By Wendy Davis
New York Law Journal
December 13, 2004

a dozen years ago, Alexandra Duran graduated from Brooklyn Law School and, like many newly minted J.D.-holders, joined the large law firm of LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae, where she did the grunt work typical of first-year associates. But, unlike her fellow first-years, most of whom were still in their 20s, Ms. Duran was in her mid-40s. She also boasted advanced degrees in social work and had already owned her own business.

Hers wasn't a typical career path, but Ms. Duran was hardly unique in having had another career before going to law school. Current estimates are that at least 10 percent of law students have had a previous career, based on American Bar Association figures showing that 10 percent of students attending law school do so part-time, according to the National Association for Law Placement.

But unlike Ms. Duran, many second-career attorneys have a hard time finding jobs in large firms. And, once they do land large-firm jobs, they may have a harder time fitting in, say Ms. Duran and industry observers. Ms. Duran considers her experience at Leboeuf a positive one. After working there for a few years, she joined a company as its general counsel before starting her own consulting business. She is now a career coach for lawyers.

A recent NALP study of about 2,100 lawyers found that the longer people were out of school before attending law school, the less likely they were to work at a large firm. Forty percent of the survey respondents who attended law school without having had a prior career reported working at law firms of at least 500 lawyers upon graduation. But, only 28.1 percent of survey respondents who worked for at least five years in another career were at firms of more than 500 attorneys. At the same time, 12.9 percent of those who had worked in prior fields were in solo practice — more than twice the percent, 5.7, of those who did not have prior careers.

Some industry observers think second-career lawyers don't end up in large firms as frequently as their younger counterparts because those firms tend to assume that older people won't be as easy to mold, or as willing to put in the long hours required of associates.

"Law firms are looking for people who are young and hungry and have high energy and are willing to pay their dues," says Drazia Rubenstein, an Aventura, Fla.-based career coach who works with attorneys throughout the country.

But some hiring partners at large firms say they want candidates with good academic records and positive attitudes, regardless of their age.

James A. FitzPatrick Jr., hiring partner at Dewey Ballantine, says that job candidates with experience in the business world are highly valuable. But, he adds, the firm would want to be sure that second-career lawyers had a well-thought out reason for becoming attorneys. The move should be logical, and "not just change for change's sake," he says.

Michael J. Gillespie, recruiting partner at Debevoise & Plimpton, likewise says the firm looked for candidates with solid academic backgrounds; any real-world experience, especially business experience, is a plus, he says. He adds that older attorneys hired by Debevoise have been no more difficult to manage on account of their age.

Second-career lawyers insist that their experience and maturity should logically make them more desirable job candidates — not work against them. "I think that working before I went to law school was a huge advantage," says Tim Parlin, a lawyer who was a marketing executive for four years before attending law school. Not only was he "hungrier" than his classmates, he contends, but his "presentational skills were stronger" due to his years in the work force.

Still, many students see obstacles when applying for jobs at large firms. Deborah Newman, a 56-year-old third-year law student at New York Law School, says she is "not optimistic about getting a job at a big firm."

Different Strategies

There are methods that can help attorneys get, and hold on to, big-law jobs. Ms. Duran suggests older law students should consider alternatives to either independent head-hunters or lawyers from the firm who recruited on campus. Students who do not fit into the same category as their 24-year-old peers may find it harder to compete in that setting.

What does she recommend? When she was looking for a law firm job Ms. Duran called the firm she wanted to work for and requested to meet with the hiring partners on-site.

Ms. Rubenstein adds that a large age difference between a prospective first-year associate and the more senior associates and junior partners who will be supervising that person needs to be addressed at the job interview. In other words, job applicants, especially those who are much older than the typical law school student, should be prepared to ease an interviewer's concerns that they won't want to take instructions from younger people.

One method, she says, is for candidates to talk about a time in the past when he either answered to someone younger than himself, or supervised someone older at work.

Cultural Adjustments

Even after getting a job, fitting in at a large firm can also be harder for lawyers who have worked somewhere else. It's not a matter of legal skill, says Ms. Rubenstein, but of whether people who are experienced in the work force can adapt to a large firm's corporate culture.

Second-career lawyers, says Ms. Rubenstein, "are not necessarily quite as flexible in doing things the way other people want them done." Many, she says, "have their own styles, whether it be the way they keep their calendars, the way they set up their work from a project standpoint, their approaches."

But the problem is that the firm might require attorneys to conform to set policies about such matters.

Attorneys who just want a few years of big firm experience might be able to "go with the flow to achieve a short-term objective," says Ms. Rubenstein. But those who want to stay in a firm for the long haul need to realize up front that life at the firm might be very different from what they were used to in their prior jobs.

It's also crucial that second-career lawyers understand that no matter how much experience they have, they're still just first-year associates. "Law firms are all about the food chain and where you sit in the hierarchy," says Ms. Duran.

For example, when she was at LeBoeuf Lamb, she insisted on carrying the litigation bags in court, practically prying them out of the hands of a male senior associate even though she was the elder of the two. "I said, 'I'll take care of them.' My job was to carry those bags," she says. "It's not about how old you are. It's about how old you are in the firm."

But following such advice isn't always easy. During her summer internships, Ms. Newman says there were many times when she sat in meetings and forced herself to hold her tongue, because she felt it wasn't her place to publicly weigh in on an issue. "It's hard to not open my mouth when I have an opinion about something," she says.

Managing second-career lawyers, who might have several decades on their bosses, can also present a challenge. Ms. Duran suggests that one strategy a firm's managers can use is to talk about associates solely in terms of their roles or skills. For instance, she says, using phrases such as, "Assign this to a first-year associate," or "Give this one to a midlevel," are better than using more personal wording, such as "Give this assignment to Bob."

She adds that managers at some firms are very good at working with people on the basis of their abilities, while managers at others can't get past the fact that an associate is as old as their parents. Success at supervising older employees, she says, is "really about good boundaries."

Finally, Ms. Duran suggests, second-career lawyers need not give up on working at a large firm if the first one they try doesn't pan out. "Every firm," she says, "has a different culture."

Wendy Davis is a freelance writer who reports on the legal profession.

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