Given the uncertain economy and high rates of associate burnout at many firms, you may be planning your life after law school with some appropriate care. The firm you choose to join will have a huge impact on your professional experience and the network you build—not to mention your financial security, happiness, and wellness in the years ahead.
It can be tough to look beyond big names, generous salaries, and tempting perks in determining which firm will fuel your future. Asking key questions during the interview process can help you identify potential issues with otherwise attractive offers and put you in a position to make a confident choice for your first year and beyond.
At McDermott, we’re committed to fostering a culture of belonging, stability, and opportunity, where our colleagues collaborate and grow. With more than 85 years of experience helping associates develop into world-class lawyers, we know fit matters. Based on our experience making great matches, we’ve identified five must-ask questions to help you select the best firm for you.
1. How does the firm’s culture support its associates?
The answer to this question can tell you how a firm will view your contributions and what your overall experience there will be like. Look for evidence that your individual passions and interests will be valued and supported, and that you won’t be treated as a cog in the machine. Press for details beyond value statements, and ask about the policies and programs that currently exist to validate the firm’s response.
When you look, you should find a culture that reflects the firm’s guiding principles. In our case, our #AlwaysBetter mantra inspires us to bring our best to our clients, communities, and each other every day. Our industry-leading health, wellness, and personal benefits include mindfulness credit hours, and our focus on community allows for unlimited pro bono hours so you can support causes you care about. We celebrate hard work and excellence, and we place equal emphasis on your happiness, including a rich, full life outside of the office.
Often, industry awards or recognitions can validate a firm’s follow-through.
2. What is the firm’s approach to professional development and wellness?
When a firm focuses exclusively on the bottom line and overlooks the well-being of the people who make success possible, burnout becomes inevitable.
Dedicated resources, such as thoughtful guidance from partner mentors and high-octane professional development planning tools and programs—like our Annual Associate Development Plan and the more than 300 live, substantive practice group subject-matter trainings we offer each year—will provide support and afford you the opportunities you deserve for career growth. Ask whether the firm’s associates find their work meaningful and substantive, if their billable hours are sustainable, and if they have fulfilling lives outside of the office. Ensure you’ll have the time, resources, and respect to take care of yourself both mentally and physically.
We believe happiness and excellence go hand in hand, and the right firm will understand that and make your wellness a priority.
3. What does career advancement look like?
Not every law firm makes room for its summer associates to become first years, and not all first-year associates have room to advance within their firms. Ask about the growth and development opportunities a firm will make available to further your learning and sharpen your skills. And, of course, ask about the firm’s track record of promoting associates to partners.
If a firm you’re considering indicates it would place you in a general group, you may instead want to look for a firm where you can get more specialized practice knowledge to make you a stronger candidate for partner. If you decide to specialize early, ensure you’re in a multi- disciplinary firm with exposure to lawyers in different specialties. A collaborative network will be one of your most valuable assets over the span of your career.
Your first law firm shouldn’t just give you a job: It should invest in you and provide resources that can act as career accelerant to propel you along your professional trajectory, wherever it may take you.
4. What is the firm’s approach to diversity and inclusion? Is it meeting the current moment?
You don’t need to be part of an underrepresented group to care about diversity, equity, and inclusion. Now is the time to create and drive bold diversity and inclusion initiatives.
Most law firms are generous with their pro bono hours, but we can all do more. As one example, McDermott supported an associate’s vision to knock down barriers for entrepreneurs of color. The resulting initiative, McDermott Rise, now provides free legal services to qualifying organizations.
Beyond programming, ask how a firm is planning to build more diversity in its ranks. Look into whether it has formed affinity groups to promote diverse thinking, and if it has hired a dedicated diversity and inclusion team. Be sure your firm prioritizes actions over words.
5. Is the firm in a healthy financial position?
Dig deeper than top-line revenue growth and ask about profit per partner, debt, lateral moves, and promotions—then ask about those trend lines over time. Those answers will tell you a lot about the financial transparency of the firm, which is vital to your ability to advocate for your clients on pricing—and for yourself when it comes to your compensation.
This deeper dive will also tell you whether talent is coming to the organization or leaving, and whether the addition of new talent is truly growing profits. You want to see growing revenue, growing profit per partner, and a growing number of lawyers at the firm. Diversifying practices and areas of experience, as we do, can also lend strength and stability to a firm in weathering economic recessions, pandemics, and other crises.
Choosing the firm that’s right for you is a complex process worthy of thoughtful consideration. Asking incisive questions during the recruiting process can help you avoid the pitfalls of joining a firm that lays off or burns out its associates with a stressful corporate culture. No matter where you stand in the interview process, keep these questions in your arsenal to help you find a firm that will support and launch you toward your career objectives.
McDermott Will & Emery partners with leaders around the world to fuel missions, knock down barriers, and shape markets. Our team works seamlessly across practices and industries to deliver highly effective—and often unexpected—solutions that propel success. More than 1,200 lawyers strong, we bring our personal passion and legal prowess to bear in every matter for our clients and the people they serve.