I am seeing a ton of advertisements for litigators with 3-5 years of experience. I have over 12 years of experience, and would be willing to work for the same salary as a 5th year attorney. Wouldn't it be attractive for a firm to get a more experienced attorney at a cheaper salary?
This is a representative example of one of the most common questions I get as a recruiter. This is especially true in today's economy, where many senior attorneys (in terms of years out of law school, not age) find themselves looking for a new position.
While it seems intuitive to think that a firm would prefer to get more experience at a lower salary, this is unfortunately almost never the case, and here are some reasons why:
If a firm is hiring for a certain level of experience, it means they have a demand for a certain type of work. At a mid-sized or larger firm, typically junior and even mid-level associates will primarily be responsible for necessary but sometimes repetitive or tedious tasks, such as drafting and responding to discovery, document review, state surveys, due diligence, and doing the first drafts on motions. While you may be happy to do this work for a good paycheck, the perception is that a more senior or experienced attorney will not feel challenged or intellectually stimulated by having to do these tasks, and thus will be likely to leave as soon as a better or more interesting opportunity arises. Due to the cost of hiring, firms want their attorneys to stick around, and thus they are typically biased towards attorneys with the appropriate level of experience for the work at hand.
If you are a more senior-level attorney who is looking for or willing to take a job with a lower level of experience, it almost universally means that you do not have your own book of business. Most firms are hiring for the long-term, and want to groom and retain associates who will be able to generate more business for the firm going forward. If you are ten years into your career and have not yet developed your own clients, it is a signal for firms that you are unlikely to be able to generate future business, and so they will prefer someone who is senior and has a book of business, or is more junior and has not yet needed to demonstrate this potential. Another way of thinking about this is the traditional “up-or-out” policy that exists at the majority of firms, and if you are looking for a job because you got stuck with the “out” option, any new firm is going to question why this was the case.
Client perception. Law firms are a business, and they stay in business by attracting and retaining clients. Clients want to know that their matters are being handled expertly, and when they see the billing breakdown, a client might wonder why a class of 1998 attorney is being billed at the same rate as a class of 2008 attorney. As the story goes, a more experienced attorney should be a better attorney and thus be able to command a better rate. Everyone loves a deal, but when there is a substantial discount on a product, especially something as important as legal advice, you can't have a client questioning whether a senior attorney's rate is so low because that attorney is not actually that good of an attorney. Unfair or not, perception is everything, and firms are thus extremely careful about establishing and maintaining a client's belief that the client's matter is being handled by the best possible attorneys.
This is not an exhaustive list, but it will give you a sense of why firms typically will not hire attorneys for a position who are not within the desired class range advertised for the position. While some firms are willing to be flexible if a candidate is otherwise stellar, many firms we work with are quite strict when it comes to class year. As a candidate, being flexible on entry level class year and compensation will always increase your odds of landing a new position, but it is helpful to be aware of the realities of the market so that you can be realistic about your search and spend your efforts wisely.