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Law firms must market
To recruit talented students and laterals
Janet Ellen Raasch

Janet Ellen Raasch is a writer and ghostwriter who works closely with lawyers and other professional services providers – helping them promote themselves as thought leaders within their target markets through publication of articles and books for print and rich content for the Internet. She can be reached at (303) 399-5041 or

Any law firm is only as good as the lawyers who walk through the front door each morning. Aware of this fact, most firms are eager to strengthen their reputations by recruiting the best law school students and the most talented laterals.

Recruitment of associates who will stay with a law firm over the long haul is now more difficult than ever. According to a recent study by the NALP Foundation, 62 percent of all entry-level associates now leave a law firm by the end of their fourth year – the highest attrition rate that NALP has seen since it began tracking these statistics.

A recent article in The Wall Street Journal Online links this phenomenon to a number of factors. Explosive growth at law firms has resulted in more associates at the bottom of the pyramid – with fewer opportunities and longer tracks to partnership.

In addition, many new associates are not sure that they want to work as hard as the preceding generations – to make partner and, once this happens, to be a partner. They are highly talented and willing to work hard on meaningful projects, but they are also much more interested than their predecessors were in achieving work/life balance.

The issue of recruiting and retaining talented law school graduates and laterals was the subject of a panel discussion at the May 9 meeting of the Rocky Mountain Chapter of the Legal Marketing Association. This event was held in Denver at the Oxford Hotel.

Panel participants were Timothy M. Henderson, assistant dean for career services at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, Veronica D. Paricio, assistant dean for career development at the University of Colorado at Boulder School of Law, and Rebecca Nicol, owner of Nicol Executive Search, who places laterals and partners in Colorado.

Career services departments and recruiters work with students and lawyers to “make a match” between individuals and opportunities in the marketplace.

“We are not just trying to find these students a job,” said Henderson. “We are trying to find the best career fit, given their talents and interests. For some, this might be a law firm. For others, it might be a corporate position or a public service placement. For yet others, it might be something outside the traditional practice of the law. Law firms are not their only option, so law firms should recruit with this in mind.”

Define your product

Usually, when a law firm thinks about marketing, it thinks about marketing a product – legal services – to a “buyer” audience. What is the client or potential client looking for?

When it comes time to recruit law students, laterals or partners, however, the approach is somewhat different. Under these circumstances, law firms must market themselves as career choices to a “talent” audience. “These individuals are looking for something that sets your firm apart from all the other choices that are out there,” said Nicol.

All too often, law firms confuse “the product that is the law firm” with “the money.” In fact, some law firms in major markets recently upped the ante on salary by offering $145,000 to associates fresh out of law school. According to the panelists, however, this might not be the best approach.

“Money is important,” said Henderson, “but it is not at the top of the list. Students are perfectly aware that more money means more time at the office. A collegial and ethical culture, the opportunity to develop to one’s full potential as a lawyer, and a reasonable work/life balance are all more important to today’s law student than making the highest salary. Graduates want to pay off their loans – but not at any price.”

Law students know that they will be expected to spend many hours with their new colleagues at their new office, and they want it to be a rewarding experience. Because of this, morale is very important.

“Morale is something that you just cannot make up,” said Nicol. “If it is bad – find out why and fix it,” said Nicol. “Otherwise, your firm will be a revolving door – a very costly and disheartening process. It is rare that associates leave just for the money.”

When morale is high, attorneys are enthusiastic. “When a law firm sends its attorneys out to interact with law students – whether interviewing at a recruitment fair, speaking to a class or interacting on a public service project,” said Paricio, “make sure that these ambassadors are truly enthused about their work and the law firm, and that they are the best individuals to convey their enthusiasm to the students.”

In addition, today’s student wants to work at a firm that exhibits ethics, diversity and public service. First of all, be ethical, diverse and committed to public service. Then, seek out and publicize efforts and awards in these areas.

“Make sure that your firm has a high profile,” said Paricio, “and promote these efforts on your website and in the media. Find a way to involve law students in these projects – providing an opportunity for them to network in a non-threatening environment that shows your firm cares about more than the billable hour.”

Ongoing feedback is very important. “New associates and summer associates are coming right out of a school environment – where every single thing that they did for nearly 20 years was graded,” said Paricio. “When they start at a law firm, they need feedback that is constructive and informative.”

Associates want to do meaningful work that will make them better lawyers – and they want the chance to participate as soon as possible. “A DU student was hired by a firm that focused on the transportation industry,” said Henderson. “Before she reported for work at the firm, they placed her for one week with the client she would be working with – to learn as much as she could about the client’s business. That made a real impression on her – and on us at the law school.”

Take your product to market

Once you have created “the product that is the law firm” – one that is appealing to students and credible – it is time to take that product to market.

A law firm can circulate lots of materials like four-color brochures and participate in lots of activities like on-campus interviews, but all of these mean nothing without positive word of mouth.

“Students get their information about law firms from their school and advisers, their faculty, the alumni and their fellow students,” said Henderson. “This is their entire world and it is a very interconnected network. Word about whether a law firm actually lives up to the promise of the ‘product’ spreads quickly and is very influential. Once a firm’s word-of-mouth reputation has been damaged, it is very difficult to fix.”

Word of mouth is especially important in Colorado, where 86 percent of law school graduates intend to stay in the state. There is only a handful of large firms here, and they generally make an effort to create and maintain a reputation at local law schools.

“The fact remains that 80 percent of Colorado law firms employ five or fewer attorneys,” said Paricio. “It is important that the state’s many excellent mid-size and small law firms make an impression at the law schools as well. Even though they are not required to fill out NALP forms, they should do so.”

It is also important that firms target students as early in their law-school careers as possible. “Our best students start to interview with firms in their first year,” said Henderson. “One good idea is to create a summer academic internship for first-year students. You can’t bill for their time, of course, but it costs the firm nothing and gives you the chance to create a relationship with the best and the brightest very early in their academic careers.”

“At CU, we have at least 30 groups that law students can belong to – including the Latino Law Students Association, the Construction and Real Estate Law Association and the Student Trial Lawyers Association,” said Paricio. “Lawyers from your firm can sponsor these groups, mentor their members, and even offer to do mock interviews, thereby gaining name recognition and demonstrating commitment to the professional development of these students.”

Creating and funding a scholarship or loan program at a law school – for a student within your target market – is another good way to establish your firm’s reputation. So is an all-expenses-paid career development symposium for first-year law students.

Much of the word of mouth that is circulated is anecdotal. “Talk to your associates and find out what they like about your firm, and use these stories when you interact with students and lateral candidates,” said Nicol. Find out what they don’t like – and change it! – because you can be sure that these stories are circulating as well.

When it comes time to recruit law school graduates and laterals to your firm – think marketing. First, make sure that “the product that is the law firm” is a quality product that will appeal to your target audience. Then, take this product to market by using traditional as well as word-of-mouth tactics to bring your firm’s message to the audience – at law schools and wherever else ambitious young lawyers congregate.






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