Firm-wide metrics make great headlines. Latham & Watkins is number one by gross revenue, Fragomen tops the rankings for diversity, and so on. When considering the career satisfaction of individual attorneys, however, it matters less what firm you are at, and more at what practice area within the firm you reside.

As a burgeoning Big Law associate, the idea of choosing the one practice area right for you for the rest of your life can rightfully seem like finding a needle in a haystack. A majority of new hires will move firms or switch careers within the first few years, but moving out of your original practice area and into a new field can often be daunting.

Write-in responses to the 2017 Midlevel Associate Survey from mid-level associates reveal some of the consequences.

  • “My practice group has demonstrated absolutely no oversight of associate workflow. The firm treats my practice group like an unwanted step-child.”
  •  “The work and firm environment are fine, but I don’t derive much satisfaction from the practice of law in general and my area of practice in particular.”
  • “Much of the time I enjoy my job. . . . I also would like to explore different [practice areas], and as a mid-level, seem to have missed this arena.”

Consider further that the practice area you are hired into as a summer is most likely the practice area you will get hired into at the firm and, in essence, your career trajectory is set in your second year of law school. This forces associates to make a choice before truly experiencing what it is like to work at the firm.

To broadly generalize, summer associate-ships are just as much about meeting and greeting the firm as they are about workload, while working as an entry-level associate is by and large less of a party. Juxtapose some of the top complaints of summer associates with midlevel associates and this picture becomes clear:

Source: 2017 Summer Associate Survey and 2017 Midlevel Associate Survey

Of course, individual experiences may differ. There were even summers that requested more social events (somehow). But either way, the point is that much of the legal industry requires new associates to determine their future much earlier than is warranted or than they may even be prepared to do.

Picking the Right Card

Unsurprisingly, the top areas summer associates hope to practice are litigation and corporate law (others include: banking and finance, appellate, energy, cybersecurity and data privacy) – areas with stable job prospects and high salaries. Midlevels were predominantly sequestered into these same practice areas with 52% of respondents in either litigation or corporate.

By contrast, summer associates found the more niche areas of practice presented the best work opportunities for stimulating experience (closest to 5 out of 5) whereas litigation and corporate fell to the middle of the pack.  Lowest rated practice areas for summer experience included: real estate, insurance, health care, international, and environmental

Source: 2017 Summer Associates Survey

Mid-level associates in those practice areas rated corporate and litigation – the top two areas of practice even lower. Both practice areas had respondents near the bottom for satisfaction (out of 5).

Source: 2017 Midlevel Associates Survey

When asked how satisfied they are with corporate culture when it comes to work-life balance, midlevels gave corporate and litigation low average scores – corporate receiving a 3.93 out of 5 and litigation a 4.12 out of 5 (it bears noting that no one is very happy with their work life balance at Big Law, the top practice area, energy, only clocked a 4.39 out of 5).

Corporate and litigation were also at the bottom of the list of practice areas with the highest likelihood to stay at the firm in two years, with an average score of 4.0 out of 5.

The Firm’s Role in Choice

The bottom line is it seems clear that even when associates are forced to pick a practice area they are not quite sure where they want to end up. The second most popular answer in the 2017 Summer Associate survey in almost every practice area to the question of where do you see yourself in 5 years was “honestly don’t know.”

Allowing associates to experience a variety of practice areas may help them make a more informed choice, as evidenced by this comment: “Initial work assignment was not in the specific practice areas of the greatest interest to me, but the work has turned out to be very interesting and my colleagues are uniformly great.”

Balancing job stability and prospects with interest in a particular field is and will continue to be a hardship for new lawyers. Firms that truly care about the long-term retention of their young talent will box associates in less and let them explore more. Associates should be expected to struggle with defining their interests and determining the most compelling opportunities within the firm. It is the firm’s role to help associates make that choice, rather than prevent them from it. Long term, increased career satisfaction will lead to better retention rates, benefiting both lawyers and firms.

ALM Intelligence Notes:

  • WIPL (Women Influence and Power in the Law) Conference October 10-12nd in D.C.: Join me at the WIPL conference in D.C.! I will be moderating a panel on unconscious bias on October 12th at the Omni Shoreham. Register here.
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Daniella is a Senior Analyst at ALM Legal Intelligence. Her experience includes advising law departments in relation to strategy, technology, market intelligence, and operations. A member of the New York Bar Association, Daniella holds a Juris Doctor degree from The Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. She can be reached via email, Twitter, or LinkedIn.