A First Year Lawyer's Survival Strategy

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A Survival Strategy for
First-Year Lawyers
Jonathan J. Rusch
Deputy Chief for Strategy and Policy
Fraud Section, Criminal Division
U.S. Department of Justice
Washington, DC
University of Virginia Law School
Charlottesville, VA
March 25, 2009
Note: The views expressed herein are solely those of the
speaker, and do not necessarily represent the views of any
component or officer of the federal government or of the
University of Virginia or any component or official thereof
Background

Law Practice Responses to Economy

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
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Hiring, pay freezes
Delayed starting dates (sometimes a full year)
Pay cuts of 10-20 percent
 Partners, associates
Rescission of offers (by firms and local prosecutors)
RIFS (attorneys included) and “voluntary departure” plans
 RIFs: January - 1,487; February - 2,000+; March – 3,000+
(in first 12 days)
 Sometimes generous severance packages (plus
nondisclosure agreements and waivers of liability)
Background

“Why Are They Doing This to Me?”


It’s not personal – really
Economics of law practice
 Focus on more profitable work
 Supply of work diminished

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Overcapacity of legal staff


Prevent losing partners
Reluctance to leave voluntarily slows typical attrition
Need to Focus on New Realities of Practice

2008 was 2008
Components of a First-Year
Survival Strategy

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Professional Matters
Financial Matters
Personal Matters
Professional Matters
Timeline for Planning

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Commencement to Bar Exam
Bar Exam to Starting Date
Starting Date to One Year Out
One to Five Years Out
Commencement to Bar Exam

Enjoy Commencement (Yes, You Can)


Your ability to affect outside events is limited
Worries about bar exam can wait – a bit
Commencement to Bar Exam

Key to Approaching Bar Exam

You only have to pass


Bar review courses will give you what you need to
know
You only have to remember bar review material
through the exam

Cultivate “bathtub memory”
Bar Exam to Starting Date

Take Time Off After The Exam (A Little)



You deserve it
You need it
But Then Pursue Interim Strategy for
Professional Preparation and Growth


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Professional development
Business intelligence
Contingency planning
Bar Exam to Starting Date

Professional Development

Do something law-related if you can while you’re waiting
 Law review article or other legal writing
 Pro bono work




Do it because it’s good for others (and for you)
Honing skill sets (e.g., brief drafting, litigation)
Note: Consult with prospective employer first
 Avoid prospective conflicts
 Employer may steer you to particular work
 Some laidoff lawyers being placed with pro bono organizations,
given stipend (far below former salary)
Don’t assume you’ll be as attractive next year as you are
this year if you do nothing of professional nature
 Out of sight, out of mind
Bar Exam to Starting Date

Business Intelligence

Your perspective has to be global



Law firms’ perspectives increasingly global
What affects other businesses/employers here and
abroad affects your prospective employer
You are your own intelligence unit

Intelligence about –


Your employer
Continuing trends in legal profession and economy
Bar Exam to Starting Date

Business Intelligence
 Be proactive in gathering intelligence
 Occasional contacts with prospective employer


Google Alerts - http://www.google.com/alerts?hl=en

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Set delivery frequency
Legal blogs and newssites

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Don’t rely primarily on in-house contacts
Above the Law - http://abovethelaw.com/
Law Blog - http://blogs.wsj.com/law/
Law.com - http://www.law.com/jsp/law/index.jsp
 Newswire http://store.law.com/registration/register.asp?subscribeto=nw
Overlawyered - http://overlawyered.com/
The Shark - http://theshark.typepad.com/
Business publications

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Financial Times - http://www.ft.com/home/us
Wall Street Journal - http://online.wsj.com/home-page (includes
Careers section)
Bar Exam to Starting Date

Contingency Planning

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Make plans in case something goes wrong with your job
 Associate litigation against firms reportedly increasing
 Suing your prospective employer still not best option
 Consider negotiating for best deal you can get
Keep your eyes, ears open for alternatives for which you
may be qualified
 Geographic: Other cities/states
 Private and public sectors: Government
 “Find a job . . . even if it may not be what you had hoped or
expected. Get in somewhere.” (Partner)
Starting Date to One Year Out

What Do You Say and Do on Day One?

Make three assumptions:

Everybody knows more and counts for more than you
do

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Everyone else there is worth more than you


Managing partner to custodial staff
Manner/attitude: You’re happy to be there
Learn (and use) everyone’s name, especially when you
need help
Your perceived marginal value on Day One: > $0
You need to increase your marginal value ASAP

Assume economic conditions will be volatile this year and
next
Starting Date to One Year Out

How Do You Increase Your Marginal Value?

Recognize you are there to support partners

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Know what supervisor wants and check in on progress
In client meetings, don’t offer advice and answer questions
posed by clients unless partner invites you to do so
Prepare to be flexible in the work assignments you
take on
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Especially in difficult times, partners are likely to remember
who was willing to step up for less attractive assignments
and who wasn’t
Broader exposure to more types of practice can help you
sort out what kind of lawyer you want to be
If possible, avoid being locked into single department or
specialty practice (unless very stable and growing)
Starting Date to One Year Out

How Do You Increase Your Marginal Value?

Like college, choose a major and minor (Partner)

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When you have too much work, you need to push
back (professionally)

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Advantage to being seen as “go-to” person for more than
one legal area
Sometimes you can be in too much demand
Can you refuse assignments that you absolutely hate?

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Maybe – but be prepared to offer a really good (i.e., deeply
personal) justification
Assume that one is all you’ll get in your first year
Starting Date to One Year Out

How Do You Increase Your Marginal Value?

Branding

Dr. Judith Sills: You are your own brand

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“. . . the professional identity you create in the minds of
others”
(http://www.psychologytoday.com/rss/index.php?term=2008
0118-000009&page=1)
Branding may include –
 Establishing niche expertise
 Sending clear signals about key attributes (e.g.,
consistency, reliability, delivering on time)
Starting Date to One Year Out

How Do You Increase Your Marginal Value?

Branding

Look for opportunities with your employer

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Write (co-write) article relevant to practice
Do bar association, trade association presentations
“You have to show what you know” (Sills)
Starting Date to One Year Out
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How Do You Increase Your Marginal Value?

Branding
 Don’t be shy about walking in partner’s/supervisor’s door
(Partner)
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Work at forming relationships – lunch, drop-by visits
As you get to know people at firm, they can speak to the value you
add (First-Year Associate)
“Many associates get work, and good work, by taking the initiative
and showing interest. Do not wait for opportunities, make them.”
(Partner)
Develop “major” and “minor” mentors (Partner)
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Not in your major, minor substantive areas
The more senior, the more influential on your behalf
 But also harder to get on that partner’s calendar
Listen to what mentors are telling you
 Guidance/business intelligence for your career decisionmaking
Starting Date to One Year Out

How Do You Increase Your Marginal Value?

Branding
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But don’t leave it all to your employer

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“For a successful long-term career, do not look to your
company or industry to take care of you. As in every other
arena of life, you must take care of yourself.” (Sills)
Explore topics or specialties that appeal to you


There’s always a market for good communicators
 Speaking, writing opportunities
You might find something you’d like to do more than what
you’re doing by then
Starting Date to One Year Out

Neatness Counts (Still)

Do and turn in high-quality work on time

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If chance of missing a deadline, talk to supervisor first
After a bad experience with partner on an assignment,
you may not be able to turn things around with that
partner for some time
Starting Date to One Year Out

Neatness Counts (Still)

Important to stay organized with multiple projects on
multiple deadlines
 In a sea of emails and paper, use a RAFT
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Online productivity resources
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Read, Action, File, Throw away (cf. Stephanie Winston)
Lifehacker – http://lifehacker.com
43Folders – http://43folders.com
Stepcase Lifehack – http://lifehack.org
James Fallows, Organize Your Life!, The Atlantic, July/August
2004, http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200407/fallows2
Your office as an extension of your brand
 How do you want to be perceived by supervisors and
peers
Starting Date to One Year Out
Starting Date to One Year Out
Starting Date to One Year Out
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Don’t Forget Networking
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Within employer
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Mentors and colleagues
Beyond employer
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Mandatory and voluntary bar associations
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Specialty areas of practice
Improvements in legal system
General bar associations (e.g., ABA, state or local
bars)
Starting Date to One Year Out
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Plan What to Do When You Make a Mistake (And
You Will)
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Before the mistake
 Let “associate paranoia” be your guide (not your master)
 Get clear instructions on what you’re supposed to do
During the mistake
 Don’t exceed your supervisor’s instructions
 Never lie
 Protect the client’s interests
After the mistake
 Promptly admit what happened to the supervisor
 Promptly take whatever remedial steps you’re directed to
take
One to Five Years Out

Use Your First Year to Explore Where You
Want to Be in Five Years
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You are building a career
Two views of a career
Keswick Hall
Winchester House
Winchester House
Financial Matters
The J-Term Course
Basic Rules of Thumb
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Don’t Spend Up to Your Salary
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Even if you make $160,000, you don’t make
$160,000
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Net salary – (fixed costs (rent + loan repayments +
taxes)) + basic variable costs (food + transportation) =
Not as much as you think
Plan to Control Costs (Fixed and Variable)
Controlling Fixed Costs
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How Do You Control Fixed Costs?

Rent
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Think economically for first year
Think of transportation costs as part of your total rent
Student loans
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Negotiate a rate you can handle in your first year
Leave a cushion in case of future problems
Controlling Variable Costs
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Plan for Reasonable Spending and Savings
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Make a budget that allows for both
Need to consider two kinds of savings
 Cash savings – emergency money
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Old standard: Long-term 3-6 months salary
New standard: Anything, as long as it’s regular
MetLife Study (Released March 2009):
 50 percent of Americans reported having only one-month
cushion or less before they could not fully meet their financial
obligations if they lost their jobs
 29 percent of Americans making $100,000/year or more
reported they would have trouble paying their bills after more
than one month of unemployment
Longer-term investment
Controlling Variable Costs

Two Basic Precepts for Investment

You can always save something

Set fixed amount each month, save automatically

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You won’t miss it if you save it first
You can always save somewhere

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Ultrasafe investments (e.g., short-term CDs) as well
as equity
Start an IRA ASAP

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Regular IRAs – tax deferral
Small amounts invested early can produce substantial longterm returns
Controlling Variable Costs

T. Rowe Price Chart:
Controlling Variable Costs

Choose a Credit Card Wisely
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Pick one and stick with it
Don’t choose bank just because it mailed you an
offer
Check websites for best rates, benefits (e.g., cash
back, no annual fee)

http://www.bankrate.com/brm/rate/cc_home.asp
Controlling Variable Costs

Don’t Let Credit-Card Debt Mount
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Banks increasing APRs, adding fees
Use FTC Credit Card Calculator http://www.ftc.gov/creditcardcalculator

On $5,000 balance, at 14.99 percent, and only
minimum payment each month:

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$250 estimated initial monthly payment
8 years to pay off (assuming you make no other
charges and pay on time)
$1,613 interest charges
Controlling Variable Costs

Joan Goldwasser, Kiplinger’s Personal Finance, Washington
Post, March 1, 2009:
 Find a bank with fee-free ATMs
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Avoid checking-account fees
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Brick-and-mortar banks: Average checking-account fee - $12/month;
average minimum balance - $3,500
Free accounts available with some banks if you use direct-deposit or
make 5 or more debit-card purchases/month, or if you pay online
Avoid bounced-check fees
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Average payment for out-of-network ATM: $3.43
Average bounced-check fee: $29
Ask if bank has free alerts when balance falls to predesignated
amount
Automatic debits to pay credit card

Late fees can be as much as $39/month
Personal Matters
Plan to Have Personal Life
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Make Commitments to -
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Recognize That You Create Expectations
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Your relationships
Time for yourself and your interests
Robert Spagnoletti, President, D.C. Bar: “If we are sending
e-mails at 11 p.m., the message to our clients, and our
families, is that the client can have our attention at 11 p.m.”
Keep Billables Up
 You may not always (or even usually) bill the
most, but the most billables won’t guarantee
retention

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Clients increasingly suspicious of, resentful about massive
billables
The least billables may guarantee layoff
Plan to Have a Personal Life
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Make Time for Physical Activity
Make Time for Sleep
Actively Pursue At Least One Outside (NonLegal) Interest
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Another kind of long-term investment
Contact Data
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[email protected]
202-514-0631
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Photo Credits:
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Slide 28: New Horizon Wines
Slides 29-30: Winchester Mystery House, San
Jose, CA
Slide 36 (Graph): T. Rowe Price
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