Alum Offers Strategy for New Lawyers in Midst of Troubling Economy

March 30, 2009

Recent law graduates entering practice should work hard, take every opportunity to learn and be careful to preserve some life balance, an established lawyer told Law School students Wednesday.

Jonathan Rusch ’80, who began his career at a private Washington law firm and now serves at the U.S. Department of Justice as deputy chief of the Fraud Section, provided professional and personal advice to students.

Rusch tailored most of his tips to students about to join the workforce in a slow economy that has caused some firms to push back start dates, enforce hiring and pay freezes and, in the most extreme cases, rescind offers.

“All of us, and you particularly in the third year, need to be focusing on the fact that there are some new realities to law practice,” Rusch said. “Whatever experiences you may have had last summer in working for firms or agencies, however great things were — that was last year, this is now.”

Rusch said becoming a competitive junior associate begins even before a graduate starts working at a law firm. Especially for those students who have late start dates, Rusch suggested pursuing some sort of work relating to law in the interim period, such as pro bono work.

“Don’t assume if you sit back on your heels for six or eight months or more, that you’re necessarily going to be viewed as attractive as other first years when you walk in the door eventually at that firm,” Rusch said. “If you do nothing of a professional nature and just say, ‘Well, I spent lots of time on the beach’… and other people come in the door and say, ‘Well yeah, and I also worked for this organization … and I drafted this brief’ … it may be a subtle point, but it will be something that might not be lost on partners at your new employer.”

The economy also forces new law school graduates to make contingency plans. Rusch said graduates should be flexible and be willing to consider jobs in the public or private sector in different cities, even if they may not be their first choices.

“It’s more important to get yourself started in practice rather than waiting and hoping to find the perfect situation in the perfect place,” he said.

When graduates finally reach their first day, Rusch said they should make three assumptions when they walk in the door of their new employers. First, assume everyone knows more and counts for more than you do.

“That’s a very hard lesson for people that are coming in,” he said. “The best and the brightest from law schools all over the country who have high degrees of confidence about how well they can do in practice still have to recognize that you are the new kid on the block.”

Second, Rusch said graduates must realize that everyone else at the law firm is worth more than they are.

“It doesn’t matter how extremely hard you’ve worked, how brilliant you are, how great you were in law school classes — your perceived marginal value to the partnership on day one is greater than zero, but not a whole lot,” he said.

Rusch said graduates must immediately work to increase their marginal value at the firm. One way to do this is to recognize the role of a first-year associate: to support the partners. Rusch recommended flexibility in picking up work assignments because senior partners and supervisors tend to remember who stepped up for the less attractive assignments.

Another way to increase value is to develop relationships with supervisors. Rusch said first-year associates should be confident enough to invite a senior partner to lunch or ask for advice, if the culture of the firm allows it.

“Many associates get work, and good work, in taking initiative and showing interest,” Rusch said, citing other legal professionals to which he had spoken. “Don’t wait for opportunities — make them.”

Rusch emphasized that even though the bar exam may be looming, students should enjoy commencement. To prepare for the bar exam, Rusch suggested taking a preparation class, but cautioned graduates to remember that all they have to do is remember the information long enough to pass the test.

“Of course, it’s important that you know the substantive law in the jurisdiction in which you’re practicing, but in almost 30 years, I have to say I cannot remember a single substantive point that was force fed to me during a bar review course that ever came handy in the practice of law,” Rusch said, adding that the real benefit of the bar exam is to learn the general aspects of the jurisdictional law.

Rusch also warned students to remember their personal lives. Graduates need to make time for personal relationships, physical exercise, outside interests and sleep. Rusch speaks from experience – for a short while early in his law career, he slept only every other day when he was working on two demanding projects at the same time.

“Even in a profession that demands and expects that we work our hardest, perspective, balance and diversity of interest really helps you, I believe, become a better lawyer in the long term.”

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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