Candidates who are starting out in their search for a law firm position often overestimate their market value. This is understandable. Both positive thinking and self-confidence in your job search are to be generally encouraged.
In this first part of examining types of candidates that regularly find themselves in a “tough market,” we will focus on the group known as “senior attorneys.” I mean “senior” in a very broad sense, in the way the law firms define it. At about 1-2 years out of law school, you are a “junior associate.” At 3-4 years or so, you are a “midlevel associate.” And at about 5-6 years, you are a “senior associate,” a title that may extent several years further, depending on the firm. After that point, firms consider candidates to be a “senior attorneys” – generally meaning too senior to be considered as any kind of level of associate. Many senior attorneys are, of course, partners in their law firm (whether share or income). Many other attorneys at that level, however, are not partners for whatever reason. They may be of counsel, in house attorneys, government lawyers or solo practioners. The term “senior attorney” covers both of these groups – both partners and non-partners that are too senior to be considered associates.
I frequently tell my senior attorney candidates that their value in the legal market in primarily dependent on three key factors – portable business, portable business and portable business. Attorneys at the senior attorney level are generally required have portable business of about $500K for smaller firms up to $3M+ for major firms before they will even be considered. In other words, the candidate must be able to at least keep themselves fully busy. Of course, the senior attorneys who have substantial business are more likely to be partners in their firms (although there are many exceptions). These candidates have high market value, and will often have a choice on where they can go. Similarly, it is the non-partner attorneys that typically will not have substantial business (although again, there are exceptions). Regardless of their title, it is the candidates who lack sufficient business who are in a tough market. Many of these attorneys assume that because they are highly skilled, have a great reputation, possess more experience, etc., that this will greatly increase their market value. In many industries, they might be correct. Not so much in the legal industry, however. Unless there is a highly exceptional situation where a ton of work is “falling out the door” and cannot be done by an associate, firms will have very little interest in senior attorneys who lack business.
What can senior attorneys without business do in this tough market? Again, a good recruiter can be helpful in attempting to find an exceptional opportunity where portable business is not required. One approach that will NOT work is to apply for associate positions. Senior attorneys sometimes tell me that they are more skilled and experienced than the associate candidates, and some are even willing to work for a lot less money. Even if true, the firms never hire them in an associate slot. A better approach is for the senior attorney to network on their own in order to find the exceptional situation (where sufficient work is available to keep a senior attorney fully busy) in the smaller firms. These firms, which often do not work with recruiters, are more likely to encounter this situation and to be more flexible in their hiring. Candidates can also look in-house, which does not require portable business but is another tough market in itself.