Selecting a Firm: Thinking Beyond “The City”

BY HUGO TORRES

A significant portion of the HLS student body takes summer internships (and job offers post-graduation) in New York City, Washington D.C., and California. Though reasons vary for why these places are so popular, usually a couple of factors recur as principles guiding the selection of firms by HLS students: specialty, location, salary, prestige, the billable hours required or years to partnership, and the quality of life. And, of course, the fact that those cities are where everyone else goes. Having graduated from HLS and being on my way to beginning work at Perkins Coie, a law firm in Seattle at which I interned as a 2L, I hope my experience in selecting Perkins will prove instructive to those of you bombarded by options in OCI and unsure of which firms to pick for interviews.

SPECIALTYFor me, the most important thing in a firm was that it have a strong intellectual property department. I’m not interested in working on corporate transactions or handling the intricacies of real estate law. Instead, I was interested in copyright and high-tech law, which helped me narrow the range of firms. Some of you may not care what area of law you end up in or might be unsure. If so, you might want to make sure the firm allows you to try out different departments during your summer so as to get a better feel for the legal issues involved in each area as well as for the feel of each department within a firm. Even if you don’t care about the area of law you practice, you might prefer the intimacy of a small employment law department within a firm over the likely massive litigation department. Be sure you can give them both a try once you get to the firm.

LOCATIONThe next important thing to me in choosing a firm was its location. I’m from California originally and Boston winters are not my idea of a good time. As such, I knew I wanted to return to the west coast, a desire that happily coincided with my desire to work in intellectual property, as Silicon Valley and Seattle have no shortage of high tech firms needing legal services. Though San Francisco and Los Angeles were obvious places to look, Seattle also struck me because it’s an equally cool city without as many problems (or high rents) as its California brethren.

SALARYSome people I knew chose their list of firms based on those that paid the most. If money is the number one priority for you, then hey, go to Manhattan and kill yourself billing 2500 hours to bring home the money. However, before you overlook smaller markets, stop and think about what living in Manhattan or San Francisco entails: super-high rents, likely high sales taxes, sizeable state income taxes, high property taxes, more expensive restaurants, etc. Working for a firm in Seattle or Chicago or Phoenix may not yield as large a paycheck on paper but it may still result in more take home pay than a bigger city. Washington state for example, has no state income tax, and Seattle has far lower rents than Manhattan or San Francisco. Combine these factors and you’ll find that even though Seattle firms were offering lower salaries, the actual amount of disposable income I would have after paying for all the necessities would not be that much different than had I gone to a bigger city.

PRESTIGEA firm with a good reputation tends to yield big clients and big clients tend to bring with them a lot of interesting work. Also, a well respected firm allows for networking and looks good on the resume should one decide to leave the firm at some point. Perkins is the largest firm in the Pacific Northwest and has all the major Seattle tech companies as clients, such as Boeing, Amazon, and Nintendo. Even if they weren’t the biggest in the area, a client list like that appealed to me as it meant I would have some interesting work to do.

BILLABLE HOURS, PARTNERSHIP TRACKDifferent firms have different billable hours requirements and you might want to compare these before deciding on a firm (especially if they’re all offering the same salary!). Be sure you find out the real billable hours as well–some firms will list a “minimum” but will not look kindly on you if that’s all you do. Also, some firms provide good opportunities to make partner while others weed people out and make it difficult to ever reach such a position. Take a look at the partner to associate ratio for an indication on the likelihood of partnership ever being offered to you. Perkins had relatively low billable hours that it adhered to as a satisfactory goal and had a good ratio of partners to associates. If you have multiple offers from firms that meet all your other criteria, these could be good factors to use as tie-breakers.

QUALITY OF LIFERelated to billable hours is the quality of life at the firm. Do you have to work weekends often? Do people stay late almost every day? Do lawyers get along with each other and with staff? Is vacation ever actually taken by attorneys? One of the things that appealed to me about Seattle is that most firms in the area are quite good about quality of life, respecting the fact that even though we’re lawyers we are also human beings with lives apart from the firm. I didn’t have to work a single weekend as a summer associate, while friends in NYC and San Francisco did. Also, the firm goes to great lengths to ensure cordiality among staff and lawyers and had a great summer associate program that promoted friendship over competition among summer associates. Some firms hire more summers than they can afford to give offers to; at Perkins, each summer knew he or she could get an offer regardless of how many others got an offer. This ensured that we could all relax a little and gave me a positive impression of the firm’s attitude towards its employees.

THE DECISIONAfter all I’ve said above, it should come as no surprise that I chose Perkins Coie in Seattle. Now, I’m not advocating that you *not* go to NYC or San Francisco, I’m only suggesting that instead of simply going along with what everyone else is doing, that you take a close look at your priorities and decide who to interview with–and who to accept an offer from–based on those priorities. Even if you still end up in NYC, at least you’ll know why and will likely be happier with the choice than if you just went there because “everyone’s doing it”.

Hugo Torres graduated from HLS in May 2005. He is Editor Emeritus of the Record.

Comments