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. For the law students out there, 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 docount. This is especially true for litigators in today’s market. Firms and most companies will ask for your law school transcript when you apply as a lateral attorney. They even on occasion ask for grades from partner candidates. Grades have a tendency to follow you around, so finish strong.
2. Check out bar requirements in advance for any state you might want to waive into eventually. New York, for example, requires that you take the multistate portion of the bar exam at the same time as the essay portion. That means you cannot decide six months later to take only the essay portion — you will have to retake the multistate as well.
3. If you want to become a litigator, strongly consider doing a federal clerkship. This is especially important if you may want to work in a litigation boutique one day (though, of course, you can opt to do a clerkship as a break in your law firm career and not necessarily before starting). 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. 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.
7. …Based on geographic factors: Do U.S. lawyers do this sort of work where I want to live? For example, if you want to move to a smaller city one day, do not go into finance. On the other hand, 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 too niche or too 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. It is extremely difficult 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 client development skills. If you enjoy the business side of being part of a law firm and you think you will have an aptitude for client development, you may want to 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.