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There is a myth, often propagated by law students and junior lawyers, that certain judicial clerkships and government jobs provide a guarantee of future success in a legal career, and in particular, success in a private law firm. This article is not meant to dissuade anyone from clerkships or government service. Clerkships and government service often offer terrific experience, at a point in a career where junior lawyers might not otherwise get such experience. “Doing good” in public service, moreover, can be very rewarding on a personal level. But it is a mistake to assume that getting the “perfect” clerkship or “perfect” government job — whatever you conceive those to be — will guarantee your success in a law firm. If anything, such experiences often generate some unique challenges when a lawyer returns to work in a law firm. This article will expose, and attempt to deal with, some of those challenges. MISSING THE BASICS The first few years in most law firms constitute a period of tremendous professional growth for most new lawyers. In essence, most junior lawyers serve an apprenticeship, during which they learn the practical aspects of the craft. Many law firms, moreover, offer formal training programs for new lawyers, concentrating on many of the basic skills that are essential to survival in the firm. Junior lawyers who choose judicial clerkships or government service in their first years of practice may thus miss some very valuable basic training and experience. Worse yet, because most law firms classify their associates by year of graduation from law school, rather than years of experience at the firm, junior associates may find themselves starting a law firm job with little of the practical training required for the job, but with supervising lawyers expecting them to perform at a more senior level. Indeed, in a curious way, the otherwise desirable credential of a clerkship or government service may rank a junior lawyer as someone who “should” be exceptionally adept. When such junior lawyers stumble in their new law firms, the experience can be quite jarring. One of the great things about a clerkship or government service is that there are no clients. Lawyers in such roles generally do not have to keep track of their time, they do not need to consult with, and obtain approval from, their clients, and they have many fewer occasions of conflict between their personal views and the demands of their clients. Again, early experiences in a law firm for someone coming out of a clerkship or government service can often be quite disconcerting as a result. Many former criminal prosecutors, for example, feel a distinct letdown moving from a situation where the “client” (the government) is very often victorious, to a situation where clients are likely to lose at least 50 percent of their cases. On a more mundane level, lawyers coming out of clerkships and government service into private firms often have few of the habits that are native to lawyers in private practice: recording billable time, consulting on status and strategy with clients and performing conflict checks for new clients and new matters. The list of practical skills is actually quite lengthy. While a clerkship or government service generally looks good on a resume, and can help open doors for employment, after you get the job, that credential is essentially irrelevant. The watchword for success in a law firm is performance, not credentials. Laterals from clerkships or government service often find the early, probationary period in a law firm stressful, as they strive to prove that they are as good as their paper credentials suggest. NOT ONE OF US What is worse, for some lawyers in private firms (especially those who have never held a judicial clerkship or government job) the credential is actually a negative. The clannishness that is native to some lawyers, in some law firms, is reflected in an attitude that essentially says: “Our way is the best; you are not one of us.” As a result, some lawyers in private firms can be skeptical — to the point of hostility — of new lawyers who lateral in from clerkships and government service. Especially in the associate ranks, moreover, there may be some resentment of those who have skipped some of the grunt work of the early years in a law firm. Again, the lawyer coming out of a clerkship or government service who expects to be warmly embraced by compatriots in the firm may be in for a shock. Often, the reaction from the other junior associates, who have had time to form their own cohesiveness, is indifference to the new lawyer. Sometimes, the reaction is more like: “Hey, buddy, what makes you think you’re so great?” Junior lawyers, moreover, can often be quite protective of their relationships with senior lawyers, who know their work and who have come to rely upon them. The power and prestige that comes from such relationships (and the perception that such relationships are critical to long-term partnership potential) often means that they are jealously guarded. A lateral from a clerkship or government service may find his or her compatriots taking subtle steps to keep the lateral in a subservient position. Confronting and cutting through such political games may not be very pleasant. Enough of the challenges; you get the picture. Law firm life after a clerkship or government service is not always nirvana. What, then, are some practical solutions to the challenges of starting a job in a law firm after working in the public sector? SUGGESTED SOLUTIONS First, spend some serious effort investigating any law firm that you are considering for employment. How has the firm dealt with former clerks and government employees in the past? Have such laterals generally been successful? Is there a “critical mass” of such laterals, such that you will not be blazing a trail in this area? Does the firm have any mentorship and training programs that are appropriate for laterals in this situation? Try to get the answers to these kinds of questions before you start at a law firm. Beware, moreover, of any firm that tries to gloss over the answers to these important questions. Second, adopt an attitude of humility when you start work at a law firm after a clerkship or government service. You may be a hot prospect to a recruiter, but once inside the firm, you will need to work hard to catch up on the practical skills that you might not have acquired, and to establish connections to your compatriots and potential mentors in the firm. An attitude of “I know that I do not know everything about the private practice of law, but I am excited about applying and extending my previously acquired skills and experiences” will serve you well. Finally, be reasonable about your expectations in a new firm, and adopt a long-term outlook. The pressures of a law firm (new duties, new skills, demanding partners and clients, long hours, and inevitable mistakes and defeats) can initially knock you for a loop, especially if you expect nothing but perfection from yourself. Give yourself a break. Professional development in a law firm often starts at different levels for different lawyers, and proceeds at different rates. Mark your own steady progress, rather than comparing yourself to others or to some false ideal status you “should” immediately achieve. While a clerkship or government service generally looks good on a resume, and can help open doors for employment, after you get the job that credential is essentially irrelevant. Steven C. Bennett is a partner in the New York City offices of Jones, Day, Reavis & Pogue, and a co-coordinator of the New Associates Group in that office. The views expressed are solely those of the author, and should not be attributed to the author’s firm or its clients.

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