Lawyers shop for career path at their first job

By Lee Dryden
The Daily Record Newswire
It’s good to have options.

Two West Michigan law firms have been taking different approaches to acquaint associates with various practice areas before settling on a career path.

As recommended by a group of first-year associates in 1981, Warner Norcross & Judd offers a “job jar” program that enables new attorneys to work on varying projects throughout the firm.

Carin L. Ojala, Warner’s director of recruiting and development, called it a “liberal arts approach.”

“We try to give them projects in as many different areas with as many different partners as possible,” she said. “It helps you to try these areas on before you make a decision on the rest of your career.”

Varnum is in its second year of a program where associates are “free agents” who serve stints at different practice groups.

Brion B. Doyle, chairman of Varnum’s recruiting committee, said the idea came up a couple years ago as part of a “broader trend” in the firm to organize into more industry-focused groups.

“For the first year or the first year or two, they will be able to work for every group,” he said.

Each firm says its effort has been successful in exposing young attorneys to a broad base of legal work, experiences and mentors while decreasing the pressure of making a hasty decision.

The programs are also touted as key recruitment tools.

The firms see it as setting themselves apart from others that immediately funnel recruits to long-term homes in a specific practice group. Associates going through the program at each firm say that is exactly what is happening to their law school classmates.

Varnum’s free agents

John W. Sturgis began as an associate as Varnum in September 2014 after spending the summer there in 2013.

He followed his chosen path of litigation for about six months before realizing it wasn’t quite for him.

“I found I fit better in more of a transactional, real estate-based practice,” he said.

During the free agent program, Sturgis moved from labor and employment with some litigation to litigation to a mix of real estate, regulatory, environmental and municipal legal work.

Even after three years of law school, some students are not sure where they want to specialize, Doyle said.

Providing the opportunity to seek the best fit helps with recruiting, he added.

“It seemed to be a popular idea with law students and our summer interns who were not locked in on a particular practice group,” he said. “The feedback has been great. There’s an opportunity to work with a lot more attorneys than with a select group within a practice group.”

Doyle said it’s helpful for associates who will ultimately end up in other areas to get litigation experience.

While two years is an ideal time to choose a legal focus, associates can veer toward a favored area of interest sooner while dabbling in others, Doyle said.

“It’s by no means a random program,” he said. “It’s one of the strengths of the program.”

Sturgis said he would have been “happy enough” with his initial choice of litigation but appreciates the different experiences that altered his future.

“It’s nice to come in and not have the pressure to choose your career for the rest of your life potentially,” he said. “It made it so you didn’t have to lock in right away.”

Warner’s job jar

After spending the summer of 2014 at Warner, Ashley G. Chrysler began as an associate there in September.

The varied tasks in the job jar program — which included litigation, consumer finance and trusts and estates this year — confirmed her affinity for litigation hatched during moot court experience in school.

“It gives me a chance to pursue that and get experience in other areas as well,” she said.

Ojala said the job jar “is not a rotation system, it’s an assignment system.”

Assignments are submitted electronically. Partners open an application and fill out information on a project such as a description, practice area, estimated hours and deadline.

Ojala distributes projects to first-year associates, who receive a comprehensive evaluation of their work upon completion.

It’s a one-year program that begins in September, but the timeframe isn’t mandatory. Associates can stay in longer or “declare a major” sooner than a year, she said.

“We don’t slot new associates in practice areas,” she said. “I think it helps with recruiting. More importantly, it helps with retention.”

The “choose-your-own adventure” approach helps eventually place associates by interest, need, who they enjoy working with and personality traits. For example, someone who likes highs and lows may enjoy litigation while others may want a steadier schedule.

Ojala went through the job jar herself in 1993 when she had “truly had no idea” what she wanted to do when she came out of law school.  She worked in commercial transactions with the “job jar czar” who became a mentor.

“I loved the job jar — it was perfect for me,” she said.

Other than being fully electronic as opposed to filling out forms in triplicate, the job jar remains as it began.

“The fact that it remains virtually unchanged for 34 years tells us it’s working,” Ojala said.

Another viewpoint

Many law school graduates are not committed to a specific practice area, said Jennifer Rumschlag, assistant dean of career services and outreach at University of Detroit Mercy School of Law.

“Throughout law school, they receive brief exposure to practice areas, so they know what interests them, but realize there are many practice areas to consider, and don’t want to preclude opportunities,” she said.
“For example, at Detroit Mercy Law, students are exposed to various practice areas through the law school curriculum, the career and professionalism curriculum, their work experience, externships, required clinics, the law firm program, mentorships, and more.  Some graduates choose a firm, and others realize that the legal job market may require practice area flexibility to secure employment.”

Rumschlag said students and graduates who haven’t settled on a specific area are encouraged to reach out to legal professionals across a variety of practice areas and ask why they chose it. Detroit Mercy facilitates opportunities for such interactions.

UDM graduates are advised that “one of the many benefits of the legal profession is that there are so many practice areas, to start somewhere, work hard, and learn along the way,” she said.

“All legal experience is valuable and there are many transferable skills across practice areas,” Rumschlag said.  “Yes, switching practice areas can be challenging, but it’s not impossible.”

Allowing young lawyers to test the waters in different areas benefits the associates, the firms and their clients, she added.

“Associates will appreciate the firm investing in them through increased exposure and area of law training,” Rumschlag said. “Associates will build more relationships across the firm.  The partners and associates will be in a better position to identify the right long term fit for practice area groups.  This could lead to less turnover as a result of greater job satisfaction among associates and ultimately better outcomes for clients.”