Monday, August 1, 2011

Even as a lateral, grades matter if you want to work in BigLaw

From the column Advice to Lawlorn at New York Lawyer:


I am a graduate of a top 10 law school working at a large New York firm. I realize the firm is not the right fit for me in terms of the type of work I would like to be doing in my practice area (which goes beyond the scope of the practice at this firm).

I graduated [last year], and had moderate grades. My question is in making a move, with the hopes to go to a more recognized firm which will produce more long term options and, presumably, more opportunities for exposure to the type of work I wish to pursue, is there a point when the grades will weigh in less (does it pay to wait a year or two) or should I be looking now?


Dear Waiting:

I think you should wait a year or two but that has nothing to do with your grades (I’ll get into that in a moment).

To begin with, you are a first year associate and even in the best of times there are not scads and scads of opportunities for first year associates. If you want to have the best shot at a wide range of positions to choose among then you would be best advised to wait until you have another year or two of experience under your belt.

Of course, this is a double edged sword because then you will be classified as an associate in a specific practice area and as you have told us, you believe this particular practice area is not the right fit for you.

This is a most unfortunate position you have found yourself in at this time. Are you absolutely certain that your current employer does not offer any way for you to find happiness in your practice area? Have you spoken with your supervisor(s) about the work you are being given and why you would like to be doing something else? Of course, as a first year associate, this might be considered rather “cheeky” and improper behavior on your part but if you are unhappy then what do you have to lose? Just don’t be defensive or act as if it is your due to have “better” (in your humble opinion, as you should express it!) work.

Now about your grades issue…and yes, it is an issue. I have discussed this in many columns over many years and sadly, the discussion never varies. Your grades will never really weigh in less…waiting a year or two will not make a shred of difference when thinking about lateraling from one BigLaw firm to another if your grades do not correspond to the requirements of the firm.

The BigLaw firms have certain GPA requirements that correspond to the rankings of the law schools (doesn’t seem fair to you, right? – but historically that is the benchmark they have chosen to use). The good news here is that you have a JD from a top ten law school. Therefore the BigLaw firms will allow for a bit lower GPA on your transcript than if your JD came from a lower rated school. However, I need to emphasize the fact that the allowance is only in terms of a bit lower, especially in these days of tough job-finding times when it is a buyer’s (employer’s) market. When you write that your grades were “moderate” and if that is a substitute for “I had some Cs on my transcript,” then you need to be prepared for future problems on job searches with BigLaw firms.

The only time that your grades will take a back seat is when you can walk into a firm with an amazing and mind-blowing portable book of business in a practice area that is compatible with the firm where you are interviewing. And even then your grades may still be an issue, as hard as that might be to believe. I have had to deal with that issue with partners carrying immense books of portable business but their transcripts (which are always asked for before you are hired no matter what level you have reached), for one reason or another, are not deemed to be up the hiring firm’s standards.

So, what do you do now? You have several options but I can tell you right now that one of them should not be quitting your day job. Just remember that the job market has not really come back full force yet and at this time you are gainfully employed, if not quite happily, with a BigLaw paycheck coming in each pay period. Therefore, while continuing to work you might have that conversation with your supervisor to do a reality check on whether or not there is a way to enjoy your practice area more than you do at this time.

In the meantime, go ahead and do up a resume and start looking around. There certainly is no harm in doing so although, as I wrote in the first paragraph, I think first year associates should try to wait out the first job change for a year or two. Visit some headhunters, keep an eye out on the classified ads and start networking at bar events and with people you know. But please be careful to keep this very quiet because you absolutely do not want your current employer to have any idea at all that you are unhappy and might be on the look-out for a better opportunity. Best wishes!


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