Question & Answer
The Wrong Job - Even in This Economy
January 29, 2013
I am a first-year associate at a small firm specializing in a few areas of commercial litigation. I am getting a lot of experience, but in areas of the specialty which I find boring, since the partners do not let associates have any of the work that I happen to find interesting, even though I was told otherwise upon being hired. To make matters worse, the pay is extremely low, the partners are verbally abusive and the firm is managed very poorly, with most policies made up as they go along, often leading to inconsistent treatment.
When is a realistic time for a first year associate looking to move to a small or mid-sized firm to start looking for a new job?
Here comes the bad news, and then the good news.
You are a first-year associate. I can't feel sorry for you because 1) you have a job; 2) you are getting a lot of experience 3) and you are only a first-year associate and I guess I have to say "too bad" that you are not getting work that you find interesting. There are many parts of handling a litigation that are not particularly scintillating but most be done. Those aspects of a litigation are generally delegated to junior associates (you) and not done by partners who charge hundreds and hundreds (sometimes thousands) of dollars per hour.
And yet, even though you say you are finding the work to be boring, you also tell us that you are getting a lot of experience. Be thankful you are learning. No, wait…be thankful you have this job. So many junior associates cannot find that first job or if they do, they are stuck in the basement of a client working on document review and believe they are not getting any experience whatsoever. The experience that you are receiving will pay off in your future in so many different ways.
Enough with the lecture…even with all of these positive aspects of your current job there are enough negative facets to this environment to stop me from feeling you are acting like an entitled child.
Verbally abusive behavior from the partnership is not acceptable in any environment. We expect - although that doesn't make it acceptable - for some partners to be difficult to work with and perhaps to raise their voice from time to time. But verbal abuse is a different animal and there is no excuse for it ever or for you to endure it. That alone is reason for you to start looking for a new employer.
Certainly a firm that makes up policies at a moment's notice and then adheres to those policies inconsistently creates a very volatile and difficult environment. It is so hard to be happy in a firm where you don't know if what you are doing today will be verboten tomorrow.
Low pay is all relative. You are at a small firm and frequently a small firm will offer lower pay in return for low required hours, free weekends, etc. Obviously, if you are working at one of the BigLaw firms you can enjoy a large paycheck but you must also expect large hours.
You have not mentioned your law school, how you fared there and if and where you spent your 2L summer. These are factors that will determine if you are eligible for one of the few very elite small or mid-sized firms that pay BigLaw salaries. There are a few firms like this out there but job openings are rare and those chosen to work there have top flight credentials and experience. But if you are not applying to one of those firms and instead, are looking to join another small or mid-sized firm, don't expect a BigLaw salary. However, you have not given a figure to us defining your current low salary so if it is embarrassingly low then you certainly can look to a bump up the pay scale at most of the small and mid-sized firms out there.
Although I rarely recommend a first year making a move, in your particular situation I believe that this is a realistic time for you to start looking. Be very careful that your search is confidential and quiet because you certainly do not want to lose your current job. Based on the tough job market especially for very junior associates now, you should jump into a job search right away as it might take a while.
But before you accept any offers, do your due diligence. Ask to meet with other associates at the firm to learn about the environment. Be certain you know what your pay will be. Research the firm to be certain that there do not seem to be any financial difficulties or comments on blogs about mismanagement.
I think you should be prepared for an extended period of time to find a new opportunity - unless you get very lucky right away - but stick with it and don't give up until you get an offer from an employer that presents a fair and pleasant work environment…along with providing good experience and opportunity. Best wishes!
Ann M. Israel