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January 29, 2008

From Backpack to Briefcase: On Transitioning to Working Life

By Sarah Rizzo

Law students have the privilege of never having to sit through another law school exam after graduation, but other “tests” await the new law firm associate. To help Michigan law students prepare for this transition, Lauren Krasnow, a 1994 graduate, gave a talk last week entitled “Backpack to Briefcase.” Krasnow worked at a number of premier New York law firms before becoming a legal recruiter with SJL Attorney Search. She spoke about about succeeding in the firm and lifelong personal career development. Here are some highlights from her talk:

Make Sure Your Skills Are Developing

Most law student do not look forward to the “document review” or “due diligence” assignments that await them after graduation. Krasnow suggests, however, that these assignments can be powerful tools to build critical skills through experience. Such work can develop a litigator’s legal writing and fact analysis abilities. Transactional lawyers can gain an understanding of transactional forms and an in-depth knowledge of companies. Thorough knowledge of the “nuts and bolts” make you a better lawyer in the future.

Curiosity is key. Krasnow advises associates to care enough to ask questions about how your work fits into the bigger picture. Associates should be proactive about understanding the complexities of the deal or case. “Exercise your judgment muscles,” says Krasnow, “and ask ‘How would I structure this deal differently?’ or ‘How would this litigation strategy work?’” She also notes that taking unpopular assignments to gain experience is often notices by superiors.

One of the biggest mistakes Krasnow encounters among law associates is the idea that their firm name or law school will trump experience. This is not true. Whether planning on becoming a partner in the firm or making a lateral career move, Krasnow says associates should work to gain as much experience as possible. Document your experiences by making an ongoing “matters or deals list” that details your role in the transaction or case, the clients, and the work performed. This helps associates realize their learning development and is useful for lateral career moves. Within the highly competitive lateral market, Krasnow finds that it is important readily and clearly to identify your experience and what you can offer a present or future employer.

Find a Rabbi / Yoda

Your “assigned mentor” will not always fit the bill here. Krasnow has frequently witnessed the personal and professional benefits of developing strong mentoring relationships in the workplace. A Rabbi can help a law associate navigate the firm’s political environment, provide great work and feedback, and develop a reputation among partners.

Krasnow advises law associates to foster relationships with people that take an interest in their professional work and goals. Often, such a relationship develops organically rather than through firm mentor matchmaking. No doubt, Krasnow recognizes that it is not easy to find a Rabbi. She says law associates must keep their eyes open for those who respond and appreciate their work. Critically, associates must recognize that these relationships are earned.

Learn Everything You Can About Your Firm . . . Whether You Plan to Stay or Not

Firms are not immune to office politics. Krasnow says law associates should familiarize themselves with their firm’s big clients, rainmakers, and news. For example, Krasnow found client knowledge helped her identify pertinent news stories related to the firm. Whether bringing this information up with a colleague or client, the engagement with her work was appreciated by the firm and clients. She adds that a comprehensive understanding of your firm will help you become integrated in the firm and develop relationships. Such connections are critical for partnership consideration, but can also help make lateral career moves. Clients can provide paths to in-house counsel positions and former associates and partners can assist a move to a new employer.

Krasnow also advises that associates understand their firm’s practice area rates. Not all practice areas are valued equally. If a practice area does not bring in a lot of business, it may not be as highly valued in the firm. This can lead to dissatisfaction for some associates. Krasnow suggests that associates understand the economics of a practice at a particular firm. It can help you determine if a lateral career move is appropriate, and when choosing among other opportunities, it a factor to consider.

Stay Connected to the Outside World

Like it or not, Krasnow confirms that networking is a powerful tool for professional development and future career moves. She has found that it is like investing: the earlier you start, the more benefits in the future. As such, Michigan law students not only come in handy for group study sessions before exams, but they can be a rich resource for networking after graduation. Krasnow recommends maintaining relationships with Michigan alumni: attend a local alumni reception or periodically catch up with classmates. Other opportunities to foster industry connections are plentiful. Krasnow says she has found CLEs, conferences, and bar associations to be personally and professionally rewarding. Again, do not hesitate to get involved in such activities early in your career.

Make Non-Negotiable Self-Reassessments Regularly

In Krasnow’s experience, law associates are not always in the driver’s seat on their career paths. This can lead to job dissatisfaction and limit future options for change. She often hears from fifth year law associates who say, “I wanted to work two or three years at a law firm to pay off loans, and then decide what I want to do.” She warns law students not to wait “to decide what they really want to do.” Begin to work on this decision early. Krasnow says, in her experience, the longer you wait, the more difficult it may become to re-tool your career.

To get in the driver’s seat of your career, she emphasizes the importance of self-reflection and planning ahead. Law associates should make a non-negotiable promise to reassess their future career plans and goals four times year.

As a legal recruiter, Krasnow has seen many individuals make a career move decision reactively after a lousy day at work. This is not smart. Instead, during regular self-assessments ask what skills you are missing and identify what you like and dislike doing at your job. If you think you want a change, think hard about why you want a change. “Make the move when you are in a position of strength”, she recommends.

In today’s world, a career is dynamic, and for many, involves multiple changes in employers and sometimes job fields. Krasnow’s talk provided helpful advice for law students to succeed in the firm and make smart career changes.