Abby Gordon is one of my Lateral Link colleagues who works in the Lateral Link New York office. She has great ideas for young lawyers and I’ve asked her to share those ideas in a series of blog posts.
In this post, Abby shares the first 14 of 25 things to know to not screw up your law career. Next week I will publish the last 11 things.
I was a paralegal before law school. I took four years between undergrad and law school, so I knew a herd of practicing lawyers when I was still applying to law school. I thought I had a leg up on everyone; I thought I had it all figured out. But in hindsight, I realize that there was a lot I did not know—not in law school and not as I made my way through seven years as an associate with a top international law firm.
Now as a legal recruiter, I see associates making the same mistakes over and over. I wish law schools would do a better job of preparing students for the practicalities of the legal industry and not just teach the substance of the law. But until they do, here is my list of key points to understand and mistakes to avoid…
Law School & Gearing Up for Practice
1. First-year grades are what matter for securing a summer associate position that will hopefully lead to a more permanent associate position. But for anyone who may look to lateral to another firm or go in-house eventually (and that is most of you!), second- and third-year law school grades do count—a lot. This is especially true for litigators in today’s market. Grades follow you around, so finish strong.
2. Check out bar requirements in advance for any state you might want to waive into eventually.
3. If you want to become a litigator, strongly consider doing a federal clerkship. This is especially important if you may want to work at a litigation boutique one day. If you are a corporate associate, no one cares if you have done a clerkship.
Picking Your Law Firm
4. Law firm prestige does matter. It is certainly not the only consideration, but to lateral to another firm or move to a company, it is very important. You may get much better hands-on experience and training at a smaller firm, but prospective employers usually do not see it this way.
5. It is extremely difficult to switch practice areas once you start. Pick practice area wisely, based on your personality:
• You have to like what you do! Do you enjoy the substance of the work in that field of law?
• Keep in mind lifestyle factors when picking your practice area. Some areas have a steadier and more predictable flow of work whereas others have a very unpredictable workflow.
• Certain practice areas attract certain personalities more than others. You may not want to go into litigation, for example, if you do not deal well with aggressive personalities.
6. …Based on your academic background: Be sure you have the right background to progress in your practice area. If you have no finance or accounting background or aptitude, corporate work may not be your best option. If you do not have a hard sciences/engineering/computer science background (preferably an advanced degree), think twice about doing science-related intellectual property work. You may be able to get your foot in the door without the science background, but it will be difficult to advance down the road.
7. …Based on geographic factors: Do (U.S.-trained) lawyers do this sort of work where I want to live? For example, if you want to move to a smaller city one day, capital markets may not be the best option. But if you want to work overseas one day, strongly consider capital markets over other practice areas.
8. …Based on market considerations: Understand the current market and think about where you see the economy heading. I would hesitate to pick a specialty that is very dependent on market conditions.
9. …Based on your future goals: Some practice areas lend themselves better to going in-house one day, to going into the government, to setting up shop as a solo practitioner, or to working out a part-time arrangement one day. To the extent you know where you want to end up five, 10, or 15 years down the road, pick carefully today. Again, I cannot stress enough how difficult it is to switch practice areas once you start.
10. Understand the various structures of law firms. It may not be a crucial factor for young associates, but you should at least be aware of the differences and the pros and cons of each. For example, lockstep firms may foster more cooperation and less competition among partners but tend to have more institutional clients and may not encourage the more junior associates to learn business development skills. If you enjoy the business side of being part of a law firm and you think you will have an aptitude for business/client development, consider a firm with a two-tier partnership track (income partners and equity partners), where you may have a better shot at proving your worth as a business-building partner.
Law Firm Life
11. Do not trust your firm to manage your professional development. They will not. It is not that they are necessarily being shortsighted or indifferent to your wellbeing, but the reality is that the firm’s priorities are probably not 100% aligned with yours. Perhaps law firms should take greater care in the long-term professional development of their associates (who may be future clients). But until they do, associates must take control of their own professional trajectories, become aware of their options, and…
12. …Do not succumb to inertia. Think about next steps early and often. Whether or not you are happy where you are or looking to make a move, make every choice an affirmative choice. Do not just sit back and let your career drive itself. Take control. Take in information whenever you can. Be aware of your options.
13. Keep up on the latest firm and industry news. It is too easy to get absorbed in your immediate work and neglect the bigger picture. Stay on top of which practice areas are hot and which are not. Keep aware of how well your firm is doing.
14. Knowledge of the law is only one side of being an effective and successful lawyer. You must learn the business side of the legal industry as well. Business development is key to law firm survival. The ability to bring in clients is a key element of making partner and making a livelihood as a partner. Unfortunately, many firms fail miserably at teaching you the fundamentals of client development and encouraging this practice. So be prepared to teach yourself if need be.