November 14, 2014

Only Interested in Transactional Law: The Summer Associate Taboo?

I recently got this fascinating stream-of-consciousness from a member (feel free to share any human interest stories you have, I can post them anonymously or with attribution):

Ah, Fall of 2004. How I remember it well…

Running from on-campus interview to on-campus interview, declining call-backs, requesting post-offer meetings with associates…trying to decide which offer to accept, based on Firm differentiators such as salary and reputation, but also width of hallways, number of windows per associate office, and various other “decision makers.” My biggest concern that semester was trying to disguise my pregnancy, while wearing suits that hung perfectly in July and barely buttoned during late October. Did I want to practice transactional law or litigation? I hadn’t a clue and was eager to experience both. And that was perfectly okay.

Fast forward, Fall of 2006. How I remember it well…

My colleagues and I, arriving at the Firm — our Firm — wearing new suits and new shoes, with new haircuts. Corporate, securities, finance, and other transactional work all were booming. Deal after deal after deal. We heard about how Firms had such trouble retaining mid-level corporate associates, and, sure enough, nearly every few weeks, we saw another second, third, fourth year colleague heading to greener in-house pastures in search of balance.

As know-nothing first-years, we already were receiving weekly calls from head-hunters, and our salaries were raised, in part, to compete with the allure of the money offered by the investment banks, hedge funds, and private equity firms we represented. While at lunch, “interviewing” prospective summer associates, we promoted interest in transactional work — emphasizing the size of transactions, what we were learning, the newly-discovered joy of “deal rush,” while de-emphasizing the crazy hours and consistently frantic pace.

Our practice group was so invested in recruiting and hiring lateral associates that almost any lateral associate, whether transactionally-trained or litigator, would do; we became familiar with the technical term “re-tooling.” “You want to do Corporate work?” “When can you start?”

Now it’s Fall of 2014.

I’m the mid-level now – and things are just a little bit different. The “interview” lunches are all but gone – and the law students who trickle into the hallways are smiling hard and barely breathing. Gone are the tough questions about work-life balance, and the smart ones don’t even pretend to want to pursue the transactional path I’ve taken. Our Firm has selected a team of “primary interviewers” – and for the first time, we have a Fall Recruiting Launch, designed to ensure that we present a consistent recruiting message and apply consistent evaluation criteria.

Any questions? “What if a candidate asks if we expect to be hiring in that area?” We should say that we are continually monitoring the marketplace and that our hiring decisions for particular practice areas will be based on the needs of our Firm at the time of hiring. “But if the candidate expresses that he or she only wants to do Corporate law, then that may be a factor in assessing the candidate’s judgment.” Hmmm.

I’ve been asked to travel with some partners, out-of-state, to attend a recruiting meet-and-greet for “promising” law students, all of whom go to “better” law schools than I attended, and who, no doubt, have more flawless transcripts. Receptions, conventions, meetings, I’m a good Firm cheerleader. I love to meet new people, mingle, talk about our Firm, school, life, my kids, my crazy Fall recruiting stories.

On this particular day, however, I feel a bit like a spy or a decoy. I try to hint to the students with whom I’m chatting that my Firm is particularly busy in certain practice groups and that, this year, it certainly doesn’t hurt to be interested in litigation. I tacitly invite them, urge them, not to show too much interest in what I do — corporate, securities, finance work. “Yes, I love it. It’s so funny, though; when I was a summer associate, I really thought that litigation was my thing. It’s a good idea to keep an open mind, you know? How do you feel about litigation? Our Firm does a lot of commercial litigation, and we’re always hiring for that. Oh, you really want transactional? Well, you know, bankruptcy is booming right now, and that has a mix of litigation and transactional. That partner over there is a bankruptcy expert.” Hint. Hint. Hint.

I try my best, say my goodbyes, and board the train back to my home city. The next day, as expected, an e-mail appears, which says something like, “Thank you for traveling on behalf of the Firm last night. To assist our recruiting efforts, please indicate the names of any students whom you believe the Firm should invite for a call-back interview. Please also indicate the names of any students whom you believe may not be a good fit for the Firm, and please indicate why.” We are urged to rank candidates.

I carefully list the names of my favorites from the preceding night, after struggling to pin the names on the appropriate faces in my mind. I hesitate. But then I do it. Quickly and shamefully. I type two names under the “not good fit” category. Yes, in my opinion, they were the least outgoing and the most socially awkward. But that’s not the reason. Not this year. Despite my best efforts, all of my hard work, my steering, my hints, those two never wavered. So, under the “why,” this Corporate lawyer typed what may have become the new interviewee taboo, “ONLY interested in Corporate law.”

– Broc Romanek