Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks: Practical Advice for New Lawyers

Q: I split my summers and have offers from three firms to join as a full-time associate. I have no idea how to choose. What should I do?

A: Congratulations! That is a great accomplishment. If you want to keep your friends, don’t tell them.

On a more serious note, the most important considerations are:

Where will you learn the most from people you enjoy working with in an area of practice that interests you?

This assumes that all the offers are in the same city and the compensation and benefits are comparable. If the offers are not in the same city, start by picking the city. It is easier to switch firms than cities.

Below, I discuss key factors you should consider, generally in order of importance:

Learning and Mentoring. Starting out as a new lawyer can be daunting. You have a huge amount to learn. Pick a firm where lawyers are likely to invest in your career development. To thrive, you need to build relationships with lawyers who are a few years ahead of you as well as lawyers who are a few years ahead of them. If several lawyers at one firm showed a keen interest in your career development, that firm should rise to the top.

You should also try to determine the firm’s overall philosophy about training new lawyers. Some firms provide a vast array of formal training programs and resources for new associates. Other firms take a more hands-off approach. Formal programs will not replace mentoring and on-the-job training. But enhancing your skills increases your value to the firm and to clients. The more you can learn, the better.

Collegiality and Work Styles. You will spend many hours with your colleagues. If you like them, those hours will be far more enjoyable. If you know the lawyers with whom you will be working, reflect on whether your personalities were a good fit. Also think about work styles. Friendly lawyers who are disorganized can create unnecessary stress.

Practice Area. You may not have a preferred practice area. And many new lawyers end up thriving in practices they never envisioned early on. But if you have a strong preference, focus on the firms that will commit to letting you practice in that area. Of those firms, bonus points go to the firm with the largest and most complex practice in the office you would join. A larger and more complex practice in your office can provide more opportunities. Firms may highlight their work in other offices, but brand new associates may have difficulty getting work from other offices.

Your Unique Needs. In addition to evaluating the issues above, consider other factors that are particularly important to you. These could include the number of women or minorities at a firm, your commute time, pro-bono policies, firm prestige, and many other issues. Divide these into “must-haves” and “nice-to-haves” and throw them into the mix.

Financial Strength. Financial strength alone is not a reason to pick a firm. But the numbers may help winnow the field. Try to get a perspective on each firm’s finances. Reductions in annual revenues may mean cuts to perks and training resources. Bigger dips can be more dire. While law firm implosions are relatively rare, they are disruptive and worse. Massive partner defections or skimpy bonus payments are potential red flags. It can be difficult even for insiders to understand the intricacies of firm finances. But at the very least, research year-to-year revenue trends.

Research. To gather information on these issues, start with your career services office. The career office can provide background information and may be able to connect you with alums who know about the firms you are considering. The office can also refer you to other sources, such as law firm rankings. But don’t hang your hat on rankings. Different lawyers can have very different experiences at the same firm.

The most useful source of information may be associates at the firms where you have offers. Try to get them to talk to you “off the record.” Realize, though, that part of their job may be to recruit you.

Relax. You cannot predict the future, and your first job is not likely to be your last. Once you have made a thoughtful decision, don’t look back. Congratulate yourself on your success so far. Then focus on becoming a rock-star associate.

Good luck!

Grover E. Cleveland is a Seattle lawyer, speaker and author of Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks: The Essential Guide to Thriving as a New Lawyer (West 2010). He is a former partner at Foster Pepper PLLC, one of the Northwest’s larger firms. His clients included the Seattle Seahawks and other entities owned by Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen. Grover is a frequent presenter on new lawyer career success at law schools and firms nationwide. Some of the questions in this column come from those presentations. Readers may submit questions here or follow him on Twitter @Babysharklaw. He is not related to the 22nd and 24th President of the United States.

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