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21 posts from June 2010

June 15, 2010

Harvard Law Women Opt Out

Betty Women seeking work/life balance are getting their faces slapped with cold water these days. Last week in Texas Lawyer, Andrews Kurth partner Kathleen Wu warned law school graduates not to "get their hearts set on having it all." Wu calls law practice "demanding--exceedingly so. It is next to impossible to balance a full-time legal career with marriage, children, and regular trips to the gym."

Wu, a 1985 law school graduate, says it's possible to have family and career but that it will entail "sacrifices." She ultimately passes the torch to younger lawyers to push for greater life balance.

So how are some of the younger women doing on this front? Angie Kim, a 1993 graduate of Harvard Law School, gives us a hint in Slate ("The Mommy Track Turns 21"), and the news is sobering.

When she decided on a legal career in 1989, Kim writes, she wanted no part of any mommy track, a job where ambition would take a back seat to the demands of family:

For the next decade, I stuck with this plan: I was a law review editor, federal appellate clerk, and a litigation associate at the Washington, D.C., firm Williams & Connolly. I shifted to the corporate ladder and continued the climb with a stint at McKinsey & Co. and then as cofounder and president of a dot-com-turned-software company with more than 200 employees.

But then--you guessed it--having kids changed her course. "I didn't want to be an antifeminist opt-out revolutionary," Kim writes, but then her second baby became ill with an unknown ailment. So for the next five years she embarked on what she terms the "doctor mom track," doing medical research and taking her son for medical treatments. (Her son is now fine.)

About a year ago, Kim became curious if the other women in her law school class had also seen their plans derailed. So she took a poll of the 226 women in her class. After a lot of prodding, a surprising 90 percent responded:

According to my survey, the majority of the women of the class of 1993 of Harvard Law School have left the fast track. Thirty percent of the respondents have mommy-track jobs, with 21 percent working part-time and 9 percent working full-time with special arrangements like job-sharing and working nonconventional hours. Another 30 percent of the respondents stay at home, most having "off-ramped" with the expectation of going back to work when their children are older.

That 60 percent of these women have dropped out of the fast track is astonishing, especially since they graduated at a time when women's enrollment in law schools was at an all-time high. According to Catalyst, women represented 50.4 percent of law students in 1993.

I called Kim at her home in northern Virginia to discuss her findings, and she offered some other fascinating tidbits that didn't make it into the article. She says that only 15 percent of the women from her class are law firm partners--a rate that's even lower than the national average of 19 percent women partners.  Women on law review, however, seemed to fare better: Of the 15 women on law review, Kim says she's the only one who's not working.

Despite this very mixed picture, Kim wants to stress the positive. Her thesis is that the so-called mommy track has evolved:

The "mommy track" was renounced at birth for sanctioning boring flextime jobs with low plaster ceilings. But some of my not-fast-track classmates are using their clout and influence to create prestigious roles. A senior partner who brought many clients to her law firm, for example, now works 15 to 40 hours per week, mainly out of her home and on her own schedule. . . . The author of a best-selling book on negotiations launched her own conflict resolution firm with about 15 attorneys and consultants. She works from home during school hours and after bedtime and takes July and August off.

Kim argues that "the line between the fast track and the mommy track is blurring," and that flexibility "is infiltrating more and more jobs and replacing traditional work values—long hours, face time—as the new workplace ideal."

It's all quite hopeful, though there's plenty of room for debate as to when--if ever--this type of track will be available on a wide basis. Right now, Kim admits that a few "privileged women occupy such a space."

But the real stunner to me--and what Kim doesn't really address--is that nearly a third of the women from her class aren't working at all. These are some of the brightest legal minds in the country, and yet they've decided to drop out completely.

Kim says that most of these women are taking a hiatus from practicing to raise children. "Very few said they would never go back to work," says Kim.

Despite Kim's assurance, I can't help but feel a bit deflated that so many of her female classmates have decided not to pursue any type of career at all. Yes, I realize that these are personal choices, and that many women are perfectly fulfilled minding the home and kids. And as the cliche goes, kids grow up so quickly. So who can blame anyone for not wanting to miss those magical years?

Yet, I'm baffled. Are these women just burned out by the legal profession? Is it that impossible to balance--however badly--home and career of any sort? Or are these women taking the path of least resistance?

It's a mystery to me.

If you have topics you'd like to discuss, or information to share for The Careerist, e-mail chief blogger Vivia Chen at VChen@alm.com

Photo from Mad Men, courtesy of AMC

June 14, 2010

The Law Firm as Socialist Fishbowl

Fotolia_3911498_XS Would you ever reject a job offer because the decor of the law firm wasn't up to snuff? Would you think twice about joining a firm where the partner's office was as dinky as that of a lowly associate?

Those are silly questions, right? For any sensible lawyer, money, prestige, and interesting work would trump anything as superficial as interior design.

But not so fast. Some lateral partner recruits, it turns out, are balking about joining firms with progressive, democratic designs, according to a recent article in the ABA Journal.

Seyfarth Shaw, for instance, has created a mini revolution in the legal world by assigning offices with the same square footage to both partners and associates. Yet the firm had to carve out an exception to this grand design for its office in New York, where the big-partner office is still sacrosanct. "There was a problem with recruitment, having laterals come over" to work in an associate-size office, explained Seyfarth partner Carl Russo to the ABA.

It's hardly surprising that partners might take offense at this democratic design scheme. My hunch, though, is that associates probably applaud it. In a profession known for its rigid caste system, it's a breath of fresh air to have at least a semblance of equality in the workplace.

Still, there are some design trends that lawyers of all ranks might dislike. One is the "transparent" office, where glass has replaced those nice solid walls covered with those reassuring Currier & Ives prints. At some offices (Seyfarth; Morgan Lewis & Bockius; and Orrick were some of the firms the ABA Journal cites), there's so much transparency that you'd have to duck under your desk for a moment of privacy.

2010Orrick2_00023 "With offices on both sides [of hallways], it creates a much more vibrant atmosphere," Orrick partner Peter Bicks told the ABA. "Partners are sitting right by associates with complete, open lines of sight. One of the goals is to encourage a more collaborative atmosphere."

"Collaborative" is the big buzzword in corporate design these days. But what Bicks might regard as collaborative might strike associates as intrusive and oppressive. Just try surfing eBay for vintage jewelry on your lunch break when you're under the watchful gaze of a partner.

But the flip side is that you can stare right back at that partner and make him feel uncomfortable, too. One Seyfarth partner likes to nap, and now he has an audience. "He takes naps in his office; he turns the lights out at night. Everybody can see him," Seyfarth partner Russo told the ABA.

Like it or not, designers see the trend toward a more open and nonhierarchical law firm as inevitable. Part of this is driven by cost. Another factor, says the ABA, is the advent of alternative billing and the emphasis on efficiency. The conceit of this new type of office is that firms are moving toward a teamwork model.

Right now, partners still hog the kind of square footage that would be unthinkable in much of the corporate world. Architect Todd DeGarmo told the ABA: "Corporate America spent years engineering those costs out of their system. There's a lot more emphasis on how to make people effective than how to reward them with space." Currently, the ABA states that a typical associate office occupies 125-150 square feet--a common size in the corporate sector. But a partner's office is usually 200-250 square feet, which, DeGarmo added, "almost doesn't exist anywhere else anymore."

What all this means is that the days of the luxe partner office with the comfy leather sofa and the marble coffee table is as doomed for extinction as the executive washroom. Still, I have a feeling that some lawyers will hold out until the peasants storm the firm. In Manhattan, where personal and professional success is measured by the ability to inch up the real estate chain (from a shared office to a single one to one with a view), the idea of starting and ending with the same square footage won't cut it.

What is the point of enduring those long hours if there's no upgrade? But then, this is more about style than substance. Does anybody really believe law firms are getting more democratic? 

f you have topics you'd like to discuss, or information to share for The Careerist, e-mail chief blogger Vivia Chen at VChen@alm.com.

Top photo: Monika Wisniewska/Fotolia

Bottom photo: Ben Rosenzweig/ courtesy of Orrick

June 11, 2010

Duke Law to Give Stipends to Jobless Graduates; Washington U. Law Offers Jobless a Virtual Firm Summer

Yesterday we blogged about laid-off associates who are cut off from some plum public sector internships. Today, we're checking what law schools are doing for students and new graduates who have been luckless in the job market. Here are some recent developments:

Duke Law School's Bridge to Practice Program:

Above the Law reports that Duke Law School is going out its way to hustle up interim jobs for its graduates:

While it didn’t go the SMU route of paying employers to “test drive” its graduates, [Duke] does now provide stipends to some of its unemployed graduates to allow them to work for a couple months at no cost to employers. Using SMU’s car metaphor, the law school pays for the gas while Dukies and prospective employers take a little spin.

Duke's "Bridge to Practice" program started in 2008 with nine graduates; last year it had 15, and this year 30 are expected to participate, says ATL.

It strikes me that Duke is being fairly generous in paying stipends to 30 graduates, considering that the class is just over 200. Of course, that's also an indication of how graduates still need jobs. But it's still nice that a school is giving something back to its graduates in their moment of need. It's certainly better than hitting them up for the alumni contributions right after graduation.

Washington University School of Law 

Our sister publication The National Law Journal reports that Washington University School of Law has started a summer program called "Associate in Training" for 1Ls and 2Ls who don't have jobs. The six-week program "is loosely modeled on law firm summer associateships, and includes attorney shadowing, networking, instruction on the business of law firms and other skills training." Tomea Mayer Mersmann, associate dean for strategic initiatives, told the NLJ that it's the first of its kind.

Sounds good enough, but here's what bothers me: The program costs $8,520. Though Mersmann told NLJ that tuition remission is available and students earn credits for participation, I still find the price tag astonishing. Do unemployed students really need this additional debt?

Mersmann told the NLJ:

Obviously, we'd rather have our students getting trained at law firms and being paid. Unfortunately, the current employment market has made it much harder to secure a summer associate position. . . . For students who weren't able to go to firms this summer, this program is the best substitution to learn those skills.

Perhaps I'm too skeptical, but I question whether having a law firm simulation class on your resume will really improve your career chances. Do you really need to pay $8,000-plus to follow a lawyer around a law firm like a lost puppy?

June 10, 2010

Laid-Off Associates Can't Give It Away

Good news: There's some great work available in the public sector for deferred or furloughed associates. The bad--and unfortunate--news: If you are a laid-off associate, you're out of the box for these volunteer programs.

In New York, The Legal Aid Society picked up the largest number of deferred or furloughed associates this past year, says Esther Lardent of the Pro Bono Institute. It hosted 38 associates, starting in fall 2009. Steven Banks, Legal Aid's chief attorney, says his organization is now busy evaluating another crop of deferred and furloughed candidates for next fall.

"We want to make sure that they are interested and have the right background [for legal services work]," Banks says. "Like Cravath, we are looking for the best people."

Legal Aid can afford to be picky. Banks says the agency received over 100 applicants for those 38 spots. It's also been immensely popular with some of the associates who interned there: Over ten of them want to stay on rather than return to their firms, says Banks. (See related story, "Culture Shock for Deferred Associates?"). "Whether we'll have positions depend on the city's and the state's budgets."

At New York City's law department, there's also ample work. "At least 25 furloughed and deferred associates in New York City have found temporary gigs this fall at the city’s law department—and there’s room for more," reports the American Bar Association Journal's blog. The ABA site calls Gotham's law department a "haven" for deferred associates who want to keep their skills sharp. 

The volunteers at both Legal Aid and the city's law department get stipends from their firms--about $5,000 a month to $75,000 a year, according to the Pro Bono Institute. The ABA blog says that the city's volunteers get great experience:  Besides working alongside assistant corporation counsel on class actions and a range of other matters, they "also tackle their own clients and cases on less-complex issues, such as small claims disputes."

The experience offered at Legal Aid and New York's law department seems terrific. So it's a pity, that there's no welcome mat at either organization for laid-off associates--the ones who really need to boost their resumes.

Last year, New York City's law department actually opened its doors to laid-off associates. At that time, NYC's corporation counsel, Michael Cardozo, told New York Law Journal, "[It] seems to me that these lawyers who have been laid off have [had] a blow to their ego, to say the least." He added that the program could be a "great psychological boost."

But this year the policy changed. "We no longer take associates who've been laid off," says Connie Pankratz, a spokesperson for the law department. "We found they were finding jobs quickly."

I have no reason to doubt that some laid-off associates got lucky and found jobs. But I also know that there are plenty of out-of-work lawyers who still have no prospects.

I think there's another explanation for why these public organizations aren't extending a hand to laid-off lawyers: These casualties of the profession don't have much to offer besides their willingness to work. Legal Aid's Banks offers a pretty honest explanation about why laid-off associates are cut out: "Our focus is on associates who will go back to their firms and continue the pro bono pipeline." 

In other words, without a big firm behind your back, you can't even give it away. How sad is that?

If you have topics you'd like to discuss, or information to share for The Careerist, e-mail chief blogger Vivia Chen at VChen@alm.com.

June 9, 2010

(Over) Dressed For Success?

Hermes Tan Gold Birkin 35 I don't usually write about fashion in the office, because the topic seems too obvious. What's there to discuss when you're talking about dressing for a law firm? Anyway, don't most lawyers--male and female--shop at Brooks Brothers or Paul Stuart? 

But apparently some junior associates are venturing beyond those safe harbors, and putting their own mark on corporate fashion. I'm hearing complaints--usually from more senior women--that young female associates in particular seem clueless about looking professional. "They go for cute and girlish, and that undercuts their seriousness," says one partner. "They are way too informal," gripes another.

But here's an interesting, if less common, twist on the issue: What if a young associate dresses better than the partners? That question was obliquely posed on Corporette.com, a fashion blog for professional women. In a recent post, a summer associate at a big firm in Singapore asks whether she should carry her Birkin to work. (For those who are too embarrassed to ask, a Birkin is an Hermes bag that's become an uber-status symbol; the price starts close to $10,000.)

The summer associate describes her dilemma: "I've heard two conflicting opinions: 1. You should dress what you would like to be, i.e., if you want to be a partner one day, dress as such; and 2. Dress appropriate to your level in the firm."

In response, Corporette urges caution:

[O]ur main hesitation towards carrying a Birkin bag at a young age is that it conveys something about you that isn’t necessarily a good thing: you’re rich. Or perhaps your parents are rich, or your fiance. Still: you’re not working for the money.

The consequence, adds Corporette, is that the summer associate will have to prove herself even more: "You might also find that your personality, your wardrobe, your attitude, and everything else about you will be under extra scrutiny as people try to reconcile their first impression of you (rich girl, maybe a materialistic girl) with whatever else your work product says about you."

What wasn't mentioned in the blog is that the scrutiny will likely come from other women, who might feel that this young woman has not paid enough dues to deserve a Birkin. (A corollary is that the male partners don't figure at all in this discussion, because they're probably clueless. Would they know a Birkin from a Nine West purse?)

Still, are the concerns overblown? I think so. While jealousy and competition among women in the office are not uncommon (see "The End of Sisterhood"), women, in my experience, are actually quite respectful toward those who are well-accessorized. From what I've seen, women are far more critical of those who don't dress well than those who are nicely turned out. The comment is usually, "Why is she dressed in rags when she makes so much money?" rather than, "How awful she's wearing that exquisite Armani." 

Why are we more forgiving about these luxuries? Maybe it's a pleasure to see someone who looks stylish. Maybe we'd like to think that we're in the same sorority of good taste.

So my advice is to bring out the Birkin, and prop it right on the conference table. And if it seems to be stirring jealousy or resentment, just hint that it's a fake. In New York, at least, that would be completely plausible.

What do you think? Can you be too well-dressed for the job?

June 8, 2010

To Lie or Not to Lie

Lying Is there a black mark on your transcript--say, an embarrassingly bad grade in some gut course like family law? Have you spent time in detox? Were you a Moonie for eight years before you saw the light and decided to go to law school?

Plenty of job applicants have a slip here or there. The problem is that law firms can be pretty unforgiving about life's foibles. They typically want candidates who are straight and narrow--the type of people whose idea of rebellion is to eat organic lettuce on a regular basis. In my experience, law firm interviewers can be painfully thorough. (For the record, my law school transcript is less than stellar, but I'm clean on the rehab and cult front.)

So the big question is this: What should you do about that inconvenient truth in your past? Should you come clean, in full, and be prepared to explain? Is it ever okay to lie on your resume or during a job interview?

Recently I came across two articles on the subject of lying and careers--one in The Wall Street Journal by Anna Prior and one in the Financial Times by Lucy Kellaway. Not surprisingly, the American publication takes a more puritanical view on lying. The WSJ's  Prior essentially warns readers to tell the truth--or face the consequences. The Brit (the FT's Kellaway) takes a more nuanced view. Ultimately, both the WSJ and FT offer advice that isn't radically different--both consider telling little lies acceptable (say, puffing about your restructuring experience); telling big lies (pretending to be a Yale Law School grad) is not.

The WSJ article, "In Job Hunting, Honesty Is Still the Best Policy," is full of cautionary tales about the perils of lying:

What's the harm in a little white lie on your resume, especially if it will help you finally nab that full-time position? 
Just ask George O'Leary, the Notre Dame football coach who was forced to resign five days after being hired when lies about his academic and athletic background came to light. Or Marilee Jones, an MIT dean who fudged on her credentials and quit when she was found out. 
Sure, these are high-profile examples, but rank-and-file workers also fall into the trap--and get caught.

Personally, I find Kellaway's article, "The Road to the Top Is Paved with Good Lies," more illuminating and fun. "Lying is surely caused as much by pragmatism as fear," she writes. "In my experience, it can be jolly useful. And tests have shown that it doesn't always catch up with you at all."

Kellaway cites some intriguing findings, including one in a recent issue of the Harvard Business Review that found "powerful people are better liars." In that study, bosses and staff members were assigned "to steal a $100 note and then convince someone that they hadn’t taken it--a trick that bosses could pull off far more successfully than their employees." Another study by psychologists at the University of Toronto, Kellaway writes, shows "that children who start lying by the age of 2 are more likely to be successful when they grow up."

Before anyone takes moral offense, let's be clear that Kellaway isn't promoting rampant chicanery. Rather, she's distinguishing between different strands of lying:

There is extreme lying, which is always bad. But there is also modest lying that is not bad; indeed it is absolutely essential to get through a day in the office. What is needed is more than being economical with the truth; it’s being sophisticated with it.

Enough theory. Let's get back to your sullied past. Do you really need to tell all? 

"Everybody has something to explain," says recruiter Jon Lindsey. "There's a difference between explanation and lies--and lies come back to bite you." He counsels telling the truth about almost everything, but says it's fine to fudge the reason you're looking for a new job: "If you're working for a psycho, it's better to say that the job was not a good fit and be vague."

Career coach Ellen Ostrow also advises lawyers to resist the temptation to lie. "If you've been fired, negotiate with your employer to say that it wasn't performance based," she says. 

Finally, it's worth bearing in mind that lawyers are held to a higher standard. Unlike their wheely-dealy clients, lawyers work in a regulated profession. "You can get disbarred for lying," Ostrow cautions. "Lawyers take an oath to uphold the law and should be more honest than their clients," adds recruiter Bonnie Miller.

It might not be fair, but lawyers just have to be more truthful. They have more to lose than the average Joanna when they lie. Pragmatism, rather than morals, decides the day. Is that too cynical?

If you have topics you'd like to discuss, or information to share for The Careerist, e-mail chief blogger Vivia Chen at VChen@alm.com.

Photo: Dmitry Veryovkin - Fotolia.com

June 7, 2010

The (Hot) Pink Ghetto

Labor+Employment Back in the day when Wall Street firms were filled with WASPs and afternoon tea was a daily requirement, women lawyers (if there were any) practiced in trusts and estates while the men stormed off to court or retreated to smoke-choked conference rooms to negotiate deals. 

That's all ancient history, of course. T&E is dead at most big firms, and women can be found in virtually every practice area across The Am Law 200. Still, that doesn't necessarily mean that women have succeeded across the board. This isn't the first time we've noted that women account for just 19 percent of the partners at big law firms. So where are the female lawyers thriving? One area is labor and employment. And no, it's not because it's a family- friendly practice.

In Women's Work, an article in the spring Labor & Employment supplement, I found that the percentage of women partners in labor and employment groups often surpassed that of women partners in the firm overall. At Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker, "women represented 34 percent of labor and employment partners but only 14.9 percent of all the firm's women partners. It's a similar story at Jones Day (28 percent versus 18 percent overall)."

Another surprise: Women in this practice area actually hold leadership positions. Nancy Abell heads labor and employment at Paul, Hastings; Lisa Damon does so at Seyfarth Shaw; Elise Bloom cochairs the group at Proskauer (and Proskauer labor and employment partner Bettina Plev­an also sits on the firm's executive committee). Labor and employment shop Littler Mendelson went so far as to install a female managing partner, Wendy Tice-Wallner, way back in 1999.

Why are women so successful in a field where there are so many brutal fights about discrimination and harassment? Well, here's the clincher: Those sticky human resource issues demand more emotional intelligence that women possess more of. At least, that's what some women practicing in labor and employment say.

The women featured in the article are tough cookies who regularly defend management against nasty claims of sexual discrimination. It's ironic that they attribute their success, at least in part, to being more emotionally attuned:

Employment litigation requires more sensitivity, says Plevan: 'Unlike a commercial dispute, where it's just dollars and cents, clients are emotional on both plaintiff and defense sides.' If you bring a claim of sexual discrimination or are charged with retaliatory behavior, she notes, 'your whole reputation is at stake.'

'Women are interested in motives and how relationships work,' says Plevan. 'Sometimes women will look at [facts] differently.'

Plevan and the other women interviewed in the article come perilously close to saying that women have a natural affinity for employment and labor law. If so, does that mean some practice areas are better suited for one sex or the other? And if so, is this chauvinistic or realistic? Tell us what you think.

If you have topics you'd like to discuss, or information to share for The Careerist, e-mail chief blogger Vivia Chen at VChen@alm.com.

June 5, 2010

Speed-Dating and Business Development

Fotolia_10657018_XS[1] "I don't want to go, but I know I should." I hear that all the time from my friends who are still toiling away at law firms.

What they dread is going to some fund-raiser, cocktail party, or industry event where the goal is to find The One: a client who will give them a steady stream of business, and secure their place at the firm.

Business development is a chore. And trying to do so by plunging head-first into a room full of strangers is tough--almost as brutal as going to a college mixer with the goal of coming out with a steady boyfriend for the next four years. Like college mixers, the odds aren't great that you'll find true love. But it happens.

Recently, Steven Bennett, a partner in Jones Day's New York office, offered up some pointers on "working a room" in The National Law Journal. His advice is surprisingly user-friendly.

One of his first commands: Do your research. Look at the event guest list and decide who you want to hit up. The goal, he explains, "is to find a few good quality contacts, and to spend enough time with each to learn about their needs and interests, and leave a favorable impression."

Next: Case the joint.

Crowded rooms tend to produce clumps of people, often difficult to penetrate. Look for opportunities on the fringes of the room, or in the entrance hall.

Some locations naturally draw individuals, more available for conversation. A check-in table may be ideal, as is the bar.

And if you really know no one there, Bennett offers the following suggestions:

Greet the host (or person who invited you). Give a "thank you," and ask to be introduced to guests who might share your interests.

Greet the guest speaker(s), before the presentation, and ask whether one of your interests will be addressed in the talk.

Approach other "singles" in the crowd. Be candid: "I really don't know anyone here. Do you?"

That last tip is especially clever--kind of like saying, "I hate mixers too--don't you?"

Obviously, Bennett doesn't offer any analogies to mixers or singles events, but the parallels seem obvious. His strategy for moving on to the next person brings speed dating to mind: "Good-quality conversations usually take 15-20 minutes," he says. "After that time, both you and your conversation-mate may begin to feel some pressure to disengage." (A history note: Speed dating was created  by a Los Angeles rabbi in the 1990s to encourage marriage between Jewish singles. In actual speed dating, both sides check each other out for four to ten minutes, then move on to the next candidate.)

To "disengage," Bennett suggests closing the conversation by asking for a business card. But if you sense potential for something a bit more lasting, he says, consider a bolder move, like saying, "I'll give a call next week."

Finally, he offers this advice: "Have fun. Enjoy the adventure. Surprise yourself."

If only I knew these techniques in college.

If you have topics you'd like to discuss, or information to share for The Careerist, e-mail chief blogger Vivia Chen at VChen@alm.com.

Photo: vgstudio/Fotolia

June 3, 2010

Vinson & Elkins Hiring Partner Spills the Beans

Two weeks ago, we inaugurated our hiring partner Q&As with a chat with Jones Day's Gregory Shumaker in Washington, D.C. This week, we're talking big law in the big-D (that's D for Dallas) with Vinson & Elkins hiring partner Tom Leatherbury. Let's hear what he has to say about lassoing an offer from this old-line Texas firm.


Leatherbury_TomHow does this year's summer program compare with last year's?
We have 30 fewer students. This summer, there are 97 [participants] firmwide. 

 The firm extended offers to only 75 percent of last year's summer associates. That's a bit discouraging. Any chance that rate will improve this year?
Generally, our offer rate is north of 90 percent. We had a large program last summer and the economy was uncertain. Things are more stable now; we have room to make everyone an offer. 

 The breakdown last year was: a 100 percent offer rate in New York, 66 percent in Washington, D.C., 70 percent in Houston, and 80 percent in Dallas. Were the summer associates in New York that much sharper? 
In New York, students tend to spend the whole summer with one firm; in some cities, they might split the summer. The offer rate tends to be higher in cities where people don't split the summer.

So it pays to stay put? 
It helps if you can see more projects from a student. Also, if they have a misstep, they can correct it if they are there longer.

Let's talk about the fun part of your summer program. Any big, fabulous parties at some sprawling ranch coming up? 
We used to fly all the summer associates to Austin or Houston for a weekend, with nice parties from Friday to Sunday. But last year, in keeping with the rough economic times our clients were having, we had to cut costs. There's no rush [now] to run the tab back up. We've eliminated the summer associate weekend; instead, we'll do presentations on topics like law firm economics at the offices.

Scintillating. Okay, back to more serious matters. What do you look for in candidates?
The folks who do best are self-starters, they tend to be a bit entrepreneurial.

How do you assess that quality in an interview?
You ask them questions that go beyond the resume--like how they handled a difficult client situation in a clinic.

V&E must look at the usual paper credentials--grades, journal work. Would you ever hire a student who did poorly in contracts or civil procedure?
There are no automatic exclusions. Our grade guidelines are guidelines. We look for trends, and some who took time off from school might not do so well in the first semester.

 What impresses you in an interview?
Some of the most memorable interviews have been with people who've worked with the Peace Corps or Teach for America or went to graduate school. We've had great successes with people for whom law is a second career.

Any candidates that bombed? 
Two years ago, we had lunch with an interviewee who insisted on ordering top-shelf liquor. It was bad judgment.

Have you ever made a hiring decision you later regretted?
You won't find a hiring partner who hasn't. Most mistakes come from being too lenient in evaluating work product. You rarely find someone who was only marginally successful as a summer associate who's also successful as an associate.

So work trumps personality?
It's a service business, and you have to hold your own.

One final question: V&E has 14 offices around the world, but Houston is still your biggest outpost. Would you say that Texas culture pervades the firm?
Only if you think that's a positive.

If you have topics you'd like to discuss, or information to share for The Careerist, e-mail chief blogger Vivia Chen at VChen@alm.com.

Photo, courtesy of Vinson & Elkins.

June 2, 2010

Abuse and Success

2_IMG_3161 You've probably heard about Philip Culhane, the Simpson Thacher & Barlett partner who is part of a group of plaintiffs suing his former school, Poly Prep Country Day School in Brooklyn, New York, for sexual abuse. Recently, the New York Law Journal reported the plaintiffs' suit got a boost when a federal magistrate ruled that they could depose the school's past and current headmaster and review school records and investigations.

What fascinates me about this story is not the legal strategy of the case. It's this: Why would someone in Culhane's position want to expose this painful history? How could this possibly be a career enhancer? And why would any firm want one of its lawyers embroiled in a sexual abuse scandal--even if the lawyer were innocent?

Culhane's story follows a familiar arc: A child molested by an authority figure (a beloved football coach), while the institution turns a blind eye. (Culhane's lawsuit alleges that the school ignored complaints and warning signs for nearly three decades, starting with the coach's hiring in the 1970s.)

It's a sad story we've heard too often lately. So why is Culhane's situation jarring? Because we’re not used to thinking of successful professionals as victims--especially when it involves something as unsavory as pedophilia. Celebrities like Oprah Winfrey can bare their souls about the horrors of their childhoods. They’ve made careers from perfecting the art of personal, and highly public, revelations.

But lawyers who reveal their wounds? That's uncomfortable. We expect lawyers to keep it all buttoned under their button-down shirts. Their job is to dispense well-reasoned advice to clients. They epitomize rationality and control. Revealing a personal mess spoils that illusion.

Culhane says he joined the suit against his school because it's the right thing to do. "As a society, we don't take this kind of abuse seriously," he says, speaking by phone from Hong Kong (he's been based there for ten years). "I'm in a position to fight and I will."

Culhane wasn't always so open about his past. For most of his life, he told no one about the secret that haunted him--not his parents, not his friends, not his classmates. "I started telling my brother and sister just in this last decade," he says.

A model student and lawyer, Culhane also was a master of repression. The complaint filed against the school says that he suffered long bouts of depression as a result of the abuse suffered. At work, however, he was the archetypal driven associate: "I was utterly consumed with trying to be successful. As a lawyer, you can think about nothing except your practice 15 hours a day. If you're trying to be a partner, you can be distracted quite well."

That all changed with the birth of his son, as Culhane told The Am Law Daily's Zach Lowe in April:

Watching my 2-year-old son grow up very much took me back to myself as a little boy, and realizing that as a little boy, I was not able to protect myself from the abuse. Looking at my son, it was intolerable to me that I not do everything possible to make sure he is never abused.

Last year, Culhane learned of a pending lawsuit against his former school brought by eight other alums (six name plaintiffs and three John Does) who are charging the school with covering up decades of sex abuse by the coach. After writing a heartfelt letter to the school's current headmaster in which he recounted his struggle with the abuse and receiving only a curt response, Culhane felt compelled to join the suit. "Litigation was something they initiated by this nonresponse," he says.

"I thought about [joining the lawsuit] for three months," he says. He talked with his wife, family, and colleagues. "No one tried to talk me out of it," he says. The tough part, says Culhane, was going public about the case; the career implications were secondary: "I didn't think it would have an impact on my career. It’s not a story that the Hong Kong financial press cares about."

Would he have sued if he was still an associate? That's hard to answer, says Culhane. He adds, though, that being established professionally helps: "It's a luxury to go public. I feel lucky that I'm in position to do the right thing. I have a good job and a nice family, and the security to tell this story."

And how has Simpson Thacher reacted to Culhane's lawsuit? He says the management is "supportive," though the firm has declined to comment. Does the firm's silence signal an uneasiness about the case? Who knows.

What's clear is that Culhane sees his lawsuit as catharsis. "I've been through a process in the last year and now feel completely relieved," he says. "It feels good to tell the truth."

How many lawyers in his situation would do the same? My guess: Very few. Most would probably lock it away--and pray that it never explodes.

If you have topics you'd like to discuss, or information to share for The Careerist, e-mail chief blogger Vivia Chen at VChen@alm.com.

Photo, courtesy of Philip Culhane.

A version of this story appears in the June 2010 issue of The American Lawyer.

About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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