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Ask the Experts

Q: I am interested in applying to staff attorney programs at New York firms but am not sure how to go about doing so since it is not always clear which firms have them. I have also heard that most staff attorney positions are filled by in house referrals. Is there anything you can tell me that could demystify the recruiting/hiring practices for these positions as well as how to go about comparing the different firm programs. Also, are these positions as dead end as many people surmise?

A: The large New York law firms frequently employ a number of Staff Attorneys in addition to their roster of Associates. These Staff Attorney positions tend to have set hours and pay more modest salaries. Beyond these characteristics, the positions can vary widely. At one end of the spectrum, a Staff Attorney could be hired out of law school specifically for junior-level document review. At the other end of the spectrum, a Staff Attorney may be a former Associate doing high level work who has chosen to transfer into a Staff Attorney position in exchange for a shorter workday. The career opportunities arising from a Staff Attorney position also vary depending on the Staff Attorney's experience level, market forces and professional relationships. One former corporate Staff Attorney became invaluable after six years of handling derivatives documentation and was offered an Associate position at a large New York law firm. Granted, this was an unusual situation. The market in derivatives was booming and the supply of derivatives lawyers was insufficient to meet the market's demands.

A more common scenario is that of a recent law school graduate whose grades and extracurricular activities did not meet the requirements of the large New York law firms and who took a position as a Staff Attorney doing document review as an alternative. The frequently asked question in this context is whether such a Staff Attorney will be able to parlay the Staff Attorney position into an Associate's position. While there are always exceptions, the answer, more often than not, is no. There are two main reasons. First, large law firms place great importance on academic credentials and a stint as a Staff Attorney, even a stellar Staff Attorney with a great attitude, will not usually erase a mediocre academic performance in the firms' eyes. Second, document-review work does little to exercise and develop lawyering skills so it does not add valuable lawyering experience to a resume.

Just as there is no one kind of Staff Attorney position, there is no one way to seek such a position. The higher level positions are generally obtained through personal contacts and referrals. If on the other hand you are looking to do document review or other junior level work as a Staff Attorney, you can call the firms' human resources departments and inquire if they hire for these positions. Every firm has a different policy on Staff Attorneys. Alternatively, you could get this work through a legal placement firm. If you take this route, you will be a "contract attorney" who is employed by the placement firm rather than a Staff Attorney employed by the law firm and the placement firm will take a cut of your hourly wage.

If your objective is ultimately to get hired as an Associate by a large New York firm, your best bet is to find a position somewhere else where you are challenged, engaged, and gaining valuable lawyering experience.