How Can a Tier-3 Law School Grad Break in to the Big Show?

Q: What is the best way to move from a mid-sized boutique firm into a large national law firm, if I graduated from a tier III school? I have a judicial clerkship under my belt and am currently a business litigator working mainly on securities issues.

A: While there is no question that large national law firms place a great deal of emphasis on finding candidates from top tier law schools, there are ways to overcome this obvious bias. Your letter has touched on two distinct factors that make you stand out as a candidate who might nevertheless be viewed favorably by a larger national firm, despite the fact that you graduated from a Tier III law school.

Clerkships

You indicate that you have a judicial clerkship under your belt. Although firms can get elitist when it comes to the level of judicial clerkship, with federal clerkships far surpassing state court clerkships in terms of status, any judicial clerkship is still a feather in your cap and you should highlight this in your resume. Additionally, I would encourage you to occasionally remain in contact with your judge, and if possible, to secure a written reference letter from him or her. A reference letter from a judge will always carry some weight with any law firm. Lastly, to the extent that there was a particularly interesting, high profile matter that came before the court during the time you clerked for that judge, by all means reference it on your resume.

Developing Your Specialty

Second, you indicate that you have developed somewhat of a specialty in securities and business litigation. I am a strong believer in showing law firms exactly what you have to offer them, what you can in effect bring to the table. A litigator who has developed a specialty in a particular area will always bring more value than a generalist. Some attorneys prefer variety. Larger firms, however, tend to look towards specialties. Therefore, the fact that you have already begun to develop somewhat of a specialty in securities litigation makes you a more attractive candidate to a large firm with that type of practice, particularly so in light of the fact that many of the larger firms tends to handle high end securities litigation matters for their prominent Fortune 500 clients. Again, on your resume, the key is to reference or highlight some of the more high profile cases you successfully litigated at your current firm.

Since you have already developed a specialty in securities litigation, it is necessary that you continue to cultivate this specialty. For example, you should enhance your professional development with bar memberships on committees that touch on this practice area. You might also want to consider publishing an article in a legal journal on a securities litigation matter that is timely in nature as a way of demonstrating your expertise in this area. Moreover, you should be networking with those very lawyers who practice as securities litigators. What firms do your opponents hail from? To the extent you are litigating against some of the big boys, and the relationship has not been adversarial, don't be afraid to approach them and subtly feel them out as to opportunities at their firm. And if you impress your opposing counsel who happens to be a partner, he just might want you on his side next time.

As a recruiter, I am often faced with the difficult task of having to turn away candidates with great litigation skills who do not have the pedigree of hailing from a top tier law school, graduating in the top 10% of their law school class, serving as an editor on law review, clerking for a federal district or appellate court judge, or currently working at a major national law firm. Ironically, many of the best litigation candidates whose resumes cross my desk do not have this pedigree at all. Rather, these candidates hail instead from small firms where they are often times thrust into the litigation arena years ahead of their more well-schooled and well-paid colleagues at the bigger firms. An attorney such as yourself who has hopefully garnered outstanding litigation skills and formed a specialty in a practice area such as securities litigation and who also has a judicial clerkship under his belt may be viewed favorably by some of the larger national firms. If you have such exceptional experience that is in demand, as a recruiter who represents many of those firms, I would be able to portray you in the best possible light to those firms and highlight the truly outstanding qualities that make you such an asset to their practice.

Don't Rule Out Smaller Firms

Lastly, I would caution you not to necessarily rule out other boutique style and medium size firms just yet. Some of those firms may actually be very prestigious offshoots of the larger firms. They were formed by former partners at those larger firms who wanted to move away from the bureaucracy of larger firm practice and were able to take their key clients with them. The work is often very cutting edge and the salaries may be relatively comparable to the larger firms. Partnership potential at such firms may be more realistically within your reach. And the level of responsibility that you are accorded may be more in line with what you are presently accustomed to at your current firm.