In an idyllic resort setting that felt far from the legal industry's employment angst, the members of the recruiting and career development community converged on San Juan, Puerto Rico last week for the 2010 NALP Annual Education Conference.
Topics under discussion ranged from leadership and law firm profitability to career counseling in the downturn and diversity. The breadth of programming demonstrated the widespread effort law firms and law schools are making to reposition themselves in a new recovery environment.
"There is a real awareness that the hiring landscape is forever altered, but it is too soon to determine what the contours of that new normal will be," says James Leipold, NALP's executive director. "Law schools face real challenges because the demand for new graduates is going to be compromised for a while," he adds.
One sobering statistic about associate employment: In its annual study of associate attrition the NALP Foundation found that 32 percent of associate departures in 2009 were the result of firm downsizing -- compared with 0 percent in 2006. Aside from downsizing, the other two top reasons for associate departures were "work quality standards not met" and "productivity standards not met." The foundation is releasing the full report, "Update on Associate Attrition," in June.
According to Leipold, while most firms will be reducing hiring, a few are now investigating selection criteria beyond class rank and grade point average, which could broaden the pool of prospective candidates. For example, he notes that one large firm is using an external assessment tool to evaluate students and others are requiring individuals to complete an on-site writing exercise or a case study during their callback interviews.
The interest in practical skills, such as firm citizenship, professionalism, project management and client development, is being driven by a new culture of efficiency and higher expectations. "There is an imperative to add value," said Jeanne Picht, Director of Professional Development & Recruitment at Stites & Harbison during a program called Partnering Together to Make a Successful Lawyer. "Basically the goal is for the partner to be able to sleep at night if something is on your desk," she added remarking on the revised responsibilities of junior associates.
Closing keynote speaker Chris Simmons, managing partner for the Washington Metro Region of PricewaterhouseCoopers aptly characterized those new duties. "What you think is the hard stuff (technical proficiency) is really the easy stuff, and what you think is the easy stuff (soft skills) is the hard stuff," he said. "Financial pressures in law firms are requiring individuals to prove their relevance," he added.
Those pressures are also helping firms realize that "there is a direct correlation between keeping top clients and keeping top talent because clients don't like paying continually to educate people about their business," said Tammy Patterson, the president and CEO of the NALP Foundation, quoting Fred Krebs, President of the Associate of Corporate Counsel.
Students can best position themselves by being "recruitable." For instance, Columbia Law School creates a "Be Recruitable" package for each class that provides guidance on interviewing skills, networking, researching employers and drafting critical career documents, among other items.
These elements are critical in the current market because as students pursue opportunities, they must bear in mind that firms want to invest in them as individuals -- seeking out those prospective lawyers who will ultimately reflect the firm identity, notes Daniel Vatanaviggun, Campus Relations Attorney for Shearman & Sterling. "The issue is training students to become more sophisticated applicants and attractive candidates," he says.
Students who create a career map that highlights how they will repay student loans, identifies the type of work in which they would like to engage, and establishes a business plan they can execute over the long term are likely to find greater success. "If you go in from day one thinking like a partner, you probably will become one," says Petal Modeste, Assistant Dean and Dean of Career Services at Columbia Law School.
EXPECT PRACTICAL CHANGES
Given the realities of legal practice, there is likely to be a greater emphasis on the billing habits of summer hires this year. "Analyzing the amount of billing by summer associates can help you justify the cost of the summer program and also allows them to establish good habits," said Esther Rodriguez, firmwide entry-level recruiting manager for Holland & Knight, during a program on aligning a firm's recruitment strategy.
Also, to strengthen relationships with existing clients, firms may partner with them on community service activities in the next few months. "That is a way to tie in your efforts at the firm to show that your organization's commitment extends down to the summer associates and out to the clients," said Marguerite Durston, administrator of attorney recruitment at Quarles & Brady.
Looking toward the fall, with respect to on-campus interviewing, firms are generally streamlining their list of school targets to focus on those institutions where they have had the most success in the past, and eliminating certain other appearances.
They are also likely to encourage junior professionals to start thinking about business development at an earlier stage. "Generally speaking, the economic slowdown did not impact the Canadian legal market in quite the same way it hit the U.S., but the firm recognizes that associates must hone their business development skills and is introducing initiatives to satisfy those needs." says Carol Chestnut of Stikeman Elliott in Vancouver.
The downturn has actually helped promote these promising proposals. "The economy was a catalyst for change," says Susan Robinson, Associate Dean for Career Services at Stanford Law School. "It has encouraged students to be more creative in how they go about a job search and enabled career services offices to support them in that effort."
That creative collaboration seemed to be the theme of most discussions about the profession's reinvention in the recovery. To achieve that goal, "Encourage your people to take more risk and stand out," concluded Simmons.
LOOK MORE BROADLY
With the contraction in hiring at large firms, there was dialogue at the conference about alternatives both domestically and overseas. "Students are more receptive to opportunities at small and midsized firms," says Steve Yeager, Director of the Office of Career Services at SMU Dedman School of Law. As a result, "We are engaging in outreach to those employers, as well as educating them about our law school and our students," he adds.
For students considering overseas study or internships as an alternative to employment, the consensus on one panel was that the most important languages for such legal work are Portuguese and Mandarin. Also, students must be realistic about their expectations and focus on the work they want to do. "A conference room in Tokyo looks the same as one in Philadelphia," said Mary Maher, researcher and co-developer of the International Directory of Lawyer Qualification for the NALP Foundation.
"While many firms will be impressed by an LL.M. in international law or a 2L study abroad program, a strong resume should be accompanied by equally strong supporting materials," noted Beth Johnson, director of attorney recruiting at O'Melveny & Myers LLP. The key is to "Use your resume to tell employers about yourself, but use the cover letter to discuss what you know about the employer," she said.
INCLUSION REMAINS IMPORTANT
As it has in the past, this year's NALP conference offered a wide variety of diversity-related programming. With presentations on affinity groups, transgender law students, coaching diverse attorneys and strategies for attracting and retaining LGBT lawyers, among others, the focus on inclusion is as strong as ever despite the economy.
"I don't think there is any realistic expectation that the corporate clients are going to change their priorities in the way they award business to law firms and diversity will be an important rubric for them," says Leipold. "Law firms provide clients with a better product when there is a diversity of thought and talent," adds Peter Wilson Jr., director of diversity and legal recruiting for Day Pitney, who attributes the increase in diversity programming at the conference to the recent partnership between NALP and the Association of Law Firm Diversity Professionals.
"These are the times that clients look to law firms and ask about the true measure of the firm's commitment to diversity," remarked Lisa Linsky, partner in charge of firmwide diversity and chair of the LGBT Diversity Committee at McDermott, Will & Emery in New York. Linsky is also the co-author of "Attracting, Advancing and Retaining LGBT Lawyers" (Ark Group, 2009).
Ari Kaplan is the author of "The Opportunity Maker: Strategies for Inspiring Your Legal Career Through Creative Networking and Business Development" (Thomson-West, 2008) and the creator of the popular 30MinuteThursdays.com webinar series.