Working in Law Firms and Corporate Law cubicles for 15 years, you get second sense of what that Firm’s culture within 10 minute of walking in the front door; that is you’ll know if this is a firm you wish to reach out to or run like hell. This goes beyond “going with your gut”, this is fine observation and candid examination. Failing to make these observations will side-track you or restart at the bottom. I have distilled this second sense into six basic items I look for when determining a good firm. Take note of them.
1. Does the staff look jittery or shell shocked?
Everyone has an off day or bad moment, we can’t always be on our A Game every waking moment. But use your senses and take a close look at all of the staff: From the clerks and receptionist to the Paralegals and Secretaries. Are they ALL walking on egg shells or look like Zombies? If they all are acting the same way, do you want to join the undead? No amount of money can re-animate your professional career.
2. If someone tells you this is the greatest job or place to work, it’s not.
This is not about the person passionate about their career or product. Because if they are candid and self-improving, they will find areas of improvement about their Firms or Products and share them with you so you may make your own determination. However if someone tells you unequivocally and repeatedly that you are in the greatest job you can ever hope for or the greatest Firm ever and you should feel exactly the same way, watch out, they have drank the Kool-aid and you are next in-line – and your career just became DOA.
3. When your boss / mentors tell you to avoid people or be careful around, you just got knifed.
Now I am not saying you should ignore your boss / mentors when they suggest not interfacing with Senior Management and you walk in and jump on the General Counsel’s sofa. But when they tell you to avoid, or only associate with, certain peers or Partners, or suggest for a specific Partner you should drop everything for and do or they will end your career, my only recommendation is unless you trained in Byzantine Court protocols or memorized Machiavelli’s “The Prince”, avoid that Firm entirely. Because the same ones who give you the warning with all sincerity, will likely stab you in the back and end your career just as it starts.
4. Whose pulling your bosses’ strings?
It's rare if your boss or Attorney does not report to someone else or follow a directive. The real question becomes how much authority does your direct report really have and who has the real authority. In my career I had two bosses who had really no authority, it was derived solely from their direct report. However, there was a big difference: One which worked very closely with his direct report and pushed back when needed, which gave a balanced approach to managing the daily operations. That gave his subordinates a sense of trust and not being thrown under the bus. The other was, no kidding, a puppet; only to carry out the orders of all her superiors no matter how convoluted or confusing which, as you guessed, gave ZERO trust. I had to buy a bus schedule just to keep track of which bus I was going to be thrown under.
The best way to determine if you have a puppet is to have a candid discussion with your peers about how much authority your direct report has and who is calling the shots by the end of first week. If your peers are candid, will tell whether or not you have puppet. If you have a puppet, cut the strings Pinocchio and run.
5. Did everyone get the same message?
Sometimes you work for two diametrically different Attorneys with conflicting requests. Granted, every practice has variations even within the same firm; that comes with the territory. I’m not talking about the minutia of day-to-day stuff, I’m talking about if the shareholders are working in concert to make a firm profitable by agreeing to a joint principal or making their own empire and be damned the rest.
You cannot read a business blog or HBR article without the pendant pontificating of "Mission" and enterprise wide understanding the mission. Got it. However, since Law Firms do not read either, the question of "Mission" is more convoluted. Is what you are being told about procedure or form style or deliverables the same from the Associate, the Partner, the Managing Partner, and the Governing Partners? Do you find the rules apply to all the staff, Associates, and Junior Partners, but NOT the Senior Partners? If the message is completely different between in either stage, you got trouble. If you find several carve outs of principals and protocols for certain Partners, you will are in real trouble? Ultimately, no matter how good the money is, you will never find a comfort zone and ultimately you may not have a firm.
6. Did your Attorney get a good night’s sleep or have recurring health issues? It’s Dollar_somatic!
This part is the most important, and most subjective, because it is a matter of individual tolerance and how much you can withstand. This requires a real sense of self-evaluation.
I have not met an Attorney who occasionally does not get a good nights’ sleep from years of trying to make 2000 billable hours per year. That’s not what I am talking about.
What I am talking about is when a crazed, hard core biathlon Trial Attorney starts losing sleep or developing ulcers about the Jury Trial which he believes should be settled but the Client, who is paying on time and top dollar, refuses to settle. Or the M&A Firm which suspects their client is not acting in good faith when irregularities appear in the Financials, but does not challenge the client because the Managing Partners insist the revenue from that client takes precedence. Then you have what I call Dollar_somatic. That is, revenue pressure from Managing Partners becomes the over-riding factor in Professional responsibility. This is becoming more common in mid-size to AMLAW Firms in the face of unprecedented challenges and financial pressures.
Eventually, this will trickle down on you and everyone has a different response to and tolerance of financial pressure. You may not have skin in the game over the outcome, but you may developed a greater detachment from clients –suckers to be milked– and suddenly you are in Golden Handcuff’s; you can’t leave because of seniority and money but cannot stand the work and guess what, your blood pressure is elevated. Or you try to turn off your ethics and push through the work, and guess what, you got an ulcer! Look carefully at this, self-evaluate and not just push this aside, or at your own peril ignore for this will hamper your career.