Q:  When we talked yesterday, you mentioned about following up with a writing sample.  I wanted to ask you about the best way to follow up — Would you think it is a good idea to send them a writing sample (even though the transaction which the memo was about was not discussed at the interview)?

LegalJob:  Good question.  First, I think it is always a good idea to follow-up an interview with something substantive — a writing sample works well.  Yes, I would send the interviewers (make sure everyone who interviewed receives a copy) a writing sample even though the transaction which the memo was about was not discussed and even if a writing sample was not specifically requested.  It seems like it could only help to go above and beyond what was requested.  However, one bit of caution.  Make sure the sample is perfect (clear writing and no typos) and has been reviewed by at least one other person (sometimes you can miss easy mistakes on your own document).  Good luck!

Q:  How important is so-called “face time” at my big firm?  One of the partners I work with asked if I was going to be around next week.  Do I have a choice?

LegalJob: Obviously the answer depends on the firm and your particular circumstances (including the quirks of the partners for whom you work).  In general, the more junior you are, the more it probably makes sense to be around at the firm certainly during regular business hours (say 9-6) and you do not want to make a habit of leaving before the partners you work with or coming to work after they arrive.  But for mid-level associates and up, generally the priority should be getting your get projects completed timely and keeping up your hours (and to the extent possible taking on some firm responsiblity, such as mentoring a summer associate).  If you can handle these responsibilities (well), face time seems less important.

Q:  What’s the number one thing you want to get across in an interview?

LegalJob: The most important point to communicate to a potential employer is the specifics of how you can make meaningful contributions immediately.  Sure, you will need some substantive training and some time to learn the preferences and quirks of your boss (and you want to convey this thought to show that you can work well with all personality types).  However, you should be hired because your relevant experience and background will enable you to hit the ground running.  Give several specifics about why this is the case, but be succinct.  Match your skills with what you think may be required of you based on the job posting (or whatever information was communicated to you about the position), and your rigorous research of the clients of the firm and the previous and current projects of the particular attorneys with whom you are interviewing.

Q:  That last post on interviewing was very helpful.  Should I make a list of talking points and memorize them for my interview?

LegalJob:  Talking points are good to have as preparation but it is probably best not to feel the need to cover all.  You want to come across comfortable (looking for the right opportunity to contribute versus a paycheck) and relaxed with your message so it is not the end of the world if you do not get through your list.

On your talking points list make sure to include a couple of thoughtful questions about the interviewer.  Study his or her background, including the projects they are working on currently or have worked on in the past.  You want to be in a position to ask the person a substantive question about their work.  This shows you have done your homework and allows the person to talk about their favorite subject.

Q:  How important is face time at the big firm?  One of the partners asked me if I was going to be around next week.  Do I have a choice?

LegalJob: Good question.  It is important, but generally you have some flexibility especially as you become more senior (and hopefully more efficient with your time).  Obviously, it depends on the quirks of the partners for whom you are working and other facts and circumstances such as the nature of the clients and the time demands of the current projects.   Some face time is important but the real priority is doing quality work, getting it done timely, and making sure you are meeting your billable hour targets.  After that, making some time for you (when possible) is critical and appropriate (and will likely improve your output as measured by firm statistics).  This could include pro bono work, networking, writing, speaking, or even time off to take care of personal items.

Q:  You talk about how important it is to be responsive on e-mail.  What if I have no information to respond with when I get an e-mail from the partner asking for a status update?

LegalJob: Great example of how important it is to be proactive with e-mail and try to avoid this scenario.  Partners, like clients, (and who should be treated like clients until you have a big book) generally prefer regular status updates.  In general, it is better to e-mail a partner with a status update on your progress on a particular project even if the update has limited or no information.  This practice could prevent an e-mail asking for an update which is obviously less desirable.  In the case you receive such an e-mail, it is important that you respond quickly even if the reply just confirms receipt of the e-mail and explains that you have been working on the matter and have little or nothing to report right now but you will have something soon (i.e., first thing tomorrow and plan to respond again at that time).

Generally it probably makes sense to treat each e-mail as a phone call, particularly early on in your law firm career.  You would not wait more than a day or so to return a phone message and the same etiquette should hold true for the e-mail.   This becomes even more important once you start dealing with clients outside the firm (i.e., not partners) who may believe (or want to believe) they are your only priority.   The timing of the response is likely more important then the content and you can always follow up with more substance in a later e-mail or phone call but a quick acknowledgement of the e-mail may go a long way.

Q:  I just came back from a decent half-day interview with about six or seven of the people in the practice group and two others from firm management.  I think it all went well and I am hoping to get a call back soon.  My question is do I send my thank you e-mail to everyone I met or just the people that I would be working with?

LegalJob: No e-mails!  Demonstrate that you are the type of person that always goes the extra step no matter the task.  Take the time to type a short letter of thanks and write to every person with whom you met.  Yes, everyone, including the human resources person and perhaps other admin types to the extent you spent any time talking with them (or they helped you in any way, like they took your coat).  The perfect letter will be short while conveying that you were actually paying close attention to the person while they were talking.  Did they mention something about their practice?  Something they appreciate about the firm?  Hopefully, you remembered to ask a meaningful question or two, and if so, and you liked the answer, perhaps you can comment on that.  Also, include a sentence or two about how exactly you can contribute immediately (and you are able to answer that after learning today some new piece of information about the firm).

Try to write the letter within hours of meeting everyone so the details are fresh and make sure to drop in the mail (may make sense to go to the post office to ensure quickest delivery) that night or the next morning.   If possible, you may also consider dropping by the firm the next morning to deliver your letters personally to the front desk (with everyone’s name typed on separate envelopes).  Separate yourself from the pack!

Q:  You advise when networking to request five minutes of someone’s time.  How do I fit in everything I want to say in five minutes?

LegalJob: Reasonable question.   Keep your talking to a minimum — you are there to learn from them and to obtain another name of someone you should contact next.  Know your elevator speech cold and limit your time to less than a minute.  Then, ask thoughtful questions about the person’s practice, how they got started, etc.  Ask follow-up questions if appropriate and there is time.  People love to talk about themselves so this should be the easy part.

Most important, make sure you know what you are looking for from that person before you meet with them.  Many people forget this step and do not make the most of the meeting.  People generally want to help but you have to help them help you.

Maybe it is a name of someone else they know who can be helpful.   Perhaps it is something else that will reveal itself at the meeting.  Whatever it is, make sure you ask before the meeting ends.

LegalJob was asked the question below (personal facts deleted) and the answer reiterates and ties together the past couple of posts.  Many seem to have similar questions so LegalJob posts below the response provided in the Monday Mailbag series.

Q:  I have an interview tuesday with [a big firm in a big city].  It was unexpected (a guy just popped in my office while talking with my boss and mentioned me to this guy…). I was wondering if you have any sorta-big firm interview advice?  I read the blog and love it. But, if you happen to have any good “hidden” secrets or something more personal for me, I would greatly appreciate it. The guy I am meeting with is an alumnus of ________ (a school with a strong basketball and football program) and is the Chair of their ________Division.  I got some good background on him, but if you have other suggestions for what to say, not say, do, not do, wear, ANYTHING, I would be very grateful!

LegalJob: Chances are he follows his school’s basketball team  so you may want to spend a few minutes studying some important/interesting facts about the team’s play this year.  A nice way to break the ice.

LegalJob recently posted something about the two points you want to articulate in your elevator speech.  One is your passion/commitment/focus on practicing in the area of _________  as demonstrated by your interest before law school at ____, your current job, the classes you took and excelled at etc.

The second is how specifically you would contribute to the firm’s bottom line and hit the ground running right away (assuming firm culture as displayed by this guy is one in which a go getter mentality is valued).  This is your chance to say concisely why your training can help the firm right away and why your candidacy is stronger than others with better stats (higher ranked school, etc).  Also know what you want out of this meeting before you go in.   I suspect it is to keep the door open for future contact with this person or the firm generally.  Sometimes it is to get name of someone who may be able to help you get a meeting with another big firm.  Maybe you can send him writing sample or something from school when more grades come out — look for ways to keep dialog going after Tuesday meeting.  Dress and act like this is official job interview because it is.  Bring extra copies of your resume just in case you meet others.  Do your homework on the firm and their bread and butter clients in the practice area for which you would like to work.

Q:  You advise to reach out to successful attorneys practicing in your desired field with which you have something in common.  Good advice and I have tried that several times but have not even received a response to my e-mail.  How do you get them to respond?

LegalJob: This is a common question and LegalJob has a couple of posts on this subject because it bears repeating.  LegalJob advises that folks are more likely to respond if it is clear that you have a plan and know what you want out of the contact.  Many people want to help those who are looking for a job.  If they agree to meet in person or talk with you on the phone, that is the proof.  The problem is that those looking for a job generally do not ask for anything further than the initial meeting.

You are likely to increase your chance of getting a meeting if you have done your research about the practice and the firm and can articulate your specific purpose clearly, succinctly, and right upfront.  Also, if possible, give the person a reason to be interested in talking with you (other than because they are interested in helping people or you are a friend of someone).  You need a hook.  A hook is something you bring to the table that you have reason to believe (based on your due diligence) that the person could benefit in some way from your skill/experience/talent/contact, etc.  For example, you understand the firm does X work with a concentration on the unique sub-specialty of ________ and you do the same work at your current job, or you just wrote an article on the subject, or know of a helpful article or recent case, etc.  LegalJob will post more on this subject later.

Do not merely say you are interested in learning about the firm at which they work or their career path.  That may be part of what you want to know but if you that is all you leave with (assuming someone even responds to that generic request), you have not accomplished as much as you could have.

Ask for items like additional contacts in the field whom you can talk with, any inside knowledge he or she has about firms xyz and abc, or the chance to get your resume in the file cabinet if and when the firm has an opening, or specific career advice (like government versus big firm) based on that person’s personal experiences.

Q:  I am not sure if LegalJob can help but my question has to do with getting into law school.  I am on the waitlist at [a top twenty law school].  Does LegalJob have any advice for how I can increase my chances of getting in?

LegalJob: Good question and not one LegalJob has ever been asked.  Three thoughts about supplementing your application:

1) If you have not already done so, articulate specifically why you are a low risk/high reward candidate in the sense that there is a good chance (nothing is a guarantee) based on your level of focus and commitment to a specific area of the law, related or unrelated work experience, academic record, leadership experience, volunteer experience, or some other intangible that you will be extraordinary successful in law school and beyond.  Make the decision easy for the school with regards to your application.  Convince the admissions committee that there is a high likelihood that you are going to be one of successful students that pays your tuition in full, does well academically, and gives back to the school (time, money) after graduation.  This probably means revising your resume and providing additional essays.  LegalJob will provide examples in later posts.

2) Demonstrate your commitment to the school and/or a particular area of the law by sitting in a class in an area of interest.  You may want to ask the professor first if that is something that would be possible but it should not be a problem.  If you liked the class, send the professor an e-mail (or stay after class) asking whether he could meet with you for five minutes to discuss your wait-list status and his thoughts about what you can do to further your candidacy.  Then, do that and inform the school that you sat in on his class and you enjoyed it for x,y,z reasons (if true).

3) Seek out informational interviews from alumni of the school who are still actively engaged with the law school (i.e., board or committee member, generous donors, etc.).  If possible, pick people with whom you have something in common — same undergrad, same practice area (which you are interested in working), same hometown, etc.  The touch point may make the person more inclined to meet with you.  That person may have additional ideas about effective ways to supplement your resume.

Q:  Your blog has some helpful tips but not sure how exactly to apply to my situation.  I am a 3L graduating in May and I have no job prospects.  Where do I start?

LegalJob: One post will probably not do this question justice but the advice should give you some idea on how to get started.  Look for many more detailed posts on this subject.  For now, here are three thoughts:

1) Pick an area of law to focus on.  You may change later (and perhaps multiple times) but it is helpful to pick a specialty area (and even a sub-specialty within the area) so you have something to target.  A good choice would be something you are interested in and an area in which you did well in law school (or one for which you have relevant job experience).  If you did well, you will be in a better position to tell a potential employer why you are worth taking the risk and why the firm should focus on your performance in those classes.

2) Secure a temporary legal job in that area.  Look for an opportunity where you can “work” as a law clerk at a firm (starting during your remaining two months of school) that specializes in the area and where there is at least potential to learn some substantive skills in the area.  This may mean accepting a job that pays hourly (perhaps as a paralegal) or even working for free for the right situation.  No guarantees but why not put yourself in a position to open doors for yourself and learn some law in the process.

3) Network in a targeted way.  This step will take lots of your time so make sure you are working effectively.  Take advantage of the information resources at the career services department.  The good folks there can help you identify alumni working in the area in which you have chosen to focus.  Perhaps they can help you narrow down your list further to alumni with other touch points such as same undergraduate school, same hometown, same name, similar work experience, etc.

Also, ask the professors who teach in the area (or even those that don’t) for contact information of former alumni or others they know who you could contact for advice (not for a job).

Q:  After my successful lunch meeting, I haven’t heard anything else…. The partner I met with did explain that it can take a while to hear back and if it is longer than I anticipated I should contact her or the other person I met with. What are your thoughts on this? Any way to approach it? I assume this isn’t good news but then again if they didn’t like me why not just say it?
LegalJob: They likely have not made a decision yet because work got in the way.  You should probably follow up since it has been longer than you anticipated, whatever that means.  Did you ask when you can expect to hear back?  You have a couple of options.
You can follow up (either by phone, email, or formal letter, depends on how you last communicated with them) with an update for your file that would improve your candidacy like recommendation letter, new grades (As), accomplishment at work, etc.  The other alternative is to explain that there are two other firms interested in you (which is true if I remember correctly) and one of them (say firm one) requires your response by next Friday (hate to mislead but otherwise what is this firm’s rush to get back to you).  You are interested in firm one but this firm remains your top choice and the one in which you believe is the best fit based on the firm culture and your background and experience.  Thus, before you can decide whether to join those firms (notice you are not saying there is an offer outstanding), it would be helpful to understand where this firm is in the process.  (note be sensitive and wording matters here because you do not want to demand a response by x date if they are not ready but were planning on extending you an offer).  Would it be possible to have this information so that you can make an informed decision? You understand it is a busy time for the partner and the firm and you appreciate their continued consideration.

Q:  I am a first year associate (2/3 done) at a big firm.  One of the partner’s for whom I receive most of my assignments has invited me to sit in on a client meeting (for the first time).  He told me that I will not be expected to talk.  I certainly want to be mindful of my place but I want to make sure I am adding value.  Any ideas?

LegalJob: LegalJob suggests that you be as prepared as possible so that you can help make the partner look good — like he thought of everything and that he spends all of his time thinking about this client.    It is possible that this prep work will not be billable (talk to the partner about this before recording).  Even if not billable, however, this will be a worthwhile exercise and will help demonstrate the kind of associate you are — your attention to detail and your value to the firm.  Here are some specifics:

  • Find out as much about the meeting as possible, including purpose, background, partner’s objectives, client’s expectations, etc.
  • Let the partner know that you would like to meet with him 15-30 minutes (as appropriate) before the client meeting, if possible.
  • At that meeting, synthesize what you think he should know with your presentation to him and a one pager before going into the meeting (here is where you can add the most value because you have been in the weeds and have separated out the important take away points).
  • FACTS:  Make sure you are an expert on the client’s facts.  Know cold all the facts that have been provided.   If a transaction, know every step even the ones that seem unimportant.  Understand the economics as well as possible such that you could clearly articulate what is happening.  If there are additional facts you think would be helpful, write them down and inform the partner.  Think of this as an advance form of issue spotting.
  • LAW:  Read everything you can on the subject matter from a variety of different sources.  Dig deep here.  Review caselaw, statutes, regulations, comments to regulations, if available, legislative history, articles. treatises, any prior (or current) firm work on subject, even google.
  • Take an extra step if there is sufficient time — call subject matter experts in government  or others.
  • THINK:  What would the client want to know?  What does the client need to know?  How can the information be communicated succinctly?  Note that the client in this case is the partner.

Q:  I am between two good firms.  I have been considering the pros and cons of each firm.  I was wondering if LegalJob could share any insights with me.  Some of my thoughts are:

  • Firm X will allow me to focus on transactional work, while Firm Y is about 60 percent litigation and they expect all their associates to do some litigation work
  • At Firm X, there are several associates at my level, while at Firm Y, there are no associates at my level — there are a few entry level associates and one very senior associate
  • Firm Y encourages associates to participate in article writing and seminars, while Firm X does not discourage this, but it is not active
  • Firm Y has been rated as one of the top firms for women

LegalJob: Great question and your pros and cons list seems well thought out.  As part of addressing your list, LegalJob will share its priority list for you to consider when making this decision:

  • The people with whom you will be working.  Can you see yourself comfortably spending long days (and sometimes, long nights) with them.  Hard to know for sure when everyone is all smiles in the interview but go with your gut here.  Have any of the people (lawyers, not administrative folks) you met with gone out of their way for you in any way during the courting process?  Perhaps someone has been extra helpful concerning information on timing and next steps (and any other lingering questions about the firm) such that you felt a sincere interest on their part.  In our telephone conversation, you mentioned that one of the attorneys at Firm X has been very helpful in this regard.  Pro one for Firm X.
  • The quality and type of work.  Do you have the opportunity to do some heavy lifting at this firm?  If so, how soon?  Will you have the opportunity to focus on the area of work you enjoy?  How many attorneys are practicing in the specific area in which you want to focus?  Will there be sufficient mentoring opportunities?  You mentioned that you are leaving your current firm because you would like to concentrate on transactional work, so this priority is especially important for you.  Again, it sounds like firm X fits your needs in this regard.  Pro two for Firm X.  Note that even though the work is the reason you are leaving the other firm, the work is still second priority to the people with whom you will be working.   Consider the extreme case.  If you have great work but dislike your colleagues, you will be miserable.  On the other hand, if you do not love your work but you enjoy the people, the job will not be perfect but it is unlikely that you will be miserable.
  • Professional development opportunities.  Does the firm provide an opportunity for you to grow and develop?  Has this area been emphasized in your conversations with the firm?  Will you be able to take on increasing responsibility here in terms of type of work, interface with clients, mentoring younger attorneys, leadership roles at the firm, etc.?   Does the firm encourage you to speak and write?  Does the firm have a transition plan such that older partners can train younger partners to eventually take a lead role on firm client matters?  What is the track to partner if that is important to you?  If not, what are the alternative tracks?  What is the compensation structure?  Note that this item is at the end of the list (because generally big firms are fairly comparable in this regard), but obviously it is important, especially as you become more senior.  Is the compensation lock-step?  Merit based?    You mentioned that Firm Y encourages you to write and speak while Firm X is not active.  That item is a pro for Firm Y and con for Firm X.  However, note that despite the lip service, the priority for most firms is that you work on firm matters and maintain strong billable hours (and strong collections).  Firm Y may emphasize the importance of getting out there but getting your work done is still their first priority (and should be yours too).  Accordingly, LegalJob would not put too much weight on that point unless you had the sense that Firm X affirmatively discourages you from speaking and writing and taking outside leadership roles.
  • Intangibles.  This item is the miscellaneous category.  You mentioned that Firm Y has been rated as one of the top firms for women.  Obviously, this item is important to you and a strong pro for Firm Y.  Are there many women working at Firm X?  Are there many women partners at Firm X?  Perhaps you can talk to them and raise your comfort level.   Another item in this category could be the make up of the group in which you will be working.  Note that this item could also fall in the professional development category.  You mentioned that Firm X has several associates at your level, while Firm Y has a few entry level associates and one very senior associate.  These facts could cut both ways in terms of pros and cons.  On the one hand, having several associates at your level could be helpful in terms of going through firm life together and bouncing ideas of each other.  On the other hand, your professional development opportunities may be increased at Firm Y in that you may be able to work directly with partners more frequently (and have the potential for increased client contact) and you may have more chances to mentor younger associates since you do not have much competition.  This item is intangible because different people will have different preferences.  It sounds like you prefer to work in an environment with several associates at your level, so pro for Firm X.

Overall, it seems that while Firm Y has some great pros, Firm X is a stronger fit for you.  Good luck!

Q:  I am down to two firms.  I received an offer from one firm almost two weeks ago and they have given me until Friday to respond.  I have not yet received an offer from the other firm but I think one is coming and I talked to the recruitment coordinator 1.5 weeks ago and she said they were still giving me strong consideration.  I am likely to accept the offer I have already received so not sure what I should do as far as the other firm.

LegalJob: There are a lot of variables and several approaches you can take here.  Obviously, it would be ideal to have both offers in hand so you could make your decision with all the information.  Here are three possible approaches:

  • Be honest.  Tell the second firm you are down to two and the other firm requires a response by Friday.  Consider e-mailing or calling one of the attorneys (as opposed to the recruitment coordinator) that has served as your contact person.  You should mention that you spoke with human resources (and they were helpful, which is a bit of a stretch but probably better not to throw someone under the bus) and that you are contacting that person at this time because you are seriously interested in this firm and you thought it may help move things along if you communicated that directly.  Mention that you understand these decisions can take time but you thought you would reach out to determine whether it was possible to receive any more information before Friday.  One downside of this narrow window is that the firm could get back to you Thursday or Friday and then you have a short turnaround time.  That may be okay though if you have already spent some time thinking about the pros and cons of each firm and the salaries are comparable.
  • Ask firm one for additional time to make the decision.  It probably makes sense to proceed this way only if you have more than a passing interest in the second firm and if the first firm has given you every indication that it is okay to take your time.  For example, if the firm is waiting on your decision before handing out other offers, this may not work.  However, if you are the only offer outstanding, the firm may be flexible and willing to accommodate.  Consider asking the recruitment coordinator this information.
  • Accept first firm’s offer.  If you have already decided that the first firm is a better fit for you then no need to wait for firm two to get its act together, although there is probably not much downside to contacting the other firm and asking for its timing.  Moreover, even if you decide to proceed in this way, it certainly does not hurt to wait until Friday.  Note that the fact that firm two is stringing you along may be a factor in your decision but this issue should not be determinative.  People get busy and big firms especially are known to take a long time in many cases.

Good luck!

Q:  What is the appropriate amount of time to take for a honeymoon vacation as a young associate in a big firm?  My fiancé wants to take two weeks but I am anxious about taking that much time off as a young associate and losing all those hours?

LegalJob: Take the two weeks because you can and two weeks is the generally accepted time period.  You will probably not be seen as a hero if you take less time so you might as well take both weeks.

Manage partner and senior associate expectations by providing them plenty of notice of the dates you will be out.  Also, take on extra assignments in the period before to the extent possible as long as you are confident you can get them completed to the satisfaction of the assignment giver.  However, keep in mind that these folks will likely forget your dates so you will have to be vigilant about not taking on any project that will require your presence in the office during those two weeks or that may not be able to be finished in time.  If you are in doubt, it is always better to communicate your hesitation up front so the assignment giver has all the information.  He or she can decide if it does not make sense to assign a particular project too close to your vacation.

Additionally, decide if you want to be or are able to be available by blackberry and communicate your decision to your colleagues.  LegalJob recommends not bringing the blackberry if at all possible.  The honeymoon time is one of the few times (new baby may be the other) where this practice will be acceptable.

When you return to the office, load up on assignments to the extent possible so that you can make up the hours lost.  Again, it is accepted to take the time off but the missing hours will still count against you and you are competing with peers who did not take a honeymoon vacation this year.

Q:  What are the questions that I should ask before joining a big firm?

LegalJob: Here are some thoughts about possible questions above the usual about money, benefits, and hours.  Note that some of the items on this list were taken/modified from the information provided in The Business of Practicing Law, an insightful book written by a lawyer who was a managing partner of the Chicago office of a major accounting firm (not a law firm but the nuggets are applicable to both).  Note also that some of these questions below cover areas that may not be important to you.   Use what works for you.

  • What is the process of assigning work projects?  Are you responsible for keeping your plate full?  Is there someone else there with that responsibility?  You have to reach billable hours targets so you probably want to know there is a working system in place for dividing projects (versus no system which could result in you having periods of time with little or nothing to do).
  • Is face time around the office important or is telecommuting acceptable sometimes if the work gets done?
  • How is each attorney’s performance measured?  Are there more metrics than the statistical information such as billable hours, and collections?
  • How much face time will I have with clients as a junior associate, a mid-level associate, and a senior associate?
  • Do you have an “up of out” policy or alternative career paths?  In other words, if I do not want to sell work (or choose not to) can I still be successful here in the long term as a service partner?
  • What type of training can I expect to receive at the firm both in terms of substantive skills (i.e., how to write a contract, etc.) and so-called soft skills such as how to run a successful conference call with the client or other attorneys or both)?  Related to that, does the firm reimburse continuing education either through PLI programs or other?
  • How often will I be reviewed?  By whom? According to what criteria?
  • What is the firm’s (and perhaps even more important, the practice group’s) turnover statistics over the past two years, five years, and ten years?  Get the stats for associates and partners.
  • Is the firm (and practice group) growing?  What is the firm’s growth target?  What steps is the firm taking to reach this target?
  • How is the firm managed?  Where is the firm managed from?
  • Does the firm have a strategic plan?  If so, who contributes to the plan?  Are there sufficient resources in place to support the plan?
  • Is the firm in sync with recent trends in the market?  If not, this fact is not necessarily a negative.  Some firms have high-highs and low-lows.  That is great when the market is booming.  Some may have low-highs (firm does not do as well as others in good times) and high-lows (firm does well in down economy which may look attractive to you at this time)
  • How would the partners and associates you meet with rank the following three items:  1) people at the firm, 2) quality of work (both clientele and opportunity to do heavy lifting), and 3) opportunity for growth and development.

Q:  Other than great grades, can you tell me a couple of items to work on that will make me more attractive to the big firm?

LegalJob: Practical experience that involves some “heavy lifting” and very strong writing skills (preferably not demonstrated solely by your winning moot court brief, although that is nice to have).

Real world experience.    Find a place that will allow you to work on substantive matters and contribute in a meaningful way.  Big firms (and future employers) should be able to get a good sense of your experience from reading your resume (and perhaps a short chat with you).  If it is not clear that you functioned as full-time employee (albeit a junior one), it may not constitute heavy lifting.  Put yourself in the future firm’s perspective.  The firm wants one who has demonstrated that he or she can add value immediately.  Your contribution may result from knowing how to perform certain tasks efficiently or knowing and understanding the main legal issues faced by the firm’s biggest clients.

Researching, working on file memos, and working on case books and articles authored by partners are good but try to mix with some other activities that may suggest deeper involvement such as developing solutions to client problems (with partners, clients, or even alone), interfacing with clients, helping draft transactional documents, helping draft briefs, helping prepare for depositions or meetings (even if you are not speaking), and preparing correspondence to the client (which could include memos or even e-mails), etc.

Strong writing.  The perfect job combination before the big firm job would be one that provides hands-on experience and plenty of opportunities to write and improve your writing.  Law schools have legal research and writing class but not many other opportunities to work on this crucial skill.  Big firms expect you to be good at writing and to be able to write succinctly and clearly and to do so in short order (both in terms of coming to the firm and the amount of time on any one assignment).  In addition to legal documents such as briefs and transactional documents, you will be required to write memos to firm partners (and perhaps clients, even if indirectly) which provide recommendations based on the facts and the law and e-mails to firm partners (and perhaps clients, even if indirectly) which may provide recommendations.

In addition, the prospective law firm will likely be able to assess your writing ability by your cover letter and other correspondence with the firm.  Given these realities, it may make sense to take writing classes outside of law school so that you have something tangible to bring to the firm in this area (and many of your competitors with similar writing ability will not likely have done this).

Take such a class or classes and make a strong first impression with your clear and concise writing.

Q:  I am a second year associate at [a top AmLaw 100 firm] and I am on track for about 20% fewer hours than last year.  I am not sure what to do because I told the partner in charge of the group last month and my group in general does not seem have enough work to keep everyone busy.

LegalJob: You are already on the right track for being proactive about the situation.  Overall, you should think about activities that can best help your career while not billing hours in your practice specialty.  LegalJob probably needs to know more facts here to properly tailor the advice (and the circumstance of each situation would likely dictate the order of the activities below), but generally you should consider taking one or more of the following action steps:

  • Communicate.   You already started this step by letting the partner in charge.  It may make sense to let others in the firm know as well (and it may be appropriate to let the partner in charge your plan so that the appropriate firm protocol is followed).  Other folks that could potentially help are:  1) other partners in your group (who may be inclined to think of you next time a project comes in now that you have communicated your workload situation directly and expressed interest in helping on anything); 2) the partners in charge in other offices in your practice area; 3) the other partners in other offices in your practice area (again be sure to follow appropriate firm protocol here); and 4) partners in charge and other partners in other practice areas within the firm in which you have an interest.  You never know.  This could be an opportunity to work in area you have not considered but may really enjoy.  Whichever you end up doing, LegalJob recommends that you communicate in person as much as possible (and by phone if not possible).  In person you can convey your sincere interest and motivation in helping.  Also, your e-mail may not receive much attention from the partner, especially if he or she does not have a current need for you.
  • Write an article, speak somewhere, participate in a panel, or head up an ABA section or some other group.  There are plenty of good opportunities for young lawyers who have the time to get their name out there.  Participate in an activity or a series of activities where you can add value and get noticed.  If you are not sure (or even if you think you are), ask a partner or two their suggestion for worthwhile activities.
  • Learn from a partner.  Perhaps there are juicy projects around that cannot support additional billable hours but can still benefit from your input.  If you have the opportunity to do some heavy lifting (not just memos to the file) and work along side a partner and learn from him or her, this could be advantageous to you in the long-term.   Be careful not to spend too much time here.  However, for the perfect situation (not monopolizing all of your time and lots of private time with a partner who is willing to teach), you should consider this option.
  • Take professional development courses.  PLI courses are always good but also consider courses that can help you improve your writing and speaking skills which will also serve you well for your career.

Q:  I am a young partner at a big firm and I have been told that I will need to generate my own projects in time.  Any ideas for me?

LegalJob: This is a topic for multiple posts and LegalJob will feature information in the future from current big firm partners on this subject.  In the meantime, here are three general ideas to get you started:

  1. Seek advice from firm rainmakers.  Target at least five successful partners in your firm to learn from.  Note that the partners do not have to be in your group, or even your office.  Before speaking with them, learn everything you can about their clients, how they got started, etc.  Then, being sensitive to their time commitments, offer to treat for coffee, breakfast, lunch, or drinks — whichever makes sense and be up front with your purpose which is to learn and seek advice from them.  Come prepared with thoughtful questions and perhaps your short/long term plan to discuss (depending on how receptive he or she is).
  2. Prepare a thoughtful, five-year plan.  Building business will require a long term time commitment.  Plan (or have some general idea about) your lunch engagements for the next several months (who are you going to target and how), writing projects, speaking opportunities, ABA roles, roles in business organizations, educational courses such as selling or writing, etc, other ways to develop your specialty, government opportunities worth pursuing, etc.
  3. Connect with a rainmaker from a different practice group.  If possible make yourself indispensable to a successful partner in another practice area and think of creative ways to add value to his or her existing clients in your area.  A variation would be to do outstanding work for this partner and then brainstorm together how you can help his other clients in your area.

Q:  I have a question regarding how important face time is at the big firm.  I am an early person and generally get to work about 7 or 7:30 but I like to leave around 5:30 or 6, especially if there is nothing going on.  I didn’t think anything was wrong with that but I receive annoying comments and surprised looks from some of the other junior associates when I leave “early.”  It is annoying because I am there at least one to two hours earlier than all of them and the partners.

LegalJob: Face time can be important at the big firm but you should be able to manage people’s expectations in this regard (and, at the same time, satisfy most if not all of your preferences).  Some thoughts:

  1. Communicate your preference regarding your schedule with the partners with whom you work (and anyone else suggested by these partners, i.e., senior associates, other firm management if necessary, etc.) so everyone understands and has the opportunity to buy in.  Tone is important here and you want to be careful not to appear to be overstepping.  Communicating your preferences is not dictating how it is going to be but it is not exactly asking either.  You can be soft about it in that you want to make sure the partner is comfortable with this schedule but that is a little different then asking his or her permission;
  2. Decide what your policy is going to be regarding e-mails and calls “after hours” and communicate that preference as well.  LegalJob recommends that you try to be accessible, at least by e-mail so that you appear flexible and do not lose out on working on good projects for that reason;
  3. Make yourself available after your usual time if there is an important firm or client event.  Perhaps plan ahead and come in later that day.  It is important to participate in firm activities, to the extent possible.  Also, it is always good to have the chance to connect directly with a firm client (even if you are not doing most or any of the talking); and
  4. Consider letting the partners know that you can be available other times as well and (not “but”) that you prefer advance notice to the extent possible.

Q:  If I am lucky enough to get some hits in the Fall Interviewing Program, how do I explain away my average performance in my first year of law school?

LegalJob: You will have to explain the grades.  But first, be sure to articulate (clearly and succinctly) how the intangible(s) that you have will benefit the firm (and specifically a particular practice area) on day one.  The intangible may be previous work experience, undergraduate degree or other education, professional license, clinic experience, experience with foreign cultures or languages, business or other important relationships, clear commitment to the practice area, etc.

Once you have established some of the reasons why the firm should take a chance on you despite your mediocre start, you should address the grades (but be sure not to dwell on the subject — get in and get out).  Perhaps you have a reason for why you did not achieve excellence and if so, that should be explained.  More importantly, however, you should explain why you think your academic performance is not a reasonable predictor of how you will do at the firm.

To complete your sales job, consider doing a wrap up summary at the end of the interview when asked “is there anything else you would like to add?”  Even if not given the opportunity, make one for yourself.  Reiterate your intangible and help the interviewer see the grades from your perspective.  A successful interview will leave the interviewer with the idea that you have some impressive quality that separates you from other candidates, which will make you a valuable asset to the firm, notwithstanding your first year grades.

Q:  Thank you for doing this blog, I find it very helpful.  If I only have a short amount of time for with a prospective employer, what is the most important item to get across?

LegalJob: From your question it is not clear whether this meeting is an informational interview or a real interview.  The substance of the answer does not matter because both are “real” interviews but the style does.   For an informational interview, it is probably best not to focus your response on that firm because then you have hijacked the interviewer who agreed to meet with you on the basis that you would ask about other firms.

Overall, you want to convince the interviewer that you can add value (using specific examples; get in the weeds) to the firm and the practice because of your specific background and experience.  One way to do that is to start by explaining why you are specifically interested in the firm.  For tax nerds, perhaps it is the firm’s particular focus on S corporation issues, and you are interested because you have specific experience in the area that you could contribute to the firm.

Along these lines, consider the following comment from an associate dean of a prestigious law school made at NALP’s recently held roundtable discussion in Washington, DC on the future of lawyer hiring, development and advancement.

Employers are expecting…that candidates will be able to articulate very specific reasons for being interested in a particular employer. You know, having very employer-specific reasons for wanting to work for a particular organization. I think we have seen that…employers are recruiting for particular positions as opposed to the best available athlete. Or at least expecting the candidates to be able to articulate, in a very focused way, a particular practice area or practice areas in which they are interested…

Q:  I am going in to my second year.  I bombed in my first semester but did very well in semester two, particularly in _____, the area in which I plan to concentrate.  I also obtained substantive experience in this field this summer and the partners I worked for were pleased with my work.  I have a couple of informational interviews lined up and I was wondering whether LegalJob has advice regarding how (or whether) I should address my first semester.

LegalJob:  Sounds like you have positive things to say so LegalJob would not shy away from discussing your poor performance in the first semester.  In later posts, LegalJob will address what to do when there are fewer or no positive things with which you can contrast this poor performance.  For you though, below are some thoughts and then a quick and dirty example of your possible pitch.

  • Try affirmatively raising the issue early in the interview to frame the issue the way you prefer.  If you bring up the issue, you can minimize the potential for defensiveness.  The focus should be on the improvement and the experience (and any other x factor) you are bringing to the table that makes you more desirable than most.
  • Demonstrate that you learned from your poor performance/poor study habits (again with the focus on the success of second semester as compared with the anomaly of first semester).
  • Provide a hint as to why the first semester is not as strong of an indicator of how you will perform at the firm as other data.  Here you have the fact that you excelled in the area in which you want to focus.

So, start with the intangibles you bring — I have had a heavy level of responsibility and gained significant experience in the area of _____ this summer and worked on projects such as _____ and _______ which involved a large amount of legal research and writing and the partners I worked for were pleased with my work (and are willing provide a recommendation for specifics or here are their recommendation letters).  This real world experience supplemented my academic training generally and my studies in the ____________course for which I particularly excelled.  My positive work experience, success in this class, and overall strong performance in my second semester stand in large contrast to my disappointing first semester.  I believe that the results were vastly different because in my second semester I had a better understanding of the most effective ways for me to approach legal issues and law school exams and because I had an opportunity to pursue some courses in areas of particular interest to me.

Q:  Any advice for how specific things one can do to separate herself as a star junior associate at an AmLaw 100 firm?

LegalJob:  Unfortunately, no details were provided about the person’s situation.  The quick answer would be to charge lots of billable hours and make sure you are working efficiently (or working for the right partner or client) such that all your time is chargeable and collected.  For a bit more insight, LegalJob asked an AmLaw 100 firm senior partner for his thoughts on best practices for AmLaw 100 firm associates.  The questions LegalJob asked and the partner’s responses are provided below.

Day to Day

Is face-time important to you?  Yes.  Do you expect associates to arrive before you get in, and to be at the firm until you leave?  To me, this is primarily a question of effort and dedication.  I don’t expect an associate to keep particular hours, and certainly not to arbitrarily be in the office awaiting my whim, but I do want to see enough of the associate to know that he or she is properly focused on his or her career and what I’ve asked to be done.  Put another way:  an associate might be able to do an excellent technical job entirely through electronic means and contact, but I would never be entirely comfortable that they want to work with me or understand my perspective without significant personal contact.

Do you prefer to communicate by e-mail, phone call, or office visits with associates?  All of these are fine.  Do you find associates rely too much on email?  Yes.  Does your answer depend on the time sensitivity of the client matter?  Not really.  I find that associates in general are too absorbed in the technology that surrounds them.

Would you prefer regular meetings with the associate to update you on status of work assignments and current workload?  Yes.  Should the associate initiate those meetings?  Yes.  The associate should treat me as a client in this respect.

Would you prefer the associate check in with you every day if he or she leaves before you or visit with you before you leave?  Yes, but only when convenient as a matter of common courtesy.  Does your answer depend on whether the associate is working on a time sensitive matter?  No.

Receiving work assignments

How do you prefer to handle the assignment process?  I always appreciate an associate approaching me for work, although I have no problem approaching him or her.  How proactive should associates be in seeking out work?  Such proactivity suggests great interest in the firm and a career here.  Whenever their plate is clean?  Before their plate is clean if they can anticipate when they will be finished?  The best associate will regularly keep me informed of the status of his/her “plate.”

Do you want to know if the associate has other assignments in every case?  Or, should they only share that information with you if they believe they may have a problem with a deadline?  He/she should share if he/she thinks it’s germane or if he/she needs help sorting out priorities.

Should the associate manage your expectations with respect to deadline, i.e., tell you it will take longer than they think to avoid disappointment?  If he/she believes I will not understand the truth, he/she might do well to dissemble on this point.  But that would prevent us from having the best relationship that we can have:  one based on honesty and mutual respect.

What is the best way to learn your preferred format and style preferences?  Ask you, ask an associate who has completed assignments from you in the past, ask another partner?  Ask me.

If this is the first time an associate has worked for you should they request a sample memo (or other) format to illustrate your style preferences?  He/she can certainly ask, but I wouldn’t mind learning about his/her individual style.

What questions should the associate ask when receiving an assignment?  The associate should ask how much time I have to discuss the assignment right then, and tailor his/her inquiries accordingly.

Working on projects 

Do you want to know the status of the assignment even if there is no news?  Yes.  How frequently should the associate check in?  That depends on the project, but at least every couple of days.

In all cases would you rather the associate take the extra time to make the work product “perfect” or stick to the deadline (assuming perfect is not possible by the deadline)?  The quality of the work product should reflect the opinion that the associate wants me to have of him/her.  Deadlines can be malleable; quality work is not.  I do place the full burden on the associate to tell me as soon as possible if a deadline is unrealistic; if I disagree, we can discuss.  If “perfect” is not possible by the deadline, the deadline is unrealistic (but may be binding if it’s the client’s deadline).

What is your preference for handling follow-up questions (e-mail, phone, visit)?  In ascending order of complexity.

Would you prefer the associate err on the side of asking you more follow-up questions or just figure out unanswered details on their own?  The more experienced he or she is, the more I would prefer him/her to ask in order to better actualize on his/her higher hourly rate.

Research

In all situations, would you prefer the associate spend as much time as it takes to get the right answer?  Only if I have approved such.

Should the associate bill all of the time spent (including time spent learning the subject)?  If there is a great deal of “learning” time, I want to discuss how much should be written down.  More experienced associates are more susceptible to compensation penalty for poor realization statistics.

Should the associate ask you for suggestions on best place to start (search terms and resource materials) or figure out on their own?  Unless the subject is highly specialized, he/she should know where to start.

Presenting conclusions

How should the associate present his conclusions?  Always written in a traditional memo format?  Executive one page summary followed by formal memo.  E-mail with answer if time sensitive?  Make an appointment to meet with you?   Does it depend on the assignment?  As with most other things, he/she should simply ask me.  I usually like to discuss the answer before a lot of time is spent (and potentially wasted) commemorating it.  This is my preference even with summer associates.

Should the associate allow enough time before the deadline to revise after presenting the initial conclusions?  Always a good idea.

Preparing for client meetings

What do you need from the associate?  What I request.  Ask me.

Should the associate expect to attend?  I always make every effort to include an associate whose effort and interest merit such.  I will often discount or blend rates when such attendance is merited from my perspective but not from the client’s.

Other activities

How often should the associate pursue speaking and writing opportunities?  Marketing and professional development must be priorities for any successful associate.  Should the associate ask you about these opportunities or do that on their own time?  If he or she considers me a mentor, he/she is welcome to ask.  Otherwise, I would not presume to require such.

Should the associate regularly participate in firm activities (associate meetings, firm events, summer associate activities, etc.), assuming it does not interfere with work responsibilities)?  If he/she wants to continue to be an associate.  Why is this burden mine alone?

Do you support associates who work for you taking on firm responsibilities, i.e., mentoring, associates’ committee, summer associate program, etc.?  I encourage it.

Work permitting, do you support associates who work for you attending CLEs and firm training programs?  Yes.

If there is anything else on your “dos and don’ts” list for associates, please provide that information here.  Do:  expect the best of me, as I do of you.  Do:  know that I will always make time for you.  Don’t:  ever expect me to take my time to edit your written work for grammar, syntax or punctuation.  Don’t:  fail to respond within a reasonable time to a call or an e-mail from me requiring response during work hours.

Q:  I am looking to knock my interview out of the park.  Are there certain questions to ask that would WOW the interviewer and separate me from other candidates?

LegalJob:  There is lots of information out there on good questions to ask.  Some suggest asking questions about how cases are staffed, how the group is organized, how work is assigned, firm culture, hours and years to partnership track, etc.

These questions are not bad but they may not WOW the interviewer and they do not allow you to demonstrate how qualified you are for the position.  Instead, you might consider asking what the law firm is looking for in terms of experience and qualifications and then you can close the deal by articulating how your abilities match the firm’s current hiring needs.  Another question to ask is something specific about one of the firm’s clients (or even better, one of the firm’s clients that you know the interviewer works with).  Perhaps you can ask about how a particular new law (like a certain section of Dodd-Frank; try to delve into the minutia and not be too general) affects the client or how the firm is advising the client given the new law.  For example, “I understand you work with lots of hedge funds.  I have been reading about the possible problems with the definition for “swap” in the statute and the related issue that the derivatives legislation seems to take effect without a working regulatory plan.  How are you advising clients in light of this issue?  My two cents is…”  Your question (and your comment) accomplishes three important goals at the same time.  It shows that you have been rigorous in your research of the firm and its clients, you are acutely aware of current events and potential impact on client businesses, and you are thoughtful (and capable) enough to get into the technical details of an important legal issue to firm clients.  Now that is an associate LegalJob wants on its team!

Q:  How can I improve my cover letter and resume such that I stand out? 

LegalJob:  The answer in most cases seems to be that folks are unnecessarily vague in these documents.  There are words on the page but they do not say anything.  If you have impressive work experience, provide enough details (but in a fairly concise manner) about the substance so that the interviewer understands what he or she is reading before ever talking with you.  Big words are not impressive but details are.  Your explanation should accomplish two objectives:  1) provide enough detail about the substance so it is clear what your specific role was (writing, speaking, reporting, analyzing, providing advice to partner/client, some combination, etc.) and what the specific subject matter was (not tax but sham partnerships and disguised sales), and 2) emphasize (by inference) which specific skill set of yours contributed to the project —  knowledge of this area and that area (broad based and deep), quickly required to… (so quick study and cool under pressure), working on this assignment and at the same time that assignment (translation — ability to handle lots of responsibility).

If your work experience is not impressive, do not fake it with lots of words on the page.  Interviewers see right through that.  Every word or sentence should be meaningful and have some purpose.  If not, consider deleting.

Q:  I am interested in working at a big firm next summer but I do not think I will get a job through the current Fall program because of a couple of grades.  I am interested in doing litigation work and did get good grades in classes related to that.  How should I proceed?

LegalJob:  LegalJob would need to know more facts before providing a complete answer.  In general, however, LegalJob recommends the following:

  • Consider whether you are comfortable with the so-called “long view” approach to getting into the big firm.  If so, proceed to the next bullet below.  If not, perhaps consider how important it is to you to work at a big firm.
  • Focus your interest on a particular sub-specialty (and one that big firms typically have) within litigation like class action defense, commercial litigation, employment litigation, work related to Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, etc.   The narrow focus will help you stand out from the sea of folks that are interested in general litigation.
  • Gain substantive experience in your new area of focus.  Perhaps you can work part-time (at the government, a small or medium firm, or with another employer) if you find the right opportunity.  A good choice would be one that provides you heavy responsibility and the opportunity to learn directly from an expert in his or her field.
  • Once you have sufficient experience (one project or memo may not be enough but this judgment is best done on case by case basis), reach out to fellow alumni (from undergrad or law school or both, if possible) working in that area at a big firm.  Request a five minute in person informational interview to discuss potential opportunities in this area (other than ones at his or her firm so that he or she will still meet you if nothing is available at that firm).
  • At the “interview,” listen more than talk; when you do talk, sell yourself by concisely articulating your specific experience and how it will enable you to hit the ground running at a big firm; also mention your excellent law school grades in the courses relevant to the practice area; explain that you are willing to work for free as an intern/extern or whatever (or at a low wage, if the firm has to pay something).
  • Have as your goal (as a minimum) to obtain two or more names of contacts in this field that you could meet with for other informational interviews.

Folks that have followed this approach have had much success.  Last year, this approach even worked for a 1L who wanted big firm experience in her first summer after law school.  These positions are difficult to obtain even for candidates with good grades.  Nonetheless, a LegalJob follower with mediocre first year grades, gained substantive experience in a sub-specialty within her area of focus, reached out to a law school alum (who was the practice group chair) for an informational interview, listened and articulated her specific experience and actually asked him (as opposed to merely stating that she was willing to work for free at a big firm) if she could work for him for the summer with no pay.  She was offered a position and was even paid something (albeit much smaller than the typical summer associate rate).

Q:  I interviewed at [big firm x] after my friend who works there suggested to the firm that my background and experience would fit in well with the lateral associate position available.  I thought the interviews generally went well.  The people I met with were pleasant and it was clear (to me anyway) that my experience made me very qualified for the position.  I received a form rejection letter that surprised me.  My friend says that the firm has decided not to fill the position at this time but the firm will keep me in mind in the future.  I am not sure what to make of that.

LegalJob:  LegalJob suggests that the letter does not have to be the end of the story, especially if you felt a connection to the people and you were still interested in the position.  Try the following steps:

  • Call a couple of the folks you interviewed with and ask them to provide you some feedback about your candidacy/interviews.
    • Consider calling someone from firm management whom you met and the most senior person in the group for which you were interviewing.
    • Perhaps these folks will tell you that the interviews went well but the firm changed its course (and decided not to hire anyone) for a reason not related to you.  Alternatively, they may share with you something about your interviewing style that could benefit from some fine-tuning.
  • Request (in writing) to be reconsidered for the position (either currently or whenever the firm decides to hire someone.
    • Write a concise but specific letter detailing why your experience makes you a great fit for the position.  You should also articulate why your background and personality makes you a great fit for the firm, given its culture, etc. (as expressed to you in your interviews).
    • Consider having someone write you a specific recommendation letter for the position (which may be hard to obtain from your current employer if they do not know you are interviewing).
  • Request to be considered for a contract position in the department (as opposed to a full-time associate position).
    • If the firm accepts, you have a chance to demonstrate your skills and to determine whether the firm is a place where you want to work as an associate.  Both parties benefit.
    • Assuming you are a strong performer, the transition from a contract attorney to an associate attorney seems like a no-brainer.
  • Reach out to the other attorneys you met during your interviews and request to meet for coffee.
    • These attorneys may provide additional feedback that could be helpful.
    • These attorneys may have friends/colleagues at other big firms looking for an attorney with your skill set.

Q:  How can you tell what is important or what is going to be on the final exam?  It seems like there is so much minutia so it is hard to tell.

LegalJob:  Generally, the law school is testing you on your ability to parse through all of the minutiae and determine what is important — in other words “how to think like a lawyer.”  To succeed in law school, one generally has to weed through the morass (provided by the fact pattern), appreciate the nuances, and identify significant issues (so-called “issue spotting”).  Once armed with the significant issues, the student has to be able to articulate both sides of the argument.

Similarly, a lawyer’s success can often depend (at least in part) on the ability to identify the significant issues and provide solutions — both of which require a deep understanding of facts, including the minutiae, and judgments about what is most relevant (i.e. where to focus one’s time).

To help get into the weeds and think like a lawyer (at the law school level), LegalJob recommends the following (which could also be helpful at the law firm associate level):

  • Learn as much as you can about the laws involved
    • Understand the reason (stated policy or possible policy) behind statutes (legislative history can be helpful in some cases) and judicial decisions (dissents can be helpful as can reading how the law was applied in other cases).
    • The policy may make no sense to you but it may support various interpretations of the law.
  • Be able to articulate both sides in a case
    • Do not worry about being right or being on the right side of the issue.  There is rarely one right answer on law school essay exams (or in real life client situations).
    • Consider what facts could help further each side’s cause.
  • Do not worry about finding a precise black and white answer
    • Many times the exception(s) can swallow the general rule (so keep reading).
    • Be flexible in your thinking of where your fact pattern fits (perhaps there is an argument that you meet the exception assuming it’s helpful).
    • Be creative in your arguments
      • Identify and take advantage of ambiguities.
      • Your success on the law school exam (and later as a lawyer) will likely depend on how you can use ambiguities to help make your case.

Q:  I would like to practice IP law in the fashion industry in London.  Do you have any recommendations as to how I should start preparing for this?

LegalJob:  You already have at least two things going for you.  You have picked a specialty so you have an area to target and you have multiple touch points that will allow you to network in a targeted way.  In addition, your name and background suggest that you may have direct ties to another country (either born outside U.S. or your parents were born outside the U.S.) that allows you to further distinguish yourself.  LegalJob advises that you start networking with law firms that may represent fashion industry clients and take the following steps:

  • Marshall your information resources.
    • The Career Development Office at your law school is a good place to start to obtain information resources.  The folks in that office can help you identify alumni working in the area in which you have chosen to focus.  Again, a starting point could be lawyers at large or boutique London law firms who are likely to work with clients in the fashion industry.
    • Professors who teach IP may also be able to provide contact information of former alumni or others they know who you could contact for advice (not for a job).  Professors may also have advice about practical work experience you can explore to help prepare you for this field.
    • Friends, family, and even people that you have recently may be able to help you connect with the right people so speak up about your plans.
  • Target your search using all your touch points.  When gathering the alumni information, use your touch points and try to obtain names of people that contain many of these items.  People are interested in talking with and helping people they like and have a connection with.  Chances are they will feel connected to you if you share four or more touch points.
    • Same law school (all with have this in common because that is your starting point)
    • Same practice area (Intellectual Property law)
    • Same background (born in same country or parents from the same place)
    • Same undergraduate college
    • Similar work experience
    • Similar interests (including the reasons you are interested in this practice area)
    • Lived in same town (now or at some point)
  • Practice persistence with your goal in mind when contacting the people on your list.
    • Brief e-mail referencing your touch points and requesting five minutes of their time to discuss their background and advice for work experience (for you to pursue in law school) that could be helpful.  In person meetings are probably better if feasible.
    • Follow-up with a typed letter in the mail
    • Follow-up with a call to the assistant of the person you wrote and ask for good times to catch that person
    • Try each person two or three times at least before giving up
    • Know that some people will not want to talk with you but do not be discouraged
    • If you have ten names and connect with two, that is a win
    • Have as a goal of each contact to obtain additional names of people you can contact that may be helpful

Q:  What does LegalJob advise that I should focus on in addition to meeting my firm’s billable hour requirements?  I am a mid-level associate at [big law firm].  I meet my billable hours requirements but I am concerned because, compared to my peers, I don’t spend too much time at the office participating in firm activities because I have a new born at home.

LegalJob:  Good question.  As an aside, LegalJob has advised in other posts about possible activities an associate can engage in over and above what is required (e.g., participate in firm leadership, mentor younger folks, seek opportunities to speak, publish articles, etc.).  These other activities can be helpful, however, an associate’s first, second, and third priority should be on doing good work.  So to your question, producing excellent work is what you should focus on, especially since your time is limited. It seems obvious but many folks do not appreciate the fact that consistently producing good work is what can distinguish you from others come partner time or when partners are assigning work.  The other stuff is just gravy.  Here are some tips for producing excellent work product:

  • Take the time to get it technically right.
    • Your ultimate conclusion is not likely as important as making sure your deliverable is well reasoned and covers the relevant issues based on current law.
    • Start from the beginning.
      • Start with the baby case — a simple example that could illustrate your point (assume simple facts and then build from there).
      • Assume your reader knows nothing that can help ensure that you rigorously cover the relevant issues.
    • Dig deep and make sure you understand (and have provided the reader sufficient detail about) the nuances of the law.
  • Take the time necessary to present a well-written work product.
    • Proofread, proofread, and proofread some more (typos take away from the substance).
    • Consider using your final product (what you planned to submit to the partner) as your starting point (and edit that document until perfect).
    • Summarize your main points up front in the main document (or in an e-mail or separate document so the reader does not have to spend time searching).
  • Make sure you work product is in the format that is consistent with partner/client preferences (ask before assuming).
    • How long?  Perhaps the reader wants two documents — a short one and a longer one.
    • Consider providing an executive summary even if not requested.
    • Should the conclusion be stated up front?
    • Is a conclusion necessary (or just the legal test which can be applied to any fact pattern)?

Q:  I am not sure where to focus my efforts for the purpose of generating clients.  I recently started a new job as a mid-level associate at a large firm.  I was born in [a foreign country] and speak fluent [the language of the citizens of that country].  Coincidentally, my firm represents a couple of clients from [my country].  To help develop contacts, I recently joined the bar association which has members from [the foreign country].  Any thoughts you have are greatly appreciated.

LegalJob:  The bar association is good but may be a bit limited as far as client leads because the folks you meet are likely your competition, going after a similar client base.  Consider marketing yourself both inside the firm and outside as the go to person for legal matters relating to [the foreign country].  You have a unique opportunity in that your firm represents client from [the foreign country] and you are from that country.  Consider taking the following steps to help make you invaluable inside and outside of the firm (in any particular area):

  • Contact lawyers who you know that work in the country
    • Explain that there may be an opportunity to cross-sell in that you can recommend their specialized (in country) services to the firm’s clients from that country and they can recommend you to clients with US legal issues.
    • Ask them for suggestions about preferred on-line legal publications/new services that cover the hot legal issues in that country and interesting legal issues that arise from doing business in the U.S. and in that country.
    • Ask for suggestions about local publications for which you could write articles about doing business in the US.
  • Sign up for a couple of these databases such that the articles appear in your inbox every day
  • Meet with the partner(s) at your firm that represent clients from the foreign country
    • Learn about the business of the client (do this on your own time and take the necessary time).
    • Learn the specifics of the legal services the firm is providing the client.
    • Learn about business and legal issues affecting the client’s business.
  • Write a weekly memo to the billing partner(s) with clients from the foreign country
  • Summarize current legal issues that could possibly be relevant to the firm’s clients
    • The memo should be formal, concise, and brief (no e-mails).
    • The memo should be flawless (well written and no typos).
  • Gauge firm/partner interest and consider hosting regular lunches (monthly or quarterly) discussing topics relevant to this area
    • These lunch meetings can start out internal.
    • If the interest exists, consider hosting outside (or firm partner) speakers and inviting firm clients.
  • Create opportunities to write about interesting legal issues in this area in US publications and the publications suggested above

Q:  I am a 3L with no job yet.  How do I network with people without sounding desperate (which I am)?

LegalJob:  Great question and many have asked one similar.  There are at least two items you can practice to improve your networking efforts:

  • Do not approach as if looking for a job (from the person you are meeting).  This one seems counterintuitive.  The whole reason you are meeting with people is because you are trying to find work.  The problem is that as soon as you tell a prospective employer that you are looking for a job (from them), there is a decent chance they will be turned off and may not be interested in meeting with you.  Consider the following two approaches that may help lower the person’s guard, depending on your facts:
    • You are currently gainfully employed.  This fact pattern may be the easier case — Your company is cutting back and letting people go; you are not getting work that interests you there; the folks that you work with are unpleasant; you want more money or some combination of these or some other reason.  Whatever the “real” reason, your story should include two components:
      • A substantive reason for wanting to leave.  For instance, you now prefer to focus on a different aspect of the area you have been working on or a different setting (i.e., small versus big firm or vice versa, private practice versus government, etc.).  Money, personality difference, budget issues/cutbacks should probably be left out of your pitch to the extent possible.
      • How specifically your current experience will be useful in your next setting. You should be able to articulate examples.
    • You are not gainfully employed.  Perhaps you have been turned down from 100 places; you have not looked hard enough; you have terrible grades; you do not know what you want to do; you are scared.  Again, whatever the “real” reason, your story should include two components:
      • A substantive reason for not having a job yet.  For example, you are looking to practice IP law for the fashion industry and you have not found a firm that has that specialty in the area.
      • How specifically your current experience (law school courses, moot court, previous work experience, undergraduate, talents, other) will be useful in your next setting.
  • Have a specific idea of how people you are meeting with can help (and you clearly communicate this idea).  This tip can also be thought of as beginning with the end in mind.  Thank you Stephen Covey for habit 2.  You do not want to leave the meeting where the person you met with says he or she will keep on the look out for potential openings or some other throw away line.  You need tangible tasks.  The person(s) you meet with can
    • Provide you a recommendation letter vouching for your good work;
    • Provide you two or more names of people you can contact that may be helpful (from that point, so and so suggested I contact you given my experience and job interests);
    • Help you clean up your paperwork (resume, cover letter, writing sample);
    • Help you further focus your search (after you provide specifics and your thoughts about preferred specialty areas); and
    • Provide specific career advice to help you land the desired opportunity (additional coursework, work experience, activities, etc.).

Q:  I was given a research assignment by a partner who I am told is difficult to work for and is known to be very demanding.  Can LegalJob suggest best practices to help ensure smooth sailing?

LegalJob:  LegalJob has provided several posts on meeting partner expectations.  Check those out and consider the following:

  • Ask lots of questions (if you have them)
    • You want to get a sense of the partner’s preferences as far as form of response, timing, communication with him/her if additional clarification is needed, etc.
    • Make sure you understand what is being asked of you.  Better to ask questions at the front end then waiting and wasting time and guessing (wrong).
  • Paint a broad brush
    • You can decide how much information to provide in your response (and less with the option of more if desired is generally the way to go) but in the meantime, dig deep and wide with your research.  Get the lay of the land in the area, including history to help provide you some context.  You do not know what will be important until you dig in.  Become “an expert” in the area as best you can (but note that it really is not possible to be an expert after one or two research projects).
  • Develop a framework through which to analyze the legal issue
    • Like in law school the reasoning may be more valuable to the partner than your answer
    • Identify the problem, the moving parts, and articulate how others have analyzed this issue (or one closely related by analogy if there is nothing out there)
    • Be rigorous.  Find as many authorities as possible on both sides (cases, legislative history, treatises, law review articles — scorch the earth)
  • Be sensitive to how you deliver your “answer”
    • Stay away from absolutes and couch your answer in terms of “it seems” or “it is likely that”
    • You are not an expert in the area even if you have spent two days or a week getting to the bottom of the issue.
      • The partner expects you to know everything there is to know but without years of experience that is not likely possible.  Many lawyers who have practiced in a certain area for many years are always quick to point out that they are not experts in a particular facet of the law that they have had very little experience with (even though they likely have enough experience to identify the relevant considerations on both sides).
      • Since you are not an expert, your answer (if requested) should include reference to the authorities you are relying on (and why they are persuasive) and should provide information on another possible way of looking at the problem (if there is one) and authorities supporting that approach (even if you have determined that way is incorrect).
      • Do not dismiss counter arguments out of hand even if they seem silly.  Instead, explain how they are inconsistent with various authorities in the area.
      • A well thought out response set up pins (all possible arguments) and knocks them down (with supporting authority and not your general opinion about what the answer should be).

Q:  “Since you have experience in both the private and public sector, do you have advice for someone beginning their legal career in government to eventually transition to a firm? What things should/shouldn’t I be doing now to make the leap in a few years?”

LegalJob:  Great question.  There are several items to keep in mind:

  • Heavy lifting is good.  Make the most of your government time each day by working on projects, which involve heavy responsibility and get you deep into the substance of the law (in the weeds as they say).  Future employers will want you to demonstrate that you have significant expertise in xyz area and that you are able to work in a fast paced, high-pressured work environment with multiple deadlines and competing priorities.  Many government jobs offer employees the opportunity to handle projects that junior associates at big firms do not get to handle (at least not alone).  Hopefully that is the case for you and your docket of experience becomes your number one selling point when you leave.  If it is not, you may want to consider something else.
  • Develop a niche preferably in a marketable area of law.  Your specialty area should be something you like but you should also think about who your future clients will be.  If you are interested in tax, for example, you may consider international tax or more specifically transfer pricing.  That area is specialized and will also involve clients that have the means to pay your big fees (large corporations).
  • Write down what you do on a regular basis.  This tip is important.  You want to catalogue your successes and you also want to note the legal issues you are resolving.  When you interview, employers want to see that you can articulate clearly and concisely the matters you worked on and they want you to explain your specific contribution.  These details should also be provided (to some extent) on your resume.
  • Keep track of successes big and small.  This tip goes with the previous thought (in the first post) about writing everything down but it gets its own category because of its importance.  Employers want to see experience but in particular they are interested in how creative you are.  How many times did you solve the problem and how did you do it.
  • Find mentors that have made switch to private practice or worked in private practice.  Ask them questions, identify their effective work habits and mirror them.
  • Ask questions of every attorney you meet.  Odds are they worked in government or their partner did, etc.  Contact alumni that previously worked in your position (or even in your agency) who are now at big firms.   Ask for strategy and career guidance.  Most people will be happy to talk about themselves.
  • Make sure you are not overstaying.  If you are continually being challenged and developing a niche, that is one thing but you do not want to be labeled a government attorney if your attention is to move to private practice as a younger person.

Q:  I thought I had a great interview with a firm and had the experience the firm was looking for and my grades were strong (although I did not go through the Fall interviewing program).  I did not get much feedback with my rejection (other than a one liner response from the HR person suggesting that I may have been overconfident) so I was wondering if LegalJob had any thoughts since LegalJob knows me and is familiar my credentials.

LegalJob:   A couple of thoughts.

  • Reach out for feedback (quickly while memories are fresh).  Consider contacting everyone you met (including HR folks) and asking for feedback on your candidacy and interviews.  It could not hurt to have this information and it may help you polish your approach for the next interview.
  • Comment about being overconfident.  LegalJob suspects folks may have mistaken your strong sense of self and ambitiousness for arrogance.   There is a fine line between the two and the way you are perceived depends on the personality types of the interviewers.  However, as a general rule at the big firm, you are probably best served being understated and humble.  There are lots of egos to compete with at the big firm so one with the quiet confidence of David likely fares better than one with the boastful arrogance of Goliath.  A display of quiet confidence could include:
    • Demonstrating a sense of maturity and calm (so limit body, hands, and face movements);
    • Dressing professionally and understated (no flashy ties, jewelry, accessories);
    • Being measured in your behavior (not too slick, not flirty);
    • Talking deliberately and with authority, without shouting or talking over the person (so softer is generally better);
    • Articulating specifics of your quantitative or other impact on the projects you worked on (without overstating your role);
    • Being deferential at all times (in speech, in your responses, air time, etc.)
      • Plan to listen more than talk and demonstrate active listening by asking relevant follow-up questions
    • Moving the gaze of the eyes slowly and carefully with lots of eye contact;
    • Showing a sense of humor (with the focus on interviewer and perhaps some self deprecation not you doing stand up); and
    • Showing a sincere interest in the interviewer and the firm.

Q:  I am interested in a career in [xyz] and was wondering what would be the best way to spend my first summer, a job in a firm, a government agency, or as an intern or a Hill committee?

LegalJob:  Good question and those could all be good opportunities.  One approach would be to take whatever you can get given the difficult job market and, in particular, the limited summer job options that may be available for a 1L.  On the other hand, the approach LegalJob suggests is to be flexible such that you are willing to work for free and then seek the best possible opportunity.  Ask your question to lots of different people to get their perspective.  Reach out to alumni who have similar backgrounds, so-called touch points (hometown, undergraduate school, major, work experience) and ask them for suggestions.

One of the most important criteria to look for is which place would allow you the opportunity to do heavy lifting.  In other words, where will you get the most substantive experience and/or have input (direct or indirect) into the decision making process.  Where are you going to best be able to learn how to write, think, and talk like a lawyer?  Where are going to best be able to learn what is truly like to practice xyz law?  You want to be in a position to explain your contributions concisely to a future employer and demonstrate how that particular experience makes you valuable to the employer.

Very generally, working a big firm has prestige, comes with a nice size check, and the potential opportunity to work on sophisticated matters.  However, you may find that working for a small boutique that specializes in a certain area of law provides you more opportunities to gain the type of experience that will be valuable to a future employer.

Working for Congress, especially for a particular committee could be lucrative if folks there are working on major legislation that impacts your area.  But again, confirm that you will be involved (at least somewhat — attending key meetings for example) in all aspects of the process (in addition to research and memo writing which you enjoy doing).  Same analysis can be done for a government agency.