If you plan on making a lateral move at some point in your legal career, and chances are you will make at least one or two, you are going to want to maximize your potential opportunities by gaining the type of experience firms consider valuable in a lateral candidate.
Most frequently, this is because their current firm simply has not afforded them the opportunity to gain that experience, whether it is because clients do not want to entrust junior associates with complicated or high-level tasks, because partners and senior associates hoard work to pad their own hours that could otherwise be delegated, or simply because the firm has so much work in a particular area that an all-hands-on-deck situation arrives and the associate simply cannot refuse the assignment that is not the type of work they would prefer.
One good way to get high-level experience is through pro bono work. There are obviously other benefits to pro bono work, namely giving back to the community and elevating your firm’s profile, but pro bono can be a win-win for a junior or mid-level associate, because partners are often willing to let the associate handle the entire case from intake through disposition, which allows the associate to get experience beyond what would be typical for their class or experience level on a paying client matter.
As one personal example, I was able to be part of a pro bono trial team and gain the experience of a full federal jury trial, including drafting and arguing trial motions, taking witness testimony and cross-examining adverse witnesses, and presenting exhibits in front of a jury. All of this was in my first full year of practice at a major international Am Law 100 firm, where that type of work on a paying client matter was usually reserved for senior and junior partners given the numbers at stake. Had I decided to make a lateral move to another firm, having jury trial experience at such an early stage in my career would be a huge feather in my cap, and would have made my resume stand out relative to competing lateral candidates.
Now, having been an associate at a big firm, I can also understand that it’s often the last thing you want to do to add more work to your plate, especially if your firm places a cap on the number of pro bono hours that count towards your minimum annual billables, but I seriously do recommend seeking out and taking on pro bono clients and assignments that will allow you to fast-track your experience, especially when you are at the junior or mid-level. It will be a boon to your career whether you stay put, or look to make a lateral move down the road.