Satellite Guidance

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It can be lonely out in space. And a satellite office of a large law firm may not be the best place to be stationed.

Working far from the mother ship often makes it hard for a fledgling associate or lateral hire to gain notice and score choice assignments.

It may also be a disadvantage when it comes time to decide promotions.

“Most of the power at most law firms tends to be centralized,” says A. Harrison Barnes, chief executive officer of BCG Attorney Search in Los Angeles. So associates at satellite offices “may not get recognition for partnership purposes.”

But there can be advantages, and sometimes accepting a job at a distant office is the best choice. For example, a satellite office may have a less formal culture and be a more low-pressure place to work, far from the critical eyes of senior partners.

Also, it may be easier to land a job at a satellite than at the firm’s big-city headquarters. Yet, future employers may be just as impressed with a prestigious firm name, regardless of where the office is, Barnes says.

Nor are satellite offices as rare as they once were. With the trend toward law firm mergers, satellite offices are increasingly commonplace.

And many firms take a “one firm” approach, integrating offices and sharing work among teams of attorneys from multiple locations, says Thomas S. Clay, a principal in the Altman Weil legal recruiting firm’s suburban Philadelphia office in Newtown Square.

Clay stresses, however, that lawyers should keep high profiles with their colleagues at firm headquarters and other offices, especially by performing quality work on joint projects.

If such assignments aren’t offered, he says, it’s up to the lawyers to take the initiative and get them. Volunteer for committees, pursue work that offers a chance to visit the home office–even take a vacation in the firm’s headquarters city and visit lawyers there, Clay suggests.

“You need to find a way to constantly develop not only personal but strategic relationships with people in the other offices,” he says. “If you just wind up keeping your head down, it’s not a good thing for the firm, and it’s not good for a career.”

One simple way to create a presence is to use the word “we,” rather than talking about “us” and “them,” when discussing different firm offices.

A ‘Stepchild’ or Fortunate Son?

The culture at satellite offices–even within the same firm–can vary considerably. So do your homework and get a sense of the office before accepting an offer to work there, experts say.

“I would always ask, ‘What is the vision or mission of this office, what is its purpose, how linked is it, and what are the interdependencies with the home office and other offices?’ ” Clay says. “I would really want to get a feel for whether it’s a stepchild or heavily integrated with the firm.”

Make sure the office has an established client base, he says. And ask whether the firm has a profit-center accounting approach through which the firm keeps track of business generated by each office.

If so, be wary. Partners in other offices are sometimes stingy about sharing work, and that can encourage them to hoard, Clay says.

“It easily can cause aberrant behavior among partners. So I would ask, ‘What sort of numbers do we keep by office, how do we use them, what are they for?’ ”

Pay attention, too, to whether firm lawyers use the words “we” and “one firm” because this implies a team approach to law practice among the firm’s offices that focuses on benefiting clients rather than political gamesmanship.

“A lot of firms really do have that attitude and those values,” Clay says. “At others, there’s some jealousy and coveting and a lot of other things that you don’t want in your partnership.”

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