If I Knew Then What I Know Now… Advice From a Former BigLaw Associate; By Lexy Tretter, Esq.

So, it’s the end of the month and you’re a law firm associate.  If you’re anything like me, you’re procrastinating the brutal task of breaking down your days (and nights and weekends) into 6-minute increments.  But if you're not careful, you could open your eyes after 4 years of “1.6 – negotiate indemnification clause of licensing agreement“ or “0.3 – follow up with opposing counsel regarding extension of discovery deadline” and find yourself without a career strategy.  Don’t forget to reserve a 0.5 here and there for “daydreaming about where life is taking me.” Just don’t put that one on your time sheet.

In the past, a BigLaw career often looked like this – law student, law firm associate, law firm partner… and if you’re lucky, law firm rainmaker.  But, you don’t need anyone to remind you that the legal industry has changed, and so should your career strategy. Oh, you don’t have a strategy?  Well, you need one, and I’m here to help you take a long view.

1. What Do You Want?

This is by far the hardest question for most lawyers to answer.  I’m not talking about “I can’t wait to hike the Inca Trail” or “I’d be the most amazing shoe boutique owner around.”  What you need to determine is whether your plan is to gun for partner at your firm or to collect some great experience and move on… or just to keep all your options open because you really aren’t sure yet.  Spoiler Alert:  When in doubt, keep your options open (see #5 below).

2. To Specialize or Not to Specialize?

Becoming a specialist can create a sense of pride and is often encouraged in BigLaw, but cultivating a limited skill set could be detrimental for your long-term career goals if your dream job is NOT, for instance, being the guru of all things Electronic Funds Transfer Act.  In other words,what is best for your firm may not always be what is best for you.  Shed that tunnel vision and take proactive steps starting at the earliest stages of your career to develop a broad and marketable skill set.

3. I’ve Wanted to Be a Partner Since I Learned How to Spell Origination Credit.

Some firms are more transparent than others about what it takes to make partner.  Of course, being a skilled attorney and contributing to the firm’s success with real clients is essential, but that isn’t everything.  You also must develop skills – the right skills – and you must get the best assignments with the right partners. Do not underestimate the value of aligning yourself with the right players.  Making partner rarely happens if you don’t understand your firm’s politics – who can help you get where you want to be, which practice groups should you expose yourself to, and which committees should you score a seat on?  Take a look at who has made partner in the last few years and examine their path.  Maybe they would even be willing to talk with you – seriously, what lawyer doesn’t like to talk about her own success?

4.  Even if You Do Plan to Move On, Be Discreet.

If your firm sees the signs that you are merely passing through, it is unlikely to devote resources to training you. Worse, you could be on the chopping block if the firm needs to make cuts.  Best case - you end up acquiring a narrow or a low profile specialty and being productive for the firm in terms of billable hours… so long as your niche is in demand.  For example, a bankruptcy associate may become the firm expert on applications for appointment of special counsel.  Partners won’t invest in her to acquire the depth and range of experience necessary to be promoted to partner because they know she’s on her way out.  Even more importantly, she does not have the transferable skills to be marketable for other positions.  She is unable to advance at her firm and her weak resume makes it difficult to market herself outside the firm – not a fun spot in which to find yourself, so be discreet.  And if you do find yourself merely plodding along, its probably time for that move.

 5. Not Sure?  Create a Functional and Marketable Resume and Keep Doors Open.

Make yourself available for projects that will help balance out your skill set.  If you’re a securities litigator, consider taking on that pro bono project for a new small business which will help you gain some corporate generalist skills.  If you’re a patent litigator, try your hand at some patent prosecution and portfolio management assignments and make sure you get some licensing exposure so you’ll be marketable if you decide you’d like to go in-house.  It never hurts to get involved in industry organizations or land an invitation to moderate or sit on a panel too.  And then most importantly, break down your experience and identify how your specific skills apply to potential employers.  

To execute on your strategy or discuss your individual career plan, consult a professional.  


Lexy Tretter is a Director in the San Francisco office of Lateral Link Group, LLC and can be reached at

Lateral Link Group LLC is a legal recruiting attorney placement firm and networking forum founded in December 2005 and is the Exclusive Legal Search Firm Sponsor for Ms. JD. The company provides free career services to "Members" in the form of an online job database as well as traditional off-line recruiting and networking services. Lateral Link works with both law firms and in-house legal employers in the United States, Asia, Western Europe, and Middle East.

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