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Your Legal Career: Finding Success In The Legal Profession


To begin our series on Your Legal Career, I would like to begin with an illustration, if I might. An illustration of an actual legal career and how it developed over the course of about twenty years or so. The young law student in question started law school about twenty or so years ago. He did not go directly into law school from college, he actually took some time off between and wrote. He was a crime reporter for a daily newspaper. The law was not his first love, but he felt that he could still go on in the legal career because being a reporter teaches you to write under extreme pressure. Which is certainly a talent that most of you as law students or young lawyers have come to find very, very valuable. The young lawyer began law school and he had a very, very difficult first semester. He went to a law school which, while it was a very good law school and was very well ranked, was not one of the top twenty law schools in the nation, not by any means. He tried to get into one of the top ten, top twenty law schools in the country and had difficulty doing it. His LSAT scores simply were not high enough. So he went to a school that was slightly below that level. A school that you probably have heard of, but a school that was not one of the top ten that automatically gets it's top half of every class into prestigious legal positions. He knew that he was going to have to work to find that first legal job. So, he did work and he worked very, very hard as all first year law students must. In fact, he had to work slightly harder than most because he was working a part-time job to finance his legal education. He did not qualify for grants or anything like that. On top of it all, he managed to get very ill during his first semester of law school and missed ten days of classes which, as most of you know, is a real no-no when you are a first year law student. You don't miss anything that goes on. So, when the first semester grades came out, he discovered to his ultimate horror, that he was in the bottom third of his class at a school that is not prestigious, not top ten. Now, many of you here are looking at me and saying, "That's pretty disastrous in the legal job market that we face today." Because these days if you are not a top student and you don't go to a good school, your career choices are very, very limited. Well the good news in this story is not one hundred percent true. The student did not give up. I should mention, by the way, this is a school that -- I don't know how this school normally does things, but this is a school that graded on a zero to one hundred grade scale point. So that the difference between the top quarter and the bottom quarter of the class was? Can somebody guess? Two points. There was only a two point difference between the top quarter and the bottom quarter of the class at this law school. This student found himself at the end of the first semester in the bottom third. He did not give up. He worked his tail off that second semester. He did manage to improve his grade point slightly, but at the end of the first year, just by the law of averages and by the fact that everybody in school was working just as hard as he was, he was still in the bottom half of his class, although just by a hair. That is a very difficult place to end up your first year of law school. But again, the student did not give up. The student did have one talent. He could write and write extremely well. So the student, with a little encouragement from a faculty advisor, tried out for the law review at his law school and he did very, very well. In fact, he not only made the law review on the writing competition, he came in first in the writing competition with a lot of endeavor. He also landed a particularly good first job. He spent his first summer between the first and second years of law school working as personal law clerk to a top state government official in New York drafting legislation for what proved to be the statute that helped New York City bail out of bankruptcy in the mid-1970's. So he got a very prestigious assignment for his first year summer clerkship. The student went back to second year of law school. He continued his part-time job. He was working at the law review doing all the things that law review people do in law schools, cite checking, doing little articles, he actually did get his case comment published. And interviewing with virtually every firm that came to that campus from various parts of the country. He did fairly well. He was invited back to interview at some cities, but before he got his summer clerkship job, he was rejected by over one hundred law firms for that all-important second year summer clerkship. The firm that did ultimately hire him for the second year clerkship was a firm, a small firm, on Madison Avenue in New York that did not interview on campus. It was a firm that he surfaced by writing letters and by exploiting personal contacts. The firm was a small one. It only had twenty-five lawyers. They only hired two summer clerks that year. One from his law school, himself, obviously. And one from a top ten law school located in the same city in New York. Tough competition. Especially when the senior partner sat down with both summer associates at the beginning of the second year summer clerkship and said, "Folks, we only have room for one offer. One of you is going to get an offer, the other one will not." The student worked his tail off that summer and he got the offer from that firm to join after graduation. Went back to campus, happy, elated. The job search was over. Liked the firm. Liked the people. Got a letter two weeks after starting the third year of law school, "Sorry, we can't take you on board. I know we extend you an offer, but the firm has broken up. We were having a dissolution. We did not tell you about it. The firm is now broken off. The good news is that we are happy to hire you with our piece of the firm that we broke away with. But you are only going to be doing a very narrow, [unclear] type of legal practice which happens to be our specialty." So, the student, rather reluctantly, resumed his job search in the third year of law school. Very difficult because a lot of his friends from law school had already gotten placements as a result of their second year summer clerkship. He was still working a part-time job. To make things worse, his funds ran out in the third year of law school. His student loan ran out. He had to take a second job typing student papers to pay bills for his last semester of law school. At the same time he was interviewing, carrying on his part-time job, and trying to stay alive academically. He was rejected by over one hundred and fifty law firms his third year. And then, he did get a job offer. A job offer from one of the most prestigious firms in New York City. And how it came about is a story that I am going to save for the next session. It is a lovely story and it is a very true story. But it finally did happen for him. And he was elated and he was excited. He got very drunk that night - I don't have to tell you. Yet, it was a tough grind. The student graduated with honors. He graduated in the top third of his class and not only did he graduate in the top third of his class, but he managed to with the U.S. Law Week Award at his law school. I don't know if you know what the U.S. Law Week Award, some of us call it the Most Improved Player Award for the best academic performance in the third year of law school. While carrying down two jobs and interviewing with over one hundred and fifty law firms. The student was elated and took the New York bar and passed it the first time. He started working for the big prestigious law firm in New York City and in three years he did not have a single day off. His first three years of practice, he worked an average ninety hour plus week for this firm doing state of the art securities, SEC and commercial law. His average billable hours were over fifty hours a week. He was in the office night and day. He did not have a single date during that time period. He went in seven days a week. Of course, on Sunday he was allowed to leave the office a little bit early, around four in the afternoon, but the rest of the time he was working full time. Yet, he enjoyed his work. He enjoyed the people he was with. He enjoyed seeing the deals that he was working on being featured on the front page of the Wall Street Journal every day. And then his specialty was an exciting, hot field at that time called industrial revenue bonds. You don't have to know what they were, but they were a very particular type of tax exempt financing that enabled small companies and small businesses to obtain business loans at a rate of interest that was say, three or four points below the prime rate. Now, this is an environment, I don't know if any of you here remember the early eighties, but there was a time when interest rates were up around twenty-two, twenty-three percent. So getting a four or five percent interest break was a god-send for a small business and these bonds were a very, very popular device. He was an expert. He wrote articles. He wrote a small monograph on industrial revenue bonds for one of the bar associations. He was considered an up and comer in that field. But then something happened. The Tax Reform Act of 1984 wiped out the industrial revenue bond. One morning the associate was working ninety hours plus a week, the next following Monday - thirty hours a week. The difference was that drastic. Congress wiped out the tax exemption that had made the industrial revenue bond a popular financing alternative. He was without a practice. The firm had no place for him. In two months he left to join another firm. A hot, small firm in lower Manhattan that had a specialty at the time in a field called asset securitization. Which at the time, the young lawyer could barely pronounce much less understand. The young lawyer went in, learned on the job, he became the number two lawyer in the Corporate Finance Department and was put in charge of a team of people developing products for investment banks that wanted to get into this asset securitization field. Then came the great stock market crash of 1987. Along with the Tax Reform Act of 1986. Does this sound familiar? Do you have a sense of Deja Vu here? Over night the associates billable hours went to about fifty to twenty in the course of a single weekend. He had a wonderful resume. He was one of the world's leading experts in industrial revenue bonds and asset securitization. Two things that were now no longer doable in the world of the late-1980's. He decided it was time to go in-house to a corporation. So he did. With a little bit of networking and a little bit of interviewing and, of course, now his resume was a little bit better looking than it was when he was in law school. He got a job with one of the top financial institutions in the United States, a household word. He was put in charge as a counsel of a division of three hundred and fifty business people. And his job was to attend every closing and read every piece of paper that that department, that division, did. This division did over two hundred transactions a year for the company. This attorney has still not used up all the frequent flier miles he earned in the course of that position and that was several years ago. He finally decided after many, many years that his real love and the thing that he enjoyed most about practicing law was working with entrepreneurs. He left the big financial institution after only three years and went to work for a small law firm in rural Connecticut. Had a wonderful time, made a lot of friends, earned a lot of entrepreneurial respect among the entrepreneurial community. Started writing books like crazy. As he had in prior lives too. Somehow had managed to find the time for it. And, after three years, this firm like his first law firm, broke up and divided into several pieces. He did not feel like doing residential house closings for a living, so he targeted an opportunity to go off on his own and be an entrepreneurial specialist. He was going to specialize in working with start-up small businesses that were just getting off the ground. And he had his business plan all worked out, he had some money saved up, he rented office space, he had a malpractice policy in place and then at a bar association cocktail party, he met a senior partner of a large prominent law firm here in Connecticut. Who, after hearing his life story in almost exactly the same succinctness that I am portraying it now, made him an offer to come on board as a partner in the big law firm. Why? Because it just so happened at that time, the big form was planning on opening a Fairfield County office specializing in entrepreneurs. Now, many of you sort of nodding your heads here can probably tell me who that young lawyer was. The answer is that you are looking at him. This is not only a true story, it is my story. And I can not think of any way better to begin this series. There are some things that I want you to think about in listening to this story. And I am not just telling you this story to convince you how great I am or what kind of credentials I am, that is not important at all. You decide that, I don't. But there are some things that you should definitely come away with. Number one, is there any way in the 1970's or early 1980's when I was planning my legal career, when I was in the same position that you are now, was there any way that I could have predicted all of these things that happened to me? The answer is no. You should set goals. Goals are very important. In fact, a subject that we are going to be talking about tonight is goals. That is the most important thing and I spend a lot of time on it because it is the most important thing. If you do not set goals for yourself and your practice and your career planning, you will never get anywhere and the rest of the stuff is nonsense and you can skip the next two lectures if you don't have a clear plan and set goals for yourself. But no matter how hard you plan, you can't always plan for all the contingencies. That is lesson number one. Lesson number two, what was this young attorney's strongest asset in getting from one place to another and living this incredibly convoluted legal career life that has brought him to this auditorium and this podium today? And the answer is determination. There were times in my legal career when I just felt that the entire deck was stacked against me. I did not have the right resume. I not only had a golden resume, I had a concrete r‚sum‚ and it was wrapped around both of my ankles. And yet, I did not settle for second best. I did have a goal, I knew what I wanted to accomplish as a young lawyer. I knew where I wanted to go and what I knew it would take was a lot of extra effort. Did I decided to do this out of some sense of personal heroism? No. In a lot of cases, it was forced upon me. That student loan running out in my third year of law school was not anticipated. I went through my money a little faster than I thought I could. I was not able to stretch it out that last year. It took me a lot of work and a lot of time and, yes, very, very little sleep to get to that point. But the point is that in each time of my career when I was in a desperate straight, and there have been more than one, I somehow found it within me to bull my way through whatever it took. And the last thing that you should come away with from this story is the importance of knowing how to sell yourself to different environments. My resume is not by any means unique. I am not any more of a job hopper than most lawyers my age. In each position that I have taken, I have learned a great deal, I have improved a great deal and there are a lot of things that I can do today as a lawyer that somebody with a much cleaner resume who has only been at one or two employers his or her entire career, can not do. Why? Because I know ten different ways of doing something whereas most lawyers know two or three. Sometimes the only way to learn and to grow as a professional, as a lawyer is to move frequently. And I think that you will find this. Most of you will find that if you stay in law and if you commit yourself to legal careers, I will be very surprised if fifteen, twenty years down the road when we all meet for the reunion of the lecture series, if you don't have three or four or even five or six employers on your resume. So, that is the reason. It is a personal story. It helps to humanize me a little bit, but it also tells you what a lot of you are going to be in store for when you start your legal career. Now twenty years ago when I started practicing law, if my law school posted a bulletin around campus that there was going to be a lecture series just like this one, I do not think that it would have been taken seriously. I do not think that a lot of people would have shown up. Why? All because that twenty years ago, and this is hard for most of you in this room to appreciate, the legal profession was a much different place than it is today. The legal profession was extremely set in its ways, very straight-laced and there was a very recognized career path. You did not have to worry about what that career path was going to look like because everybody's career path looked the same. You started out working in a law firm. Maybe it was a large firm, a small firm, whatever. But you started out and worked your apprentice and you did ninety hours a week and you billed most of them in a small or medium sized law firm or maybe it was a large firm. And then after a three to five year apprenticeship you moved out into something else. If you were good, you stayed at the firm and you made partner. If you were not, the firm somehow found a way to make room for you either by moving you into one of its corporate clients as an in-house counsel or by moving you to a smaller firm where some of the other firm alumni had settled and were looking for assistance. It was a very comfortable, cozy career path. And the best part about it was you did not have to think a lot about where your career was going. All you had to know was where you were on the board game and whether you were going to make partner at your first firm or not. I suggest to you that that legal career path is dead as a door nail in the 1990's. There are far too many lawyers. Let's go into some of the reasons why, because I think it is important. What's different about the legal profession now than it was twenty years ago when I was first getting my start? Well, number one, there are far too many lawyers. I don't have to tell you that. You see it yourself. There are very many, very good qualified people, very ambitious, very competitive people, competing for a dwindling number of positions, especially at the larger law firms. That doesn't come as any surprise. You did not come to this lecture series to hear me say that. Secondly, and this one is more serious, I think, the first is just demographics and that you can't help. Second, lawyers don't get a whole lot of respect any more. They just don't. When I was first starting out, the law was still considered a learned profession. There was a lot of mystery about it. And lawyers worked very hard to cultivate that mystery. Clients did not ask questions, they didn't question their bills, they didn't question the number of hours. They assumed you know your field better than us, you know that it takes you twenty hours to do an SEC offering as opposed to ten, I am not qualified to question that, therefore, I do not question your bill -- just get the job done and get it done right, we don't worry about legal fees. That obviously has changed. I had a fight with a client this morning over a $100 bill, believe it or not. It is that tight these days. And we settled for $85.00. I guarantee you that the twenty minute phone call that I had with this client was worth a lot more than $15.00. But this is what I had to do to get this client off my bad receivables list and to get me in good graces with my partners. So, therefore, I had to do it. Number three, client loyalty has changed. Once upon a time, if I represented a company, a corporate client, I did all their legal work. I did their litigation, or my firm did, of course, I can't do all this but I did their litigation, I did their trust and estate planning for their senior executives, I did their labor and employment work, I did their tax planning. I did all the stuff that the corporation needs done. Nowadays, if a client reaches any size at all, it has got at least six law firms doing work. It has got firm "A" doing the tax work, firm "B" doing the labor and employment, firm "C" doing the corporate minutes for all its subsidiaries, firm "D" doing the estate planning for its senior executives, firm "E" doing the ERISA for the employee benefits. And so on, and so on, and so on. One of my colleagues who represents a large company here in Fairfield County says that if somebody falls down and breaks a pencil, the first thing the General Counsel says is "quick, find me the best pencil lawyer in the New York, Metropolitan area. I don't care who it is, I don't care what the fees are. We will pay for the best." And that is how a lot of clients are looking at life. Specialization is becoming very, very important. The first question that anybody will ask me at a cocktail party, "Cliff, what's your specialty?" And you have to have a very good, drop dead, ten to fifteen second answer to that question if you are going to survive that conversation. Next, marketing. Marketing has become a focus at virtually ever legal employer, especially in the law firm environment. If you are going out and working in a law firm today, you can not sit on your haunches and be a technician. Once upon a time, technicians were respected members of every law firm. Every law firm had at least one or two people who did not have any business, did not interface with clients very much, they would keep them in a back room and shove their meals under the door ever forty-eight hours and if it came back empty, the guy was still breathing. But, that is no longer the case. Nowadays, everybody markets. And it can be very sad. There is nothing more painful, in my view, than watching a bunch of professionals who have never been taught that people skills are important, trying to work a room or otherwise survive in a networking situation. It is very difficult as many of you will find out when you first start out practicing law, you are going to spend your first few years behind closed doors. It is not uncommon for young lawyers to spend their first several years in practice just learning the technical skills of their trade. Drafting documents, doing paperwork, handling interrogatories, and if you remember from my story, I only got two days off my first eighteen months of practicing law. It is a very, very intense total emersion type of thing. It is very difficult to be totally immersed in the technical aspects of your trade for several years and then come out blinking your eyes at the light of day and being told by people that "Hey, you have got to develop people skills, you have to go out and market yourself." That is a very scary experience for a lot of lawyers and a lot of other professionals and the transition can be tough for a lot of folks. Now here is where you have got to watch out for business books. I happen to read a lot of business books, I have to, it is part of my business. But you have got to be very careful. When you read the general interest type of business book that you buy in your local book store, you have got to be very skeptical. Keep in mind, these books are meant for business people, they are not meant for lawyers. Except for there are a few of us like myself and Deborah Aaron, her name you probably know, who have written specifically for the legal marketplace, but once you get beyond that there is a lot of stuff in those books that not only don't help you in finding a legal job or conducting a legal job search, they will actually hurt you in your legal job search. So when you start looking at career books, look at them, where I agree with the career books in the course of this series I will tell you, but if I don't I will be the first to say. There are certain things, for example, that are downright dangerous for you to do if you follow the career books too straightforwardly. So, what do you come out of all of this? You have got to manage your legal career. Whereas I twenty years ago had the luxury of fitting into a very nice, established track, the track fell apart midway through my career. A lot of the moving around and stumbling around that I have done in my career has been largely a result of trying to adapt to the changing environment. The good news is, the environment appears to be settling down now in the legal marketplace. I think we are beginning to see now that there are a number of different tracks now that are sort of emerging from the mist and we will talk about this in the course of this series, but what it means is that more than ever before, you have got to manage your own career. You can not let other people, even very well intentioned people who are good and who are trying to support you, they can not do the work for you. You have got to take responsibility for your career, you have got to be the one to say that, "I'm responsible for what happens. I am not going to let things happen to me the way that they might have happened to Cliff at certain points in his career. I have got to keep my eyes open and I have got to do certain things to make sure that some of the things that happened to Cliff, don't happen to me." So with that as sort of an introduction, let's talk about what we are going to talk about in the next three sessions. We are going to be doing three sessions, there is tonight and there's next Tuesday and the Tuesday after that. There is going to be a one-hour lecture followed by a lot of questions and answer. Please do not hesitate to ask me your deepest, darkest questions. I guarantee you that I have heard them before and I will give you the best and most honest, straight forward answer that I possibly can. There will be a little reception afterwards where we can talk about some things if you are not comfortable discussing them in open forum and I will stay around as long as I possibly can each night to help you with that. But there are going to be specific things that I would like us to stay focused on each of the three nights. Today we are going to be talking about the things that you do before you go on a job interview. That is the very exciting and high-faulting title that I have picked for this one-hour lecture. We are going to be talking about finding your niche in the legal profession. How do you find yourself. Talk about goal setting, how do you set goals for yourself as a young lawyer or as a law student. How do you go about picking the opportunities that are right for you so you are not just responding blindly to 10,000 ads and every interviewer who comes on campus. How do you do that. That's number one. Number two, and this is next week. I'm sorry, tonight we are going to continue our talk by resumes, cover letters and information interviews which are very, very important. You have probably heard of the importance of networking. That is one area where the career books have it one hundred percent right. You have got to be a great networker, but there is a specific way that you have to do it in the legal community and we are going to talk a little bit about how you do that tonight before we part company. We are not going to get into a lot of technical details, I think that there are a lot of people in this room who can teach you how to write a resume much better than I can, but there are a few guiding principles that I think that you have to keep in sight whenever you do a resume or cover letter for the first time. And that is what we are going to be talking about tonight. So, the stuff that you do before you do a legal job interview. Now, next week we are going to be talking about the legal job interview, the subject of the book that I have written that perhaps I am best known for. We are going to talk entirely about interviews and specifically, how do you interview when the person who is interviewing you is not a professional personnel person, HR person, career placement person, but is rather another lawyer like yourself. Because ninety-nine percent of the time, when you interview for a legal job, you are not going to be interviewed by non-lawyers. You are going to be interviewed by people who do the same stuff that you do. And that you aspire to be a few years hence. There is a specific way that you have to interview with those folks and here is where you can not, absolutely can not, follow the rules that are set out in career books. The rules in the career books will, not only drive you nuts, but they were one of the reasons why I got rejected by 100 lawyers in my second year and over 150 law firms in my third year. I was following the advise of the interview books too closely and I was making a fool of myself. It was when I learned how to interview with lawyers that my success rate turned around 180 degrees and if you come next week we will tell you the secrets of how to interview with lawyers. Very important. That will take a whole hour of our time. Then, finally, on the third night, on the 15th, we are going to be talking about succeeding in the law once you have got a job. Once you have got that first job, you have scored, you have got the interview, you now have your first legal job, how do you go for the brass ring. How do you succeed. How can you have a resume that looks a heck of a lot cleaner than mine. Which should always be one of your ambitions. How do you go about succeeding. What are the keys to success in the law. Believe it or not, I think after fifteen years, sixteen years in this business, I have figured out what they are. And I will share my insights with you on the third night and tell you what not and not to do in the course of your legal career to at least maximize the chances that you will have a successful, upward progression that you would all like to have. So there are some secrets to success and we are going to be talking about them on the third night. So that is what we are going to be doing. That is what this series is all about. Okay, so let's begin with the stuff that we are going to be talking about now. Tonight's focus is on goals. Right now, ninety percent of you, most of you here are second and third year students I am willing to bet, but I bet you we have some first year students here in the room. I am willing to bet you that ninety percent of you, if you do some soul searching, when you first started law school and when you first applied to law school and took your LSAT's and did all the stuff that got you into this room today, most of you did not have the foggiest idea what lawyers do for a living. And I am willing to bet you, I am not going to ask you for a pole here or a survey, but I bet you if you do a little soul searching you are probably going to realize, "You know, I probably didn't have a very clear idea what lawyers did for a living." (To be continued . . . )

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