How to Manage Your Career in a Declining Legal Market
We see it all the time: A graduate of a top law school (or wherever) joins a large, highly regarded law firm in a major city. The thought of working for a small to mid-sized firm is something most of these attorneys never believe they will ever do when they first join a large law firm. The lures are spectacular: name-brand clients known worldwide; powerful senior partners, a few of which may even be media figures; a backup support staff to dream of-proofreaders, legal assistants, and schedulers; plus fellow lawyers equally brilliant and success-driven. For all-work-and-no-play achievers, such an achievement is like landing in Heaven. All that hard work has paid off.
The panic, if it can be called that, sets in quickly.
You may not recognize the panic, or it may rest just beneath the surface of your conscious life. This panic is centered on the uncertainty of a young lawyer's life. The firm's standards may at times seem impossibly high. A typo on a document might send a pantheon of powerful partners into a fury. The hours can be long. A client might want something overnight. There are partners with no private lives, spending all their working hours at the firm. There appear to be no benchmarks other than hours billed-and the more hours, the better. Stories circulate: At X Firm, one senior associate billed 3,100 hours his eighth year and another billed 2,950-the associate with more billed hours made partner, and the other lawyer was forced to leave the firm. Such a story may be merely apocryphal, but serves to highlight the overriding importance of billable hours. In this type of environment, a lawyer cannot help but ask him/herself the following questions:
Am I cutting it? And just what is required to "cut it"? Am I up to this, and can I keep it up for 30 years?
Do some partners prefer working with certain associates? If so, what are these associates doing that I'm not?
Which types of practice and which partners seem to hold the most power?
Which partner might become my mentor? Will any partner ever take on this role with me? How do I get the process rolling?
Which associates seem to be making the most headway?
And if certain associates do seem to be making more headway, why is this happening? What are they doing that I'm not doing? What am I doing wrong?
How can I stand out from the other associates without causing some sort of backlash?
Finally, how long will it take me to make partner? What are my chances? Who is likely to be my primary competition?
Metaphorically Moving from Hell to Heaven
Being an associate in a large firm can be pleasant when a collegial atmosphere exists nurtured by partners, associates, support staff, and clients. If an attorney lands in a practice area that he/she finds intellectually stimulating, so much the better. But even if the work situation is optimal, there remains doubt lying just below the surface, an angst that concerns the unknown future and the attorney's position in it. To be an associate is, in a sense, to always remain in a form of indenture to the firm's partners. This may well be tolerable through the first, say, four years, when the attorney is establishing work habits and developing skills to last a lifetime. But such indentured status begins to grow somewhat stale as the typical associate begins to run a docket of cases with minimal partner supervision. Attorneys typically report what can only be described as a moment of clarity somewhere between the end of their third and the beginning of their sixth years.
The Moment of Clarity
The attorney has begun to realize that the senior partners he/she works with every day are not gods and that most of the work is routine and does not require a brilliant, breakthrough intellectual analysis. In short, the romance is gone. What is left is a future stretching into decades filled with more of the same. The attorney realizes that he/she is just as competent as everyone else, but has flaws. Perhaps these flaws have to do with social-interaction skills. Perhaps there is a lack of connection with certain partners that may prove to be harmful. Perhaps the attorney finds it impossible to bring in new business. Perhaps there is a relationship with another associate that causes daily, gnawing resentment. What the moment of clarity amounts to is a combination of summing up one's experience in the firm and a simultaneous dropping away of the veils of expectation, idealization, hope, and promise. One's position in the firm is seen simply and starkly for what it is.
The Search for Legal Nirvana
What rests behind this moment of clarity is the contrast between what one's life has become and what an individual seeks, which is complete control over one's life. Such freedom, if there is indeed such a state, is instinctively sought, and this complete freedom is envisioned by most associates as earning a partnership in a big firm. Getting a partnership offer is the problem. There are no rules to follow, no GPA to be achieved, and no LSAT to pass. Instead, political skills, sheer determination, and billable hours come into play. It may seem unfair that having run the gauntlet of high school grades, SAT, college grades, LSAT, law school GPA, law review, clerkships, and acceptance by a name-brand firm, the battle begins anew, with rules not cast in stone. These rules, as undefined as they are, seem to call upon one's ability to form bonds and deflect criticism. They seem to involve outworking everyone else. They seem to involve who can parlay enough family and other contacts into billable clients. And what the hell does any of this have to do with being a good lawyer?!!
The problem with the associate's search for ways to make partner is that just running up the most billable hours is not enough. On the other hand, bringing in several million dollars of business and being able to keep at least nominal control of it would certainly guarantee a partnership or, as a Plan B, the ability to move elsewhere with clients in tow. If one can achieve this, the associate's personality conflicts inside the firm, if any, become less important.
But What if a Lawyer Doesn't Want to Be a Rainmaker?
What then? Can one still make partner without bringing in clients? Yes. There are other ways. One can become an unrivaled expert in some narrow but revenue-producing corner of the law. Clients with specific types of problems will be drawn to the firm because it has a reputation for solving them. The associate with expertise in this field will get the bulk of this new work or have an important say in how this work is conducted. One can bill more hours than his/her competition (other associates in the same class). One can get visibility outside the firm by serving on commissions and boards. One can marry the managing partner's daughter or son. One can watch as other associates jump ship and hope that he/she will be the last one standing at the end of eight or so years.
Okay, so you've got big-time angst. You don't know what to do. Here's a solution. Let the situation play out. The worst that can happen is that you must leave big-firm life and try for happiness at a smaller firm, or go in-house. You might not make partner or find happiness there either, but you are more likely to keep your job and develop a life outside the firm. In such a scenario, the trajectory of your life is dictated for you by outside forces. Not a pleasant thought. On the other hand, everyone's life is dictated by outside forces, even those who stayed behind at your prior firm and made partner. For instance, they will die at a moment not likely to be of their own choosing. In the meantime, there will be deaths in the family, divorces, possible disappointments with children, and other unpleasantness. The key is to be content with a combination of what you have achieved and what is forced upon you. Partnerships are not at the center of such considerations. You only think they are if you allow the culture of the law firm to dominate your thinking. It is in the moment of clarity that you can gain a new perspective. Happiness won't likely be the result, but a sense of calm and acceptance will make the rest of your life that much better.
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