As a member of Thorp Reed & Armstrong’s recruitment committee, I have answered many questions about the firm. Depending on context, both the best and worst question I have been asked, however, is the titular question.
On the one hand, perhaps it is a pragmatic and quasi-satirical inquiry into the quality and essence of a firm that one cannot find on Google. Presumably, as a young attorney, one will be getting to work early and leaving late, and, thus, will likely ravage his or her firm’s supply of single-serving coffee pods. Also, if a firm is miserly on something as essential and cheap as coffee, then one must ask whether that mentality has infected other areas of the firm.
On the other hand, however, it is a pedantic and trivial thing to ask. In other words, if it is that important, buy your own damn coffee.
The question elucidates a deeper problem, though. The calculus that goes into selecting where you will spend the majority of your waking hours for the foreseeable future should hinge on more germane information. Salary and prestige are, of course, important pieces of information that should weigh into this calculus, but the analysis should not stop there.
Investment in Associates
A young attorney can gather information about a firm’s investment in its associates both empirically and circumstantially. Empirically, as a young attorney, it is not unreasonable to ask questions about a firm’s marketing department and budget. In fact, if asked appropriately and earnestly, these questions demonstrate that you have already considered the business and marketing aspects of the practice of law. For instance, does the firm have dedicated marketing professionals? If so, do associates have access to those marketing professionals? Do associates have access to a business development and/or marketing budget? If the answer to any of these three questions is no, mentally congratulate the firm on its honesty and call the first strike.
In the same way you had to sell yourself to a law firm to get an offer, once you have your offer in hand, a law firm will do its utmost to represent itself in a positive light. As a result, the answer to the above three questions will almost always be yes, and, thus, always trust, but verify. Spend some time looking through the online profiles of the firm’s associates. Firms that invest in their associates encourage their associates to maximize their public profile through, among other things, speaking engagements, writing assignments and civic activities and organizations. Therefore, firms that invest in their associates are proud to advertise that their associates are involved in these activities, and do so through the firm’s website.
A firm’s retention of its associates is another metric to assess investment in associates. Associates departing the firm at a high rate, though, is not always an alarming characteristic. For instance, at firms where associates have significant client contact, it is not uncommon for clients to poach associates. The result usually strengthens the business referral source at the client, and the associate leaves with fond memories of the firm. Associates departing the firm for other firms, however, is usually a sign that the firm is not an associate-friendly place. A simple Internet search of the firm is almost always illuminating.
Practice Group Composition
Though you may have relished meeting seven different people during your interview, the composition of your practice group will make or break your firm experience. Unless your new firm has a well-defined plan of educating associates by practice group rotation, your offer letter should indicate the practice group into which you have been offered employment. If it does not, call the recruiting coordinator or your contact at the firm and find out immediately. The composition and profile of your practice group can be an excellent predictor of your experience.
First, have you met and do you get along with the partners, associates and other staff within your practice group? Are your soon-to-be colleagues intelligent, fair and competent? Are your fellow associates of similar educational background and sophistication? Though you may have friends and mentors in other areas of the firm, your practice group is going to be the set of personalities with whom you interact daily. Therefore, you must do your best to ascertain whether or not you can work with the individuals and personalities in the practice group. Trust me when I say that personality conflicts only grow deeper with time. I strongly recommend making a trip to the firm and scheduling a series of appointments with your practice group members prior to accepting your offer.
Second, what is the interaction between the practice group and the firm? Is the firm invested in and supportive of the practice group? Is the practice group leader on
the firm’s management committee? The firm’s website will reveal a lot about the interaction between the practice group
and the firm. In most circumstances, if
the firm has recognized and supported
the practice group, the group, its
members and its events/publications will
be featured prominently on the firm’s website.
Third, you should be joining a
stable practice group in which there
is room for advancement. How many partners originate work for the practice
group? How diverse is the client base
for the practice group? If the practice group is entirely reliant on one partner
or one client for its work, it’s not necessarily a bad thing, but you should appreciate the risk that comes with such an arrangement. Also, are there other associates of similar seniority in the practice group? Although partnership and advancement within the firm may be the last things on your mind at this stage of your career, a glut of similarly positioned eighth-year associates in the future may result in
unnecessary competition for partnership consideration.
Depending on your firm, the leadership and rainmakers at the firm may interact with you frequently, infrequently and/or everything in between. Regardless of how often you see these colleagues, they are almost always the reason you take home a paycheck every fortnight and, thus, their composition and investment in the firm are significantly tied to the firm’s future success.
A healthy firm has leaders and rainmakers diverse in practice and age. This diversity ensures that even as certain leaders and rainmakers depart the firm, the firm will remain healthy and viable. Further, I personally appreciate when firm leadership has demonstrable ties to the firm, community and region. These ties usually translate into a vested interest by firm leadership in the stability and security of the firm.
Firm leadership should be vibrant, energetic and motivated by a responsibility and interest to grow the firm. Questions about the firm’s five- and 10-year plans are illuminating to the extent that you will likely be able to tell immediately if long-term planning is a strength of the firm. A firm that is not prospectively focused will forever be catching up to those that are.
The above is an obviously unexhaustive list of important factors that every young attorney should consider when seeking law firm employment. No firm is perfect, and you will likely see flaws at even the firm that is perfect for you. It is a crucial decision, so be level-headed and consider the multitude of factors beyond perceived prestige and salary. Once you get there, though, don’t act entitled. Don’t leave until the work is done. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Don’t forget that there is no substitute for hard work. And don’t forget that if your firm’s coffee is bad, you can always bring your own.
Nolan G. Shenai is an associate in Thorp Reed & Armstrong’s commercial and corporate litigation practice group, where he focuses on commercial banking and finance litigation and sports and entertainment law. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.