Assessing Law Firms: Culture, Clients, Compensation and Beyond

Table of Contents


A. Firm "Culture"

B. Geography and Firm Offices

C. The Work

D. Professional Development

E. Compensation and Benefits

F. Billable Hours

G. Pro Bono

H. Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Efforts

I. Work/Life Balance Policies

J. Partnership Track

K. Law Firm Rankings and Reputation

L. Transition Opportunities




There are thousands of law firms around the country and the world seeking to hire law students. It is up to you to determine which firm will be a good fit for you. Establish the factors that are important to you and keep them in mind as you go through the hiring process. This section provides ideas for factors you may wish to consider when selecting a law firm and suggests resources to help you make an informed decision.

A. Firm “Culture”

The factors that create a firm’s “culture” can be challenging to nail down, but typically come from a firm’s behavioral norms and expectations. Does the firm articulate a set of core values? What does the firm focus on when evaluating performance? Is there a sense of collegiality? Are doors in the office open or closed? What is the firm’s attire policy? Are the attorneys of certain political affiliations? How do the attorneys treat the support staff? What opportunities does the firm provide for social and professional interaction among attorneys? Are there committees that embrace associate engagement and tackle associate concerns? As you talk to a firm’s attorneys, ask yourself if you respect their judgment, enjoy their company and believe that you can learn and develop into a good lawyer under their tutelage. Consider all of these factors in analyzing the firm’s corporate culture and your fit within that environment. However, you should keep in mind that cultural differences between firms are only part of the picture. Even within the same firm, different offices and practice groups might also exhibit cultural differences.

You can assess a firm’s culture yourself through the interview process, and you can gain insight from students and alumni with knowledge of the firm. Use the following resources to learn more about a firm’s culture:

B. Geography and Firm Offices

Geographic markets differ in the amount of legal work available, the pace and culture of such work, hourly rates, cost of living, substantive law, the prevalence of different legal practice areas, and the prevalence of different clients and industries. Although the largest legal markets (e.g., New York City) boast a wide range of legal practices and client industries from which to choose, other markets offer a narrower selection or are more regionally focused.

To learn about the legal work in different geographic markets, use these resources:

Geography is also relevant when choosing between offices. Some firms work hard to establish continuity between offices (a “one firm” approach), while other firms’ offices are more distinct. Most firms recognize a specific office as their headquarters, which is typically in the geographic location where the firm has the most history, the strongest client relationships, and the most brand recognition. Headquarters are often—but not always—where the firm’s leadership is based, and they often—but not always—have the largest number of attorneys. Firms’ other offices, sometimes referred to as “branch” or “satellite” offices, may emphasize certain types of legal work or client industries, and they may be home to fewer attorneys, smaller practice groups, and/or different workplace cultures. Moreover, the differences between offices in the largest legal markets (e.g., New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles) may be less evident than the differences between large-market offices and small-market offices, regardless of where a firm is headquartered.

Considerations when evaluating whether to work for a “headquarter” or “branch” office include:

  • What are the core practice areas and client industries of interest to you and which office(s) of the firm are most engaged in that work?
  • Where is the firm’s power center? Are members of the leadership team located in all offices or centered around the headquarter office?
  • How often will you be staffed on matters with attorneys in your office versus other offices of the firm? Do offices have similar levels of support staff and resources to support your work?
  • Do all offices of the firm use the same salary and bonus framework? Are there notable differences in workplace culture between offices? Who makes promotion decisions within an office and will you have sufficient access to them to support your professional development?
  • Do all offices of the firm have the same cachet in the market? Is a particular office fast-growing?

To identify a law firm’s headquarters and assess the relative size and prevalence of different practices, use Firm Prospects. When viewing a firm’s profile in Firm Prospects, you can see where the firm is headquartered (shown just under the name of the firm), and you can view the number of attorneys by practice area and by location. Individual offices also have their own profiles (click the Firm Insights tab at the top, and then select Office Profiles), so you can view the breakdown of attorneys by practice area in each office. The hiring and attrition data available in Firm Prospects can also help you to determine which offices or practice areas have expanded or contracted in recent years.

The types of legal issues you engage in and the types of clients you serve will be instrumental to your experience. Most large firms practice in many legal areas. Because many firms organize their practices under a framework of litigation and corporate (otherwise known as transactional) work, they often try to get a sense of whether candidates are more interested in litigation or corporate practice areas. To evaluate your interests, reflect on prior projects, courses, and clinics you have enjoyed and learn about law firm practice areas by reading law firm websites and using these resources:

Firms take varying approaches to exposing summer interns and new associates to practice areas. For the summer, most firms provide interns exposure to numerous practice groups to facilitate exploration, often enabling summers to select projects from a centralized system. Some firms (e.g., Kirkland & Ellis) have open assignment systems while others (e.g., Cravath) assign interns to a specific partner with whom they work all summer. With entry-level hiring, some firms hire associates into a general area like corporate or litigation, while others place associates in a specific practice group like antitrust, capital markets, M&A, or white collar litigation. Some firms use rotation systems to provide associates exposure to numerous practice areas in the first year or so of work. Associates may rotate through subspecialties within a larger practice area or may rotate to an entirely new practice area.

To learn about how firms assign work, use these resources:

To learn about the depth and strength of practices within specific firms, use these resources:

  • Chambers USA – firm rankings by practice area.
  • Firm Prospects - pie charts depicting the representation of practice areas within a firm as a whole or a specific office of a firm.
  • Vault/Firsthand – firm rankings by practice area. (Sign in or register your account first here)

D. Professional Development  

Professional development includes firm training opportunities, mentorship offerings, feedback and review processes, promotion practices, and other policies and programs to guide associates in their professional growth. The amount, type and quality of professional development varies from firm to firm. Some firms offer benchmarks for associates at each stage of their careers and assist associates in meeting those goals by ensuring that associates work on a variety of matters with a variety of partners. Find out whether and to what extent associates are involved in firm business matters. Do associates participate in firm committees?  Are they involved in recruiting? Do they attend business development meetings? If so, that serves as another indication that the firm is serious about developing its associates into leaders within the firm. Many firms have professional development directors to assist associates in navigating their career paths.

The attorney review process is also an essential part of associate development. Associates are more likely to thrive in settings where expectations are clearly defined, performance is periodically evaluated, and regular feedback is provided. Find out how frequently associates are evaluated and whether they are expected to seek feedback on their own or whether partners are expected to review all associates with whom they work.

Useful resources:

E. Compensation and Benefits  

A firm’s compensation system can impact the firm’s work environment. Traditionally, many firms used a lock-step system, where attorneys in each class year, including partners, received the same base salary and end-of-year bonus. Today, Wachtell Lipton and Debevoise & Plimpton are believed to be the two last-standing U.S. firms paying partners strictly based on tenure. Instead, as competition for partner talent has increased, most firms have moved to more flexible combination lock-step and merit systems or variable lock-step systems with ranges per class year. A handful of firms use a pure merit system, in which compensation is based solely on performance. With merit-based systems, firms often consider the number of hours billed, quality of work, pro bono hours, overall contribution to the firm through activities such as recruiting and participation on internal committees, and business development in evaluating associates.

Currently, the top starting salary is $215,000, with specific salaries varying by firm location and size. Keep in mind that different cities can have vastly different costs of living.  CNN Money’s cost of living calculator provides useful cost of living information.

In good economic times, many firms augment associate salaries with end-of-year bonuses. These typically have a merit-based component and may take into account hours billed, quality of work, overall contribution to the firm, business development, and pro bono hours. A handful of firms expressly consider other factors such as community activities and leadership. In addition, some firms offer hiring bonuses to entry-level attorneys who have completed judicial clerkships; the overall compensation package depends on the time credited for the clerkship and the resulting class year in which the attorney is placed. Although it may not be of immediate concern to you, more firms are starting to provide longevity bonuses and sabbaticals to associates who remain with the firm for at least five or six years. 

In addition to salaries and bonuses, benefits make up an important part of any compensation package. Typical benefits include a 401(k) plan, health and dental insurance, family leave, relocation expenses, and long-term disability insurance. Some firms also provide workout facilities, on or off-site childcare, dry cleaning, meals for those working after hours, and more.

Useful resources:

F. Billable Hours  

High salaries at large firms come at a high price—billable hours. Law firms make money by billing their clients by the hour for their services (litigation contingency fees and other methods of billing do exist, but typically associates in these areas also keep track of their billable hours). The more hours billed by the attorneys, the greater the profits for the firm. Attorneys must keep track (usually in six-minute increments) of the time they spend working on each client’s behalf.  For a detailed description of the toll it takes on your life to bill 1,800 or 2,200 hours per year, see CDO’s The Truth about the Billable Hour advice.

If you do not wish to spend so many hours working, consider working for a smaller firm, in a smaller city, or both. Although salaries for these firms are not as high as those offered by the largest firms, the trade-off in terms of improved lifestyle may be well worth it.

 Useful resources:

G. Pro Bono  

Pro bono comes from the Latin “pro bono publico” and means “for the public good.” The ABA defines pro bono legal services as providing legal assistance without expectation of pay to persons of limited means or to organizations in matters addressing the needs of persons with limited means. Most firms view this more broadly to include work for nonprofits and for social causes such as civil rights and the environment. Many students who decide to pursue positions with law firms specifically seek firms that offer meaningful pro bono opportunities.

There are several attributes to look for in assessing a firm’s pro bono program:

  • A strongly written pro bono policy with a meaningful and sensible definition of pro bono
  • Institutional support and partner role models
  • Associate initiative and input into pro bono commitments and firm priorities
  • Crediting pro bono hours on the same basis as billable hours  

Useful resources:

H. Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion  

Below are resources to help you learn about firm DEI programs and policies and their effectiveness.

Individual firm websites will also provide insight. Many firms include a specific section on diversity, which may highlight the firm’s recruiting efforts, provide its non-discrimination policy, and describe its support of diverse law students and attorneys. When scheduling callback interviews, ask to meet with diverse attorneys and inquire about how the firm supports an open and affirming environment for all lawyers.

I. Work/Life Balance Policies

How firms deal with work/life balance issues is often an important consideration for students. One way to assess a law firm’s efforts is to learn about their leave and flexible work policies, including remote work options. While most large firms have written policies in place, many smaller firms handle these issues just as well, but on a more ad hoc basis. In addition, remember that work life/balance policies are meaningless if the firm either implicitly or explicitly discourages attorneys from utilizing them. Find out what effect, if any, taking advantage of these policies has on advancement in the firm. Since COVID-19, employers have taken varying approaches to hybrid work. Keep an eye out for how firms of interest to you handle these matters.

Useful resources:

J. Partnership Track  

While you may or may not intend to remain at a firm through partnership, it is still important to understand the partnership process and structure at firms. Traditionally, law firms had only one type of partner—an equity partner who shared in the profits of the firm. Now, many firms have two or more tiers of partnership. Some have non-equity partners (also referred to as “income partners”) who do not share in the profits of the firm and are not the firm decision-makers, in addition to equity partners. At some firms, non-equity partnership is a stepping stone to equity partnership; at other firms it is a more permanent designation. Also, the number of years it takes to make non-equity or equity partner varies from firm to firm. Relatedly, Some firms will hire lateral partners while other firms tend to promote only from within.

Useful resources:

  • NALP Directory  “Partnership and Advancement” tab.
  • Firm Prospects - firm profile indicates whether firm has two-tier partner track; tab for law firm promotions. 
  • Chambers Associate – how many associates make partner chart.

K. Law Firm Rankings and Reputation  

As has been referenced above, law firms are ranked in a whole host of ways. Through ALM Intelligence, you have access to surveys, lists and rankings including The AmLaw 100 and 200; the law firm “A-List”; the Midlevel Associates Survey; and the Summer Associates Survey, just to name a few. Vault/Firsthand provides various rankings. Chambers USA ranks firms by practice area. While these rankings may provide you with some guidance in determining which firm is right for you, it is critical that you have some understanding of the universe of employers being ranked (typically only the largest law firms); the criteria used to create the ranking (subjective attorney opinions or objective data); and the agenda of the publisher (if any). Use rankings as one source of information about potential employers, but do not assume that just because a firm ranks well that it will be right for you. 

Some students start their law firm research by gauging the relative “prestige” of law firms, and then aim to work at the most “prestigious” firm they can find. The problem with that approach is that as with beauty, prestige is in the eye of the beholder. Simply because a firm ranks #1 on the AmLaw 100 list (for example), does not necessarily make it a better place for YOU to work than a firm that isn’t even on the list. If you want to maximize your chances of securing employment with a law firm best suited to your personality, work style, and practice interests, you cannot cut corners by relying on someone else’s definition of prestige.

L. Transition Opportunities

For some students, an important factor in selecting a law firm is what opportunities that position will afford them if they decide it is time to move on. Regardless of the transition you seek to make, there are certain factors you should keep in mind as you chart your career path. 
If you have a particular transition in mind, take advantage of every opportunity to learn about and connect with people in that field.  Consider pro bono opportunities, bar association events and committees, community offerings, and any and all networking opportunities.  Avoid the golden handcuffs—live within a tight budget knowing that once you make a transition, your big firm salary may be a thing of the past.

A special note if you are contemplating a career in legal academia -- there are many factors that will be significantly more important to your candidacy than the type of law firm where you work after completing law school. These factors include publications, judicial clerkship experience, additional advanced degrees, and recommendations. In fact, while several years of practice experience is generally an asset in the law teaching market, candidates with four or more years often face more challenges on the market.

Useful Resources:


Selecting a law firm that best fits your career goals and lifestyle can be very challenging. In addition to reviewing the resources mentioned here, use the interview process to learn more about a particular firm’s policies. Check out the interviewing advice on the CDO site and the VIP site.

Deciding when to ask questions about certain matters can be tricky. Remember that Yale Law students have considerable power in the job market. If you ask questions about issues such as pro bono, flexible work, and diversity, firms will have to come up with answers and may decide to implement policy changes. At the same time, your goal in the interview is to demonstrate your interest in the work of the firm and your work ethic, so it would be wise to ask these questions as a small portion of the universe of questions you pose. You may decide to ask some of the questions that are more important to your decision-making earlier in the interview process, and save other questions for after you have an offer in hand.

-Last updated June 2023


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