How To "Live Large" In LA

Q: I am a first-year lawyer working at a small firm in the Los Angeles area where I am gaining wonderful experience in several areas of law. I take assignments from three different partners and I am given a lot of independence. However, I am unhappy with my salary and I would like to get into a large firm. I wasn't at the top of my class in law school and I don't have many contacts. Therefore, I will have to rely on experience to get into a larger firm. How much experience do the large firms look for when you don't get in the traditional way (on-campus interviews, summer associate, offer)? How long should I wait before I bother to start sending my resume out?

A: As a general rule, you are the most marketable when you have three to five years of experience. When approaching large law firms, however, the kind of experience is more important than the years you bring. One or two years in sophisticated commercial transactions, real estate and other business matters might catch the attention of a larger law firm; twice as many years in family law, criminal defense and plaintiffs personal injury representation probably wont. Even with good experience, though, your failure to graduate near the top of your law school class may, on its own, hamper your move into a large law firm.

Exceptions to these rules do occur, almost always when you impress the lawyers you meet day-to-dayin court, at conferences or through bar association activitieswith your work style and product. Those are the kinds of contacts you want to develop.

I suggest that you stay where you are for at least another year, making certain to interact cordially and competently with every lawyer you meet. The more impressive your work, the more likely youll receive attention from potential employers. Get involved as well in local bar association activities. Youll make friends with some of the most committed and successful lawyers in your area, and that will greatly improve your prospects.

In the meantime, try to get at least a small salary increase right where you are. Your employers are busy people who will respond to the demands of their cases and families before they ever think of rewarding you, unless you make yourself a priority. If you want a raise, ask for one. Figure out what you deserve and start to negotiate. If youre underpaid relative to the market, and youve been doing good work for them, theyll have a hard time finding someone to fill your shoes.