to change jobs?

If it’s because you are looking to move to a different part of the country, why are you wanting to move there?  Unless you have close family there, or your fiancee or spouse already moved out ahead of you, there needs to be a compelling reason behind your decision.  You are trying to convince a firm to invest in you and your career, both in terms of the opportunity cost of choosing you above all other potential candidates, but also in terms of moving expenses, salary, training, support staff, and the time and energy it will take the partners and other associates to bring you into their matters and get you up to speed.  If you’ve only visited an area a couple of times, and just happened to “like” it, that is not very convincing, especially to firms in smaller cities and legal markets.  They want to hear that you know a lot about the region, that your desire to be there in the long term is greater than your desire to be somewhere else, and that you will stick around.  So give it as much thought as required so that a solid answer will roll off your tongue when the question inevitably comes up in an interview.

If you are looking to change jobs because you are unhappy at your current firm, you will need a compelling story about why you are unhappy (i.e., you are being pigeonholed into a practice area you do not like, and NOT that the hours are too long or you have difficulty getting along with the partners).  If your story is that you are tired of working big firm hours, or that you’ve been at the firm for a couple months but it isn’t working out because of hours, a clash of personalities, or because the work is not what you expected, you are basically telling a story that you are not a dedicated, hard-working attorney, did not do your due diligence in researching your current firm, and are not a team player.  Your ideal story is that you are on an upward trajectory at your smaller firm, and want bigger and more sophisticated opportunities at a larger firm.  Or, alternately, you have been very successful at your larger firm and have a number of prospective clients, and the only thing getting in the way of developing your own significant book of business is the prohibitively high billing rates at your current large firm, which is why you are seeking to join a sophisticated mid-sized or boutique firm.

If you are looking to change jobs because you want a higher salary (an extremely common reason among job seekers I talk to who are in solo or small practices), it is fine for you to want to make more money, but you will have to tell your story in a compelling manner to a firm as to why you are worth more than you currently make and will provide more value to the firm than any competing candidate for their open position.  If you are struggling to attract and retain clients at your current firm or solo practice, what are you bringing to the table to your would-be future firm in exchange for a higher regular salary?  Perhaps some of your clients have legal matters that require a larger and more sophisticated set of services than you or your current firm can provide, and thus by joining a larger firm you can expand both your own business and bring in additional business to that future firm.  But if that is the case, you need to be able to tell that story in your business plan and interview responses in a detailed and compelling manner.

As a legal recruiter, it is my job to inform a firm why the candidate I am representing to them is the best candidate for their open position, and will bring significant value to the firm’s practice expertise and, above all, their bottom line.  Similarly, our client firms ask us to convince top candidates that their firm is the best home for that candidate and their book of business – still telling a story, just with the roles flipped.  At the end of the day, attorneys have all sorts of reasons why they are seeking to switch jobs, but you will not have a successful search unless you first get your story straight.

How to Handle a Big Law Layoff

As a recruiter, I occasionally encounter candidates who have been laid off by their firms.  At most AmLaw 100 firms, the dismissal is handled in a fairly civilized manner.  The candidate is taken aside and told that “things are not working out”; and that he has approximately three months to find a new position.  During this three month grace period, the firm usually allows the candidate to continue to use the office, keep his profile page on the firm website, and generally maintain the appearance of employment while he pursues a new position.

Reactions to the Dismissal

Candidates who are dismissed from their firms often experience a variety of reactions.  They are angry, hurt, frustrated, and sometimes even confused.   Questions like “What did I do?”, “Why is this happening to me?”, and “How will I ever find another job?” are very common.  Often a candidate did not “do” anything.  When you are dealing with candidates who have been high enough achievers all their lives to even get a job at an AmLaw 100 firm, then it becomes increasingly unlikely that they actually did anything to precipitate their dismissals. It is more often the case that the firm (or more specifically the candidate’s practice group) is slow, and since the firm is unwilling to admit that they are slow, they decide to tell the candidate that “things are not working out”.  Another fairly common scenario is that the candidate got on the wrong side of the wrong partner in the group, and his entire existence is now colored by his experience with that partner.  In fact, the very way candidates who have been dismissed are treated – e.g. given a three month grace period – suggests that the firm knows that the candidate is not wholly (or may be even partially) at fault.  Take solace in this perspective; be grateful for your grace period; and focus on finding a new position.

References Are Critical

When I encounter a candidate who is being dismissed, I ask him whether he can obtain references.  In the last ten years, firms have begun to take the position that they do not give references for departing attorneys regardless of the manner in which the attorney is departing.  Firms will merely confirm dates of employment.  Occasionally, when a firm has this policy a partner (who likes the candidate and knows the real reason the candidate is being dismissed) will act “off the record”.  Other times, a candidate can reach out to a partner or senior associate with whom he worked but who is no longer with the firm; and, therefore, can act as a reference.  If neither of these options is available, then the candidate must be able to provide references from law school, a clerkship, or perhaps even another law firm where he summered.  It is imperative that a candidate be able to provide references both for the new firm, and also for me.  I will not work with a candidate who cannot provide references because I value my clients – the law firms – and I do not want to jeopardize my relationships with them by submitting a candidate who may be a difficult or problematic employee.

Maintain Your Hours at a Respectable Level during Grace Period

It is hard to show up at a law firm where you have been dismissed, and no one is going to minimize how difficult it may be to show up every day for three months while you try to find a new position.  I am not going to make life easier by telling you that not only must you show up for work each day, but I highly recommend actually doing some work while you are there.  I make this recommendation because a new trend among law firms is to have all candidates – not just partners – complete a Lateral Hiring Questionnaire (“LHQ”) as part of the hiring process.   The LHQ always asks for your hours to date.  If you learned that you were being dismissed in February (and stopped doing billing), and you are completing a LHQ in May, and you only have 350 hours for the year, then it is going to raise questions that you probably do not want to answer.  In all likelihood, the new firm will figure out that you have been laid off, and may even pull the offer.  It is critical that you continue to bill hours while you look for a new position.  You can even explain to your current firm that you do not want to be in a position where you are accepting a check each week, but not doing any work.  I am confident that they will find some project you to handle so that you can stay busy, and be honest when completing your LHQ.

Keep Track of Your Submissions and Engage a Committed Recruiter

Usually, I do not need to tell a dismissed candidate that he should submit his resume as broadly as possible.  Often I have the opposite problem.  A candidates may be so anxious that he thinks that using multiple recruiters and submitting to the same openings repeatedly will increase his chances of getting interviews and offers.  It will not.  If anything, this scattershot approach – much like suspiciously low hours – will be a red flag to new employers.  A dismissed candidate who has been laid off should absolutely explore all possible job opportunities, including jobs in different geographic locations; however, he should keep track of his submissions so that he does not submit multiple applications.  In addition, a dismissed candidate will have much better results if he finds one recruiter who really believes in him and wants to invest time in his search.  One committed and experienced recruiter is worth more than ten experienced but less than dedicated recruiters.

Conclusion

Weathering a dismissal from an AmLaw 100 firm is challenging.  It is absolutely normal to experience a wide range of emotions and reactions.  Feel your feelings, but do not wallow in self-pity or agonize over the past.  Accept the things you cannot change; and you most certainly cannot change the past.  Focus instead on the future.  Who will you use for references?  Having excellent references is critical.  Who at your firm will continue to give you work?  Seek out that person and maintain your hours.  It is likely that you will be asked about your hours to date by your new employer.  Who will help you with your search?  Find a reputable and dedicated recruiter who understands your predicament and believes in you.  Multiple submissions are not a good idea, but a focused and experienced recruiter who genuinely knows that market and is loyal to you is invaluable.  As the saying goes . . . “Stay calm and carry on!”

Choosing a Recruiter: Red Flags to Watch Out For

The job market has vastly improved for attorneys in 2015. That means that many attorneys are thinking of making a move; seeking a better salary, a better lifestyle, a different city, or another practice area.  You may be getting multiple cold calls during the workday, most of which you quickly dismiss.  But how in the world do you go about vetting a recruiter, and deciding which one you want to work with?

Probably the most reliable way to get a great recruiter is through friends or colleagues who have worked with her.    However, not everyone has access to someone through these channels, or they don’t know who to ask.  If you feel you need to choose from among the recruiters who are contacting you, or the ones you can find online, here are some red flags to definitely watch out for.

  1. She Asks You For Money.

If you have never worked with a recruiter before, know this: a good recruiter will never, ever ask you for money.  Reputable recruiters have law firms for clients.  They pay us well, and you pay us nothing.  Recruiters who do not have law firm clients paying them are probably not recruiters you want to be working with. While some services like resume services or job boards with exclusive listings may require payment, legal recruiters do not make their money by charging the attorneys we place. In short, if a recruiter has to ask job-seeking attorneys for a fee, they are not making their money making placements, and you should probably keep looking.

  1. She Doesn’t Understand The Legal Market

Many legal recruiters are former practicing attorneys or have a background as placement coordinators in law firms.   This enables them to truly understand what attorneys do.  Ask your recruiter if all they do is place within the legal industry (preferably only attorneys).  If they are also placing accountants, IT people, restaurant and zoological workers, they probably don’t truly know what you do all day as a Derivatives, ERISA or IP attorney.  Handling multiple industries is just too much for a recruiter to really understand them all.  If they handle more markets than just legal, please proceed with caution, and make sure they understand your profession as well as you do.

  1. She Doesn’t Know Your Geographic Area

Similarly, many recruiters attempt to handle the whole country, or even the whole world.  I clearly remember when I was an associate at a major law firm, I was approached by a recruiter who was working out of his home somewhere in South Florida.  I was trying to make a move from DC to Chicago, and it quickly became clear that he didn’t understand where I was coming from (DC is a very special legal market), and was attempting to market me as someone I wasn’t.   He just wanted to get a hold of my resume and plaster it all over Chicago without understanding which firms might actually be interested in someone with my background.

While no recruiter is going to be able to know each and every firm, she should have an idea what type of firm you are coming from, what practice areas your firm is known for, what types of clients it services.  Then she can assess, using her knowledge of the firms in your target geographic area and her research skills, where you might fit.  Beware of recruiters who don’t seem to understand what type of practice you are coming from, and are sending you openings where you obviously would not fit.

  1. She Is Pushy and You Don’t Feel Comfortable

A great recruiter is flush with great candidates and great connections.  She makes a comfortable living doing what she does, and is not desperate to make a quick placement; she’s more interested in her long-term reputation in the community, so placing you in a position where you will be happy long-term, and where the law firm will be happy with you, in her long term interest.  A good recruiter is not trying to make a quick buck by placing you in a position where you will not last.

While I often encourage my candidates to keep an open mind and talk to as many firms as possible, even ones you think you don’t want to work at, you should also listen to your gut feeling.  Here are some things to be very cautious of: Is the recruiter trying to push you to fudge your skill set?  To exaggerate your book of business?  When you say you are not interested in a particular opening, will she not take no for an answer?  Do you feel like she is trying to sell you something you don’t want?  Here’s my advice: If your gut tells you something is fishy in the way she conducts business, run a mile.

In sum, a good recruiter should know almost as much about your practice area as you do.  She should know which firms in your target geographic area might be interested in someone with your specific background.  She should truly listen to what you want and, while it is great for her to be overinclusive in presenting options to you, she should listen when you say no, and move on.  She should not pressure you to pretend to be someone you’re not so that she can make a quick placement.  A great recruiter will not try to sell you anything you don’t want, and is happy to take her time to ensure the right fit for you.

Do-It-Yourself Interview Prep

One of the most effective things you can do to prep for interviews is to practice interviewing.  Get ahold of a list of frequently asked interview questions (your recruiter should have one) and have a friend ask you the questions on the list.  Put aside an hour for the interview.  Note where you stumble, or where you feel like you didn’t give the best answer; it is fine to take notes while you are doing this portion.  When you hit roadblocks, think about how you would best answer each question, and take your time thinking about what you want to say before you answer.  Then practice once more; your answers should go more smoothly this time.

Once you’ve practiced your answers a couple of times and feel like you have solidified the substance of what you’re going to say, record yourself.  Most people have a smartphone nowadays, so you can video yourself as well.  Here are some common interview killers you can watch and listen for.  You probably don’t even know you’re doing them:

  • Saying “um” or “you know” too frequently;
  • Talking too quickly;
  • Acting stiff or unnatural;
  • Talking too much, and launching into long answers without stopping first to think about what you are going to say before opening your mouth;
  • Fidgeting, like rocking back and forth, picking at nails or hair;
  • Changes in the tone of your voice. Do you become animated when talking on certain topics, but not others?
  • Talking too loudly;
  • Failure to make eye contact or smile.

You might be surprised what you discover about yourself if you record and watch yourself interview.  If you do this, I can guarantee you will feel far more confident, and will interview more effectively when it is time for the real interview.

Joining a Law Firm as Either Partner or Of Counsel

I recently submitted a partner candidate to a large law firm.  He was in his 40’s, and had a book of business of around $500K – $600K.  Everything during the interviews went great.  But then late in the process (actually at the offer stage), we learned that the firm would not be hiring the partner as a “partner,” but rather as an “of counsel” with the expectation that after a certain number of months when the appropriate firm committee was scheduled to meet, he would be elevated to (income) partner.  He was told that this was the result of a new “policy” in which every partner candidate came in as of counsel, regardless of how much business they had.

Although I had warned him that this sort of thing was becoming more common with the big firms, the candidate was not happy with this news.  The candidate was an income partner in his present firm, and income partners in the prospective firm were normally required to show that they had at least $500K in business.  So under the circumstances, the candidate had the reasonable expectation that he would join the firm as an income partner.  There were three other good reasons for this expectation.  First, the usual way lateral partners changed firms was that they were given the same title they had in their prior firm and/or at least the same title as an attorney inside the firm with an equivalent amount of business.  Second, it is in everybody’s best interest to bring in a partner candidate as a “partner” in order to assist the candidate in further business development.  Third, the law firm did not appear to have anything to gain with this “policy,” other than an increased risk of losing high quality partner candidates with business.

It used to be that “of counsel” was a title reserved for retired, part-time or former partners (such as judges) that still had a limited relationship with the firm.  The term has also been used for more senior attorneys who do not or cannot develop business and/or otherwise make partner, but have some sort of rare and valuable specialty or quality that has allowed them to keep a job in the firm.  Now, we are seeing increasing use of the term for what are effectively “probationary” partners.  Some firms limit the use of this “of counsel” policy to partners who have a limited amount of business, perhaps below the firm’s threshold for income partner.  That kind of limited use of this kind of policy is more understandable.  But other firms, like the one in my example, generally refuse to grant any lateral any kind of partnership status regardless of the circumstance.  In my situation, we were able to resolve the issue by having the partner wait until the time the committee met and then was granted partnership right after he joined the firm, thus effectively eliminating the required “probationary” of counsel period.

The lesson to be learned here is that you should find out early in the process what “policies” the firm may have for lateral partners.  If the firm has a policy that you are not comfortable with, you should seek to negotiate a workable solution.  If that does not work, you will have to decide if the opportunity is good enough to justify the change of title.  It is often not a major deal and as a result many partner candidates accept the change in order to get into the right firm.  But this change in title, even if temporary, may not be acceptable to everyone for every firm.