By Keisha Stanford • August 17, 2010•Writers in Residence
As recruiting season gets into full swing, many students are contemplating the world of law firms for the first time. Three years ago, when I first began the process, I was utterly clueless. Though I had worked at a large law firm for five years before beginning law school, I worked in a business-related immigration practice group that was cut off from the rest of the firm. The business immigration world is relatively small, with only a few large firms having immigration practice. Consequently, any knowledge I had going into law school wasn’t of much use when contemplating other areas of law. Also, since I had been working in Atlanta, much of my knowledge was irrelevant to navigating the world of California legal practice. So I had a lot of work to do to obtain good information to make an informed decision.
I make no recommendation about whether summering at a large law firm is better than other internship opportunities available to law students (e.g., government internship programs, non-profit organizations, solo practitioner or smaller law offices). For many students, electing to summer at a large firm is a matter of convenience: large firms interview at law schools, requiring less travel and out-of-pocket expenses; hiring timelines are coordinated to coincide with class schedules; law school career offices seem to provide an abundance of information about opportunities with large firms. Regardless of the factors that contribute to students’ decisions to summer at large firms, the entire process can seem daunting. My hope is that this post can provide some insight into navigating law firm statistics and give you some tools for comparing firms and offices.
Regardless of whether you look to NALP (National Association for Law Placement), Vault, AmLaw100, AmLaw200, or the National Law Journal rankings, it is important to note that most of the numbers are almost a year old. Each of the reports has different cut-off dates for the applicable reporting period. These slight differences make it difficult to compare numbers across publications. In many cases, the Human Resources department will have the exact numbers for your office of interest. Although it may be awkward to request this information, if you are deciding among firms based on differences in their reported numbers, it is critical that you are at least comparing apples to apples.
In addition, different firms have different meanings of partnership. While some firms only have one tier of partnership, other firms use a multi-tiered structure with only some tiers containing “equity partners.”To compound the confusion, the various publications use different definitions for determining when an individual is a “partner” at a law firm. For example, both the American Lawyer and National Law Journal define an “equity partner” as those who receive no more than half their compensation on a fixed-income basis. Conversely, NALP allows employers to aggregate both equity and non-equity partners when reporting “partner” numbers. For an interesting discussion of the need for a uniform definition of partnership, see “Keeping It Real: Why Won’t NALP Distinguish Equity Partners?”
Unless you are clear on the definitions and reporting requirements, it may be difficult to determine whether the 30% female partnership reported by your prospective employer means that 30% of equity partners are women or that only a handful of women are equity partners, with the remaining women being non-equity partners. Though there may be benefits to either partnership track, as well as reasons for pursuing one over the other, it is important that you have accurate information if you are basing your employment decision on diversity within the firm and opportunities for promotion.
Also, depending on the source, the reported information may not be office-specific. There may be vast difference between a firm’s headquarters and its satellite offices across the country. While NALP does report office-specific information, some firms elect to use a multi-office form, meaning that the information reported is aggregated from all their U.S. offices. Other sources collect aggregated data for all U.S. offices of a firm. Multiple office, or aggregated, reporting makes it difficult to ascertain what the numbers are for your desired office. For example, if a firm reports that 50% of its attorneys work in antitrust, but in fact only two lawyers in their San Francisco office do antitrust work, it may be extremely difficult for you to see any antitrust matters when summering in the San Francisco office. The same issue arises when considering diversity numbers and average billable hours. Where available, office-specific information is preferable and will give you greater insight into the culture and composition of your desired office location.
Not all law firms are the same, and the same firm can have vast differences among its many offices. The organization Building a Better Legal Profession has developed a website that has filtered through the information reported to the various publications and developed rankings based on diversity (female, Black, Hispanic, Asian, and LGBT) and billable hours. A detailed explanation of the organization’s methodology is also available on their website. For office specific breakdowns based on practice areas, the NALP Directory of Legal Employers provides a searchable database where you can find office-specific numbers for legal employers across the country.
Finally, given the current economic climate, large firm internships may be harder to come by and students may be hesitant to ask about exact diversity or partnership numbers. Even if you don’t ask during or after an interview, figure out some way of obtaining accurate information to manage your expectations and to know the environment into which you will be walking. For many students, summer employment evolves into a full-time position with the firm upon graduation. If your values don’t comport with the firm’s as a summer associate, it is unlikely that there will be a dramatic change in a year. If you have a choice, choose wisely.