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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.

WHAT CREDENTIALS DO THE TOP LAW FIRMS CONSIDER IN EVALUATING A LATERAL ASSOCIATE CANDIDATE?

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.”

THE IMPORTANCE OF BUSINESS PLANS

As noted in my prior articles, possessing sufficient portable business is crucial for success in the law firm market for both partner and senior associate candidates. For background, see for example my prior articles on “Calculating Portable Business” and “Alternative Portable Business.” Law firms typically require between $300K to $3M+ in portable business for a partner level position, depending on the size and financials of the firm. The usual (and most effective) way that a candidate presents their portable business to a prospective law firm is through some type of business plan. The format of such plans varies greatly, and there is no single “right” way to do them. However, there are some general guidelines that should be followed in order to make the business plans clearer and more persuasive.

Business plans are not just limited to the interview process. Savvy partners (and associates) prepare business plans every year to outline their past business generations and plans for future business development. The types of business plans used in the interview process have the same general purpose. However, their structure differs from “regular” business plans because they are also intended to persuade a prospective law firm that the attorney not only has generated a certain amount of business, but also that the business is portable to the new firm.

The plan typically starts by describing all of the attorney’s business generations over a recent period – usually 3-5 years – as well as descriptions of their active clients and other general financial information (billing rates, hours billed, etc.). The plan then estimates how much of that business is likely portable to the prospective firm. The more detail of the reasons why each client and their business is likely portable, the better. Example of persuasive detail includes the nature and duration of the key relationships that have been cultivated by the attorney at each client; how well the attorney controls each client’s business compared to other partners in their firm; how strongly the attorney’s firm is likely to compete for each client and other reasons (such as lower rates or type of platform) why certain clients are more likely to prefer the prospective new firm over the current one. The ultimate goal, of course, is to persuade the prospective firm that the attorney’s portability estimates are accurate.

In preparing the plan, the attorney should not be limited to the “traditional” type of portable business from present clients. It should also have a section describing prospective clients, as well as estimates on how much additional “alternative” or prospective portable business these clients may bring to the new firm. Business is just as legitimate if it comes from a present client or a future one. Nevertheless, the distinction between the two types of clients and portable business should be made clear.

Finally, the business plan should present an estimate of the total amount of portable business from all sources that is likely to come with the attorney over the next year should they join the new firm. By presenting this total estimate in the context of a detailed business plan, it will be much more persuasive to a prospective firm than if the estimate is simply provided by itself without any explanation or support.

GETTING PROPERLY FOCUSED IN YOUR LAW FIRM SEARCH

It is very important for attorney candidates seeking a new law firm to be properly focused in their search. In particular, they need to know how to best determine which firms they should apply to, and which ones they should not. This is easier said than done. Because they are so busy with their own work, many attorneys do not take the time to seriously examine either what they really want in a firm or what options are out there for them. Fortunately, this is an area where I (and other knowledgeable recruiters) can help them.

 

The first step is for me to help the candidate to better define their law firm needs and desires. They should evaluate the many different possibilities with law firms, such as with regard to size of the firm/office, available practices, reputation, billing rates, financial condition, compensation, full service v. boutique, home office v. satellite, culture, potential for client conflicts, opportunities for business development, etc. Ultimately, the candidate comes up with an “ideal firm” for their search. The next step is for me to prepare an initial list of target firms that come closest to this “ideal firm.” This helps focus the search on the firms that are most likely to be a good fit, so as to both be more effective and to not to waste valuable time.

 

The next step is for me to evaluate the initial target firm list to determine which firms are realistically in the candidate’s “market range.” That is, I identify the firms in which they have at least some reasonable chance to obtain an interview based on their credentials and state of the present market, and I eliminate the firms that do not meet this description. I then send the final list of my recommended target firms to the candidate for final confirmation. Having gone through the proper analysis, candidates generally do not reject the recommended firms at this point absent good reason.

 

Of course, in confirming which firms should go on the final target firm list, the candidate should use the proper criterion. For example, I recently had a candidate reject a law firm that I had recommended on a final target firm list on the grounds that he believed he “was not the candidate they’re looking for.” I reminded him that this is not something that he was really in a position to determine.  He clearly met the firm’s basic requirements of an associate with excellent credentials and commercial litigation experience.  Beyond that, whether or not he is the “candidate they’ve been looking for” can only be decided by the partners of the firm.  Inany event (and more importantly), the issue he should be considering is not whether he is right for the law firm, but rather whether there is at least a reasonable chance that the firm is right for him.  Based on this proper criterion, he agreed to confirm that I should apply to the firm so that he would have the opportunity to more fully investigate whether or not the firm was truly right for him.

 

THE IMPORTANCE OF SELF CONFIDENCE IN A LAW FIRM JOB INTERVIEW

It has been said that Johnny Carson used to “feel butterflies” in his stomach every time he was about to do his nightly opening monologue on “The Tonight Show.”  For those of us senior enough to remember watching him host the show in the prior century, this would come as a surprise.  Johnny always looked so relaxed whenever he delivered that monologue, and it was always a hit – night after night.  How did he do it?  Part of it was learning to control his nervousness.  The rest of it was a justified self-confidence.

Self-confidence is a major ingredient to success in show business, the legal industry and virtually every other field.  It is not arrogance, however, which is an unjustified self-confidence – the belief that you are great when you really are not.  It is the feeling you get when you are fully competent at what you are doing and you are thoroughly prepared.  It is the security you gain from being a true expert in your area and doing whatever it is you do exceptionally well.

Self-confidence is also critical to doing well in law firm job interviews.  Law firms, like every other employer, want people who are justifiably self-confident about themselves and their abilities.  But self-confidence in an interview can be harder to come by than self-confidence in doing your legal work.  You spent three years in law school and thousands of billable hours learning how to successfully litigate civil disputes, make deals, provide advice on tax laws, etc.  By contrast, you have not had any classes or significant experience interviewing at a law firm until you actually do it.  And the interviews that you had as a law student are going to be very different from the later interviews you will have as an associate, and especially as a partner.  Consequently, your law student interviews will provide little guidance for your future interviews.

So what can you do to become truly and justifiably self-confident in a law firm job interview?  First, learn about law firm interviews and how they are conducted for associates or partners, as appropriate.  Talk to your recruiter.  Read articles.  Talk to trusted attorneys who have done similar interviews successfully.  Learn everything you can about the firm you are interviewing.  In short, find out how to best prepare for your interviews, and then do it.  (See the other articles by me and other BCG recruiters for particulars on law firm interviews).   Becoming truly confident in your interview will help you give the positive impression that you need to give.  It will also allow you to be fully prepared to maximize the value of the information that you obtain from the interview and minimize the chances of a costly mistake.  This includes being well-equipped to handle “oddball” questions or other surprises.  You are then ready to give a consistently stellar performance in job interviews – just like Johnny used to do with his nightly monologue, regardless whether or not you happen to “feel butterflies.”   

Should I accept my firm’s counteroffer?

Q: I am an associate who recently informed my firm that I had just accepted a position at a competing firm.  My firm told me they were “devastated” to learn that I was planning to leave. They then offered me more money, “better” work and a “much greater” chance of making partner if I changed my mind and stayed.  Should I accept my firm’s counteroffer?

Answer:  (PART II)  In my prior essay (Part I), I discussed why accepting law firm “counteroffers” is virtually always a bad idea.  Of course, job changes create uncertainty, and the natural inclination is to stay with the “devil you know.”  In fact, that’s why firms know they can keep departing attorneys from leaving for a while — they manipulate this common fear of having to “prove” oneself again in a new firm.  I argued that you should resist this emotion and focus on the facts, which demonstrate that counteroffers are a sucker’s ploy.

I explained that the number one reason why you should not accept a counteroffer is that at the moment you reveal you have an offer from another firm, your whole relationship with your firm changes.  Regardless of how big of a “star” you were before, you will now forevermore be seen by your firm as a disgruntled and disloyal attorney who now wants to work for a competitor.  No matter what the key partners promise or how much they praise you, the real purpose of the counteroffer is to help buy precious time until they can replace you.  I compared accepting a counteroffer to “putting down your gun (the other offer) to hug (trust) the bear (current firm).

This second part focuses on the number two reason why not to accept a counteroffer.  That is that the notion that the counteroffer will solve all your problems with your firm is an illusion.  You need to consider how your threatened departure is being viewed by your firm.  Again, the partners are only making promises because they want to lessen the pain and inconvenience of replacing you on short notice, and not because they have any serious intention of keeping any of the major ones.  Remember, counteroffers are only made in response to a threat to quit.  How will your firm feel about your precedent encouraging other attorneys to use offers as leverage to affect changes?  What kind of example will the firm want to ultimately make of you?  Will it want to reward you and encourage others to do the same, or get rid of you and send a message?

You should also think about whether those promises are truly feasible.  How are these vague promises going to be defined and enforced?  Are the partners really going to be able to provide you with “better” work and a “much greater” chance of making partner without violating the firm’s longtime policies and practices?   What would the other associates say if the partners really do fulfill these promises to treat you with special favor?  Will the partners want to face that situation?  In short, the problems that made you want to leave will still be there after the counteroffer.  They will only be made slightly more tolerable until you finally get killed (dumped) by the “bear.”  Again, you started this job search for a reason.  Accept that change is not easy and that you will have to “prove” yourself again, but look also at the “fresh start” you will get at the new firm without those problems and with much better opportunities.

What Are Some of the Best Ways to Impress a Law Firm in an Interview?

The interview is the primary opportunity for a candidate to either shine – or fall on their face – when it comes to pursuing an offer.  As an initial matter, you should appear professional at all times – both in dress and demeanor.  This means that you should be professional to everyone you encounter, and not just the partners.  You should also appear motivated.  This is the second key to impressing law firms.  Firms are like people – they want individuals who want them.  Firms also like individuals who are wanted.  Mentioning that you have other firms interested in you can also play to your advantage.

The third key to impressing law firms is to give impressive answers to their questions.  This requires serious preparation.  A candidate should be ready to answer every obvious and likely question.  This includes questions about their resume, their work at their current firm, why they are on the market, what they are looking for in a firm, etc.  You should also take the opportunity to be a “showman” (within reason, of course).  You should appear excited and energetic, and be willing to use appropriate facial expressions and hand gestures.    This is also true on telephone interviews.  Even though the interviewer cannot see you, your excitement and energy (or notable lack of it) will come through your voice.  Answering questions is a prime opportunity to sell yourself.  This is not a time to be shy about achievements or how others have praised you.  You also want to show a personality that is outgoing, engaged and entertaining (within reason).  Firms want to work with people who are good to work with.  It is also important, of course, not to give answers that make you look bad.  Never bad-mouth your own firm or make tasteless jokes.

The fourth key is to ask impressive questions. Asking good questions is also an opportunity to sell yourself.  They should be clear, thoughtful and relevant.  Asking a lot of smart questions about the firm and your practice area also shows interest, and thus motivation.  It also makes you look good by showing that you are intelligent, savvy and well-prepared.  You can also make yourself look good with questions that suggest good things about you (such as you are a hard worker, believe client relationships are important, etc.).  Another example of an excellent question is “how will you inform me if I am doing an excellent job for you?  Another advantage to this question is that it also suggests that you are serious about the quality of your work.  In addition to asking questions about the firm, asking partners about their own practices is also an excellent way to make positive connections.  However, it is best to avoid more sensitive questions regarding compensation, benefits, hours, etc. until later in the process. In sum, interviews generally revolve around two things – appearance, presentation and questions (both asking and answering).  Excelling in these areas provide the keys to impressing law firms.

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Changing Specialties During a Job Search

I started out my career in a big firm doing IP.   Now that I have decided I don’t like IP, I want to look for a job in what I have now discovered is my one true love – immigration law.  Am I being realistic? 

To put it bluntly, no.  It is remarkable how often I receive resumes from attorneys who are seeking to change their legal specialties during a job search.  In addition to the real-life example cited above, I have seen candidates who want to switch from insurance defense litigation to patent litigation, from general corporate at a small firm to private equity and fund formation at Kirkland & Ellis, and from a combination of real estate, bankruptcy and public finance to corporate mergers and acquisitions.  Firms generally have no interest in hiring a lawyer who is 5, 10, 20 or more years out of law school who wants to start in a brand new practice area.  Firms typically seek attorneys that have a particular number of years of experience in just one practice area (or perhaps several related sub-practice areas).  They do not want lawyers that have zero experience in the desired area.  (The only exception is with law student candidates and others who are just starting out).  Firms are also not impressed by veteran attorneys who seem to be uncertain regarding their specialty and/or their commitment to the legal profession.

This general rule also applies to candidates who have several unrelated practice areas, but who seek a job that concentrates in only one of them.  While these candidates will usually have at least some experience in the desired practice area, it is still not sufficient to meet the firm requirement that the candidate have spent all or virtually all of their time practicing in the desired specialty.   For example, consider a candidate who has split their time evenly (33% each) between commercial litigation, real estate and trusts & estates who applies for a 3 year commercial litigation associate position.  The firm will most likely reject that candidate and choose instead one of the countless other candidates who have spent 100% of their time (or at least close to it) on litigation for the requisite number of years (3).  Even if the first candidate actually did spend the requisite number of years on litigation (say 3 years out of 9 to meet the 3 year requirement), they will still be rejected as far too senior.

This problem often comes up with candidates from small firms, where working in several different practice areas is more common.   Larger firms, however, are much more specialized.  Consequently, small firm resumes with multiple practices usually do not translate well in big firms.  Such candidates are usually better off focusing their search on other small firms who are accustomed to multiple practices.  Small firms will still be unsympathetic to attempts to change one’s practice area, however, just like the big firms.  In addition to the reasons cited above, firms do not want to spend money training veteran lawyers on new practice areas.  The key lesson is that when doing a legal job search, veteran candidates should stick to their one specialty area (or at most, two in some rare cases).  While a particular veteran candidate may have sound reasons for wanting to change their specialty, the reality is that the days of experimenting as a summer associate with what area you wanted to be in are long past.  The time to change a specialty, if at all, is after you have spent years working for a particular firm.

Should I use a recruiter?

 Q:  I’ve heard that it is a bad idea for attorney candidates to use recruiters because their fees make their candidates less desirable to the law firms.  Is this true?

Like most things you “hear” on the street, this statement is not reliable.  It is over-simplified at best and dead wrong at worst, depending on the particular circumstances.  Let us start with a short overview of how recruiters’ fees work.  Generally, it does not cost the candidate anything to use a recruiter.  The recruiter is paid a commission fee (usually 25% of the candidate’s first year compensation) by the law firm if and only if the law firm decides to hire the candidate.

Candidates also sometimes “hear” that the recruiter’s fee will be taken directly out of their first year compensation.  This is pure fiction.  The two transactions are separate.  Law firms negotiate fee agreements with recruiters and pay their fees for a very good reason – they want to hire some of the candidates that the recruiters bring to the firms.  It is part of the general cost of recruiting and doing business, and it is wise investment given the value of hiring a desirable attorney with hard to find skills and/or portable business.  By contrast, the decision to hire a candidate is based on that candidate’s merits and value in the market.  The fee has nothing to do with the hiring decision or the compensation, which is based on the firm’s policies and preferences.

Accordingly, a firm’s decision to hire a candidate represented by a recruiter makes the most sense when the candidate is exceptionally strong in comparison with the rest of the market.  In other words, the firm is seeking to get something it cannot normally get from the market, so it is reasonably willing to pay a fair premium, or finder’s fee, to the recruiter who brings them such a candidate.  If anything, the recruiter’s fee helps make such candidates appear even more desirable.  There are thus many reasons why it is in the interest of exceptional candidates to use a recruiter (see my prior article on the 12 reasons why it is best to work with a recruiter).

Of course, this also means that if a particular candidate is not exceptional compared to the market (e.g., they did not go to a top law school and/or have stellar grades; they are in a practice in which there is a large supply and low demand; they are not practicing at a “big firm;” they lack substantial portable business; and/or they have other problematic issues, such as “gaps” or “hopping” indicated on their resume) does not get the same major advantages in using a recruiter.  If the candidate’s credentials are essentially the same (or less) than the credentials of thousands of other applicants, then why would the firm want to pay a recruiter’s fee to hire them?  More on point, why would the firm want to interview them in the first place if the candidate is short on the merits?  In other words, while the fee usually does not directly impact a firm’s decision not to hire a mediocre or problematic candidate (as suggested at top), it is true that the recruiter’s services and attached fee are going to be (at best) of no help to that candidate.  The lesson here is that recruiters are best used for exceptional candidates.  More average candidates are usually better off not using a recruiter and applying to firms on their own if they wish.  At a minimum, they will not waste valuable time with a recruiter that can’t help them.

How Do Law Firms Treat “Gaps” in Your Resume?

“Gaps” or “holes” in a resume are popular terms used by law firms and other employers to describe an employment record that is not entirely smooth and uniform.  That is, there are unexplained “gaps” in the chronological dates of employment set form in the resume that suggest periods of unemployment or underemployment (such as less prestigious employment outside of the law profession).  Gaps are another form of “red flag” to law firms.  Candidates with red flags – especially multiple ones – typically do not get hired.

In my prior article, I discussed “hopping,” which is another common red flag.   Hopping describes attorney candidates who have worked at a relatively large number of firms in a relatively short period of time.  The two types of red flags are similar because law firms usually make negative assumptions – often unfounded – about the candidate.  In the case of hopping, the popular assumptions are that they are either always unhappy wherever they go, or that they always create problems causing their firms to push them out.  Similarly, the common assumptions with “gappers” is that when they lose a job, it must have been their fault (because they are either a poor worker or a problem worker); that when it takes them a while to find another job, it again must be entirely their own fault (ditto); and that any other gap can only be explained by something bad (they were in jail, goofing off, etc.).   Of course, while there are undoubtedly some instances where these assumptions may be true, there are many other instances where they are not.  Yet the innocent often get lumped in with the guilty, and otherwise great candidates lose their ability to even be seriously considered.

So what can be done to combat this kind of red flag?  The defense strategy is to use aggressive, up front means to explain each gap and why it is the result of something beyond the candidate’s control, or is otherwise excusable.  The gaps should not be hidden in the resume, but rather made plain with as much explanation as can be comfortably placed in the resume.  Additional detail goes in the cover letter.  Common explanation for gaps include unemployment due to broad lay-offs, bad economy, lack of work, firm collapsing, etc.; while long periods of unemployment can also be explained by negative economic and market conditions.  In addition, it is important to stay busy during unemployment and other “gap” times.  Law firms are more likely to accept candidates who were busy caring for sick family members or young children, volunteering, networking, building skills, etc. rather than sitting on the couch watching TV.  If needed, a candidate may use references up front to help combat assumptions that they are either poor or problem workers, or that they had good reasons to leave a certain firm or to be unemployed for a full year.  In sum, the key is getting the firm to focus on the facts of the candidate’s individual situation rather than lazily rely on unwarranted assumptions.