Laura Brill, Kendall Brill & Kelly
Laura Brill, Kendall Brill & Kelly ()

While law firm profitability and hiring are stronger than they were several years ago, law students getting ready to enter private practice and law clerks nearing the end of their clerkships may feel the path ahead is more daunting, uncertain and, frankly, more unpleasant than it was in the past.

They are no doubt aware of the stress of the profession and its impacts. According to a new nationwide study from the American Bar Association and Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, more than 20 percent of licensed and employed lawyers in the U.S. qualify as problem drinkers; a full 28 percent suffer depression.

Yet most applicants for associate positions—even after they have an offer in hand—ask questions mostly about the immediate years ahead and often overlook important questions that would better help them assess the long term.

Below are three important questions that law students and law clerks might ask once an offer is in hand. If top applicants asked these questions with enough persistence and regularity—and then voted with their feet when they didn’t like the answers—their inquiries might actually prompt some thoughtful examination and creative responses that could help more lawyers thrive. If nothing else, posing these questions can help recruits make more informed career decisions.

How do lawyers fare when they have a meaningful commitment to something outside the firm, whether it is family, the arts, athletics, charity work, political activism or some other passion?

Any firm will want and expect you to take the work seriously and to make clients and deadlines a top priority. This is an entirely reasonable expectation given the demands of courts, clients, and the requirements of the profession.

Recruits should, however, insist on knowing whether there is room for something else too, how much room there may be and at what cost. A recruit should have some idea what the likely trade-offs will be in terms of responsibility, mentorship and advancement if he or she wants or needs to maintain significant commitments outside of the firm’s practice. Understanding the trade-offs up front will help to avoid unpleasant surprises and help new lawyers think about how to align their outside interests with their professional development.

How can I succeed at work and have a full family life?

This question is a variant on the first, but focuses special attention on family issues. No firm will say you can’t take time off to care for your mother when she goes into the hospital for major surgery, so in order to get to the truth of the matter, ask other questions.

Do men and women both take leave after the birth of a child, and for how long? While on leave, are attorneys really taking time out for their families, or is their family leave more like full-time telecommuting? Is the answer the same for men and women? If women take a “real” leave, but men do not, how does this affect the relative success of male and female associates when they return? How does this affect the relationships of men with their children? Are they as involved as they had hoped? How have women and men fared when returning to work after the first child? Or after the second child? How many women and men associates have made partner after having one or more children? How many associates have made partner after taking significant time off to take care of a sick parent or spouse? What is the attrition rate for associates, and are there differences in attrition rates based on gender or other factors that are of special interest to you?

Will the firm’s financial success translate into long-term financial success for me?

The “profits per partner” measurement can mask what is really happening within firms. There are some obvious ways this can happen: the profits per partner number says nothing about firm debt, for example, and whether certain practice groups are in the process of being eased out. But the PPP number also masks important issues of how profits are divided within firms.

Women still make up only approximately 17 percent of equity partners at major law firms. For minorities, the percentage who make equity partner continues to be even lower. Recruits should have a chance to learn whether the percentage of equity these groups hold is lower still.

Business school types like to say that you can’t manage what you can’t measure. I’d tweak that phrase for law firms: They won’t manage what they won’t measure, and they certainly won’t measure if no one is asking them to do so.

So to law students and clerks applying for jobs, I would say: Ask them to measure. Of firm profits, what percentage goes to women? What percentage goes to minorities?

If you don’t like what you are hearing, ask more questions. Maybe there is a good explanation for the past. Maybe the firm has thought of good strategies for the future. Maybe not. Maybe they will once you ask. In any event, it’s a conversation worth having, and anyone being recruited with the implicit promise of financial success can and should start that conversation.

While law firm profitability and hiring are stronger than they were several years ago , law students getting ready to enter private practice and law clerks nearing the end of their clerkships may feel the path ahead is more daunting, uncertain and, frankly, more unpleasant than it was in the past.

They are no doubt aware of the stress of the profession and its impacts. According to a new nationwide study from the American Bar Association and Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation , more than 20 percent of licensed and employed lawyers in the U.S. qualify as problem drinkers; a full 28 percent suffer depression.

Yet most applicants for associate positions—even after they have an offer in hand—ask questions mostly about the immediate years ahead and often overlook important questions that would better help them assess the long term.

Below are three important questions that law students and law clerks might ask once an offer is in hand. If top applicants asked these questions with enough persistence and regularity—and then voted with their feet when they didn’t like the answers—their inquiries might actually prompt some thoughtful examination and creative responses that could help more lawyers thrive. If nothing else, posing these questions can help recruits make more informed career decisions.

How do lawyers fare when they have a meaningful commitment to something outside the firm, whether it is family, the arts, athletics, charity work, political activism or some other passion?

Any firm will want and expect you to take the work seriously and to make clients and deadlines a top priority. This is an entirely reasonable expectation given the demands of courts, clients, and the requirements of the profession.

Recruits should, however, insist on knowing whether there is room for something else too, how much room there may be and at what cost. A recruit should have some idea what the likely trade-offs will be in terms of responsibility, mentorship and advancement if he or she wants or needs to maintain significant commitments outside of the firm’s practice. Understanding the trade-offs up front will help to avoid unpleasant surprises and help new lawyers think about how to align their outside interests with their professional development.

How can I succeed at work and have a full family life?

This question is a variant on the first, but focuses special attention on family issues. No firm will say you can’t take time off to care for your mother when she goes into the hospital for major surgery, so in order to get to the truth of the matter, ask other questions.

Do men and women both take leave after the birth of a child, and for how long? While on leave, are attorneys really taking time out for their families, or is their family leave more like full-time telecommuting? Is the answer the same for men and women? If women take a “real” leave, but men do not, how does this affect the relative success of male and female associates when they return? How does this affect the relationships of men with their children? Are they as involved as they had hoped? How have women and men fared when returning to work after the first child? Or after the second child? How many women and men associates have made partner after having one or more children? How many associates have made partner after taking significant time off to take care of a sick parent or spouse? What is the attrition rate for associates, and are there differences in attrition rates based on gender or other factors that are of special interest to you?

Will the firm’s financial success translate into long-term financial success for me?

The “profits per partner” measurement can mask what is really happening within firms. There are some obvious ways this can happen: the profits per partner number says nothing about firm debt, for example, and whether certain practice groups are in the process of being eased out. But the PPP number also masks important issues of how profits are divided within firms.

Women still make up only approximately 17 percent of equity partners at major law firms. For minorities, the percentage who make equity partner continues to be even lower. Recruits should have a chance to learn whether the percentage of equity these groups hold is lower still.

Business school types like to say that you can’t manage what you can’t measure. I’d tweak that phrase for law firms: They won’t manage what they won’t measure, and they certainly won’t measure if no one is asking them to do so.

So to law students and clerks applying for jobs, I would say: Ask them to measure. Of firm profits, what percentage goes to women? What percentage goes to minorities?

If you don’t like what you are hearing, ask more questions. Maybe there is a good explanation for the past. Maybe the firm has thought of good strategies for the future. Maybe not. Maybe they will once you ask. In any event, it’s a conversation worth having, and anyone being recruited with the implicit promise of financial success can and should start that conversation.