Associates in the Trenches
Floating Between Practice Groups Can Help Associates Find the Right Niche
Posted Oct 24, 2006 3:06 AM CST
By Stephanie Francis Ward
Try it, you might like it.
That’s the advice some firms are giving when it comes to work assignments. These firms aren’t placing new associates permanently with specific practice groups; rather, they’re allowing the young attorneys to work with various groups to gain experience in a variety of matters.
This floating approach, partners say, makes it easier to ensure the right fit between associate and area of law.
“I don’t think young lawyers really know for sure what they want to do they can’t,” says Daniel S. Floyd, a partner at Los Angeles’ Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. He chairs the firm’s associates committee. “If you make them decide early, they might pick something they don’t like.”
Usually, Floyd says, associates at his firm spend six months or so with a few different practice groups. It’s rare, he adds, that an associate would rotate through all of the firm’s practice groups before deciding on a focus.
“The idea is by having people do a variety of work, you develop better judgment, you’re challenged more and you learn more,” says Floyd. He adds that if a new associate comes in and wants to practice solely with a specific group—rather than moving around—he or she can do that, too.
New York City’s Cahill Gordon & Reindel has a similar plan. Sidney Burke, a fourth-year associate there, says that’s what drew him in—and helped him change his mind. In law school, Burke thought he would be a litigator. Today he happily does corporate work.
“I ended up having projects for both. I found that the people I was working for and the subject of the [corporate] work were things I liked, so I kept doing it,” he says. “It’s hard to have a sense of what corporate work will be like in law school,” Burke adds. Roger Meltzer, a Cahill Gordon partner and chair of the firm’s hiring committee, agrees. “I think most law students have this idea that being a true lawyer means being a litigator,” he says. “So in the beginning, it’s a little bit of an uphill battle to entice people in to do corporate work.”
In the time between being a summer associate and a midlevel associate, Meltzer says, about 50 percent of his firm’s associates change their minds about what sort of law they want to practice.
“I think we try very hard to allow people to get to their ultimate interests, because we think that if it’s their decision, they’ll be happier—they own it,” he says.
Associates also rotate at Latham & Watkins, a Los Angeles-headquartered law firm. Young lawyers there can spend up to two years unassigned, says Richard P. Bress, a Washington, D.C., partner with the firm who chairs the associates committee.
“Our feeling is, if you give people an opportunity to try out different areas, they’ll make an educated guess about what they like the most, which will make them more satisfied lawyers in the long run,” he says.
Bress speaks from experience. He started at Latham & Watkins as a transactional lawyer but now does appellate work. He feels the experience of doing both has given him more flexibility as a lawyer.
Partners interviewed for this story say that associates are free to turn down assignments that don’t interest them. Likewise, associates say they do feel comfortable turning down assignments.
“If you’re busy and you’re doing good work, no one is ever going to say, ‘You have to take my case,’ ” says Angelique Kaounis, a Gibson Dunn associate. “There isn’t that kind of strong-arming allowed.”
The firm’s practice of not assigning associates to a specific group, she adds, was a big part of her decision to join the firm. A midlevel associate, Kaounis now handles a fair amount of intellectual property and unfair competition matters.
“I knew I wanted to do litigation, but I didn’t know I wanted to do antitrust work,” she says. “I thought I wanted to do First Amendment work, but I think that’s what a lot of us want to do out of law school.”