Recruiters make a lot of money helping to place Associates in law firms.  It’s a great service, but their motivation places emphasis on movement in the marketplace rather than stability.  And movement follows because most Associates don’t really know what they’re looking for and how to assess if firms have those things.  And most law firms don’t really think about what they want out of an Associates, so they accept the warm body and then hope that over time, the fit will be there on both sides.  It’s a risky and expensive dance for everyone except the recruiters.  Don’t blame them – they’re just doing their job.

Law firms and Associates should take back control of the process by better understanding their own needs, and assessing each opportunity against those specific needs.  Here’s how.


  • Think long and hard about the areas of law you think you want to practice. Speak with practitioners in those areas. Find out what it’s like to do the work, learn to do the work, deal with those types of clients, market that type of work.  Determine if there is space for you in the marketplace, and if you’ll be able to grow your practice sufficiently to achieve any other ambitions you might have (such as partnership, for example).
  • Don’t accept a job in an area of law that’s not on your list, or that you know you won’t enjoy. Don’t let law firms talk you into practising in another area for now with the promise that eventually you should be able to move into your chosen area.  They can’t guarantee that and if you are successfully in the initial area of law, they aren’t going to want to move you.
  • As most law firms are hiring an Associate away from another law firm, an Associate must think long and hard about their current situation, and whether it will serve them well in the long run. It’s not just about money, although the money has to feel fair and just.  It’s about long-term fit. Does your current firm know about and support your practice goals?  Can they help you to develop the kind of practice you really want?  Can you envision yourself being a proud partner there?  Do you get along well with members of the firm of is there a “fit” issue?  How does the new firm you are considering rate against all of these areas?
  • Ask about the firm’s management structure, strategic plan, and marketing plan. If they hum and haw, it means they aren’t organized in those areas and that means they aren’t logical and strategic.  Ask about the training and support process for lawyers.  If they haven’t thought about it, they probably don’t care about it that much.
  • Have a realistic sense of your value before talking compensation. Mostly, don’t over-estimate your value: at some point in time, Associates began to believe that they should be paid at least 50% of whatever revenue they generate.  Law firms can’t survive on those numbers.  It costs a lot to run a firm including premises and services, support staff, benefits programs, technology (hard and soft), client development and maintenance, lawyer licensing and education, supporting departments like accounting, etc.  Surveys track typical Associate compensation by year of call.  That’s a good start, but it’s not the whole story. The value of any lawyer to a law firm starts with the revenue they can generate, but increases based on:
  • Level of legal expertise
  • Ability to bring in work for themselves and others
  • Ability to delegate effectively
  • Ability to teach
  • Increasing legal skills (thus increased credibility and reputation)
  • Assistance with firm administration in some way (leading a practice group, sitting on a committee, etc.)

Find out what the range is for your year of call by type of law/size of firm.  Then once you’re in, push for a higher compensation package by demonstrating your value in the areas above.   Lawyers who push too hard for compensation beyond their worth might initially and begrudgingly receive their ask, but then the firm might pull back on support for that lawyer, expecting them to earn their bloated paycheque.  Often, it’s then only a matter of time before the lawyer leaves (or is asked to leave).  Better to have a sense of fairness in compensation at the front end, and then push hard to earn appropriate increases on merit over time. This ensures constant firm support – more in partnership with your in your career.

  • Even if the firm doesn’t require an annual business plan, make up one of your own and follow it. I don’t understand lawyers who simply show up for work day after day, hoping that over time they will evolve and grow.  I’ve coached far too many ten-year calls who lived this way, but aren’t where they wanted to be.  Create business goals for yourself each year, and a plan to work towards their achievement.  You will be blown away by how much faster you proceed in your career than your law school buddies who did not take the time and effort to do this each year.

Law Firms:

  • Do the work in creating a strong management structure, creating good plans (and following them), really thinking about lawyer development, and developing a role and hiring strategy for each position needed.
  • Don’t jump at every possible lateral you become aware of. You should know your firm well enough to know where the gaps are (or where gaps are developing).  Go after very specific lawyers to fill very specific needs.  In fact, write out a detailed role description before you go to market.  If you don’t know what you’re looking for, how will you assess what you find?
  • When you do land a lawyer, have a game plan to integrate them into the firm, and support them through their practice building. Perhaps have a mentor in place for them.  Check in with them periodically to ensure they are settling in, have what they need, and are as productive as they should be.  If they were important enough to hire, they are important enough to nurture in their first two years…yes, two years.

Law firms and Associates tend to be fearful of change.  They’d rather hold onto the status quo – the devil the know – than risk any shifts.  But life is short and really, a lawyer doesn’t have a long time in which to build their career.  And a law firm doesn’t have a long time in which to support an under-performing relationship.  Sometimes, the fit just isn’t right.  Don’t be afraid to make a change, but don’t change without doing some work to ensure that the next hire situation isn’t the same shade of dysfunction.  Take the time to really think about what a new situation should look like, and pursue that.

Heather Gray-Grant is a business strategist, marketing expert and executive coach for law firms, lawyers and administrators.  She can be reached at