Recession Deprives Young Associates of Tools to Move Ahead

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David Yellen (Photo by Keith Claunch)

As corporate legal work begins to pick up and law firms look to recruit junior-level talent, some hiring partners say they are finding a new wrinkle from the recession: Some associates who managed to avoid layoffs now lack the exposure and experience of their peers from three to five years ago.

While many corporate, real estate and other transactional associates tread water or do pro bono work as they wait for deals to flow, others are more than happy to take a hefty pay cut and class-year distinction if it means a chance to return to their desired practice areas.

“Initiative is good, but it doesn’t build the skills needed to practice corporate law,” says David Yelin, managing partner of Duane Morris’ Chicago office, about junior associates’ efforts to stay busy. Yelin says he recently told a newly hired lateral associate: “We’d love to bring you over, but we’d have trouble giving you credit for this past year.”

This unsettling trend is not likely to abate anytime soon.

Across the board at leading law firms in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York City, there are associates who haven’t gained the experience compared to years past, says Sheri Michaels, a partner at legal recruiter Major, Lindsey & Africa in New York City. In the past two years, Michaels has seen more associates who remain in practice groups outside of their preferred areas of concentration. They recognize a lateral move is difficult in this market, and they don’t want to join the ranks of those without a job.

Historically, young associates could gain a substantial field sheet or litigation portfolio within a two-to-three-year window, according to Michaels. However, hiring partners can no longer assume a common set of skills for associates of the same class year, even within the same firm.


“Many firms are looking for people, but they now need to drill down to find out if the associates really have the skills they expect,” Michaels says. “Firms can no longer assume that a fifth-year associate has done X or a sixth-year associate has done Y.”

Firms have to ask whether a candidate’s 2,200-hour year is mostly billable time or if a significant chunk was allotted to pro bono work and marketing. Even with mainly fee-based hours, Michaels finds herself questioning the depth and breadth of the work completed.

“Would I have done this five years ago?” she asks. The answer is no.

The dearth of experienced associates is even more reason for firms to abandon traditional class distinctions and evaluate junior lawyers on actual experience and legal skills, according to legal recruiter Amy McCormack, who refers to a hypothetical real estate attorney with two years of law practice. “That just doesn’t exist at the junior levels,” McCormack says. “There are only a handful of ’08 grads in the country with two years of solid real estate experience.

“It’s amazing how much work income partners and senior associates held on to,” adds McCormack, co-president of McCormack Schreiber Legal Search in Chicago. “Many junior associates were relegated to tasks like reviewing articles for business development and client favors more than traditional legal work.”

McCormack finds herself educating law firms on ways to manage their expectations. “When a client asks for a fourth-, fifth- or sixth-year associate to take over a case, I encourage them to see a seventh-year because, like it or not, firms have to go to more senior attorneys to get the experience they need.”

Although both recruiters encourage candidates to recognize the possibility of a bump-down in class year and compensation, Hunt Valley, Md.-based lawyer Eliot Wagonheim says firms should de-emphasize law school graduation dates across the board.

“Too many firms look at graduation year and think, ‘We can’t bring in someone who has been out 15 years because that disrupts the policy and flow of the firm,’ ” says Wagonheim, a managing member of Wagonheim & Associates. He cites layoffs, family needs and alternative career paths among the many reasons lawyers step away from law practice, only to return years later. “You’ve got a lot of very talented people who graduated 10 years ago, but may only have five years’ practical experience.”

As for young lawyers laid off, deferred or not hired since the recession, the outlook continues to be grim.

“The greatest percentage of law firms are looking for people that are presently employed with transferable legal skills,” says Michaels, who encourages unemployed lawyers to network independently to get a foot in the door.

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