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Assessing Law Firms: Culture, Clients, Compensation and Beyond
B. The Work
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.
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.
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:
- Chambers Associate provides associates’ views of the culture of their firms.
- YLW’s Top Firms Report - Culture Section
- The American Lawyer’s annual Midlevel and Summer Associates Surveys assess firms based on associate job satisfaction. This site must be accessed through Yale’s VPN. Instructions are available here.
- Learn from Students - Yale Law Student Summer Employment Evaluations available by clicking on the resources tab in CDO’s Career Management System and the Class Employment Lists also on CMS
- Learn from Alumni - Yale Law School’s alumni engagement platform, The Courtyard
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:
- Chambers Associate Practice Area Summaries and Legal Market Report practice area info (pages 20 - 38)
- Firsthand/Vault Law Practice Area Section
- HG.org Areas of Practice section
- US News Law Firm Practice Areas
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 (i.e., Kirkland & Ellis) have open assignment systems while others (i.e., 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:
- VIP Firm info - Work Assignment and Practice Area Systems
- Chambers Associate - A-Z profiles “inside view” subsection under "the work".
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.
- Firsthand/Vault – firm rankings by practice area.
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.
- NALP’s Directory of Legal Employers section on Professional Development
- Firsthand/Vault Best Law Firms for Training
- YLW’s Top Firms Report - Advancement Section
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. For example, a $210,000 New York City salary is equivalent to $86,923 in Austin, TX and $105,556 in Chicago, IL according to CNN Money’s cost of living calculator.
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.
- Chambers Associate - law firm salary chart
- Firm Prospects - per firm associate compensation and profits per partner data
- NALP - First Year Associate Salary data
- NALP Directory under the “Compensation & Benefits” tab
- Chambers Associate information about law firm compensation structures.
- YLW’s Top Firms Report - Compensation Section.
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.
- Chambers Associate – Work/life and Benefits chart including billable hours.
- NALP Directory - “Hours & Work Arrangements” tab.
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
- NALP Directory - “Pro Bono/Public Interest” tab.
- Chambers Associate - best performing firms for pro bono work.
- Firsthand/Vault - Best Law Firms for Pro Bono rankings.
- ALM Legal Intelligence - Pro Bono Survey and Pro Bono Hot List under “Surveys, Rankings & Reports”. This site must be accessed through Yale’s VPN. Instructions are available here.
- ABA Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge, which lists firms who have agreed to commit either 3% or 5% of their firm’s total billable hours to pro bono work.
- YLW’s Top Firms Report - Culture Section
There are many ways to explore pro bono work during the summer, including working for a firm that offers a sponsored split public interest summer. Participating firms allow summer associates to work part of the summer at the firm and the other part at a public interest organization, with the firm paying the entire summer’s salary. If you seek community focused, pro bono friendly firms, you should consider working with a firm that offers a sponsored summer program. See CDO’s brochure, Firms Sponsoring Split Public Interest Summer Programs, for a listing of firms that offer these opportunities.
Below are resources to help you learn about firm DEI programs and policies and their effectiveness.
- YLW’s Top Firms Report.
- Chambers Associate - Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion rankings
- Firsthand/Vault - Best Law Firms for Diversity
- Law Firm Diversity Summer Opportunities info sheet available here.
- ALM Intelligence Surveys and Rankings related to diversity Including the Diversity Scorecard; NLJ Women in Law scorecard; the NLJ LGBT Scorecard and more. (Site must be accessed through Yale’s VPN. Instructions are available here).
- Law Firm Antiracism Alliance Pledge and Signatory List as of 9_04_20
- NALP - Diversity and Demographics data.
- NALP Directory - Diversity & Inclusion information.
- NALP’s Diversity Best Practices Guide
- Human Rights Campaign Corporate Equality Index which rates workplaces, including law firms, on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer equality.
- The Diversity Lab’s Mansfield Rule certifies that law firms consider at least 30% women, LGBTQ+ and minority lawyers for significant leadership roles. An open letter from firm chairs and managing partners is available here.
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.
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. In response to COVID-19, employers are now facing new decisions about in-person and remote work plans for attorneys and staff. Keep an eye out for how firms of interest to you handle these matters.
- YLW’s Top Firms Report - Agency & Flexibility Section
- Chambers Associate - Work/Life and Benefits chart
- NALP Directory “Hours & Work Arrangements” tab
- The Center for Work/Life Law at UC Hastings
- Learn from Alumni - Yale Law School’s alumni engagement platform, The Courtyard
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 who do not share in the profits of the firm and are not the firm decision-makers, in addition to equity partners. Also, the number of years it takes to make non-equity or equity partner varies from firm to firm. Find out what that is. Some firms will hire lateral partners while other firms tend to promote only from within.
- 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.
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. Firsthand/Vault 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.
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.
- Firm Prospects – Attrition tab in firm profile depicts attorney transition information
- CDO’s advice on Strategies for Success in your First Job.
- The Courtyard, YLS alumni engagement platform, to view the varied career paths of our graduates.
- Alumni section of firm websites
- Law Teaching section of CDO website.
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 2022