Take The Opportunity To Be Flexible

April 12, 2024

Albert Tawil, Founder & CEO of Lateral Hub

With a slowdown in many corporate practices, it has become more common over the past year or so for associates to be asked help out in other practice groups.
To many associates, this can be frustrating.  But, ask any attorney who graduated law school in 2008 or 2009, and they may laugh at you – many attorneys in that time were laid off or had their offers rescinded due to the financial crisis.  Attorneys who actually kept their jobs pretty much all became bankruptcy attorneys or financial services litigators.  They had no choice – their jobs depended on it.  And they took it in stride and learned from it.
I think we have a lot to learn from that.  If you are being asked by your firm to help out in other areas, or forced to go through a rotation of various practices as a first- and second-year associate, here are some things to consider.
(Caveat: This does NOT mean you should be pigeonholed into a practice that you don’t like for your entire career simply because of the firm’s needs, or get stuck doing low-level work for an extended period of time, where you aren’t learning.  This is not good for anyone and if you cannot solve those issues at your firm, you should look to leave – you can read our blog for more thoughts on that, including When is the Right Time to Lateral? Calculating Your Learning Per Hour.  Instead, this blog post covers a situation where associates are being asked to pitch in for other practices temporarily or in addition to their core practice.)
Law Firms Are a Business
Law firms are a business, not a school.  They are not built for the sole purpose of educating their associates on what the associates want to learn.  That’s what college and law school are for.  Firms of course care about developing their attorneys, but that is all done within the confines of the firm’s needs – they want you to develop so you can work effectively on the matters that the firm is handling.
Although many firms have free-market systems (where associates can choose what they want to work on) or otherwise have broad practices that provide associates with a variety of opportunities, this comes with limitations.  You cannot choose work that isn’t there.  It will be very hard to turn down work that is not interesting to you if your billables are pretty low and you have free time during the day.  And if there is a ton of work in a particular area, the firm might need your help.
(For this reason, many large firms don’t attach practice group-specific titles to associates, aside from “Associate.”)
The idea that law firms are a business is obvious, but is often forgotten.  Starting out with this perspective is helpful.
Working in Other Areas is a Unique Opportunity
A mindset shift here can be very valuable. When asked to help in another area, it is helpful to view this as an opportunity, rather than a burden.
One of the biggest criticisms of the current BigLaw model and how it’s shifted over the last couple of decades is hyper-specialization.  Clients want a partner who has done that specific deal with those specific characteristics over and over.  So firms became more specialized.  We used to have M&A attorneys, for example.  Now, we have Private Equity M&A attorneys, Public Company M&A attorneys, sell-side Tech M&A attorneys, Life Sciences M&A attorneys, and others.  Of course, this naturally happens when your clients are in a specific industry.  But, it’s kind of sad – wouldn’t it be nice to have some variety?
When I was a 1L summer intern in a government office, I heard a funny anecdote from a senior attorney who came to speak with us.  When he was in BigLaw, there was someone in his firm who was a frozen food lawyer – he asked his colleague, “how did that guy get into that niche?”   They said the firm gave him some matters related to frozen food, and then since he did it once they gave it to him again, and soon enough he was pigeonholed as frozen food guy.  Probably not what he wanted to do out of law school.
Getting the opportunity to work in other areas is valuable in this day and age.  One of the reasons I lateraled as a junior associate is because I felt too specialized and wanted to broaden my practice, and I’m glad I did.
This is valuable for a couple of reasons:
  • It will make you a better lawyer.  If you are an M&A associate, and you are asked to help out with private equity fund formation matters, that is a great opportunity to develop as an associate.  You will get firsthand insight into fund formation considerations – in the future, when your private equity client is looking to buy a business, you will have that other knowledge.  You will think of things that you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise.  And you will sound smarter to your client when you understand better the terminology and considerations at play for the fund.  Same applies for an IP, Executive Compensation, or Tax attorney being pulled in to help with the M&A team generally – you will get a view in the broader deal that specialists don’t always get.  Same with litigators who normally do commercial litigation, but are pulled into white collar matters, or IP litigation, or labor and employment litigation.
  • It will make you a better candidate when you look for a job.  Having experience in a few different areas is a great way to differentiate yourself.  When lateraling to another firm, highlight that your M&A experience is supplemented by multiple fund formation matters, which has made you a better lawyer on behalf of private equity funds, for example.  Many midsize firms that are attractive to BigLaw associates for the environment and hours are not as specialized, and will require you to work on a variety of matters.  Same with litigation – many high-powered litigation boutiques (popular destinations for BigLaw litigators) handle all types of litigation, and if you can show that you have experience in a variety of litigation matters, that will go a long way.  This is especially true for in-house jobs: many in-house jobs require you to easily switch gears between legal practice areas and learn on the fly.  If you are a corporate associate looking to go in-house and all you’ve done are public company M&A deals, and you are hoping to jump to a private equity fund or growing startup, you will be at a disadvantage against the attorney who has done different types of M&A, venture financing, and dabbled in corporate finance on a rotation.  (For more thoughts, check out Things to Consider When Thinking To Go In-House.)
  • You might like it.  Sounds like I’m trying to convince my toddler to eat dinner, but it’s true.  You might try a new area and realize you really like it.  After all, you probably chose your practice area based on limited info (out of law school, or based on only a few weeks during the summer program).  From this experience, you might want to pivot completely or figure out how to build this new area into your current practice more.
  • It will make you stand out – and give you a great reputation for the future.  You might respond with “Ok boomer” – but I’m not a boomer and I know this to be true.  Being flexible to help out with different practice areas when needed shows that you are a team player.  People remember that.  Not everyone, but some people.  I always say that you should give 100% wherever you go.  In BigLaw, most of your colleagues will be gone in a few years doing all types of cool things.  
If you are a junior associate who was happy to help out with something different, be flexible, take it in stride — when your mid-level or senior associate is the second legal hire at a cool startup in 2 years, and looking to hire…. guess who they will think of.  Or when you are leaving your firm and want a reference, and the partner knows that you were eager to learn something new, that will go a long way.  Or, less extreme — when there is a really cool deal or something you’ve been wanting to work on in your firm, they might come to you first, since they know you are a team player.  There a ton of examples of this in real life.
Again, this does not cover situations where you are being forced into another practice permanently or doing low-level work that is not supposed to be done by an attorney. In those cases, you should look to change that, either within your firm or by looking for something new.
But, if the opportunity arises to try something new, even way outside your current practice, take it.  Learn form it.  Make yourself a better lawyer.  Make yourself a better candidate for your next job.  Give yourself a chance to like something new.  And set yourself up with a really good reputation for the future, as someone who is flexible and willing to raise their hand – then, when an opportunity arises, you are top of mind.

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