Guest Post by Adam Oliver
In my role as a legal recruiter, it recently became apparent that there are a number of junior and mid-level law firm associates who are hesitant to consider a lateral career move. Their concern: “last in, first out.” When first expressed to me, and more than one associate used that exact phrase, my hope was that they wanted to reminisce about Federal Income Tax class and the FIFO and LIFO concepts. Instead, they were conveying to me that, if they were to make a lateral move now and the firm shortly thereafter decides layoffs are necessary, then as the theory goes, being the last one in they would be the first one let go.
My response to these associates: LIFO is so 2008. Or 2000. But it is certainly not late 2010.
The flawed assumption underling this theory of LIFO is that law firm hiring during economic expansions fueled by, say, a dot-com bubble or a real estate boom, is done with the same forethought as it is during a recovery. When the economy is going gangbusters and law firms have more work than they can handle, hiring standards are reduced to a weak pulse and the possibility of being admitted to the bar, with the latter being negotiable. What is lacking is much, if any, consideration about what to do with all of these extra bodies once the economy cools. As we have all seen following the last two bubbles, the answer is lots of layoffs or, as seems to happen with certain firms (and something that really gets my blood boiling), large portions of associates suddenly become substandard performers. And which group within the firm often finds itself on the chopping block? Not surprisingly, the newer associates that never had time to fully integrate themselves within the firm and cultivate the relationships with partners necessary to avoid being shown the door. As today’s junior associates have only seen boom-time hiring and the unfortunate consequences thereof, it is not at all surprising that they would assume this is how law firms work in all economic climates.
Fortunately, though, this is not the case. There are several reasons why law firms put a great deal more thought behind hiring during a period of economic recovery than they do during a bubble. Firstly, at least during the initial stages of the recovery, firms want to sit tight until they are sure that the recovery is sustainable. Is the pick-up in work simply a blip on the radar due to perhaps quarterly or year-end work that will quickly evaporate or is it truly a sign of busier times to come? There is also the fear of adding any additional liabilities to the balance sheet when times are uncertain. By way of example, at least three law firms that my company works with on a regular basis indicated to me that things had picked up to the point that they felt they could support additional associates and would likely hire very soon—this was in January! They are just now starting to look seriously for lateral associates.
Most importantly, though, is the future difficulty firms will have hiring quality new associates either from law schools or laterally if they were to start hiring during a recovery and immediately thereafter had additional layoffs. It is one thing when nearly every firm is letting people go due to a recession, but it looks like very poor management when a firm hires during a recovery only to discover that it really did not have the workload to support additional employees. It can take years for a firm to recover from the public relations mess that such can cause. A great analogy is a top firm that had hired only about one-half of a particular summer associate class in the mid-nineties, a point when firms tended to make permanent offers to most if not all of its summer class. When my classmates were considering summer associate options in 1999 students were still hesitant to join that firm due to a hiring aberration from several years prior.
Even if it is true, however, that poor performance, and not LIFO, is the real threat to one’s status as a new lateral associate during a recovery, what is the incentive to considering a lateral move? The answer is that associates really should not entertain other opportunities, so long as they are sufficiently busy with work appropriate to their class year, getting above average reviews and are at least content at their current place of employment. In that case, by all means sit tight and enjoy your current position. With that said, not all firms have recovered equally, and many associates from a certain group of firms have indicated that they do not have much work, and a good deal of the work that they do get should be handled by a more junior associate or even a non-attorney. As a result, they are rapidly falling behind where they need to be in terms of professional development. Speaking from personal experience, it can be very difficult to recover from this lack of training, as the learning curve is so steep during the first few years of an attorney’s career. If a firm is not providing the tools necessary to advance from a junior to mid-level or mid-level to senior associate, then now is as good a time as ever to consider a lateral move to a firm that has an adequate workload. Worry about LIFO when the next bubble comes along.
Adam K. Oliver created Advance Legal Jobs, a legal job board, and is director of recruiting at Tallwood Legal.