Summary: Are you stuck at a firm that doesn’t encourage business development? Are you not gaining the experience you hoped for? Learn what your options are in this article.
Show Me the Money!
Question. I’m a senior litigation associate at a big firm and I don’t think I’m going to make partner. The firm and the partners that I work for don’t encourage business development, so I don’t have a book of business. And, I’m not getting the trial experience I’d hoped for. What are my options?
Answer. So, you spend your summer at a big (or even smaller firm) and get great experience for a Summer Associate (along with being wined and dined a little … or a lot). Based on that experience, you believe it is the right place for you to begin your journey as a lawyer. Indeed, much like Renee Zellweger in the movie Jerry Maguire, the firm “had you at hello.” Everything seems great for the first few years. You are researching and writing memos, motions, briefs, maybe even preparing outlines for depositions and preparing for trials and arbitrations. However, a few years in, you want more and realize you are going to need more to make partner.
Two of the most common complaints that recruiters hear on a regular basis are as follows:
One, you aren’t getting the hands-on litigation experience that you were hoping to get. For some, this is the whole reason they go to law school – to be a trial lawyer. But, you are working at a big firm and clients pay top dollar. Because of that, often times the clients want the big guns (partners) to do all of the heavy lifting (taking depositions, making oral arguments, chairing the trial). So, you are relegated to a seemingly permanent supporting role. Or, perhaps the partner just isn’t great at developing associate talent and enjoys being the face of the case.
Two, the partners or the firm discourage or don’t actively encourage associates to build a book of business. Perhaps the partners neglect to bring associates along on pitches, new client meetings or other key networking opportunities. Or maybe you are working too many hours and you feel you have no time to go to conferences or network. Or maybe the firm doesn’t reimburse or pay for business development. Or, perhaps you have tried to bring in business but, either the firm’s rates are too high or there are too many conflicts. Now here you are in your 7th or 8th or 9th year, with no clients and you know the firm is going to require you to have a book to promote you to partnership.
What are your alternatives?
Pay Attention Early On
Perhaps it goes without saying, but one of the best ways to ensure that you are on track in your 9th year is to pay attention and be proactive in your 1st, 2nd, and 3rd years. Seek out those partners that are better at fostering associate talent and giving associates opportunities to learn on their feet. Even if it means working later hours or weekends, ask for assignments from those partners. Better yet, make them your mentor. While many firms have formal mentorship programs, where more senior attorneys are assigned to mentor more junior lawyers, informal mentors may be an even better resource. Ask a partner out to coffee or lunch so you can pick their brain a little about how they started building their own book of business.
As your rise in your class level, you should also be seeking out opportunities to get involved in industry organizations. Better yet, don’t just get involved, take a leadership role. Seek out speaking engagements, publish articles, sit on the board, become an industry expert (on something). This will not only increase your visibility to your own and other partners, but will help you develop your own skill set so that you can determine and be in charge of your own destiny.
Making a Move
The honest truth is, without a book of business, it can be harder to make a lateral move as a senior litigator (or associate). And, firms that are looking for senior litigators are often looking for associates with proven experience, including actual trial, arbitration and mediation experience. So, here are a couple of tips to making a move.
First, start early and be patient. Don’t wait until you see the writing on the wall and feel like you have to make a move. It may take some time to find the right position.
Second, specialize! While general senior litigation candidates can sometimes be harder to place, we find that senior litigators with highly sought after specialized knowledge and experience often have more opportunities than general litigators. Specializations such as certain IP litigation (computer and life sciences such as DNA, large molecule and bioinformatics are particularly hot right now), healthcare litigation, employment litigation or environmental litigation, may open more/different doors.
Third, be flexible in class year. If a new firm offers you a position, but wants you to take a haircut in class year, many recruiters will encourage you to seriously consider this as an option. Coming in a year or two more junior will, in all likelihood, give you a longer runway to make partner. While the idea can, at first, sting a little, remember that most firms won’t consider laterals for partnership until they have been at the firm for approximately two years anyway. So, this will buy the time you need to to gain the trial skills that you don’t currently have and that you’ll need to be partner, to bring in and develop a clientele base, and/or gain the support of the new partners (in and out of your department/office) who will be deciding your fate when you are put up for partner.
Fourth, be open to mid-size and smaller firms. If it is hands-on trial skills that you are seeking, a mid-size or small firm may be a great option. Mid-size and smaller firms may be more leanly staffed and, therefore, associates may get more time in the courtroom, more face time with clients and opportunities to see a wider variety of litigation phases (from intake to mediations to appeals). Moreover, if you don’t have the connections to bring in the big bank as a client at your AMLAW 200 firm, billing rates and lack of conflicts at smaller firms may allow you to build a smaller, but respectable book of business that will open more doors for you in the long-run. True, the salary will likely be lower, sometimes considerably lower. Only you can make the right long-term decision that will make sense for you … and make YOU happy!
Fifth, network, network, network. Keep in touch with college and law school friends. They will be climbing corporate and legal ladders and, as you all grow and mature, so will your ability to help one another. Friends can be your greatest source of business. While they aren’t necessarily helpful as the young investment banker working 1000 hours a week, they may be a great resource once they are the VP of a company. Remember those industry groups and leadership opportunities that you took advantage of as a junior associate? You can call on those connections when you are looking for that next great opportunity.
While it is true that the sweet spot to make a lateral move is generally between your 2nd and 5th year of practicing, making that lateral move as a senior can be done. Sometimes it will be with the help of a recruiter and sometimes you will have to network your way into a new position. In the words of Jerry Maguire: Help me … help you! Give us a call to see if we might have any senior positions that could be right for you!