I graduated from law school and wasn't in the top 10% -20%. Now I'm an associate in a
dead-end position, and I'm giving up hope. What should I do?
Insider Advice from
Attorney At Law
Dead-End Associate To Partner
This article tells you everything your placement office
should have told you the moment you weren't in the top 10%.
You are likely in one of three categories: you work for a big firm; you have already gone
solo; or, you are somewhere between a large firm and a solo practice. The purpose of this
article is to help you if youre in the third and biggest category.
Because I dont want to cast the first two
categories aside, Id like to suggest what I believe are the best sources of good
advice if your situation is outside the scope of this article.
If you are somewhere between a large firm and solo
practice, then this article is for you. Before we begin, Ill suggest the obvious:
keep tabs on your law school's placement office by subscribing to their services. Use
Life as an associate in a small
There is a great deal that most associates do not understand about the nature of small law
firms. While you would never guess from the way law school is taught, 70-75% of the
practice of law is in small law firms that still have the founder (or founders) working in
them. Most graduates find jobs in these firms.
When you look at working conditions in a small firm you
have to ask, what enabled the founder(s) to create a successful practice? It was not
management skills; these are after all lawyers, not MBAs, and small office practice does
not require that much management. It was not training for small office practice; no law
school trains students for small office practice.
What makes a founder successful is enough ego to go out
on his own in the first place. He keeps trying and toughs it out. He has a personality
suited to doing a lot of work. The firm exists because the founder(s) were "tough
enough" to build and create it. They are the firm, and this feeds their egos.
In the minds of the original partners, the small firm is their property. It is what their
work and risk-taking has entitled them to.
Those nameless associates
Two of the nicest guys I ever met opened up a storefront office together shortly after law
school. One litigated; one did business and probate. Their practices merged perfectly.
Eventually they had so much work they decided to build their own custom offices and add an
They had two large corner suites and a small cubby marked
Associate. The only goal was to give "excess" work to the nameless
associate to handle. Neither partner had the time or inclination to train the associate.
In the minds of the partners, associates come ready-trained. Isn't that what law school is
(You need to know that many, many solos and small
firms seriously think that a law school should have taught you how to practice law. They
are incensed, sometimes profanely, at the thought of "wasting" any time in
training an associate.)
Not only was there no intent to train or manage the
associate (who was to be a "self-starter" and to "handle things");
there wasn't room for the person to ever be more than just an associate confined to a tiny
cubbyhole wedged between two suites.
This was a law firm run by people with no business
management skill or experience. The business plan allowed for an associate as a permanent
employee, but not as a potential partner. This was fine for a new graduate, but no place
for the same person four or five years later.
The original partners didnt really have a firm.
They had big egos and the ability to work hard, to fight for their place, and to endure
until they won. This was no place for an associate to thrive.
How small firms operate
In evaluating any law office keep in mind that associates are hired for
business reasons not out of the good of someone's heart. A firms original
partners are going to hire associates to make money in the short run. This is an endemic
mind-set in most small law offices. Its just the nature of the business.
Pay levels for associates in small firms are generally
perceived in "zero-sum" terms by the founders. A firm profits from hiring
associates by paying them less than they bring in. If the firm pays an associate more, the
founding partners get less.
As a small firm ages, it takes natural steps. First, the
firm has more business than the founders can handle. It adds associates (usually one or
two) purely to handle the extra work and to allow the partners to make more money.
Then the natural thing happens. The partners start
enjoying their prosperity. But to maintain their income and still have time to enjoy it,
someone must do the work and get paid less than the partners themselves are earning. It is
the same in all levels of law firms. When you read of some senior partners working 500
hours a year, billing $200 an hour and averaging $650,000 a year, you can bet it isn't
coming from the hours they are working.
In a small law firm the financial loop is tighter. The
associates are not trading income for training and potential partnership. All the
associate has to trade is work against losing the job. As time passes, associates realize
that they can't progress financially. In this zero-sum game the hours worked and the
dollars in the firm remain the same. It is only a question of who will be getting the
The partners feel that they deserve what they have. They
have worked hard, taken big risks, and have built a practice that is theirs. They fought
to get it and they will fight to keep it.
However, partners know that 50% of small firms are born
when overworked associates leave with a chunk of the client base. Which means that even
the best founding partners are going to be protective of their clients and their contacts.
Sounds too familiar doesn't it? Of course, there are good
small firms where the partners try to develop their associates. But, when you think about
the complaints you've heard from friends in small offices, you can place almost every
complaint as being caused by the pattern I've just described.
So, what should you do? That is the question facing the 75% of law school grads who end up
in the kind of practice that law schools ignore.
- You can drop out of the practice of law. Between 40% and
50% of all law school graduates drop out.
- You can sue your law school for taking your money and not
preparing you for the kind of practice that any idiot knows you (and most of your friends)
are likely to wind up in. You will lose, but it might be cathartic, even if embarrassing.
- Or, you can take a rational approach. Be realistic. Be
Just because not a single professor in your law school
has a clue as to how the real world works does not mean that there is not a solution.
The associate strikes back
on his own)
Now that Ive depressed you with all this background on what life in a small firm is
like, its time to try and offer you some answers. Lets make sure were
clear on the question: What do you do when you are trapped as an associate in a firm
where no one makes partner and you get fired for pushing for raises? That is the real
question most associates in small firms eventually ask. Lets try and tackle it.
No associate has to like the way small law firms often
naturally develop. No associate ever has. There are several rational things to do next.
Take the long view
You put four years into college and three into law school. Now is not the time to take the
short view. In saying "take the long view" I am not suggesting that you
go back to school and start over. While you can take two more years of school and get an
LLM you'll have the same problems all over again when you get out. Getting an MBA without
careful consideration is just another invitation to grief as are many attempts at career
change via academic channels.
I'm not suggesting that you go to work for a legal
corporation. While it makes for a fair, even and satisfying employment, the money isn't
that good. Career grade school teachers generally do better.
I'm not suggesting that you go solo. Starting your
own law office can be interesting, but I would not recommend it to most people.
What I am suggesting is that you go about the practice
of law in a way that lets most people succeed as a part of the normal progression of life.
Get recruited into your
Begin by realizing that your current position is not permanent. There are
changes in the status of associates that occur between three to four years into practice
that are similar to the change in status that occurred between your first and second years
of law school. You can either prepare for those changes and succeed or not prepare and end
up perpetually frustrated.
The first part of being prepared is knowing where
partners and senior associates at small and medium sized law firms come from. Contrary to
popular opinion, most firms do not grow their own like cabbages behind the barn.
Partners and senior associates get recruited not
for their law school grades or good looks, but for their experience and ability. I know at
least five associates who landed great jobs because they were recruited by other attorneys
who liked their work. Four of them did not know they were looking for a new job until they
got the offers. I know two partners that had the same experience.
How to get noticed: quality
Believe it or not, it is easy for other attorneys to see your work even
if you are hidden in a closet. When you join a small firm, the quality of the firms
work goes up, it goes down or it stays the same. Whatever the change, you helped
caused it. It doesn't matter if your name goes on the briefs or if you sign the pleadings.
The difference in the quality of the firms work stems from you and your work.
If your work is good, this creates your first opportunity
to be noticed. Thats why attention to quality is important. This is how you get
- Every time you feel cheated or upset, take some extra time
and do a better job. No matter how little the firm is paying you, you are building equity
thats far more valuable: your reputation and skills are growing.
- Every time you have a choice between being ethical and
being a slime, be ethical. It may be the firm's monetary loss, but it is your reputation
for honesty that is being built.
- Every time you have the chance to do some court-appointed
work or to get involved with the bar, take the opportunity to meet people and to become
involved. Meet all the new people you can.
As an associate you should have three important goals:
- Learn how to do good work.
- Have a good ethical reputation.
- Be seen.
Think about it. If you are looking for a new associate or
a junior partner, you are going to look for someone who does good work, who you can trust
and whom you have met. And someone who speaks well of his current employer.
No matter how bitter or cheated you may be, no
prospective employer wants to hear about it. I don't care if the a.v. rated firm you work
for requires 2,000 hours a year (at $150/hr for associates) and paid you only $24,000 a
year and no benefits (after promising twice the money and full benefits).
One of the associates I mentioned earlier got hired only
after he quit complaining about how he was cheated. Whiners tend to complain and are not
pleasant to be around. Never complain, and avoid being typecast as a whiner at all costs.
Up the ladder, one careful
step at a time
It is possible to work your way up. The anchor man in my
law school class had a GPA only a tenth of a point or so above the required minimum to
graduate. He had a miserable time and finally ended up in the most forsaken office sharing
arrangement you have ever imagined (he paid rent and 50% of all his fees).
But, he did good, disciplined work. This resulted in his
winning some trials. After his third win a miserable court-appointed immigration
defense in federal court , an a.v. rated bankruptcy firm looking for a litigator
The firm knew that it is easier to hire someone who has
proved himself by winning than to guess on resumes. Like many medium-sized firms, this one
no longer hires associates directly from law school. It lets someone else train the
associates and then hires the ones it likes.
Ethical and personable young attorneys who can work hard
and who do good work are exactly what this firm hires. People who never complain. Just
like that anchor man. If this young attorney had slacked off, done bad work, gotten lazy
and sleazy or had made his private despair public, he would still be trapped in that
The same is true of partners in many places.
Coming in from the outside
Take a moment and think. You are in a situation where you deserve to be a partner.
Unfortunately, all the partners in the firm graduated from law school together six years
earlier than you did. You've got what it takes, but they are firmly in control of
"their" property and don't see any reason to share. The feelings can get
intense. As the news notes, in Texas they shoot each other.
In most firms, they also go "outside" to hire
new partners. At a time when I was a frustrated associate, an a.v. rated attorney ask me
if I'd like to go partners with him. (His own associate had just left to join another firm
that liked that associates work
amazing how it "goes around",
isnt it?) The attorney had seen improvements in my firm's work, had sat through a
couple of depositions with me and recognized I could do good work. Sometimes I wish I had
taken the offer. (I went solo instead -- a blessing for me, but not the answer for most
Typically, partners or attorneys in charge cant see
making one of their associates a partner (much less offering them a decent raise). The
attorney who offered me the job had lost at least ten associates. He could never see
sharing his firm or his clients with them. But, he could see sharing it with someone (me)
who came in from the outside.
This is how many talented associates make partner.
Growth through change
The trick to surviving depressing, unforeseen and bleak times in a dead-end job is to
realize that the dead-end is the firm's problem, not yours. You've got a future and you
have hope for the long run if you don't ruin yourself. This is true, no matter how many
horses get shot out from under you.
As long as you do not get a reputation for sloppy work,
bad ethics or a bad attitude, nothing that happens to you while working for a small firm
is going to hurt more than money and a partnership in a better firm won't heal.
If you take the long view, more money and a partnership
are exactly what you'll get. If youre ready to get your career back on track,
its time to choose the best location for your practice of law.
Please see The Headhunter's Bookstore for suggested
Continue with Steve Marsh's Working For A Small Law Firm: How To Choose A
Stephen Marsh is a lawyer and mediator in Dallas,
Texas who writes frequently about career issues in his profession. This particular article
has been used by two law school placement offices and several placement officers. Steve's web site includes the article, Everything you need to know if your
career has fallen apart.
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