OCS’ Advice for Evaluating Firms

BY MARK

There are many factors to take into account as you evaluate your options.  If I were a hiring partner, the one question I would have asked each candidate is, “How are you going to decide?” In fact, it’s the first question I ask students when the come to me for advice. It’s a good question because it tells the hiring partner (or me) what is driving your decision – that is what is most important to you. Then the hiring partner or interviewer could target her pitch to you on things that were important to you. As you consider your options, it is especially important to determine what matters most to you so that you can make decisions consistent with your career goals and values. Discussed below are 10 factors to consider as you evaluate your options. The 10 factors are adapted from a program that Linda Listrom, a former Senior Partner at Jenner & Block, presented to students a few years ago. I thought it was one of the best presentations I observed during my sixteen years advising students and alumni, and I am sharing my take below.

As you begin this process, it is especially important to use and complete the law firm assessment grid which you can access from the offers section of the OCS website. While there is nothing magical about the grid, it will provide you with a helpful framework to utilize as you evaluate your options. Also be sure to review the law firm economics, interviewing, and evaluating offers sections on the OCS website.

There are many factors to look for in evaluating a firm: type of work, quality of work, lifestyle, pro bono commitment, and the list goes on. One of the most important factors is whether a firm fosters an environment in which you can succeed as a lawyer. How can you figure this out in a half day callback interview? Or even in a second interview after you have an offer? While this should definitely be an ongoing assessment, it is important that you understand and consider each of the 10 factors below. In addition, there are certain questions you can ask (or at least know the answers) that will help you to find a firm that fosters successful lawyers.

1. Day-to-Day Practice

A fundamental key to becoming a successful attorney is actually doing the work – drafting contracts, taking the depositions, and arguing motions. While individual cases may vary, at the very least, a litigator should have had the opportunity to defend a deposition by year three and a transactional lawyer should have had primary responsibility for drafting an ancillary contract by the same time. While a good team player should not object to helping with a massive discovery request, neither should a good lawyer be mired in document review without the opportunity to hone other skills. Be sure that the firm offers opportunities to gain practical experience and work that interests you.

  • Ask associates what roles they are playing in their cases or deals.

  • What are they working on today?

  • Can they give examples of how their skills have progressed over the years?

  • Do they feel like the firm encourages them to take on increasing levels of responsibility?

  • Are they challenged by their work assignments?

  • What skills do they still feel they need to work on and do they have a plan for addressing that need?

  • Do they feel there are any limits to developing their skills at the firm?

2. Team Leadership and Structure

All lawyers in a firm work on teams. How teams are run however, can vary even within a firm: do the team members work on their own discrete projects, with only the partner aware of how everything fits together; or do the team members, while having their own areas of responsibility, meet often to discuss the case and any developments? What you want are partners who have a “flat” management style and teams where everyone gets together to discuss the matter, rather than one where you only report to the senior associate. During the team meetings, you can get a big picture of how your work project fits in with the overall goal – you can see what the other associates are doing. You can also observe the partner’s negotiating style, reasoning process and client interaction. Unfortunately a flat management style can be considered unnecessary and inefficient; clients may refuse to pay for team meetings. You want a firm that is willing to absorb such costs. So try to figure out if the partners even know the name of that first-year associate working on their case.

  • Ask junior associates whom they report to on their assignments.

  • Ask about how teams are structured and run.

  • Do they feel that they get ample opportunity to understand the big picture?

  • Ask senior associates if they feel confident enough to run a deal by themselves.

  • Ask partners how they formulate strategy for their cases.

  • Do the partners interact regularly with junior associates on their teams?

3. The Assignment System

Most firms today use a hybrid assignment system where they have an assignment coordinator, but associates can also seek out assignments on their own. Most junior associates – especially those who are shy or reserved – benefit from an assignment coordinator. The system also benefits younger associates who may not yet be familiar with the working styles of all the partners, or who may not yet know where their interests lie. In contrast, the free market system places the responsibility for securing work on the associate but also offers more control: associates can seek out partners with a good reputation for training and mentoring, and associates
can choose those that specialize in a particular area of interest. Whatever your working style, you should exercise some degree of control as you rise in the ranks, either by expressing your working preferences to the assignment coordinator or (especially later in your career) seeking out partners directly.

  • Ask associates at all levels where they get their assignments.

  • Have they ever bypassed the system (if there is one) to get an assignment they want?

  • Do they feel that they get their share of desirable assignments?

  • What do they feel are the advantages and disadvantages to the firm’s assignment system?

4. Mentoring

A mentor is more than just the partner or senior associate assigned to you when you arrive at the firm. Assigned mentors can help familiarize you with the firm when you start. However, a true, ongoing mentoring relationship usually develops when you connect on a personal and professional level with someone in the context of a work assignment. A true mentor is a teacher and guide, someone who is willing to guide you along, even if your role cannot be billed to the client. A true mentor will make sure that you have opportunities to progress to the next skill level – that may mean taking you along to a closing argument or a negotiation session just to observe. A mentor may provide professional advice on how to handle a case or deal. A mentor may help you navigate firm politics or introduce you to other professionals who may help your career.

  • Ask associates and even partners if someone has helped them progress along at the firm.

  • Do they feel they have any true mentors?

  • Were partners willing to take them along to learn even though their role was not billable?

  • If they have a mentor, is this an unusual experience, or do their peers at the firm have similar relationships with senior attorneys?

5. Feedback and Reviews

Almost all firms have annual reviews during which your hours are tabulated, reviews from your supervising attorneys are read and bonuses are determined. But the purpose of the feedback should be much more than simply a determination of your bonus or advancement. Feedback should consist of suggestions for improvement, ideally including a specific plan for how to improve upon a skill and also an identification of new skills to learn. A firm should emphasize feedback as a training and development tool for their lawyers. Reviews should be more than once a year. Firms should routinely keep attorneys apprised of skills they need to improve or work on throughout the year.

  • Ask if the firm has a formal review process.

  • Ask about the nature of that review – what is discussed, what is done with the results of the review, are they given next steps for improvement, etc.

  • Ask associates if they have ever asked for a partner to give them a formal review outside of the firm procedure (i.e., have they spoken with a partner specifically about their performance, perhaps after a case or deal is done).

  • Do the associates feel as if the reviews have a purpose, or are they just a formality?

  • Ask partners what they feel are the most important factors the firm uses when making promotion (or hiring) decisions.

6. Professional Development

Nowadays every mid-sized to large law firm has an internal professional development program. In addition, every law firm should be willing to pay for continuing legal education (CLE) programs outside the firm, such as those run by the local bar association, specialty bars or organizations such as the Practicing Law Institute. These are great forums in which to gain the basics for your next skill level. A framework is always helpful when confronted at 3 a.m. with a task you’ve never done before. Furthermore, firm-based CLE or professional development programs offer valuable insight into various partners’ areas of specialization as well as their working styles. It might also offer some insight into the fields of law that the firm considers up and coming trends or their core practices.

Unfortunately, it is often the case that attorneys will forgo the opportunity to attend these classes (unless mandated by law) because they are too busy with work. While there are times that work necessitates missing a course that one has signed up for, the culture of the firm can either make missing a course the exception or the rule.

  • Ask the attorneys whether they have attended or participated in CLE classes, within the firm or outside.

  • Do they have the opportunity to do so often?

  • What is the attitude of partners to these classes? Is participation encouraged?

  • Are attorneys kept up to date on the latest CLE offerings? What is the turnout for the in-firm sessions?

  • Do they feel that these CLE classes were really helpful?

7. Specialization

You may already have a general idea what you want to do with your career – whether it is a litigator, tran
sactional or tax attorney, etc. The sooner you have a basic plan the better, but there is increasing pressure for lawyers to specialize at an increasingly early stage in their careers. Within both corporate and litigation departments, associates are asked to be specialists not just in securities, but in derivative securities; not just in trial litigation, but in trials involving the aerospace industry. Most of these demands are client driven since clients want their lawyers to be just as knowledgeable about their products as the clients are themselves. Yet specialization is not necessarily in the best interest of a developing lawyer. There are certainly advantages in early specialization. You may get more responsibility as you develop expertise in a particular industry. You may develop relationships with clients who will ask for you to work on their matters (which may develop into in-house opportunities). You will likely feel more confident in your abilities since you are not constantly doing something for the first time.

 

However, you should consider the disadvantages before you specialize too early. If you decide to leave the firm, especially for a different market, your expertise may not be transferable. Without a solid background as a generalist, you may find a new job elusive. Less obvious is the lack of exposure you have to different approaches and working styles. Each firm has a limited number of partners working within a specialty. Your decision to specialize will restrict your work to those within that area. You will not have the opportunity to work with partners from other areas. While these partners may not add to your development on a substantive, black letter level, you can still learn from their general approach to lawyering, thus providing you with an opportunity to hone your own style.

  • Ask the associates if they have a specialty within their departments.

  • When did they start specializing in that field?

  • When did they have to assign within a certain department or sub-group at the firm?

  • Why did they choose to specialize within that group?

  • Do they work with partners outside of their subgroup?

  • What do they think are the advantages and disadvantages to specializing in their area?

8. Compensation Structure

While there has been a trend toward merit-based pay systems, most firms continue to pay associates on a lockstep basis where salary variations are based solely on seniority. Bonuses, however, are a different story. Some firms base their annual bonuses on class year, but many others base bonuses on billable hours. Similarly partnership compensation can vary among firms: lockstep pay, pay based on business generated (“eat what you kill,” EWYK), a combination of the two, or another formula that is a complete mystery to all but the firm’s executive committee (a “black box”). In addition, firms can vary in the way the partnership is structured. Many firms are not just divided into partners and associates – there are often one or more middle tiers of “non-equity” or “junior” partners. As a result, it now takes over a decade at most firms to become an equity partner (one who shares in the profits).

 

While your starting associate’s salary will be the object of your immediate attention, a firm’s partnership compensation structure can impact your experience at a firm. Compensation affects a firm’s culture: do you want to work at a firm where teamwork and collaboration are prized, or do you thrive in an entrepreneurial environment that rewards go-getters? Lockstep firms tend to emphasize teamwork, collaboration among partners and across departments, an approach that over time often results in institutional clients – clients of the firm as opposed to an individual partner. These partners may be more inclined to promote cross-training among associates and have a flat management style. Proponents also feel that lockstep firms are better at surviving short-term economic cycles where certain practice areas suffer while others thrive. Yet resentment can also build if some partners believe that others are not carrying their weight. EWYK firms have their advocates too: they are usually better at developing new business and at encouraging younger attorneys to market themselves. If you latch on to a rainmaker, your path to success at the firm may be set. Many firms also use a modified approach to try to achieve the benefits of each, while others try to make compensation less of an issue by taking the black box approach. There is no consensus on whether one format is better than the other – you need to decide for yourself which best suits your style. But whatever the firm’s approach, its compensation system should align with its core values.

Be aware that questions regarding compensation are always somewhat sensitive and thus usually more appropriate after you’ve received your offer.

  • Do some online research to determine the different attorney tiers at the firm.

  • Ask partners and associates about the typical partnership path at the firm – how does one progress, how long does it take?

  • Find out if there are different pay scales based on hourly production.

  • Also, is the management preoccupied with recruiting rainmakers? Are most partners “home grown” or recruited from outside the firm?

  • Have they lost any key partners recently to other firms? And if so, why?

  • What type of marketing do the firm and individual partners do?

  • Ask a partner how he or she developed their practice as well as their client base?

9. Community Activities and Pro Bono

Aside from the obvious greater good that comes from communi
ty activities and public service, being an active member of the bar association, community board, or school alumni organization is a great means to network. It could be through these organizations that you meet your next client (or boss). Bar associations and pro bono organizations offer great opportunities to improve practical legal skills as well. Look for a firm that encourages all its associates and partners to become active participants in their communities and perhaps even sets its associates up in these positions.

  • Ask the associates if they hold leadership positions in the bar association.

  • Do they work on pro bono projects?

  • How did they get involved in these activities?

  • When do they participate in these activities?

  • How have they handled conflicts between billable work and community activities?

  • Do they find the firm supportive if they need to leave the office for outside events?

10. Work and Life

The practice of law is a demanding profession and most firms today require a minimum of 1,800 to 2,000 billable hours each year. Moreover if you want to be successful at your firm, you would need to work considerably more hours. It is extremely important to enjoy your job, but for your personal well-being, it is equally important to find a hobby or interest outside work. For many people, their outside obligation is family. Others have a hobby that they are passionate about. Whatever it is, a firm should be mindful and respect that their attorneys have needs and obligations outside of work.

  • Ask the attorneys how many weeks of vacation they took last year?

  • Have they ever been asked to cancel a vacation?

  • Do they feel that the firm is supportive of family obligations or other outside interests?

  • Which best describes a typical partner’s reaction to someone who billed 3,000 hours in a year: (a) it’s no big deal, that’s what everyone should be doing around here; or (b) that person needs a vacation!

By going through this process, the picture will become clearer. And most importantly, make sure that you are basing your decision on factors that matter most to you. Oftentimes, there is no right answer. Instead, it’s knowing yourself and making decisions that are right for you

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