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What's the Shelf Life of a Law Firm Associate?

What's the Shelf Life of a Law Firm Associate?

By Nicole L. Donnelly, Esq.
Partner
t. 212.897.0986
nicole.donnelly@sjlsearch.com
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I’m sorry if the title of this article comes off as harsh, but the law firm industry is just that…it’s harsh. It’s one of the very few industries in which becoming more experienced and well-versed in your position can actually work against you…and it happens early on in your career. You cannot just “put your head down and do your work;” you need to be aware of your timeline of marketability (and what to focus on during those years) so that timeframe doesn’t pass you by. This refers both to your marketability for making a move to another law firm and your devolving value at your firm as you become more senior. Your 40+ year career is very much defined by what you do and where you practice within the first few years of that career, which is why those years require such forethought and strategic deliberation. I don’t expect any associate to appreciate this reality from behind their desk, where they are often working long, intense hours surrounded by colleagues who are in a similar position and partners who have no incentive to be honest about this longevity at the firm. And getting so many recruiter calls likely gives a false sense of security that you’re going to be in demand long-term (and that you’re going to be secure at your firm long-term). Hopefully, the below timeline will give junior associates a guideline for planning out their next few years and will be a wake-up call to mid-level and senior associates.

First and Second Years
With your whole career ahead of you, it is easy to focus on the day-to-day rather than the future. And as a general matter, you aren’t incredibly marketable to make a lateral move during these first years so it is easy to deprioritize your career path. But your career requires planning and focus and the most successful attorneys are thoughtful about what they want their options to be, not just tomorrow but in the next 5 – 10 years. So what do you need to concentrate on during these initial two years? First, determine that you are in the right practice group (or if you are in a general corporate pool, think long and hard about the practice area in which you want to specialize). “Retooling” to a new practice area is a very difficult thing to convince your firm to let you do and, if you need to lateral in order to make a switch, you need to attempt that before you’re too entrenched in your specialty and before you’re too expensive to retrain.

If you are in a practice area you find professionally satisfying, congratulations – you should spend the next two years building out your skill set. Focus on getting the most out of these years – getting as much responsibility as possible, gaining as much client contact as possible and being busy enough that you are remaining competitive with your counterparts at other law firms. YOU NEED TO BE BUSY TO BUILD YOUR SKILLS. This serves at least two purposes. First, it is a surefire way to positively build your internal brand at the firm, which is necessary for whatever you choose to do later on in your career, and particularly if you would like to be on partnership track at your firm or if you will avail yourself of partner assistance to go in-house in the future. Second, it will give you a competitive advantage in the future. In-house opportunities are very competitive – the best of the best are up against one another for the same positions and, while your academics and/or law firm platform (or who you know) is what will get you the interview, it is your experience and your skills that will get you the job.

Third Through Fifth Years
As you move into the mid-level years, there should be a continued focus on your skills but, you also need to further focus on what you see for yourself in the future and whether you are poised to make that happen where you are. Whether you want to make partner or go in-house, neither is going to fall into your lap. Quite the contrary, both are going to require very deliberate decision-making on your part. Some questions you need to ask yourself during these years are:

  • • Who is going to be my competition at my firm for promotion? Are they better positioned for it to happen than I am?
  • • Is my group valued enough at my firm that promotion is a realistic possibility?
  • • How many partners have they made in my group historically? Have they been home-grown or lateral?
  • • Is my client base reflective of the industry or industries I would be interested in going in-house to?
  • • Am I getting sophisticated enough experience (and enough of it) to be competitive for in-house?
  • • Am I part of a platform that is going to make me marketable for in-house and give me an advantage over my competition?
  • • Is there anything I want to change about my experience that I can’t change internally?

Why is it so important to ask yourself these questions during your mid-level years? Your third through fifth years are when you are most marketable to make a change – the vast majority of law firm searches are looking at these same years, offering a range of opportunities to take advantage of if you find you need to. If you want to be partner and you determine that it is not a likely scenario at your current firm, you want options to lateral to the right firm and to do so early enough in your career that you can become well-entrenched there and have enough runway to garner support and build your brand. If you are interested in going in-house, you are going to be most compelling for your “dream job” if you are at a top platform and/or servicing clients in that industry and if you have a range of skills and experience to showcase that makes you more of a value-add than your competition – as a mid-level, you put yourself in the best position to find that opportunity. Given that all law firms have their differences, these would be the three years when you are best poised to better your position if you need to.

Sixth Year and Up
If you have done all of the above, by sixth year, you should be at the firm (either as a home-grown or a lateral) that you feel is going to best help you achieve your goals, which is good given how black and white lateral associate hiring can be in the law firm space. If you have not, you are going to be disappointed when you do pick your head up, decide it is prudent to make a lateral move to another firm and find that you are too senior for consideration. And it won’t feel right because you have more experience to share, which in other industries, would make you MORE marketable. But at law firms, they need their senior ranks to be thin for partnership consideration purposes and they often have already identified who has the potential for promotion. So unless a firm has a hole, they are apt to wait for that third through fifth year that has a similar skill set to yours, but whose on-boarding wouldn’t be as complicated or expensive. And while not all firms are up or out, in our post financial crisis market, there are more difficult decisions being made at the senior levels, even if you have strong attributes and have contributed tireless hours to your firm. It’s why it is now so lovingly referred to as the “business” of practicing law. Unfortunately, if there comes a time when you are forced to part ways with your firm, there will not be a host of law firm positions for your consideration.

Admittedly, I have simplified this life span of a law firm associate to make a point, and I hope it has hit home. Pick your head up, ask yourselves the tough questions and remember that your marketability is one of your own design, a design that has to be years in the making – and those years go quickly. Of course, these “rules” are not without their exceptions, but given that you are practicing amongst a bright, accomplished and ambitious community of individuals, and given how much you have sacrificed to the practice of law, do you really want to hinge the success of your career on being the exception?

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