Choosing the ‘right’ law firm to work for is something of an art. When recently admitted law partner Katrina Hammon was made partner at New Zealand’s Duncan Cotterill she recognised two key factors: passion for her work and the leadership of her firm.
After all, having a love for the law is one thing, but loving the firm you’re working for is another.
So what are some of the keys you need to consider when looking for a law firm that suits you – professionally and personally?
Taking Katrina …. ‘s ‘passion’ factor is one thing, but interestingly in a LinkedIn post she also referred to leadership and culture, which are two key factors.
Moving On . .
Remember that while most lawyers leave the first firm they work for, the statistic is around 60 per cent, the first firm is nevertheless a key factor in helping to shape your career path.
But changing your career path itself is a key factor – and a difficult one often. As Abby Gordon notes,
I cannot stress enough how difficult it is to switch practice areas once you have started your legal career. It is not impossible, but it can be very difficult. Some firms are much more flexible than others in letting you dabble in various areas before committing to a practice area. In fact, certain firms never officially require you to choose a group. However, it is extremely rare for associates to find opportunities to switch from one firm’s practice area A to another firm’s practice area B.
So do your homework – on yourself, your aspirations and your prospective employer.
The firm’s prestige is but one consideration, but working for a firm that has a prestige will certainly help open doors further down the road. If you make the change to another firm – which the odds are you will – then your next employer will be highly interested in the firm you’re working for presently.
You will also doubtless have more complex and usually more interesting legal work – not always, but often.
But place prestige in context. It is not the be all and end all.
As Katrina . . says, ‘firm culture’ is important. The best way to find out is to ask around and check the chat on the street. Firm culture comprises many things – leadership, personality types, work teams, off-work activities, social issues, diversity and gender attitudes and the like.
To quote Abby Gordon again –
Certain practice areas also tend to attract distinct personalities or cultures. There are of course exceptions to the rules. But you are likely to find more charismatic, outgoing, or at times aggressive personalities in litigation, or perhaps on an M&A team.
You may find more timid characters in tax or on an intellectual property team. In certain practice areas (such as litigation), you may work primarily on large teams, whereas in more niche practice areas (tax, for example), you will likely be working on smaller teams or do more individual work.
But assessing culture is an important task that can help define the sort of firm you’re going to be working for.
3. Where you want to live
Obviously you’re going to want to be with a firm that is located in a place you want to live. Similarly, the type of law you want to practice will often be determined by the firm you work for presently. A large centre will generally offer more commercial, property, banking-focused work whereas if you’re thinking about working in a smaller centre with a more relaxed lifestyle, then you may need to refocus your work specialty.
Having a work skill set that is transferable is desirable if you’re looking at moving. Similarly, if you’re looking for overseas experience then having experience in the capital markets and such areas will be advantageous, too.
4. Academic background
Your academic credentials will play a large role in the sort of work you should do, as well as the sort of firm you should work for.
Different firms handling different work will have specific requirements which may or may not suit you. So make sure you’re not creating a limiting factor on your work prospects by entering an area that simply doesn’t suit your personality and academic background.
For instance, IP work is highly sought after but increasingly requires some scientific background to make good advances in career-wise. Certainly in patent litigation that is the case.
Similarly, an accounting qualification or aptitude is very helpful with tax work.
5. Firm Structure
The structure of the firm will help determine how well you might perform in a firm.
Generally there are the “lockstep” firms that pay partners based on their seniority, or the “eat-what-you-kill” firm that bases compensation on the hours billed and the work introduced.
Of course the smaller practices are different and will have different compensation models and the salaried partner is increasingly common as firms have restructured in recent times to alter their pay-to-equity ratios in the face of competition.
The different remuneration models will have a different effect upon the culture and nature of the firm. There is less competition among partners in the lockstep firm, but for the ‘eat what you kill’ model it is better suited to those more focused on the business side of work and who relish the challenge and opportunity to engage in business development.
Finally . .
There is no hard-and-fast rule to choosing a law firm that is going to be right for you.
The best advice is probably from the recently admitted partner to Duncan Cotterill, Katrina
You need to enjoy your work – have the passion she speaks of, and then do your homework and choose your practice area in particular.
Speak with other lawyers, read websites like LawFuel, AbovetheLaw, Bloomberg Law and others and make sure you are getting a good ‘feel’ for your legal practice area and what you’re interested in.
There is no standard rule. Just be prepared and do your research. Also, make sure you know your own capabilities and limitations so you’re not over-reaching, nor are you selling yourself short.
Then will come the rewards.