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Firm Culture Matters Most

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Every legal professionals happiness and success in a legal organization has more to do with a particular law firm culture, i.e. personality of a firm,than with any other factor.

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									   CAREER COUNSELOR’S CORNER                                                                                                   1.800. 973. 1177




Firm Culture Matters Most
[Law Firm Staff]




We believe that any legal professional’s hap-     puts in a solid effort over the course of six or    B. Legal Professionals Sometimes Fail to Give
piness and success in a legal organization        seven years should be made partner.                 Strong Consideration to Firm Culture When
have more to do with a particular law firm        There are firms that have been “collapsing”         Choosing a Firm
culture (which is sometimes also referred         for years but portray themselves to members
to as the “personality of a firm”) than with      as “strong and powerful.”                           The problem with the way some legal profes-
any other factor. This article discusses (a)                                                          sionals manage their careers is that they are
the importance of firm culture, (b) why some      Some of the examples above are set forth            motivated primarily by prestige and money
legal professionals do not give strong con-       from the perspective of an associate because        factors more than the cultures of various
sideration to firm culture when joining a firm,   the experience of all staff members in a            firms in making their decisions between pos-
(c) the reason a failure to seriously consider    firm culture in many ways often reflects the        sible places to practice.
firm culture prematurely ends many careers,       experiences of the associates in the firm. We
and (d) why making a lateral move provides        could go on and on. Suffice it to say, however,     When a legal professional evaluates offers
the best opportunity to evaluate firm culture     that your success and happiness as a legal          based upon where they believe they fit in
and the course of your career.                    professional may have more to do with your          the best, that legal professional is far more
                                                  thoughtful and intelligent decision to join a       likely to find happiness and success in the
A. The Importance of Firm Culture                 firm that best fits you culturally than with        practice of law. The problem, however, is
                                                  your legal skills. People simply want to be         that most legal professionals simply do not
Just as the work, salary, and prestige level      around people they like, and when people like       think this way. The reason we believe this is
can vary from firm to firm, the cultures of       each other there is a lot of benefit that comes to   so is because legal professionals are simply
firms can be very different. Consider the         both sides of the relationship.                     competitive by nature.
following examples about the cultures of
various firms:                                    OBSERVATION 1:                                      In almost all respects, the largest, most
                                                                                                      prestigious and highest paying firms are
There are firms where style is definitely                                                             the hardest to get the best positions in. The
                                                  We all have certainly heard of how Albert
valued over substance.                                                                                pressure to join these firms typically com-
                                                  Einstein flunked out of grade school. Perhaps
There are firms where substance is definitely                                                         mences when a legal professional first joins
                                                  Einstein was too concerned with the theoreti-
valued over style.                                                                                    a firm. Law students and practicing attorneys
                                                  cal rather than the practical. Whatever the
There are firms where people wander around                                                            often evaluate each other based upon their
                                                  reason, Einstein simply did not experience
in Birkenstocks and call each other “dude.”                                                           ability to get positions with these types of
                                                  success in the environment he was in at the
There are firms where staff members must                                                              firms, and staff members do the same. For
                                                  time because the school, and the people in it,
address partners as “Mr.” and “Ms.”                                                                   most legal professionals, the pressure to get
                                                  could not understand where he was coming
There are firms where associates need to                                                              these types of jobs is enormous.
                                                  from. Do the people in your firm understand
make appointments with partners before
                                                  where you are coming from? In the law firm
speaking with them.                                                                                   In many respects this is perfectly pre-
                                                  environment, when a given legal professional
There are firms where partners chew to-                                                               dictable. In order to get into top law firm
                                                  and the firm see eye-to-eye, success is far
bacco in the office and during firm meetings.                                                         environments, many legal professionals have
                                                  more likely than in situations where they do
There are firms that value your family con-                                                           long been motivated to attain high levels of
                                                  not.
nections more than your work ability.                                                                 achievement in order to succeed. Those who
There are firms that believe everyone who                                                             succeed in college, paralegal academy, or



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   CAREER COUNSELOR’S CORNER                                                                                                1.800. 973. 1177




law school at exceptionally high levels more       and whether that culture is where you will be      careers there because they became so disil-
often than not are those who make the deci-        happy and remain so over the course of your        lusioned. Most of them say things like “I would
sion to sacrifice free time and comfort in the     career.                                            never work in another law firm - I would
short term to enjoy better lives in the future.                                                       only work in industry or in an in-house legal
                                                   One of the largest mistakes legal profession-      environment.” The resumes of these legal
The problem with this type of thinking is          als make when evaluating competing offers          professionals are sometimes littered with one
that it can often lead legal professionals         between firms is believing that money is the       firm job after another where the next and then
to make horrible decisions in how they run         most important factor they should be consid-       the next firm were virtually identical in terms
their professional careers. If a legal profes-     ering. While money is certainly an important       of culture to the firm they joined first.
sional is thinking in terms of what they can       component of any analysis, it is not the most
do to look best to others, they may often be       important factor in determining a given legal      Of course these legal professionals are not
more focused on this thinking than on what is      professional’s happiness over the course of        happy practicing in a law firm: They have only
best for them individually. None of this is to     their career. If you think money is an impor-      worked for one type of law firm during their
say that there are not numerous advantages         tant consideration in joining a firm, you may      entire careers. The problem is that these per-
from being part of a truly significant law firm.   be making a horrible mistake. If you go to the     sons may have worked in a firm culture which
The point is that this should not be the only      right firm, you may be practicing law in four      was such a bad fit for them that they never
consideration a legal professional bases their     years and have a stable career and life. If you    got the opportunity to really find out what it
career choices on.                                 go to a firm just because of monetary consid-      was like practicing law with a group of people
                                                   erations, you may wind up so disgruntled with      they like, respect and profit emotionally from
OBSERVATION 2:                                     working in a law firm that you are not working     working with. Not all legal professionals are
                                                   at all.                                            the same. Fitting in with the community of
The stereotype much of the general public has                                                         legal professionals that make up a particular
about attorneys is not a good one: In a lot of     The above observation is compounded by the         law firm is the key to long-term success and
respects, the general public sees attorneys as     irony that many legal professionals wind up        satisfaction in law firm life. Not fitting in is the
ultra competitive, money and power hungry          in the largest and most prestigious firms          key to failure or the decision to take another
individuals. Many attorneys in fact personify      precisely because they show so much promise        career path.
these traits and have subordinated much of         and have excelled to such a degree in their
their happiness in life to the pursuit of money,   legal careers. We have seen resumes of legal       Consider the choice of where to live, and
respect, power, and admiration from their          professionals who worked in first rate New         compare the process of making that decision
peers. This perception leads many attorneys        York law firms but ended up spending their         with the decision to join any particular firm.
to base their presumed happiness on things         careers aimless, on career paths that do not       Some of us prefer the lifestyle in New York
like having the largest house, the most expen-     sound compelling to many highly educated le-       to Los Angeles, or prefer San Francisco to
sive car and other traditional accoutrements       gal professionals. This is not to say that there   Seattle. Preference for one city or neighbor-
of the “American Dream.”                           is anything wrong with this type of career         hood is entirely personal and individual. The
                                                   path. The problem is that many of these same       considerations are whether we feel accepted
C. The Failure to Consider Firm Culture Prema-     legal professionals may believe they are find-     and appreciated in a community and whether
                                                   ing happiness in jobs apart from the law when      we see people around us that share the same
turely Ends of Limits Many Careers That Could
                                                   there is a possibility they could have found       goals and aspirations. Whether that city sup-
Have Otherwise Been Highly Successful
                                                   happiness in a law practice if they had chosen     ports and enhances our lifestyle becomes a
                                                   a firm that matched their interest culturally.     driving force in a person’s decision.
It is easy to find out a law firm’s compensation
structure, or their billable hour requirements
                                                   OBSERVATION 3:                                     You should constantly ask yourself, “Is this
(which will provide an indication of the work
                                                                                                      firm a place where I will feel accepted? Will I
load that can be expected by all staff mem-
                                                   On a day-to-day basis, in each of our of-          be surrounded by people with the same values
bers), but those are the simple and superficial
                                                   fices, we speak with legal professionals who       and goals? Will this firm compliment my life-
distinctions to make among firms. It is not as
                                                   began their careers with ultra prestigious         style? What is the culture of the firm?”
easy to gauge a firm’s prestige level - how-
                                                   high-paying law firms. Many of these persons
ever, that can usually be done with help. It
                                                   left those firms two to seven years into their     We are not saying that geography is the
is more difficult to evaluate a firm’s culture,
                                                                                                      same as culture. However, the same factors



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      CAREER COUNSELOR’S CORNER                                                                                                      1.800. 973. 1177




that drive us to feel happy and accepted in          1. Preparation is the First Key to Evaluating Firm   of legal professionals of color at the firm?
a particular town or city are relevant when          Culture
choosing a firm. All in all, the key is to spend                                                          Home v. Satellite Office:
some time studying different firms and come          You’ve gotten an interview. Before the
to some conclusions about what type of firm          interview, research as much as possible to           Where is the firm’s main office located? Is
you believe you are best suited to join.             determine the ‘objective’ factors: How big is        it one of the laid-back west-coast firms? In
                                                     the office? What is the salary? What are the         some cases, the personality of the main office
D. Making a Move is Sometimes Your Best              minimum billable hour requirements? In our           carries over to each of the firm’s satellite
Chance to Find Your Perfect Firm Culture             opinion, this objective fact gathering is help-      offices, regardless of where those offices may
                                                     ful in determining how well the firm is doing        be. Frequently, satellite offices of large firms
Many of our candidates, when preparing for           financially and how it has grown over time. On       score big points in associate satisfaction sur-
an interview, want help identifying those            the cultural level, though, these factors are        veys. Although we don’t believe that it’s fair
questions that will help them unearth the true       less important. It is the less obvious criteria      to generalize, we do believe that some of the
culture and environment at a firm. In short          and subjective information that make the dif-        best opportunities for personal growth exist in
form, the question that needs to be answered         ference in figuring out a firm’s culture.            satellite offices.
for each legal professional is simply “will I
like it at this firm?” Unfortunately, try as we      Partner/Associate Ratio:                             Keep in mind that some firms may be as dif-
may, we cannot always answer these ques-                                                                  ferent from office to office as two separate
tions as well as we would like. The culture of a     This objective indicator can be important in         firms in the same city. Can you rely on your
firm may vary from practice group to practice        determining the more subjective issue of             friend in Dallas to tell you about life in their
group, and it is impossible to pin down with         overall satisfaction with a firm. Do you thrive      Los Angeles office? Maybe not. Find out about
any meaningful certainty whether or not a            in a collaborative yet competitive atmosphere?       the firm as a whole, and then how the offices
good firm is always a good fit. Often, the only      Do you prefer to work with partners or as-           relate to and identify with each other. More-
way to learn this is to actually go to the inter-    sociates? If you are the type of person who          over, you may prefer the lifestyle in the head
views and speak with the persons you may be          performs well in a competitive environment           office of the firm if becoming involved in firm
working with.                                        and enjoys having opportunities to distinguish       management is important to you over time.
                                                     yourself with your work product, you may
It’s important to remember that the interview        very well feel comfortable in an environment         Conversely, however, many legal profession-
process as a legal professional, especially for      where there are more associates for each             als working in satellite offices feel less secure
attorneys and specialty law firm staff mem-          partner. Likewise, some attorneys may be             about their careers because management
bers such as IT professionals, is much differ-       more interested in a place where there are           decisions may be made far away, and this
ent than when as a student you interviewed           fewer associates for each partner, and part-         relative lack of security naturally carries over
for a summer clerkship. A law firm is typically      nership is more a function of staying around         to other legal professionals within the firm.
not really concerned with ‘competing’ for any        than distinguishing yourself. Think about what       Additionally, because management decisions
one particular candidate. In this heightened         type of environment is going to help you thrive      are made far away, the firms are often less
competitiveness, it can sometimes be difficult       as an attorney. Will you do better in a situa-       secure in promising promotions to their legal
for the legal professional interviewing for the      tion where you are primarily assigned to one         professionals in a satellite office. Because
job to get the sense of whether this particular      partner, or where you are free to work with a        these decisions may be made only through the
law firm is made up of a group of lawyers with       variety of individuals in a practice group?          main office, satellite administrators may have
whom they want to spend the rest of their ca-                                                             little idea about a particular legal profession-
reer. Keep your best interests at heart and do       Diversity:                                           al’s prospects for advancement. Senior legal
everything you possibly can to ensure that you                                                            administrators in a satellite office may also
find this firm. Obviously, your task is to get the   It may also be important for you to look at the      be uncertain about the course of their own
job; however, you also need to understand the        firm’s commitment to diversity. We don’t know        careers!
firm’s culture. Law Firm Staff, Inc. has identi-     of any firm that doesn’t have an anti-dis-
fied several ways in which you can evaluate          crimination policy. However, some firms are          On rare occasions, a large firm will open a
whether a particular firm is right for you.          more proactive in this area than others. Is it       satellite office to suit one particular client
                                                     important to you that there are a good number        or practice group, only to close that office




   PAGE 3                                                                                                                                        continued on back
   CAREER COUNSELOR’S CORNER                                                                                                  1.800. 973. 1177




relatively quickly based upon management             undertake representation of a young company         fortably hot summer months and returning to
decisions in the home office. These decisions        who may not be around in 5 years? Or will a         business attire for the rest of the year.
may take the senior administrator in the             firm forgo business in an effort to preserve
satellite office by surprise. None of this is to     a few solid relationships with long-standing        Firm Governance:
say that all satellite offices are bad - in fact,    clients? How much of the firm’s revenue is
good satellite offices are the rule rather than      based on any one particular client? If a law        How a law firm conducts its day-to-day
the exception - it is just to say that you need to   firm never allows any one particular client to      business is important. Lawyers have to run
be careful in evaluating the culture of a satel-     represent more than a small percentage of its       the business of their law firm, and how they
lite office. Ask yourself and your interviewers      overall business, you know that this firm is not    choose to structure the firm can say a lot
whatever questions you feel might be helpful.        willing to allow its long-term economic health      about its culture. The business model a law
Does the office appear stable? Who are its cli-      to rely on that of the companies it represents.     firm chooses often reveals the core values of
ents? Does the office generate its own clients       Firms that represent entrepreneurial clients        the organization. Generally, firms are gov-
or serve those of the main office only? Does         can also be fast paced and exciting places to       erned in one of several ways.
the satellite office have a history of promoting     work. Smaller clients may also tend to be less
associates to partner?                               conservative and crave insight.                     The democratic firm allows each lawyer
                                                                                                         and staff member to become involved in the
Location, location, location:                        As firms become more institutionalized              decision making, from new hires of legal
                                                     and reliant on revenue streams from larger          professionals, to compensation to long term
Where is the office located? Of all the fac-         clients, they become more conservative and          planning. Most firms, because they are orga-
tors, we find that this tends to be the least        more risk averse for fear of losing that client.    nizations of legal professionals and because
important factor in evaluating a firm’s culture.     That’s when associates and partners become          they ultimately exist to provide legal services,
A California firm known for having attorneys         really conservative, and a culture develops         grant a greater measure of control to the peo-
wearing Birkenstock sandals at work (not all         where people worry about saying the wrong           ple working in the firm. For many large firms,
of them are…) may have a New York office with        thing and a “cover your rear” mentality can         the democracy may only include partners, so
that same type of atmosphere. The Wash-              develop. We have all heard the story - in some      it is not necessarily realistic that a secretary
ington D.C. branch office of a New York firm         form - of the secretary who made some small         will be making any type of management deci-
may get the benefit of highly sophisticated          error and cost the big firm its biggest client.     sions - or even weighing in with an opinion.
corporate deal work. However, even in Hawaii         This type of culture can be good for some           However, many democratically run firms do
or Miami, for example, there are going to be         people in that it carries a lot of predictability   have some level of staff involvement in the
radical distinctions among the firms. This           and is comforting to many legal professionals.      firm’s governance, such as on pro bono com-
distinction is paramount and important. The                                                              mittees or with respect to firm events. This
city makes little difference in a lot of respects.   As you can see, the types of clients a firm has     type of culture is entirely inclusive, although
There are laid back firms in Chicago, down the       can help shape the culture. None of these           sometimes with the result of having too much
block from offices where you wouldn’t think of       observations apply to all firms, but there are      administration bogging down each individual
entering without your most formal business           some consistencies which merit observation.         legal professional’s already heavy workload.
attire. The key is understanding the various         This can even carry over to the dress code          The values reflected here are participation
cultures of the firms themselves.                    firms have. Many law firms instituted business      and integration, which may come at the cost of
                                                     casual dress to attract the younger technol-        expediency of consistency.
Clientele:                                           ogy clients. To attract today’s dressed down
                                                     industries, some law firms encourage their          Many law firms govern using a small, central-
                                                     lawyers to wear casual clothes to the office        ized committee of decision makers, which
Who is the firm representing? Is the firm rep-
                                                     to ‘mirror’ the environment of their clients.       results in greater consistency in terms of firm
resenting young Internet start-ups or large to-
                                                     In other cases, only white shirts and ties for      vision and management. However, this culture
bacco companies? Many firms represent a mix
                                                     men are acceptable while meeting and work-          is more exclusive in terms of firm governance,
of clients, but investigating the industries that
                                                     ing with a client. Many firms try to strike a       which may turn off the legal professional that
a particular firm targets can say a lot about
                                                     balance by staying casual during the uncom-         wants to be a part of the decision-making and
the firm. How risk averse is the firm? Will they




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   CAREER COUNSELOR’S CORNER                                                                                                  1.800. 973. 1177




planning efforts of a firm. In this system of       have such strong ties to their clients (some-       2. The absolute best way to evaluate whether
firm governance, it’s important to find out how     times ties that date back over 100 years!), the     a firm is right for you is to meet with the legal
these leaders are chosen and the values they        chances of those clients, or the relationships      professionals at the firm, and to focus on the
hold dear.                                          with those clients deteriorating may be less        interview process.
                                                    likely. This environment, in general, will be
At the end of the day, however, what is more        more formal than others, and is less likely to      When you are in an office for an interview,
important than the method of governance             embrace trends in business casual apparel.          what is the single most important way to
is the reason behind why a particular firm                                                              find out what the firm culture is like? Ask.
chooses the business model it does. Asking a        “Lifestyle” or “quality of life” is another way     Certainly, at the interview stage, you may feel
law firm’s associates or partners why things        the legal community may refer to a certain          like you are simply getting the ‘party line.’
are the way they are helps one understand           firm. These terms have become somewhat              However, you are familiar with acting like a
a firm’s culture and vision for the future. If      hackneyed of late, but still have value in          lawyer, whether you are licensed as an attor-
you hear that the goals of the business match       terms of defining a particular firm. A quality      ney or not, and you are capable of evaluating
yours, you have likely found a culture in which     of life firm is fairly self-explanatory, which is   the sincerity and enthusiasm in the response.
you will be happy and succeed.                      to say that the firm has placed a premium on        Ask each and every person to describe the
                                                    allowing associates to have a life outside of       culture and community in the firm, and ask
Word on the Street:                                 the firm. What does that mean? Sometimes, it        them to tell you what that means to them.
                                                    means a slightly lower billable hour require-       Ask your interviewers to compare their firm
You probably know the reputation of the firm        ment than at other firms. Other times, it may       to other firms in the same market so that you
where you’re interviewing. Is it known around       mean that the firm’s management is more             can begin to make some distinctions. Remem-
town as a sweatshop or a ‘quality of life’ firm?    amenable to other situations other than typi-       ber that all of the legal professionals made
BE CAREFUL! While we believe that tracking          cal full-time associate and staff positions, in-    the same decision you’ll be faced with after
down fellow legal professionals or colleagues       cluding part-time, telecommuting, flextime, or      interviewing: “Why this firm?” Find out how
at a particular firm to ask about their particu-    non-partnership track. The popularity of this       each lawyer got in front of you, and ask them
lar experience has value, broad generaliza-         term has caused it to be somewhat diluted.          how they feel about their decision to practice
tions about a firm’s culture are often just that:   We find that there are very few firms willing       at that firm. Learning the individual stories of
generalizations. Even if a reputation is mostly     to define themselves as anything but firms          the attorneys you meet will go a long way to-
on target, you may be looking to join a practice    that value legal professionals’ quality of life.    ward helping you make your decision. Asking
area or work with a partner that is decidedly       Don’t take these types of labels at face value,     this type of question will also ingratiate the
unlike the overall firm culture.                    and investigate what that term means within a       interviewer to you.
                                                    particular firm.
But what does ‘reputation’ mean in terms of                                                             Look around the office as you are directed to
evaluating a firm? Although it’s not neces-         You may also want to look at the politics of a      your interview(s). See how the partners and
sarily wise to make assumptions about a firm        particular firm. Some firms actively recruit        associates treat the legal professionals in the
based on reputation, what people say about a        attorneys of various national origins, races, or    support staff. Notice how the support staff
firm may help you define whether you fit into       sexual orientations. Some firms have a com-         treat each other. Don’t overlook a slip-up in
the culture. What does it mean to be a ‘white       mitment to pro bono that rewards legal pro-         this area. The staff members know you are
shoe’ firm? Historically, the phrase ‘white         fessionals for their dedication to non-billable     considering the culture of their firm, and they
shoe firms’ is associated with large New York       pursuits. Many firms are politically active,        should be careful or well managed enough to
firms with strong corporate practices. There        and are sometimes made up of law partners           see that you are given the right impression.
are, however, ‘white shoe’ firms in every ma-       who have held prestigious posts in a variety        You may be the type of person who enjoys
jor legal market, including Chicago, Los Ange-      of elected offices. Some firms are famous for       being able to come into the office and crank
les, San Francisco and Washington D.C. Often,       having ties with certain parties or administra-     out her work for the day, or you may enjoy
the clients of these firms will be Fortune          tions; others have ‘raised’ prestigious judges      spending time ‘shooting the breeze’ with other
500 companies and other large institutional         or professors. Do the research to determine         lawyers. See whether individual office doors
clients with long-standing relationships with       whether the firm in question seems to be            are closed or open. Pay attention to people’s
their particular firm. One advantage of this        comprised of the same kind of attorneys as          work styles, and compare them to yours. You
type of firm is security. Because these firms       you are, or as you aspire to be.                    may enjoy a more ‘old-school’ law firm envi-




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   CAREER COUNSELOR’S CORNER                                                                          1.800. 973. 1177




ronment, or you may thrive in a more modern        firm when you don’t feel the pressure of hav-
‘team’ approach. Notice whether people call        ing to ‘perform’ in an interview.
each other by their first names, or whether
they are more formal. Although you should          E. Conclusions
always be aware of the fact that you are being
evaluated, and act accordingly, keep your eyes     The key to true job satisfaction is determin-
and ears open to more than just the answers        ing which firm’s culture suits you and your
to your questions.                                 career. Finding the right culture will allow you
                                                   to find a job that won’t feel like work. What
Again, be careful. Sometimes legal profes-         is going to make the difference over time is
sionals interviewing for a position swing too      not a $5,000 per year salary differential; it’s
far in terms of evaluating: spending all of your   whether you feel comfortable and appreciated
time in this process wondering “what can the       in a particular environment. No matter what
law firm do for me?” will prevent you from         the reputation of the firm, going through the
showing a potential employer that you are a        process of discovering who the people are and
good match for them. This is a two way street,     what they think of you and your skills will be
so showing a law firm what you are made of         the best indicators of long-term satisfaction
is just as important during an interview as        and success.
evaluating the firm.
                                                   Luckily, finding your place is not only up to
3. What does An Offer Say About Firm Culture?      you. Law Firm Staff, Inc. is knowledgeable
                                                   about the various firm cultures, and we can
Here’s where it gets easy. Receiving an offer      help you determine the firm community that is
from the firm with whom you interviewed is         right for you.
the single best indicator that they are a good
fit for you. Although it may be difficult to
imagine after going back to a law firm time
and time again to interview, receiving an offer
of employment means, at a minimum, that a
particular firm ‘gelled’ with you more than
with any other candidate applying for that
particular position. Remember, a law firm will
not extend an offer to someone they don’t like,
don’t respect, and with whom they don’t want
to spend their time.


Still don’t know? Ask to go back. Sometimes
a callback schedule wasn’t as well rounded
as it could have been, in terms of including
a variety of associates, partners, or differ-
ent practice groups. Law firms are generally
very accommodating in terms of scheduling
post-offer lunches or meetings. Everyone in
this process understands that accepting a new
offer is a big decision, and generally everyone
will be amenable to providing you with any ad-
ditional information you may need. Sometimes
it’s easier to evaluate your fit in a particular




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