Is the Grass Really Greener at Another Law Firm?

Debra L. Bruce, JD, PCC.

According to Linda Katz, a legal recruiter with Pye Legal Group in Houston, law firms have resumed associate lateral hiring following the recession drought. “Lawyers with three to five years of experience are in the greatest demand, although not all practice areas have bounced back yet,” says Katz.

If you are dissatisfied with your current law firm, what kind of information should you gather about a prospective new employer besides the obvious issues of compensation and billable hour requirements? After brainstorming with Katz, I compiled some suggestions.

  • What kind of opportunities will this new position give you for improving your skill set? If you are a transactional lawyer, running your own deal may teach you a lot more than doing due diligence and drafting board resolutions on a Wall Street Journal headliner. If you’re a litigator, do associates at your level get courtroom experience there?
  • How do work assignments get made? Will you be assigned to work primarily with one or two partners? Is there an assignment pool with someone responsible for balancing out workloads or do associates fend for themselves? Will you be part of a client team?
  • How much client contact will you have? Will all of your input be filtered through a partner? Will you participate in conference calls and meetings? Will clients call you directly?
  • What are the reputations of the attorneys you will work with most directly? Are they highly regarded in the legal community? Are they considered difficult to work for? Is there a lot of turnover in that practice area at the firm?
  • What are the criteria for making partner? Has the firm identified specific required competencies? Will you need to demonstrate potential for bringing in business? At what point will you be considered for partnership?
  • What track record does the firm have for advancing lateral hires? Do they keep pace with “home-grown” associates in getting plum assignments or making partner? Is there any significant difference in attrition rates between lateral hires and home-grown associates?
  • How likely is it that any associate will make partner? What percentage of an entering class actually makes partner? What is the firm’s track record for making partners in your practice area or from the office where you will work? Does the firm have an “up-or-out” policy (spoken or unspoken)?
  • What are the business development expectations at the firm? Do associates get business development training or coaching? Do they get invited to accompany partners at client lunches or pitches?
  • What does the partnership structure look like? If there are tiers of partnership, what does it take to advance to the next level? What happens if you don’t advance? Do income partners get pushed out if they don’t make it to equity partner, for example?
  • What is the firm’s track record for advancing lawyers of your gender, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, etc? If the firm doesn’t have a strong track record, what are they doing about it?
  • What structures does the firm have in place for providing performance feedback to associates on a timely and useful basis? Are those structures working effectively?
  • Does the firm’s culture match your personality and values? Get clear about what matters to you most, and look for evidence of behaviors that align with your values, beliefs, habits and preferences. Look at what they do more than what they say.
  • How innovative, adaptable and solution-oriented is the firm? Does it keep up with available technology? What is the policy on telecommuting, work/life balance initiatives, alternative fee arrangements and other non-traditional aspects of practice? Is the firm likely to collaborate with you to find solutions to your unforeseen problems of the future?
  • Why do you want to leave your current employer? What evidence do you have that things will be significantly different with this prospective employer?

Some of these questions will not be wise to ask in an interview. Others may be appropriate to ask, but you should vet the responses through your own investigation. Research the firm online and by talking to lawyers and staff who have left the firm. Perhaps you have friends who can tell you about the experiences their friends have had at the firm. A trustworthy recruiter can offer invaluable perspective.

No law firm is perfect, and often the grass is not really much greener on the other side of the fence. If you do this kind of spadework, however, you can make a well-grounded decision.

Post by Debra L. Bruce reprinted with permission from the April 14, 2011, issue of The Legal Intelligencer. (c) 2011 ALM Media Properties, LLC. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All rights reserved.


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