Legal Employers’ Shifting Perspective on New Associates

In response to the recent recession, many large and small law firms and other legal employers have taken actions which impact new associates.  Just a few of these are discussed below, along with some thoughts from PDO.    

First, and perhaps most obvious to you as students, legal employers are being cautious with regard to the number of summer associates and new attorneys they are hiring.   This has been common refrain which PDO has heard from firms during the fall recruiting season.  At the same time, however, PDO has also consistently heard that Quinney students have impressed the employers with your resumes, interesting experiences, and interviewing skills.  These factors have caused at least of few of these employers to do callback interviews where they were not sure they would do so before they came to campus.  

Second, some firms have indicated that they are no longer willing to engage in dramatic annual salary increases which were used in the past to attract new associates.  In fact, some larger firms have publicly stated that they are reducing their high starting salaries.  Sometimes, this reduction has been done in conjunction with a renewed focus on providing new associates with meaningful training and real-world experience.  Other firms have indicated that the salary reductions may be “made up” in bonuses for the most productive and valued associates.   

Third, many firms shifted their focus from keeping the associates happy to keeping clients happy.   For example, many larger firms have formal professional development programs and seminars targeted to issues facing new associates.  According to an article in the September 2009 NALP Bulletin, before the recent recession, these programs often focused on how the firms could to retain associates (think free lunches, lattes, vacations).  Since the recession, however, the priority amongst many firms’ professional development programming has shifted to client development (bringing clients to the firm), working hard for them, and retaining them.  This re-focus has been seen even amongst summer associates.  At a recent meeting of Utah Legal Employers and Educators, summer associates who had gone to work on both coasts for national law firms reported that they had been expected to work harder than summer associates had in years past.  Locally, one law firm reported that the two Quinney summer associates they had hired worked as hard as any summer associates in recent memory!  The background and skills which help in these areas include business and community ties (or a willingness to develop such ties), a strong work ethic, and emotional intelligence—an ability to relate to others.     

Why is PDO telling you this less than cheerful information?  We are because it is the reality right now.  So, what can you learn something from these shifting perspectives?

1.       More than ever, you must remain competitive as possible during the application and interview process. 

Update your stale (typo-ridden?) resume or cover letter.   Take the advice which Kay or Anneliese offer you on those items, and refer to the handouts in the PDO folder, which is accessible via the shared network through JOE.

Attend PDO workshops on professional skills, such as interviewing.  Review handouts on those subjects.

Consider setting up a mock interview with Kay or Anneliese, or even a professor.  You will come away with at least 1-2 suggestions for improvement, and you will feel much more comfortable during the “real thing.”

2.       Do something which will provide you with valuable legal experience—and something interesting to talk about during an interview! 

Employers may vary somewhat in the skills they hope their new attorneys possess, but for the most part, they agree that strong writing skills and an ability to relate to and communicate with a broad range of people (clients, witnesses, and judges), are critical.  Try to get substantial writing experiences, whether in the classroom, in a clinic, or in your current job.  Take them seriously and seek out criticism of your writing and analysis.  Also, seek out experiences in which you will deal with clients—though the Pro Bono Initiative or the Clinical Program.

At a recent lunch meeting, a hiring attorney from a large downtown firm advised law students to try to do something interesting in an area you care about, even if it is unpaid or for a short period of time.  This will not only provide you with good experience, but will also give you and a hiring attorney something interesting and substantive to discuss during an interview.  For ideas, review the examples of interesting internship and clinical experiences which are posted on the bulletin board outside of the PDO office under the heading  “How I Spent My Summer.”     

3.       If you are hoping to work at a firm, consider how you might begin to plant the seeds to develop clients down the road.      

This may seem to be a foreign subject to you as a student, but it is not too early to engage in activities which, down the road, will foster client development.  In addition to the tips below, review the Networking 101 article included in this edition of the Career Brief.

Foremost, understand that private firm clients are often developed through contacts with other lawyers.  Simply put, lawyers refer cases to their lawyer friends.  This may be because their firm is not licensed in the state where the case arises, because they have a conflict of interest, or because they simply do not handle the type of work.  For you, this means you should be fostering professional relationships with the classmates around you, who will be the lawyers you will work with in the future.    

Next, if you are not involved in a community, volunteer or professional organization, consider finding one.  Such involvement will not only look great on your résumé, but can afford you the chance to meet and provide service to business, charitable, and legal leaders in the community, which can lead to client development down the road!