The Lives of Lawyers: Which Law Firm Should You Work At?: Evaluating Options During a Pandemic (Or at Any Other Time)

Uncertainty is the worst.

A year ago, none of us had any clue that a global pandemic would tear up the world, causing most of us lawyers to settle in to an even-more sedentary lifestyle. Also a year ago, I began a judicial clerkship with a district court judge. At that point, May 2020 seemed lightyears away. I did not need to think about employment for an entire year…or, at least, six months, until I began to explore my options. It felt great to be a free agent. I felt privileged to be “courted” and, come February, grateful to be in a position where I was deciding between three amazing options. Then the pandemic hit. And with it, a spiral of anxiety about the economic state of these firms and where my offers stood. I had a choice to make and now had to consider other characteristics that I did not anticipate a month prior. I set an internal deadline of April 1st to make a decision.

The Pandemic-Era Decision-Making Process

To start, out came the pro/con charts. I even made a matrix of all of the characteristics I was looking for in a firm, assigned them values, “graded” each firm in each of the categories, and tallied up the scores. This was my quantitative analysis of each firm. Besides the quantitative analysis, I conducted serious qualitative analysis as well. I talked to several associates, several partners, and the recruiting manager at each firm about the aspects that were most important to me. Before all of this, though, I had to identify these characteristics. And, with the pandemic, those that evaluated a firm’s stability required more focus.

Characteristics like the global reach of a firm, whether or not they excelled in the practice areas sparking my interest, flexibility of working on a wide variety of matters, and the level of support for pro bono all appeared on my matrix of choices.

Post-pandemic, concerns such as the firm’s financial stability, benefits, associate retention, and overall level of busyness may be front of mind. These attributes are important regardless of whether we are entering an economic crisis, but may be prioritized over other attributes in the middle of the crisis. First and foremost, if a firm is hiring, it is likely more financially stable and has sufficient work to hire new attorneys. Once I got in the door, I was able to get a sense of the firm’s stability by understanding whether associates are looking for new opportunities elsewhere and whether the firm has succession plans in place for when the more senior partners retire and reduce their business development efforts.

Characteristics of an Attractive Law Firm (To Me, At Least)

On a more general level, and especially post-pandemic when morale is at greater risk of decreasing, I focused on characteristics that, to me, create an environment where I would feel valued. Don’t we all want to matter? After much contemplation while imagining myself in my “happy place” (a deep redwood forest, if you are curious), I’ve distilled this environment down to three attributes: (1) collaboration; (2) an entrepreneurial spirit; and (3) mentorship and conscious career development.

First, collaboration. This has several parts. On one level—the partnership level—I understood whether the firm took in clients as a “firm” or per individual partner. If a firm views a client as the firm’s client rather than the partner’s client, the partnership itself will likely be more collaborative and less competitive. This mentality trickles down to associates. Congeniality and collaboration also tie into increased engagement. As a junior lawyer, I always felt more valued when on a collaborative team rather than living out the stereotype of a junior associate at a large law firm working on a piece of a piece of a piece of a research assignment that will then contribute to a piece of a piece of a piece of a brief without any insight into the greater overall strategy of why you are writing the brief in the first place. In an environment filled with economic uncertainty, collaboration is more important than ever, increasing trust among colleagues and facilitating positive attitudes. The sense to which a junior attorney feels heard, for example, has a massive impact on firm culture and attorneys feeling valued and engaged.

In terms of entrepreneurship, I strove to be in an office that fostered “newness” and encouraged associate participation. It was important to me to be able to start my own initiatives in the areas I care about regardless of my “year” or “rank.” Besides drumming up business, which (for obvious reasons) is important during any period of economic uncertainty, having an entrepreneurial spirit also increases attorney engagement, which in turn leads to increased morale and job satisfaction.

Mentorship and conscious career development motivate associates to take ownership of their own careers and understand their goals on a deeper level. To assess this, I asked questions related to both formal mentoring programs and more informal mentoring at the firm. As a female lawyer, having other female lawyers who valued mentorship was important to me. Besides mentorship, I considered whether the firm had a formal review process where lawyers I worked with not only reviewed my progress but also where I could have an honest conversation about my own career goals. Formal review processes are also important to provide lawyers with an opportunity to be recognized, which I have no shame in saying, feels really good. We all feel valued when our efforts and hard work are celebrated.

The Final Decision

What my decision came down to though was whether I felt comfortable being myself. Regardless of the economic climate, this was the #1 most important attribute to me. At the same time, it was the most challenging one to assess. Understanding this meant I had to understand myself, which is sometimes quite difficult in a profession that values rankings, grades, and billable hours—characteristics that I have learned to separate from my core self. At the end of the day, I had to tune in to something resembling a “gut” feeling. This will be different for everyone, but I suggest getting quiet, imagining yourself in your “happy place” (perhaps a redwood forest), and asking yourself whether you feel like you would have to change yourself to fit in with your colleagues.

And, of course, don’t forget about creating a detailed matrix.