When you’re a young lawyer at a law firm, more often than not you have little sense of the firm’s business operations. You don’t necessarily understand the difference between partners. In a small firm, there are partners whom your firm might cease to exist without. In a larger firm, the departure of one or a handful of partners often has little impact on a firm’s continued existence.
Regardless of its actual impact on the business, departures often result in fear and uncertainty amongst young lawyers. Panic is typically not necessary, but it’s reasonable and necessary to critically assess the horse you’re hitching your wagon to. Respected law firms rise and fall. The list of firms in Minnesota today looks nothing like when I first started practicing. Thus, I do think it is important for lawyers to assess early in their career if they are working aboard a sinking ship. How do you do that?
For starters, try your best from the outset to understand the stability of the firm you’re joining and how it operates. I knew a law student who asked a large firm to see its books before accepting a job offer there. That would not even have occurred to me as a new lawyer. While not every young lawyer will have the leverage or demeanor to be that direct pre- or post-hire, you can ask questions about the firm’s operations. Find a trusted senior associate or junior partner and ask questions about how the firm’s sources of income, who the most important clients are, who the most important partners are, etc.
If you’re at a firm with senior partners of an advanced age, you must assess and inquire into what a transition plan looks like. For example, if your small firm has three key partners, what does the future firm look like if one or two of those partners leaves, retires, dies, etc.? Those are questions good businesses can honestly answer, even if the answer is that the business is likely to no longer exist.
As a young lawyer, you have to ask yourself what the next generation of leadership at your firm looks like. Do the lawyers in their late-30s and early-40s: originate new clients and revenue for the firm; handle important matters independently; have a voice in firm operations; hold leadership positions in important associations; and/or, network and build relationships with key people? If you are at a firm with older attorneys and a lack of younger lawyers exhibiting these traits, you should be asking yourself whether you are prepared to either step up and become the transition plan for your firm or if you’d be better served finding a sturdier ship.