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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.

Special Opportunities for Solo Practitioners

The current market is stronger than it has been in years.  If you are a solo practioner who has been given any thought to the possibility of joining a firm, now is the time to explore this option.   There are multiple advantages to working in a firm.  But the primary advantage is that it is much easier to develop clients, grow your practice and increase your compensation.  This is the primary reason why solo practioners consider moving into a firm.  When you are a solo, you have to spend a great deal of time trying to bring in new clients.  In a law firm, they make it easier for you to get new work from both your current clients and prospective new clients.

Firms do this in three primary ways.  First, they allow you to “cross-market.”  Say that you are a solo commercial litigator.  Whenever you obtain work in a different area, such as corporate, RE or ERISA, you have to refer it out to some other attorney who can do the work.  As a result, you are unable to get any credit or compensation for the work.  But if you are in the right kind of firm, you could send such work to your partners in the appropriate departments.  You get credit for it, and you get paid for it.  Plus your partners get more work.  Everybody wins.

Second, you can get additional clients and work by using the flip side of cross-marketing.  Again, if you are a commercial litigation partner in a firm, you can be introduced to the many clients serviced by other lawyers in other practice areas.  This allows you the opportunity to market your services and obtain more work from other clients of the firms.  This is also a huge advantage over being a solo.  As the saying goes, it is far easier to get business from a client you already have than from a stranger client that is being solicited by numerous other lawyers.

Third, even with respect to soliciting “stranger” or prospective new clients for business, there are major advantages in doing it as a partner of a reputable firm.  Not only are there the cross-marketing opportunities, but there is also the greater prestige, reach and resources that the firm offers to prospective clients.

The bottom line is that for solo practioners now is the perfect time to contact a top notch recruiter and investigate firm opportunities.  You have everything to gain and nothing to lose.  If you find the right firm, your work and your income will substantially increase.  If you don’t, you have lost nothing and still have obtained valuable knowledge.  Perhaps soloing really is best for you.  But can you be sure without investigating the alternatives?

How Many Firms Should I Apply To?

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

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

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

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

Preparing to Answer Key Interview Questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why You Should Use a Good Legal Recruiter (Part II – The Need for Expert Experience)

This is the second of three essays regarding why attorneys should use a good legal recruiter rather than “go it alone” when seeking a new job.  The first essay explained that the primary reason you should use a good recruiter is the need for expert assistance.   The legal market is highly complex, and just as your clients rely on your expertise in legal matters, so should you rely on a good legal recruiter’s expertise in the legal market.  This essay will focus on the second major reason why you should retain a recruiter – the need for the recruiter’s expert experience in the legal market.   It is assumed in all of the essays in this series that the searching attorney is in a situation in which using a recruiter would be both appropriate and advantageous.  As will be explained further in a follow up fourth essay, this is not the case for every attorney.

The good recruiters will have years of experience with the legal market, preferably at least five (or more for the top recruiters who specialize in assisting partners).  The most qualified recruiters will have additional years of experience as an associate (or even better, also as a partner) at top firms.  From all of this experience, they will have built up strong relationships and credibility with the local firms, including the most elite ones.  This means they can not only help attorneys find which firms are the most likely to be the right firm for them, they can also help the attorneys get in the door.  This is especially true if the recruiter works for one of the few large, national recruiting companies like BCG that have been around for years and established a stellar reputation (and often a personal relationship) with numerous firms across the country.

Thus, the best recruiters will be able to use their experience as both a recruiter (and often as an attorney as well) to fully understand the candidate’s particular practice, needs and preferences.  This understanding will in turn allow the recruiter to better identify which firms are most appropriate for the candidate  – i.e., are a better “fit.”   The candidate will then be better able to narrow down the firm choices and construct a more efficient and effective search.  For attorneys who have limited time and/or need to move quickly, this ability is invaluable.

Finally, the experience of a good recruiter allows them to better “maximize the odds” with respect to application process, even with the most elite firms.  The law firm hiring process is both long and challenging, especially for the most prestigious firms and especially for partners.  In addition, the competition in today’s legal market is fierce.  In many practice areas, the supply of lawyers exceeds the demand for their services.  Even attorneys with generally strong credentials must often find some way to “stand out” from the competition, or they will most likely be rejected at the application stage without any real opportunity to “make their case” to the firm.  Experienced recruiters, however, can better “market” their candidate in such a way as to maximize their chances of ultimately having their application accepted and receiving an initial interview.  The third essay will explore the need for a good recruiter’s knowledgeable and objective advice through the deeper parts of the process, including interviews and offers.

What is the best way to respond to recruiter cold calls?

Perhaps you find them bothersome.  But if you get them, especially in large quantities, you should be grateful.  It means that your market value is still high.  It is when they stop calling that it is time to be concerned.  In any event, when you do get a recruiter cold call, it is a good idea to know how to respond to them in a way that best advances your interests.

As an initial matter, there is usually very little risk in accepting a cold call.  At worst, it can waste a minute or two, in which case you should politely say good bye and end it.  At best, it can provide you with the employment opportunity of a lifetime.  Even if you are not currently “looking,” cold calls can provide you with valuable information about the current market, which makes those calls still worth a few minutes of your valuable time.  Moreover, in the legal profession things can (and do) change very quickly.  Consequently, you may have need for a top notch recruiter in the future.  Accepting cold calls is a great way to meet recruiters, identify which ones really know what they are doing and then build long-term relationships with the best ones so that they will be available in case the need later arises.

What you certainly don’t want to do is immediately agree to have whatever stranger recruiter who happened to call you at that moment send your resume off to however many firms.  I have been amazed by how many lawyers will do this.  Can you imagine one of your sophisticated clients hiring a lawyer to handle their complex legal work based solely on a single happenstance cold call without any more information about that lawyer, their firm or their experience and level of ability?   What if the cold calling lawyer is a complete schlepp?

This is why it is in your interest to do the appropriate research in order to distinguish between the highly competent and fully experienced recruiters from the majority of other recruiters that do not fit either of those descriptions.  The best recruiters will be the ones who have successfully placed attorneys like you (such as big firm partner) into the type of firms that you work in over the course of around 10 years or more.  They will also typically work for well-established and highly reputable recruiting firms (such as BCG Attorney Search), as well as have impressive credentials (such as top 25 law schools and/or previously worked in prestigious AmLaw 200 type firms).  Impressive credentials are especially important if you are an attorney with similarly stellar credentials looking to move to an AmLaw 200 type firm.  Do not be shy about asking direct questions about the recruiter’s background, experience and credentials.  You have every right to know who you are doing business with.  It is also wise to check out the recruiter on the internet after you have spoken to them.  Once you have verified that a particular recruiter is truly high quality, and not just some joker trying to make a quick buck by emailing your resume all over the city (and there are all too many of those as well), then and only then does it make sense to trust them with your professional future.

THE IMPORTANCE OF PROMPT COMMUNICATIONS WITH LAW FIRMS

As I explained in an earlier essay, what is true with respect to individuals in dating is also true with respect to law firms considering lateral candidates – they want to be wanted.  If you don’t show much interest, energy or enthusiasm with respect to a potential mate, chances are he/she will develop little interest in you.  It is the same with law firms.  Law firms, like every other employer, want people who are not only excited and energized by their career, but who are also excited and energized by the interviewing firm itself. (See prior essay).

This fundamental point is related to another very important lesson with regard to how lateral attorney candidates (and their respective recruiters) should communicate with law firms during the interview/recruiting process.  Busy lawyers are often swamped with emails and phone voicemails.  Sometimes they have more than they can possibly answer in a timely manner.  So naturally, they prioritize.  Many lawyers will thus respond to clients and senior partners right away, while putting most other less critical emails and messages on the back burner until they can get around to them.  But what may work for lawyers in their everyday practice does not necessarily work when a lawyer is in serious discussions with another firm.  I have seen how lawyers all too often treat communications with an interviewing firm, as well as related communications from their recruiters, as “non-critical” and therefore shoved to the back burner.  Regardless of whether the lawyers are doing this out of habit and/or because they are not taking their job search as seriously as they should, this is a major mistake.

The reality is that – for the reasons stated above – law firms expect to have “top tier” or “critical level” priority when it comes to lawyers returning their communications.  In other words, law firms want to be treated like clients or senior partners, so that their communications to interviewing lawyers (or their recruiters) will be promptly returned, ideally by the next day (if not the same day).  Consequently, I have seen law firms become clearly irritated when an interviewing attorney has failed to promptly respond to an email or voicemail from the firm.  When this happens, the firm usually assumes that the reason for the delay in responding is due to the attorney’s lack of interest or enthusiasm in the law firm.  This assumption – whether accurate or not – can seriously damage the attorney’s chances to obtain an offer.  In one particular case, I witnessed a law firm withdraw an offer because the partner candidate failed to timely respond to the firm’s emailed offer and also to a voicemail from one of the firm’s partners (both the partner and the firm also failed to timely inform me of either of these communications – if one of them had done so (as they should have), the miscommunications would have most likely been avoided).  Again, this happened because the firm assumed the partner no longer had any interest.

For these reasons, I find myself having to constantly remind attorney candidates that they cannot afford to treat an interviewing firm’s communication as a low priority no matter how busy they are.  If the attorney does not consistently treat such communications as top priorities, they are likely to harm – or even ruin – their chances of obtaining an offer from that firm.

Obtaining Outstanding References

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

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

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

HOW TO IDENTIFY THE BEST ATTORNEY RECRUITERS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.