Regardless of the state of the economy and relative demand for lawyers, top firms are very particular regarding whom they hire. They seek candidates with expertise in specific areas of practice and have high standards regarding academics, law firm training, and personal qualities.
Relevant experience is the number one qualification. Candidates may argue that a good litigator can get up to speed to handle any type of case or that a savvy transactional attorney can manage most kinds of deals, but potential employers aren’t eager to buy that argument. While they may train lateral hires on the finer points of their practice, they usually don’t want to completely retool an attorney. There are instances, however, when lawyers “network” their way into positions where their expertise was not on point, but legal recruiters almost always are limited to placing attorneys with directly on-point experience.
Apart from practice area, prospective employers judge the quality of experience as one of the top factors in evaluating a candidate’s desirability. Prestigious law firms and in-house counsel (many of whom came from premier law firms) are most interested in lawyers who come from similar backgrounds. There’s a comfort level regarding sophistication of practice and the type of training these lawyers received.
Prospective employers look at a candidate’s current and past legal experience, including summer associate positions, court clerkships, as well as pre-law work experience if it was in a related business or technical area. For example, intellectual property lawyers with pre-law work in computers, biotechnology, or engineering find that experience is a selling point. Furthermore, special talents such as fluency in foreign languages and science/technical or medical education can add to your appeal, depending upon the position.
As always, academics matter. Most potential employers seek a certain “pedigree.” In fact, if a candidate’s credentials are absolutely stellar, employers, on occasion, disregard the requirement of on-point practice experience and train a candidate in a new area of law. In an ideal world, all candidates graduated in the top ten percent of a top-tier law school. Although this isn’t reality, the majority of large firms continue to focus their consideration on candidates who approach this standard.
At most firms, candidates with five or fewer years of experience must submit law school transcripts with a résumé before consideration. For more senior candidates, many law firms require a transcript before the hiring process is completed. In addition to examining a candidate’s grades throughout all three years of law school, potential employers look at coursework, any specialization, clinical and honors programs, as well as achievements such as Order of the Coif, law reviews, moot court prizes, and the like. Sometimes, undergraduate and graduate education also are considered, including the prestige of the institution, the candidate’s major (especially if technical, medical, scientific, or financial), grades, and honors. Extracurricular activities such as clubs and committees, whether during law school, college, or graduate school, usually are unimportant. Leadership positions may be considered.
Last, but not least, are the intangibles—how well would you fit in? Potential employers are most comfortable with candidates who are like them in terms of education, background, and personality. For example, you have the best chances of being hired by a firm that has other attorneys who attended the same schools. Similarly, attorneys with prior military or government service heavily populate some firms and candidates with similar backgrounds do best there. Potential hires also must fit in with the employer's style and culture. Beyond that, employers seek attorneys with whom they think their clients will feel comfortable.
Regardless of the economic climate, most of the same standards for selecting candidates — relevant, quality work experience, especially in certain areas of law, strong academic credentials, and the elusive right “fit” — remain in place. So, in light of the above, just how hot are you?