It’s not when you graduated, but what you know.
Most law firms, unlike other businesses, categorize associates by JD graduation year rather than level of expertise for purposes of hiring, compensation and promotion. Until recently, the lockstep model made some sense, assuming that associates who enter law practice at the same time gain like experience at similar firms. Thus, class year designation was convenient shorthand for a certain skill set.
In the current legal marketplace, however, JD year no longer accurately indicates a particular level of expertise or professional development. The recent recession saw a great percentage of several classes of law school graduates downsized, deferred, or simply not hired. At the same time, large numbers of associates at all levels of seniority were underutilized or laid off. Unemployed lawyers took any kind of employment - law-related or otherwise – to pay their bills. Even those lucky enough to hang onto their jobs scrambled for whatever work trickled down from more senior attorneys, who also needed to fill their hours. Consequently, as firms now seek to rebuild their associate ranks, there is an oversupply of junior attorneys with varying degrees of experience.
The problem is not new to this recession and recovery cycle, but is different from the past, because the recent doldrums lasted so long. Earlier downturns began recovery within a year or so, leaving a much smaller gap in associate training. By stepping back a year in seniority, or with a little catch up, associates resumed their lockstep progression. This time there is a chasm, rather than a gap, necessitating more radical approaches for addressing these issues.
Skills assessment makes more sense than class-year designation to address the current disconnect between the unevenly-trained associate talent supply and demand. Law firms already hire and compensate partners according to the abilities and client base they bring to the table. Most corporate in-house legal departments recruit and promote attorneys primarily based on their particular backgrounds rather than graduation year. Likewise, hiring partners need associates with specific expertise to service client needs, regardless of law school class. And clients don’t care when an attorney graduated, as long as the work is done well, on time, and within budget.
In addition to seeking lateral associates with specific law practice experience, other “soft” attributes are required for success in the particular law firm environment. Business skills such as leadership, team attitude, management, organization, and negotiation abilities can add value. Depending upon the firm’s culture, candidates who “fit” also will possess, to varying degrees, personal qualities such as empathy, listening, relationship building, enthusiasm, and the like. While maturity may play a factor, graduation year provides little guidance for assessing these attributes.
While most law firms still stick pretty close to the traditional class year model for hiring, compensating, and promoting associates, the Great Recession has made some flexibility necessary. Hiring is on the upswing, but nowhere near its peak during the good times. Thus, every hire must count, and prospective employers dig deeper to ascertain which attorneys actually possess the competencies required for each particular job. To assist with this process, firms now utilize behavioral interviewing, assessment tests, and “homework” assignments, in addition to the traditional personal interview, writing sample review, and reference check.
The bottom line for job seekers: be prepared to demonstrate your specific skills and attributes, and show how you can meet the needs of both the law firm and its clients.