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October 09, 2007

Looking For A Law Firm Job? Expert Advice and Suggestions

By Sarah Rizzo

The 2L’s quest for a prized summer associate position with a firm and beyond often feels like navigating an obstacle course. Anxieties are fever pitch, questions can resemble curve balls, and exhaustion is frequent. Naturally, no one could provide 2Ls with more relief and guidance than those who have successfully reached the finish line. Michigan Law welcomed two speakers, with the great advantage of hindsight, to explain what they wish they knew when they were in our shoes.

As Chief Executive Officer of Greenberg Traurig, Cesar L. Alvarez makes it his job to know the ins and outs of the legal market. However, this information is relevant to more than just law firms. Alvarez broke down the trends to help 2Ls distinguish between law firms and make better career choices now.


Location, Location, Location

The U.S. provides ample choices for places to practice law, and many law students choose a location based on family, hobbies, or even the weather. Alvarez highlighted another factor to take into consideration: future population growth and movement. According to Alvarez, it is often easer to establish a career in areas with growth and movement. Data shows that in the future, the three fastest growing states will be California, Texas, and Florida. Also, he pointed out that key financial and governmental centers witness high growth rates. Not sure where you want to go? Take advantage of the dynamic trends in growth areas and your career will benefit.

Diversification

Alvarez likened choosing a law firm to diversifying one’s financial investment portfolio. “It is like investing in one stock versus a mutual fund.” Diversified law firms, in both practice areas and locations, will be able better to withstand industry slumps. A downturn in one economy or practice is less likely to hurt a diversified firm. As such, Alvarez advised law students to “invest” wisely!

Play Matchmaker

Law firms have cultures and personalities. Alvarez advised matching your personality and your goals with the firm that will get you where you want to go. First, this requires taking a personal inventory of your goals. Then, instead of asking the “What is the firm’s culture?” question, take a more indirect approach to assessing a firm. He advised looking at its governance and management mechanisms. Is the firm business-oriented or political? How are decisions made internally? What is the function of committees? What changes have they made in response to the advancements of the last 20 years?

Does the Firm have 20/20 Vision?

Alvarez stressed the importance of joining a firm that can articulate its future. Today, firms are more business-oriented. Although businesses have long realized the importance of an organizational vision, not all law firms have reached the same conclusion. As such, he recommended asking a few people at the firm to describe its vision and compare responses. If the answers are too diffuse and unfocused, the firm may lack a strong common identity. Today, according to Alvarez, it is important for any enterprise to have shared goals. Candidates may find it helpful to talk to individuals about the firm’s leaders. Is management bottom-up or top-down? What is the attitude of the leaders? Does the firm have bureaucratic elements? Is there decision by indecision?

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So you’ve decided the location and type of law firm that fits your needs. Now it’s smooth sailing, right? Not quite. For many 2Ls, the transition from law school to the law firm is overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be.

Mark Hermann, a partner at Jones Day in Chicago, is no stranger to working with summer and new associates. Indeed, his book, The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law, highlights the frequent mistakes and blunders he has witnessed firsthand. His message to rising associates: all hope is not lost. Delivered with a comedic punch, Hermann’s advice can help 2Ls avoid common pitfalls—and save partners a lot of frustration.

Don’t Be Part of the Crisis

When Hermann smells roses now, he looks for the coffin. Throughout the years, he has come to expect associates to deliver materials at the last minute. Making a partner needlessly have to take home work at night or over the weekend does not impress. The Curmudgeon’s rule of thumb: “If humanly possible, send the draft to a partner/senior associate three days before it needs to be delivered to a court/client.”

Most importantly, Hermann said don’t forget that the legal market is a free market. Sloppy work will soon lead to no work at all. Make the senior associates’ or partners’ lives easier by delivering your best work well in advance. For those who make the partners’ lives easier, the reward will be more work.

Keep it Smart and Captivating

Hermann stressed that associates should decide intelligently the cases to use to support their arguments in briefs. For example, cases where the appellate court reversed the trial court in a similar situation are the strongest. With an implicit threat built into the case, judges will be hard-pressed to decide otherwise. He bemoaned briefs that have actually cited cases that hurt the client. Finally, never underestimate a strong introduction. A litany of chronological facts will put the reader to sleep. Hermann urged associates to avoid the generic and strive for a gripping and powerful opening sentence. Often, the additional effort will pay off.

Don’t Forget Administrative Excellence

All too often, Hermann has had to spend time deciphering cryptic billing time entries like “SOL research.” Don’t be an annoyance to the partner; write down “statute of limitations research” on your time entries and check grammar. Indeed, Hermann explained that time entries are more likely to be seen by the CEO than any other work for the client. Bottom line: don’t skip corners when it comes to the small stuff.

Publications and Building a Practice

“Each article is a pain in the neck to write.” Nevertheless, Hermann highlights the importance of publications for building a practice. In his experience, publications beget more publications, and in time the rewards can be great for one’s practice. Speaking engagements and scholarly recognition will bring you to the forefront of clients’ minds. Further, the firm will be delighted to highlight your expertise for its “beauty contests” in the legal market. Hermann advises associates start by picking something they know; critically, it need not be revolutionary. By keeping at it over the years, you will build the practice you want to have in the future.