Say “yes” to the firm: making an informed decision

Even though classes haven’t started yet, at this very moment, 2Ls across the country are making decisions about where they will spend next summer. * This decision, which many 2Ls already feel unqualified to make, can be even scarier because of the peculiar way that the legal job market is set up: after just one year of law school, students are faced with what rightly feels like a high-stakes decision about where to start their legal careers. If this sounds familiar, rest assured that it’s not just you; this feeling is real and valid.

Before I share my tips for how to navigate this situation, here are two preliminary thoughts. First, if you have the luxury of deciding between multiple offers, you’re already in a good place. Many students—for a variety of reasons—aren’t looking at that kind of a choice. It’s a good problem to have. Second, while this decision is important, if you spend next summer at a firm and determine it’s not a good fit, you will have learned something important about what you should look for the next time you’re on the market. Nor is a bad 2L summer the end of the road; although it’s a tougher path, many 3Ls find jobs at firms where they haven’t worked before. A clerkship can be a particularly good opportunity for a “re-set.” And even if you spend just a year or two as a young associate at a firm you don’t love, you can still use that time to position yourself well to make a move.

With all of that said, here are my tips for minimizing the chances of accepting a summer associate position at a firm that isn’t right for you.

First, know yourself.

As you sit down to make your decision (ideally, before you sit down to decide between a few finalists), spend time developing a list of the most important criteria that will guide your decision. Then, you’ll be able to use the various methods of information-gathering described below—in addition to your Career Services Office, online research, Vault rankings, Chambers, etc.—to measure the firm against your personalized selection criteria.

Here are a few things to consider as you draft your list. First, firms are not monolithic. Accordingly, you should spend your time assessing the specific office(s) of each firm that you’re considering. For example, the New York and Boston offices of the same firm may have very different cultures. Relatedly, to the extent you do know what practice area interests you (at least at the most basic level of transactional vs. litigation), you should also strive to compare specific practice groups across different firms. After all, the culture of the appellate group may be different than the culture of the structured finance group within the same firm. (Full disclosure: I have no idea what “structured finance” means. ) The internal variation among practice groups may be especially stark when a firm is the product of a recent merger or the acquisition of a practice group from another firm.

Second, as you draft your list, remember that you don’t know what you don’t know. That’s why confining yourself to rigid notions you brought into law school about which practice areas you’d pursue may, for some, be unduly limiting. For example, you might unexpectedly find yourself quite interested in a practice in which a firm has a particular expertise (say, labor and employment litigation), but you would miss out on the opportunity to ever discover that if you had determined ahead of time that you could only be happy at a firm that does exclusively patent work. (Again, this is not one-size-fits all advice; some people have good reasons to be very sure about the kind of law they hope to practice by the fall of their 2L year. In that case, ensuring that your firm is strong in that area should be more of a priority.)

But beyond practice area or firm size, other things may be just as important—or even non-negotiable—for you. Here are some considerations:

  • Are there core values that you would like to see reflected in the firm you select? For example, you might look for a commitment to diversity and inclusion; a commitment to pro bono work; the percentage of equity partners at the firm that are women or attorneys of color; and/or whether the firm offers a generous parental leave policy that attorneys of both genders feel comfortable using.
  • Do you want to work primarily on large teams or small teams? Or do you prefer to have even more autonomy over your own matters?
  • Do you want a workflow that is more predictable (either because it’s fairly steady or because it’s predictably cyclical) or are you comfortable with a load that might ebb and flow unexpectedly?
  • Some people at some firms inevitably boast about a “work hard, play hard” philosophy. For me, if I heard this more than once about a place, it would have been an automatic deal-breaker. Don’t get me wrong, I was ready to work hard, but the “play hard” culture—the notion that I would be expected to be engaged in fairly regular and intense after-hours socializing (usually involving alcohol)—would have been unwelcome. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t expect to go out socially with work friends that you like; I certainly did. And yes, sometimes there was even alcohol involved. But that’s a different ethos than “as a practice group, we work until 10:00PM and then go hit the downstairs bar until 1:00AM.” Of course, it’s possible that this *is* appealing to you. That’s why tailoring the list of criteria to your own preferences is important.
  • Is this firm willing to trash-talk other firms as part of their “hard sell”? Again, for some people, this is irrelevant or even a positive. Personally, I found it to be a huge turn-off.

Second, take another look.

Most firms will offer a post-offer re-visit. You should absolutely take advantage of this opportunity. If another visit isn’t feasible, set up phone calls with as many people as you can. The more folks you can talk to, the better. At this stage, you actually have some control over the types of people you’ll be paired with, so don’t hesitate to be specific about whom you’d like to meet (for example, a junior associate doing transactional work; an attorney who has done the kind of pro bono work you’re interested in;  or a young female associate who has been involved with the firm’s Women’s Leadership program).

Many firms will also invite you to post-offer lunches or dinners. These are another great opportunity to interact with firm personnel in a less formal, possibly unguarded (for them, not you!) moment. You should absolutely go to these events—just try not to make the attorneys feel like they’re being interrogated in the middle of a nice night out.

Third, ask the right questions.

Many of the best questions to ask on revisits or post-offer calls overlap with those that thoughtful students will ask during callbacks. The answers to these questions are revealing; from them, careful listeners will be able to learn a lot about the specific attorney they’re speaking with and the firm itself. Examples of such questions include:

  • Why did you choose Firm X and why have you stayed? The answer will almost always be “the people”—and it should be. If you don’t hear that answer—repeatedly—at a particular firm, think hard about why that might be.
  • Why is your summer class the size that it is?
  • Could you describe what a typical day looks like [for you] [for a first-year associate in X department]?
  • How is work assigned to junior attorneys?
  • What opportunities does the firm offer for formal and informal mentorship?
  • When did you get to deliver your first oral argument/take your first deposition/go on your first client pitch?
  • What opportunities are there for junior attorneys to learn about and participate in business development at Firm X?
  • Which of your accomplishments at Firm X are you proudest of?
  • If you had to describe the culture of Firm X, what would you say? Again, the answers to this question are likely to be similar across a variety of firms. But differences are worth nothing, as are the specific features that attorneys emphasize when doing the sales pitch.

But some questions you may only feel comfortable asking once you have an offer in hand (which is not to say you shouldn’t ask them before—but for many folks, it’s harder):

  • If you could change one thing about your firm, what would it be?
  • How do young associates get pro bono opportunities/do pro bono hours count the same as work for paid clients/is there a maximum number of pro bono hours an associate can log in a year?
  • What efforts has the firm taken to increase diversity and inclusion in hiring and retention?
  • How transparent is the path to partnership?
  • What do people go on to do after their time at Firm X? The reality is that people leave firms. How the attorneys—especially the senior attorneys—talk about their alums (or, alternatively, whether they act scandalized at the thought that people would ever leave) says a lot.
  • Certain compensation-related questions (how are bonuses awarded, how is compensation determined for partners, etc.)

Fourth, talk to the right people.

Look for opportunities to speak to attorneys of varying levels of seniority at the firm. Ideally, you’d be able to gather information from a junior associate, a mid-level associate, a counsel (if that position exists there), a junior partner, and a more senior partner.

Next, ask your Career Services Office to connect you to 3Ls at your school who worked at the firm (preferably in the same office) in previous summers. Summer associates can see and learn a lot about a place in ten weeks, and the information they give you is likely to be both very honest and very fresh.

Finally, if you can—and this is often a tall order—try to find lawyers who have left the firm and moved on to other things. They, too, are likely to be very honest. But you also want to know why they left and if the firm supported them as they left and looked for a different position. (Note: this is less likely to have been the case if the alum went on to another law firm, for understandable reasons. But in that case, it’s particularly important to try to learn why they traded one firm for another.)

Finally, follow your gut.

I know I’ve written a lot above, and there’s a lot more left to say (I’m sure my friends over on Twitter will chime in). But ultimately—and I know I probably can’t convince you of this until you do it—there will be places that feel right, and others that simply don’t. Remember, you’re looking for your 1AM people, and a lot of that is about something you can’t name, but will know when it clicks. Trust that gut instinct; it’s wiser than you think.

Good luck!

*Note: this post is specifically aimed at students choosing between law firms for two reasons. First, it’s what I know best. Second, law firm jobs are in some ways the hardest to assess from the outside; from a 2L’s perspective, a set of five law firms can seem like random combinations of last names with websites that are essentially indistinguishable from one another. This post is aimed at helping students (or young attorneys) surmount that information barrier.  We welcome perspectives from other areas.

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