Sean Marotta put on Twitter an open offer to have coffee, thinking that one or two young lawyers in Washington, D.C., might have interest in meeting him, a seventh-year associate in Hogan Lovells’ appellate practice.
But then the requests multiplied. Marotta, who’s Twitter presence is among those central to the #AppellateTwitter online community, ultimately met with 15 summer associates this year from a variety of law programs in the nation’s capital. He would greet them in Hogan Lovells’ concourse, walk them over to a nearby Starbucks and then talk for an hour.
After two separate summer legal interns with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission requested coffees, he upgraded their chat to Shake Shack. After each meeting, the summers posed for selfies with Marotta to prove to their tweeps the power of online connections.
“I had conversations ranging from, ‘What’s the future of the Chevron Doctrine in the current court?’ to people who were asking for job search tips,” said Marotta, who joined Hogan Lovells in 2011. “One person who went to night class was trying to figure out how she was going to break into the field. It was the full range.”
While it’s typical for associates to take their firms’ law students out for get-to-know-you breaks or to sit in on summer associate interviews, Marotta found something rarer in his more curious and lower-stakes talks prompted by Twitter: A multi-week glimpse into the lives of a variety of young lawyers.
We couldn’t pass up the opportunity for a coffee break and a selfie before summer’s end, and Marotta was willing to chat for an exit interview about what he learned.
Did the summers say anything that really stuck with you, over all those coffees?
What I learned over the long course of a bunch of coffees is that attorneys are really different in how they come to the legal profession and what they’re looking for, but they’re also really the same. I’ve talked to left-leaning students. I’ve talked to right-leaning students. I’ve talked to independents.
You would think in D.C. that politics drive a lot of it. But everyone basically has the same concern, which is ‘How do I get a job where I’m going to be happy? How do I succeed in that job?’ It was heartening because it just shows that, although D.C. and Twitter can be super political at times, everyone’s more or less the same.
So what did you learn?
What stuck with me is just how different the clerkship process now is. I was in law school during the waning years of what they called “the plan,” where many of the judges would hire at the beginning of the third year of law school. Now that has fallen apart and either they’re hiring experienced attorneys who have done a year or two, or they’re hiring going into the beginning of the second year of law school. I realized my information is way out of date because the landscape has changed so much.
Before it was really easy to explain what the path was for a new associate. Now you have to explain that there’s a whole bunch of different paths. That can be disconcerting for people.
What were these law students most concerned about?
Where you saw the greatest frustration was for people who came in thinking that they would do the very traditional Big Law track, but maybe [it] didn’t work out for them. A lot of people are trying to readjust to different expectations. That’s what’s frustrating for them—they don’t know how law works outside of the things they read on Vault or Chambers or The National Law Journal.
You mean outside of Big Law. What were you able to tell them?
It was somewhat hard because I have the very traditional path. What I can try to do is remind people that you wind up places through a combination of serendipity, luck and hard work. I went to William & Mary Law School, which is a wonderful law school, but it’s not Harvard and Yale. I clerked for the New Jersey Appellate Division, which is a wonderful court, but it’s not the D.C. Circuit, it’s not the Ninth Circuit, it’s not the U.S. Supreme Court.
I think the personal story I can share is that it’s going to be harder if you don’t have the traditional credentials to get where you want to be, but it’s possible. Even if it’s not the exact place you thought you wanted to be, you can still find something that you will be really happy with. Another example is when I went through on-campus interviewing. I thought I wanted to work at one particular firm.
What firm was that?
It rhymes with Covington & Burling. I cannot tell you to this day why I was so enamored with the firm. I think it had a high Vault ranking, and it was in Washington, D.C., and it seemed very famous. I took the [what was then called] Hogan & Hartson interview just because it was in town. I walked out of my interview thinking, “Boy, I didn’t get that job.”
I interviewed with one partner where she had asked me my favorite Supreme Court justice. I said it was Chief Justice Roberts, because it is, and because he used to work at the firm. [But] he had apparently just issued a decision that this partner was not particularly happy with. I thought I had just blown it. As it turned out, Hogan & Hartson was my only summer offer that year. It goes to show that you end up places where you didn’t necessarily think you would be. I never thought I would be in Big Law for six years, but yet I am, and I’m very happy there.
One of the things I think is really interesting about your career, and about what you did this summer, is that you built a community with several other people on Twitter. How much did you talk to law students about their usage of social media?
What you find is that a lot of law students are listeners and not talkers, which I think is very common. They participate on Twitter to follow the conversation, but don’t necessarily speak up themselves. I do think people need to be careful on social media, and that includes me. Even though my tweets say that they’re mine personally, of course it’s linked to my professional identity.
I don’t talk about certain things. I don’t put down people. I don’t talk about our cases overly much, unless it’s to share a victory or that sort of thing. I personally don’t get political on Twitter because you can do that, but once you’ve picked a side, you’ve associated yourself in a way that in Washington, D.C. can be limiting to your future career choices.
Did people want to talk about the Trump administration? That’s what a lot of Twitter is right now.
For new law students, many of them have concerns of, “Well, I’d always wanted to go to government, but what would it be like if I went to the Trump administration?” Part of that is explaining that 90 percent of the work of the federal government does not change from one administration to the next.
They have to make a decision for themselves, that, “Am I okay with the 10 percent of the changes?” Maybe 10 percent changes from administration to administration, but 5 percent of it is in ways that people don’t feel very strongly about. Then maybe there’s the 5 percent that is, name whatever policy you’d like–the travel ban, transgender. Whether you think it’s good or bad, you have to tell yourself, “How would I deal with that if that came up where I was working with the government?”
If you were back in law school, would you have reached out cold to a senior associate at a large law firm, and said, “I’d like to talk to you. I’d like to ask you some questions?”
Not in the slightest. I don’t think I would have the guts to do that. One great thing about Twitter is it makes it easier for people to find one another who are looking for advice. When I was in law school, the way you got connected was there was a list of alumni who had certain firms at your law school. Maybe you could cold call one of them and see if they’re willing to talk. Now people send me a direct message asking a question. People just tweet at me. I’ve received emails from people who just wanted some advice. I’m happy to answer them, and I think reducing those barriers is generally a good thing.
A lot of what we’re seeing [in legal business journalism] is what firms are communicating to law students, and everything is about salaries and bonuses and what’s the market and the perks. Are law students paying attention to those things?
I think what they’re paying attention to is, ‘Are the people nice? And what kind of work am I doing?’ People want to work with people who aren’t going to scream at them, and they want to do things they think are making a difference to their firm or to their clients. There is a large group of students that care a lot about diversity and keep a focus on what percentage of our partners are female. What percentage of partners are people of color? What is our friendliness to the LGBT community?
What do you hope was the most significant take-away from what you were able to tell law students?
I hope what they really learned is to embrace serendipity, by which I mean accept that the path you’ve charted out for yourself. It’s good to plan, but it might not be the path that you ultimately follow. My other point that I wanted to offer was that it’s really important to just still be yourself. It’s easy to want to be someone that you think radiates the “professional law student.”
We can see that, so we want somebody who is more authentic, is good to get along with and is going to be themselves. You can’t keep up a façade 18 hours a day if you’re working on a big case. So we need to know who you really are. Unless you’re a jerk, in which case maybe can it.
All interviews are condensed and edited for style, grammar and clarity.
Katelyn Polantz is based in Washington, D.C., and writes about government and the business of law. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @kpolantz