National Law Journal

Gender Gap – Hedging Your Bets in Uncertain Times

By Melissa McClenaghan Martin

January 30, 2009

Many attorneys feel they are facing uncertain futures these days. There have been large-scale layoffs at firms across the country, several venerable firms have disappeared, partners are being de-equitized, and, at an increasing number of firms, associate salaries have been frozen. Last year saw the loss of 7,000 legal jobs according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Softening demand for legal services is expected to continue through year-end 2009 as corporate clients cut costs and demand reduced fees from their lawyers. Analysts expect firms to continue to lay off attorneys at all levels of practice. By all accounts, the outlook is bleak.

So what does this mean for attorneys in the lateral hiring market?

Over the past few years, legal employers were in a war to attract and retain talent. It was a recruits’ market, and employers were willing to make accommodations for quality candidates. Alternative work arrangements such as part-time and flexible schedules were offered to new lateral recruits. Many partners were hired because of their technical expertise, although they lacked significant books of business. It was a market of hope and possibility.

But the market has changed.

“The market is no longer about what the employer can do for you as a recruit,” said Maricar Tinio, chief diversity officer and a director at the legal recruitment firm Lateral Link, which manages a Web-based legal jobs platform. “It is about what you can do for the employer.”

Across virtually all sectors, “employers are in a wait-and-see mode, being incredibly selective, and few candidates even get in the door for an interview,” Ms. Tinio added. “Some attorneys have been looking for a new position for over a year.”

Ms. Tinio identified several growth areas this year, including bankruptcy, energy, compliance and intellectual property. Most in-house openings are outside of New York, with many in Texas or on the West Coast, she noted.

“If you still have a job and don’t have to leave your employer, now is not the time to look for a new position,” advised Avis Caravello, founder of Avis Caravello Attorney Search Consultants, one of Northern California’s leading search firms specializing in partner and practice group placement at firms in San Francisco and along the West Coast.

But for attorneys who need or want to find new jobs, what options are there?

Because the market is saturated with top talent and job openings are few, strong credentials alone are not enough to get candidates in the door these days. Attorneys need to distinguish themselves from their peers. Candidates should highlight board positions and leadership roles, articles written, speaking engagements and other relevant activities. For attorneys at the counsel and partner level, a book of business is essential for firm positions. These days, being a technician is not enough.

When attorneys begin the job search process, recruiters are certainly an essential first step, and they often know of in-house and firm openings that are not made public.

But more is required in this market.

Networking is now more important than ever. Given that employers are inundated with resumes, a contact at a potential employer is invaluable.

Candidates may find helpful contacts by reconnecting with former colleagues through Web sites such as LinkedIn and through law school and undergraduate alumni networks. Networking events, CLE seminars, and bar committee involvement in candidates’ practice area are all useful and help candidates get in front of potential employers and other useful contacts.

Now is not the time to hard-sell contacts. With so many hiring freezes in place, it is more useful for candidates to develop relationships with contacts, rather than to immediately ask them for a job.

In addition, candidates in this market may need to be flexible.

Unlike years past, alternative work arrangements such as part-time schedules are seldom available.

“In general, this isn’t the time to come in asking for a part-time schedule,” Ms. Tinio cautioned. If part-time is essential, she recommends that recruits start at a full-time schedule and ask their employer to re-evaluate their schedule at the six-month or one-year mark.

“By then, you’ve proven yourself, and you are in a better negotiating position,” she said.

For attorneys trying to re-enter legal practice after time out to care for children or aging parents, the market is incredibly tough.

“Even in a good market it’s difficult to on-ramp,” said Ms. Tinio.

Candidates returning to work will often need to take a step back in terms of salary or seniority, she added. Doing contract work in the interim may be helpful.

Although the associate market is stalled, “the partner market is fairly robust, with firms still strategically looking to make quality additions,” said Jonathan Ross, co-founder and partner at Empire Search Partners, one of New York’s largest legal recruiting and consulting firms.

However, partner recruitment is more selective than it has been in years past.

In today’s lateral market, “firms are looking for quantifiable portable business,” said Mr. Ross, “unlike in the boom market of years past, where firms were often willing to consider partners who simply had technical expertise and the potential to generate business.”

The amount of business required depends on a variety of factors, such as practice area outlook and attorney seniority. But in general in New York, a partner needs at least $2 million to $3 million of business to get the attention of the largest firms, said Mr. Ross.

In smaller markets like Chicago, law firms tend to require $1 million in actual portable business, said Ms. Tinio. For smaller firms, a book of $300,000 to $500,000 may be sufficient.

Larger firms with West Coast offices will consider senior associates and of counsels with about $300,000 to $400,000 in business and about $750,000 to $1 million for junior partners, according to Ms. Caravello. If you are a midlevel or senior partner, in general, at least $1.5 million in portable business is required.

“I can’t emphasize enough how important business development is,” said Ms. Caravello.

For attorneys who want options and autonomy, “the best way to get those is to have your own significant book of business,” she noted. “If you do, you can write your own ticket. But a 45-year-old partner with a brilliant resume and no business has few, if any, choices.”

Across all levels, the advice is clear: The best hedge in today’s saturated legal market is for candidates to be more than technicians.