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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
Stephen Marsh
Attorney At Law
Certified Mediator

Graduating From
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 you’re in the third and biggest category.

Because I don’t want to cast the first two categories aside, I’d 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, I’ll suggest the obvious: keep tabs on your law school's placement office by subscribing to their services. Use them.

Life as an associate in a small firm
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 associate.

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 for?

(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 didn’t 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 firm’s 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. It’s 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 money.

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.

The associate’s options
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 patient.

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 (or out… on his own)
Now that I’ve depressed you with all this background on what life in a small firm is like, it’s time to try and offer you some answers. Let’s make sure we’re 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. Let’s 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 future
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 counts
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 firm’s 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 firm’s work stems from you and your work.

If your work is good, this creates your first opportunity to be noticed. That’s why attention to quality is important. This is how you get noticed:

  • 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 that’s 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.

Three goals
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 hired him.

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 office-sharing arrangement.

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 associate’s work… amazing how it "goes around", isn’t 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 attorneys.)

Typically, partners or attorneys in charge can’t 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 you’re ready to get your career back on track, it’s time to choose the best location for your practice of law.

Please see The Headhunter's Bookstore for suggested resources.

Continue with Steve Marsh's Working For A Small Law Firm: How To Choose A Location

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.

NOTE: The advice provided above is an opinion, not a professional service. Ask The Headhunter and the author of the advice are not responsible for its accuracy, use or mis-use.


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