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What Should Young Associates Expect in a Large Firm?

Q: Realizing that getting "The Offer" is everyone's first concern, I was wondering if we could focus on the second greatest concern -- meeting the partner's expectations.

Assuming my legal skills are in order, I was wondering if you could share your wisdom as to what young associates should expect from a large law firm, and how we can best prepare ourselves for the rigors of such a fast paced and demanding environment.

To be more specific, I am coming from an appellate clerkship where I had the luxury of doing a great deal of academic writing in a relaxed environment. Law school was very much the same. I have never had the chance to practice in a law firm environment, and I would appreciate your perspective as to how I should prepare myself for what I'm sure will be a major transition in life style. Likewise, once on the job, what are the best ways to scale the "private practice" learning curve?

A: We frequently represent candidates who are practicing at large law firms after having served as appellate clerks. These candidates are particularly impressive because of their strong research and writing skills. In fact, we have found that law firms who are hiring for litigation openings actually prefer candidates with strong clerkship experience. Candidates who have clerkship experience usually have a very focused career path and their ultimate success is no accident. They have more often than not performed at a very high level in law school and have thus strategically positioned themselves to apply for and obtain a clerkship, ultimately enhancing their ability to obtain a litigation position in a prestigious law firm.

To be sure, getting "The Offer" is, in fact, the first concern. Assuming you've obtained an offer from a large law firm, once in the door you are certain to experience a vastly different environment than that to which you have become accustomed during your clerkship. Since your question implies that you did not have the opportunity to clerk at a law firm during your first or second summer, the transition may require even more preparation on your part. However, the fact that you have asked this question leads me to believe that you have the prerequisite mindset to successfully make the transition.
Perhaps the most significant adjustment will be to your work style, the number of people to whom you will be reporting, the number of hours you will need to work, and the necessity for you to be able to juggle a number of projects for numerous partners who have varied work habits and expectations. The key to being successful in a law firm is often dependent on how quickly you acclimate to the demands of the environment, how flexible you are, how effectively you can manage your time, and the strength of your communication skills.

One of the most interesting comments made to me by a clerk who successfully made the transition from clerk to large law firm was that she had no idea that she would have to go through "such a big ego adjustment." This is not surprising. Clerks often have the full attention of the judge for whom they work and are asked to conduct extensive and complex research, participate in deciding cases and draft opinions. By contrast, in a law firm, clerks can initially feel as though they have become the "low man on the totem pole". They quickly learn that they have a variety of bosses -- the senior associates and partners for whom they work.

Responsiveness is key to satisfying clients and it is also key to satisfying partners. So, I always advise associates to treat partners like clients. Develop strong communication skills listen and make sure you understand the problem/issues and goals at hand, propose creative solutions, be responsive, make sure you deliver a superior work product, meet deadlines, follow-up to insure you have completely satisfied the partner, and be sure to ask for feedback so you can identify your weaknesses and continue to improve your skills as a lawyer.

Most successful associates have developed strong relationships with a few key partners who have "taken them under their wing" and shown them the ropes. These informal mentoring relationships vs. assigned mentoring relationships are most often successful. The key for associates is to observe early on in one's career which partners have the necessary tools and willingness to guide and assist the associate with his/her progression to partnership. Although a large part of this relationship depends on the partner's initiation, an even greater part depends on the associate's tenacity in pursuing this one on one training and development.

Another obvious but inevitable difference for clerks entering the large law firm environment is increased compensation, increased hours, and an expectation that the associate will account for his/her billable and non-billable time. Although increased hours is sometimes a concern for some clerks entering the law firm environment, one should keep in mind that there are certainly large firms that maintain reasonable hourly requirements and pay salaries at or slightly below market. Based on our experience with the types of candidates that do clerkships and what we know about their transition to the large law firm environment, it is precisely the type of dedication (hours) it took on their part to do well in law school and to obtain and complete the clerkship that enables them to successfully make the transition to the large law firm environment.

With respect to accounting for billable and non-billable time, this is a function that is difficult for every new associate entering a law firm. I always advise new associates to have their time reviewed by a senior associate in their practice group or, alternatively check with the partner for whom they are working, to ensure that they are correctly recording their time.

Additionally, because clerks are often given seniority credit for their clerkship experience, there is an expectation that they will have attained skills during their clerkship that put them at a higher level of performance than their peers. This expectation is certainly justified with respect to research and writing skills. However, clerks often have not had the opportunity to develop skills to defend discovery for instance, or to think strategically about client matters. In addition, writing for a court is generally more neutral in tone than writing for a client, which is generally more persuasive.

A clerk may have experienced little editing from a judge, whereas a partner in a law firm would be more prone to edit a clerk's product, attempting to second guess the court and present persuasive arguments, speculating about a judge's temperament or perspective on particular issues. Clerks can successfully adjust to these expectations and differences by reading samples of briefs written for or by partners for whom they work and soliciting tips from other associates.

One of the significant developments we have observed over the past few years in the lateral market is the expectation of firms that senior associates and income partners have strong business development skills. Indeed, some firms have required senior level/income partner candidates to bring with them a small portfolio of portable business. Although these marketing skills are most often required at the equity partner level, it would certainly serve you well to begin honing those skills very early in your career. Good client development skills spring from strong relationship and communication skills.

You should begin now to develop a broad base of contacts, both inside and outside the legal community. You should gain the confidence of and pursue work from partners in your firm who will allow you opportunities to "observe them in action" and get to know their clients, whether it be through attending client meetings or social events sponsored for clients. You should also think about cultivating your own potential client relationships by getting involved in community organizations and networking with your peers. Lastly, if your firm has a marketing department, you should cultivate a solid relationship with the professionals in that department. They will be an unlimited resource and help to you as your progress through your legal career.

Finally, perhaps the most important skill a clerk may have to develop is gaining an understanding of "firm politics" and how to effectively work within channels to obtain his/her career objectives. In a large law firm, this can be a daunting task for any new associate. Perhaps the best strategy is observing and learning from the mistakes of others and getting to know who the "key players" are in the firm. Apart from that, professionalism, cooperation, willingness to "go the extra mile" and delivering the highest standard of work product to partners are essential components to any associate's success in the large law firm environment.

Article by Harrison Barnes

BCG Attorney Search

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