Monday, January 7, 2013

Legal Jobs - The Big Firm

A friend agreed to answer some questions about the life of an associate at a large, nationally rated law firm and the interview process to get there.  He asked to remain anonymous.  Much like my job, the bosses have the ability to say what they want.  Those trying to get there, need to be more careful.  Here are some of my questions and his responses:

1) Describe the typical interview process

Coming out of law school, it is typically a multi-round, multiple-day process. It generally begins with an on-campus interview with attorneys who graduate from your law school. This round of interviews is done to whittle down the list of potential candidates. If you are selected for a follow-up interview, you are invited to the firm's offices for a series of interviews with various attorneys from across the firm. In my experience, this part of the process usually is completed in one day, but can sometimes take longer, depending upon scheduling and the position involved.

2) What kind of credentials are major firms looking for? 

The academic credentials sought include graduation from a respected law school, solid grades, law review, and participation in other extracurriculars, such as moot court or mock trial. 

The intangibles that are sought include a keen intellect, varied outside interests, an engaging personality, and a strong work ethic.

3) Can you negotiate salary?

Typically not right out of law school. Most big firms have a set starting salary that they are reluctant to modify. After completing your first year (and each year after that), however, there is an opportunity to receive raises that vary based on your performance. There are generally more opportunities to negotiate your compensation the longer you have been practicing. 

4) What kind of hours are expected? (Billable and office hours)

In virtually every large firm of which I am aware, there is a minimum billable hour requirement (which tends to range from 1700 to 1900 annually). Some firms also have non-billable requirements or goals for certain activities, such as marketing and pro bono representations. 

Office hour requirements vary by firm, and even by department. My personal experience is that there is a lot of flexibility in this regard. If you are up before the sun, you can arrive at work at 6:30 am and leave on the earlier side in the evening. If you are more of a night owl, you can come in mid-morning and leave later in the evening. But this flexibility is not unlimited.  Partners expect associates to be available during the core of the business day, Monday through Friday. Also, do not expect a 9 to 5, no weekend schedule. Such hours are ordinary course for new associates in large firms.

(Editor's Note - 1900 billable hours a year equates to 38 billable hours per week, assuming two weeks vacation a year.  That means in every work week, an associate must bill at least 38 hours to a client for work they have done).

5) Can you branch out from your department and try other types of law?

To some extent. Newer attorneys are generally encouraged to develop their own niche. To the extent this overlaps with work performed by other groups or implicates other areas of law, newer attorneys are free, and usually encouraged, to pursue it.  By contrast, it is rare to start in one area of law within a firm (e.g., tax) and end up in a different area (e.g., litigation) within the same firm. Once you are an associate attorney in one department, it is difficult to shift to an unrelated group. 

6) How does a summer internship compare with associate life?

No comparison. The summer associate program is designed to be fun for the summer associate as well as the attorneys at the firm who are involved with it. You can expect to perform some work (the level of work will vary depending on the firm), but every summer associate can expect to attend numerous meals, events, and cultural activities during their summer associate experience. 

The real work begins once you have completed the bar exam and start at the firm as a first-year associate. Expect this to be much different than the summer associate experience.

7) What is a typical day like?
There is no typical day. Everyday is different in important respects. And no day ever goes according to plan. It only takes one phone call or email to entirely change the complexion of a day. The one constant, however, is the work -- lots of it.

This can be both stressful and rewarding at the same time, but it is always varied. 

8) Advantages of firm life? Disadvantages?

Advantages include the compensation, intellectually challenging work, and ability to work with well known clients. Another advantage is the depth of resources available to you by virtue of working at a large firm. Have a question regarding an obscure tax or employee benefits regulation? Chances are you have a colleague who is an expert and can answer your question in a few minutes. 

Disadvantages include the hours of work necessary to succeed. Make no mistake, most of the attorneys who excel at large firms are workaholics who make tremendous personal sacrifices to achieve the success they have. Having personally witnessed many instances of this, I can say that it can be, at various times, exceptionally motivating and poignantly tragic. To witness the sacrifices some make, and the impact these sacrifices have on families, friends, and loved ones, has left an indelible mark on me. 

9) Should there be a focus on certain types of classes in law school?

While I am no expert on law school pedagogy, I would have benefited from more intensive legal writing courses as well as more classes that focused on the practical aspects of practicing law. Theory has an important place in the law school curriculum, and I enjoyed this aspect of law school the most, but at the end of the day, a law school must graduate practice-ready lawyers who will be prepared to help their clients address real-world legal problems.

10) Mock Trial or Moot Court? And why?
I would do both, if at all possible. I participated in multiple moot courts while in law school (none, unfortunately, with the author of this blog), but did not participate in mock trial. The skills I honed in moot court were practical and skills I applied once I began practicing. But when it came time to undertake my first administrative trial, I felt unprepared. Presenting a factual case to a trier of fact turned out to be much different than debating fine points of law before a panel of lawyers acting as appellate judges. So, if I could change something about my law school experience, I would have attempted to make time to participate in mock trial. The practical skills that it builds would have been useful for me to have starting out as a new associate.

Thank you for taking the time to answer some questions, my friend. 

Please feel free to comment or email with any other questions and look forward to additional posts on more careers.


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