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Don't Put Down Staff Attorneys!

The Careerist

October 14, 2013

PointingWoman_By_Eurobanks_iStockToday's guest blogger is Carroll Welch, the associate director of Pace Law School's New Directions Program, which helps lawyers return to practice.

Audible sighs of exasperation abounded after the National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL) released its 2012 report describing a “troubling story” in which women are “relegat[ed] to a bottom tier role” and hold 70 percent of staff attorney positions at law firms. The Careerist also joined in the lament . Although acknowledging that some women staff attorneys are "pleased with their situation," NAWL expressed grave disappointment that some women are choosing the staff attorney career path instead of partnership.  

Shift focus to Cynthia Wells, now a staff attorney in the investment funds and derivatives group at Sidley Austin in New York. After practicing law with Brown & Wood in the 1980s, Cynthia opted out to be the fulltime caregiver to her six children for almost 20 years. Most would agree that re-entering the legal profession after that length of time is hard—basically impossible. But a few years ago, after completing the New Directions attorney re-entry program at Pace Law School, Cynthia was welcomed back to her former law firm (now merged with Sidley) in a staff attorney position where she focuses on private fund advisers. She is absolutely thrilled. 

"Re-entry is very tricky and difficult," Wells says. "This role was a wonderful way for me to re-enter the work force." Wells says she has high level work, a more regular schedule than those on partnership track, and likes being among colleagues.

Another attorney, Heather Boylan Clark, a litigation "career associate" at Orrick and mother of two young children, spent several years at another large firm before opting for the more manageable track of staff lawyer at Orrick. "This role allows me to work fewer hours, choose not to travel, and to do high level work for Fortune 500 companies. It is a hybrid kind of role but I am not a second class citizen."      

Staff attorney programs at firms have grown exponentially at firms in the past several years. (NAWL’s 2012 report states that 80 percent of its responding firms have staff attorney programs.) Contrary to the assumption that these roles always involve document reviews or other boring legal work, staff attorneys  frequently have some expertise. How they are utilized now varies tremendously.

Nyoka Dada, a consultant at Update Legal, explains that "how the staff attorney role is defined from firm to firm varies widely and is based on that firm’s culture and how it supplements the work of the partnership track associate." Some staff attorneys focus on more substantive work like M&A, tax or derivatives. Others may only work, for example, on e-discovery matters or document review.  

Staff attorney roles usually include lower compensation, but more predictable schedules and little or no required travel–a tradeoff that many re-entering attorneys would be more than happy to make. Often, attorneys seeking to re-enter  battle low confidence, rusty legal skills, and faded networks—plus the stigma of being "stale" or "dated." 

Just as the nomenclature for non-partnership track roles varies from firm to firm ("career associates," "of counsel"), the avenues for obtaining them are equally diverse: Some firms use placement agencies to fill staff attorney roles, while others only fill them with associates who have previously been on partner track but wanted to make the switch.

One attorney who has been practicing for several years in a non-partner track role at a large firm explains that you need a "very special contact" at her firm to land one of these roles as an outsider, with clearly defined strengths. As in any job search, a re-entry attorney with good contacts, a strong resume and recently honed legal skills will likely fare much better than the staff attorney candidate in line behind her.        

How can a role that is so highly coveted by some who are dying to rebuild (or maintain) a career path in the paid legal workforce be so maligned by those who want to see more women at the top? At a time when so many professional women are eager to rebuild their faded career paths, we should celebrate the fact that there are now realistic opportunities that make re-entry—an otherwise Sisyphean project—actually attainable.

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I couldn't agree more and feel that you present another part of this conversation on being a staff attorney and what that may mean here at:

I think that for women in particular, a staff attorney position can offer very valuable benefits and can also positively contribute to better hiring practices.

I think that the fear is that the staff attorney job will become the new "mommy track". People who struggle to help women break the glass ceiling and achieve their full potential still struggle with the realities of raising children in this country. Because we want to, or because we have to, many women bear the primary responsibility for child-rearing. It's nice to see that BIGLAW has identified a different career path for women who want to make different choices. It sounds like a win/win, so long as they choose the path and aren't relegated to it.

Excellent post and enlightening to hear the other perspective. However, it would be interesting to hear if, after, a couple of years, staff attorneys can get back on partner track if they would like to advance.

I would give my right arm for a staff attorney position! Please let me know how I can focus my search on firms that have those positions. I don't think that any firms in the Miami, Florida area have staff attorneys.

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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: [email protected]

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