Harrison Barnes' Legal Career Advice Podcast - Episode 6
Listen to The Reasons Most Attorneys with 5+ Years of Law Firm Experience Are in Serious Trouble (and Seven Steps They Need to Take to Save Their Legal Careers) Podcast
Summary: These seven choices are fundamental to attorneys and their careers. Each of them is evaluated in-depth in this article to ensure your career success.
- Attorneys are continually in need of work simply so they themselves can continue to work.
- However, attorneys with five or more years of work under their belts are especially prone to be fired as they are now looked upon as liabilities.
- This article highlights seven choices an attorney needs to make to ensure their worth in the firm they work for, particularly if they have five or more years of firm experience.
In this article, readers will learn that nothing is more important to an attorney’s career path than having a business, and the steps an attorney needs to take when not having any or only a little business puts his professional future at risk.
When an attorney gets more than six or seven years of firm experience and does not have a substantial amount of business in all but the healthiest of firms (i.e., firms with a ton of business), he becomes a liability and his job is at risk.
Attorneys in this situation face several critical choices. Among the most common are:
- Go in-house.
- Get more business.
- Find a healthy law firm.
- Find an advocate inside the firm with a lot of business.
- Wait for a better economic environment.
- Downgrade the quality of the firm worked for and/or start own practice.
- Stop practicing law completely.
These seven choices are so fundamental to attorneys and their careers that I will evaluate all of them below. I have been a legal recruiter for the majority of my career, and most of what I do is related to helping attorneys make decisions when they do not have any business.
As a preliminary matter, I would like to answer the question: "How important is business?" Simply stated, few things are more important to your longevity and survival as an attorney than having a business.
Let me tell you a couple of stories about how important business is.
I know one attorney who has been practicing for approximately 20 years. Since he was about six or seven years out of law school, he has consistently had about $1 million to $3 million in business.
Like clockwork, he switched to firms about every 12 to 18 months. He worked for at least 15 firms. He is currently working for a firm that is an AmLaw 100 firm. He has well-known substance abuse problems and a penchant for spending lots of free time with prostitutes. When he leaves firms, he generally pisses them off. He has enemies all around the city he works in and a horrible reputation for being a job hopper.
NO ONE CARES
He can move to many firms whenever he wants to. His reputation, drinking during the day, doing coke binges at night, being seen with prostitutes, none of it matters!
HE HAS BUSINESS
Firms need business. Large or small, prestigious or not, a firm cannot survive without business. It is what keeps the lights on, and it is what gives associate attorneys jobs and keeps the higher-ups employed.
- See How to Easily Determine the Best Attorneys and Law Firms: The Five Prestige Levels of Attorneys and Law Firms for more information about how to determine which firms are the best.
Let me tell you another story about how important business is.
If a partner from a major, major firm—Skadden, Gibson Dunn, and so forth—wants to move firms, the first question he will be asked is: "How much business do you have?" (How much lawyers get paid is in direct relation to the amount of business they have.)
If the answer is "zero," then in all but the rarest cases, the conversation stops there. No matter how solid your work experience is, firms need business production. I have seen partners from Skadden Arps, Sidley & Austin, Jones Day, Sherman & Sterling, and other firms have careers that simply ended when the firm decided they no longer had the use for them because they did not have enough business. Whether someone who gave them work left the firm, the firm lost a major client, or the firm restructured, it still decides to part ways with the partner.
Once that happens, the partner tries like mad to get into another law firm. I have placed tons of people like this (more on that later), but for most partners without business, there is a very cold reception and the odds of getting into a significant firm are almost zero for many of them. Legal work experience alone garners little attention. No one is interested in partners without business for the most part—and partners know it.
I have even seen federal judges retire and try to return to firms. Even they do not receive the warmest of receptions from firms!
I have had partners inside of major firms in major cities, but with no business, making $500,000 a year banging down my door to make $175,000 in an in-house position in the middle of the Texas panhandle, in the swamps of Louisiana, and so forth, anywhere they believe their careers will be safe. If you do not have a lot of business at a firm, you are in a very dangerous situation indeed.
When an attorney with a few million in business wants to change firms, the discussion with a new firm is generally based on how much of the business he will keep that he will currently bring in and work on. If he has $3 million in business, one firm may let him keep 30% of what he works on and 15% of what others work on. Another firm may allow him to keep 25% of what he works on and 15% of what others work on. Firms screw with these percentages and numbers all the time. The point you need to understand when asking “How much does a lawyer make at this firm?” is that partners receive more money if they do the work themselves. This point is so fundamental to the practice of law and the salaries of senior associates at firms that I will illustrate it here:
Imagine two partners with $1 million in business.
Firm Compensation Model: You get 30% of what you work on and 15% of what others do.
- Partner "A" does all of his/her own work and makes $300,000.
- Partner "B" does none of his/her own work and makes $150,000.
This is grossly simplistic, but clearly, it is always in the partner's best interest to do his own work. Also, firms need to present bills to clients that make the clients happy. It looks much better to have a bunch of work done by junior associates because they are cheaper, which (theoretically) keeps the bills down. As associates become more senior, their billing rates become closer to what partners charge per hour. This does not look as good to the client and the partner with the business would much rather do work billed out at a higher level themselves. After all, the partner has a relationship with the client and makes more money that way.
The problem that senior associates, of-counsel attorneys, and partners face is very straightforward. Just like young associates are judged by the number of hours they can bill (i.e., how much more revenue they generate than their salary) and how good they look on paper (i.e., schools, grades, and so forth), partners are judged by how much business they have. Partners generally stay employed and are compensated based on the amount of business that they have and, most importantly, the amount of their own work that they do.
If you are a partner or a senior associate with little or no business and your job is in danger, you typically have the following choices:
1) Go In-House
Generally, attorneys go in-house because they have to. In-house attorneys are often people who, for whatever reason, are having a difficult time playing the firm game any longer.
I am not trying to be harsh or offensive by saying this, but it is true. The people we see going in-house most often are women who want to start a family or spend more time with their children, people who are sick of long hours, attorneys without business, and no future at their firm, and people without the overall commitment needed to continue practicing law at a high level. These are all valid reasons to go in-house, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with not having what is required by large firms. You can often have a much better life going in-house than working in a law firm, but you are no longer playing the game.
Is this always the case? No. I have seen attorneys go to work at hedge funds and make millions. I have worked with people who became the general counsels of major corporations. So, of course, going in-house is not always "giving up," but it is the majority of the time. In fact, going in-house can be the worst decision a good attorney ever makes.
I talk to extremely talented attorneys all the time who are interested in going in-house. I was working with a fifth-year attorney recently who had over $1 million in business and had brought in a couple of major Las Vegas casinos as clients. He wanted to go in-house to an easier job. I asked him: "Are you kidding?" This guy is the perfect candidate for a firm. He was barely 30 years old and already had a decent book of business in a major U.S. law firm. I told him exactly what I am going to tell you:
"Going in-house is like going to medical school, getting a job with one of the best hospitals in the country as a brain surgeon, and then deciding to give it all up to become a nurse in a small clinic."
In all honesty, this is generally what going in-house is all about. You have no pressure to generate business. You are not doing the most sophisticated legal work. The firms hired by the company are. You are not surrounded by people pushing you to do the best possible legal work. You are not around the best attorneys. There is much less pressure, but the work will never be as high-level or demanding.
But do not take my word for it. It does not matter if the person comes out of the legal department at Apple, Google, General Motors, or any other well-known company. This person could be the No. 2 or even the No. 1 person in the department. When in-house attorneys lose their jobs or quit, it is almost impossible to get large firms interested in them. One would think the relationships and the potential to bring in business matter. But they do not. If someone goes in-house, the perception is that he has "given up" on what it takes to be a performer in a law firm, and that is it.
The law firm world is enormously competitive. I just sent a partner in New York with $4 million in business to Gibson Dunn. The firm called me and asked, “What is his billing rate?" I told the caller it was $785 an hour.
The firm told me that was too low and hung up the phone.
Practicing law is a serious game. If you step off the fast track, it will be very difficult to ever get back on. It does happen (in intellectual property rights and real estate, if the market is really good), but it is rare. That is why the decision to go in-house should be thought out very carefully. But if you do not have any business, going in-house may be a good option.
2) Get More Business
If you do not have any business, the most logical path of action is to get some. That is all you need to do. Once you have the business, you are suddenly in control of your career path. Firms will be interested in you, and you can move when you want and where you want. You are operating your own little business, servicing your clients, and doling out your work to partners and other associates.
THIS IS THE WHOLE POINT OF BEING AN ATTORNEY. LEARN YOUR CRAFT, BE GOOD AT IT, AND THEN GO GET CLIENTS.
What does it say about a person if he does not have any business? Well, it says a lot. Partners inside of large firms who have no business will say things like "We only have institutional clients" and so forth. This may be true, but it is not persuasive. The assumption is that if you are good, you will have a business, regardless of the firm you work for.
When I was a second-year associate, I had plenty of business. I take what I do very seriously and people know it. I am writing this article, for example, and I take recruiting extremely seriously. When I was a practicing attorney, I took that unbelievably seriously. I do the absolute best I can. I never give up. What sort of attorney would you want representing you?
If an attorney is driven, hardworking, and gets out socially to show other people this work ethic, then he or she will get business. People will always give work to people who take what they do incredibly seriously. You need to get out there and write about it, talk about it, and be enthusiastic about it. This is how attorneys get more business.
I started my career at Quinn Emanuel, a firm that had so much work it was unbelievable. The firm had some very gifted business generators there, but it was not interested in using its associates that way. Quinn Emanuel had too much work as it was. They needed soldiers. There are very few firms like this. Because it had so much work and did not require people to generate business, the firm could demand its associates work incredible hours—3,000+ per year to make a partner.
I left to go to a firm where I thought my ability to generate business would be valued. It was a strategic and correct choice for me. I knew that the prospects of long-term survival in the legal profession were not good for me if I was not in the position to stand out by generating a lot of business. Business is the most important thing any attorney can do. If any firm tells you that you do not need business, RUN FOR YOUR LIFE. You need business everywhere. If you are switching firms, you may even need a portable business. The only thing that a lack of business will get you is an insecure future where you are at the mercy of others.
Most of the partners I knew when I was at Quinn are no longer there. They are in smaller firms trying to make a living with no business. Many worked 3,000+ hours a year for decades but never brought in any business. The firm (as all firms eventually do) started chipping away at the compensation and security of the partners without business, and many left or were asked to leave. There is nothing wrong with this, and Quinn is a great firm. This is just how the legal industry works.
Firms will allow you to kill yourself doing lots of work for them for as long as it suits them. But it never lasts forever. And if you do not have the business, firms can basically pay you whatever they want (within reason).
I have received phone calls from partners in major American firms making $120,000 a year. The firms pay them less than junior associates because they can. I once saw a major firm in Los Angeles offer a real estate partner $60,000 a year when real estate was very, very slow.
"Are you kidding?" I asked them.
"No, we are the only firm with any work. We can pay him whatever we want."
Business is incredibly important. If you do not have any business, you do not have any power. You cannot move firms. You cannot reliably forecast your future compensation. You can be pushed around.
When I was practicing law at Dewey Ballantine, there was a senior associate/counsel attorney in the office next to me making $200,000+ a year. He was living in a 600-square foot studio apartment with his wife across the street from the law office. He would eat packaged noodles for lunch to save money.
"Why do you live like this?" I asked him.
"I have been doing this long enough to know that I could lose my job any day and not be able to find a new one," he said. "I do not have any business."
The only security that you are ever going to truly find comes from getting businesses.
Teaching you exactly how to get a business is beyond the scope of this article. However, if you really want a business, the surefire way to get a business is to really, REALLY want to get the business. To really want the business, you need to really want to be an attorney. If you really want to be an attorney, you are going to try your hardest to be the best attorney you can be. You will work harder and do everything possible to accomplish what is expected of you and more.
This is overly simplistic, yet true. The people who want something the most are the ones who get it.
I have led classes to teach attorneys how to generate business. The attorneys who paid the few thousand dollars I charged for these classes generally ended up getting business quickly after they joined. I taught a lot of things in these classes: how to network, how to be seen as a giver in the market, how to be found by potential clients, and more. But the real reason attorneys who took these classes got business (and a lot of it) is that THEY WERE THE ONES WHO REALLY WANTED BUSINESS. They were willing to pay for a course and do the work. It is as simple as that.
Why do so many people from super prestigious schools become successful so often? It is not because something special is being taught in these schools. It is because they worked really hard and got into these super prestigious schools, to begin with. They were already destined to be successful before they even started. In fact, some of the most successful people—Harvard dropouts Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, for example—were on such a fast upward trajectory that they left school early rather than be constrained by the time it takes to graduate.
You need to really want the business, and once you do, you will figure out ways to get it.
What are some ways you have been able to get business as an attorney?
See the following articles for more information:
- Top 9 Ways for Any Attorney to Generate a Ton of Business
- The Importance of Portable Business
- 30 Ways to Generate Business as an Attorney
3) Find A Healthy Law Firm
This is a large part of what I do for a living. I am very good at finding healthy firms for associates and partners without business. It is, believe it or not, quite possible.
When I started my career, one of my first placements was a securities partner with no business who had not worked in five years. I found him a job within a firm in a smaller area that needed someone to be a personal securities attorney for a multi-billionaire client. This firm had a long-standing relationship with the billionaire, and the situation worked out very well for everyone involved.
I have recently had some luck in markets where they are doing a lot of oil fracking. Firms in the middle of nowhere are exploding with work being generated by the wealth from this.
A few months ago, I was talking with a solo practitioner in Detroit. He was a real estate attorney who had been running his own solo practice for about 20 years. He had a good education and had at one time worked in a large firm. He needed a job and was hoping I might be able to find him something in Palm Beach.
"I called you because the Detroit real estate market is exploding right now," I told him. "Most of the major firms there will take you seriously, even with no business. I understand the market, and there are so many openings there that it is clear to me they need people to do the work."
The solo practitioner was not hearing any of it. "I find that hard to believe. Plus, I see people from these firms around town. I would be embarrassed if they knew I did not have any business. I just would not want to put myself out there like that."
To my astonishment, I was 100% right about the direction of the market. I was speaking with one of the more prestigious firms in Detroit a few weeks later, and it said: "We do not care what kind of real estate attorney we hire. We just need someone with a lot of experience."
A few weeks after that, the firm hired another senior attorney from a small Detroit firm at $290,000 a year.
A good recruiter knows where the work is. At any point in time, some firms have a lot of work, and others have very little. GETTING WORK IS VERY IMPORTANT.
Work moves within firms in various cities and various markets in response to all sorts of economic currents that only the best recruiters can see. These economic currents determine where the work is. For example, patent prosecution for electrical engineers and computer scientists is generally always active in the Bay Area. If you are a patent prosecutor and lose a job in another part of the country, the odds of finding employment in this market are very good.
Over the past several months, all sorts of openings for patent attorneys with life sciences backgrounds have opened up in New York City. There are new cancer drugs under development that large firms there are also involved with, and there are a ton of other openings in New York. Historically, openings for life science patent attorneys have been strong in San Diego and Orange County outside of Los Angeles. But now the market is also strong in New York.
New York is generally a very difficult market to find work in because the competition is so fierce. Going to a top school carries a lot of weight in many markets but in New York, it is less important than where you are working now and where you have worked in the past.
In recessions, work often moves to smaller markets where legal work is cheaper. Instead of sending work to a large law firm in a major market, a company may send work to smaller firms in a smaller market to save money. Understanding these dynamics is important and can help protect your career.
I have seen certain markets, such as Rochester, New York, experience these "economic renaissances" when major cities were having the opposite experience.
In recessions, corporate law often gets very, very slow, and there are few jobs. People sue more in recessions and litigation picks up. However, because firms start relying on litigation for their profits during recessions, clients often realize the bills are too high and start settling lawsuits rather than bearing the expense. Then litigation slows down (often dramatically), and litigation becomes a slow practice group.
When interest rates are low but look like they are about to go up, real estate often picks up steam as people begin refinancing their properties before interest rates increase.
When the economic activity and the legal market get very active, it generally begins on the coasts (in the Bay Area and New York) and then takes months to reach the Midwest and Texas. The same thing goes for economic slowdowns as well.
One market, Washington, DC, has never slowed down in the entire 15+ years I have been recruiting.
The fact is that at any point in time, work is moving within various markets – from large to mid-sized firms, from practice area to practice area, and from city to city.
If you are looking for a position, it is important to understand that just because you cannot find work in your current market does not mean there is no work available. The smartest thing you can often do is to look in a new area, and you will discover the work.
It is also important to understand the nature of firms as dynamic economic systems. Firms often start and grow because of some sort of visionary founder or leader. These founders can see some way of getting business or pleasing clients that others in the market do not see. All over the country, there are tens of thousands of firms starting like this as I write. What happens with these firms is they typically grow aggressively, making numerous mistakes along the way. (One firm I know grew so aggressively that it did not even notice that one of its "attorneys" had never graduated from school or passed the bar, despite having been there for six years. It finally noticed when he was up for partner and the firm was in the process of getting a quote for malpractice insurance for him.)
When a firm is in a growth mode like this, it hires people recklessly and quickly. It is not carefully managed, and it often believes that growth and success will continue indefinitely. These firms will hire senior people without business because they are over-confident. They are great firms to get jobs in, and the best recruiters know how to find them.
What eventually happens to all of these firms, though, is they either die when they get over-extended and cannot meet their obligations or in most cases, they become professionally managed and start instituting all sorts of procedures.
You get the idea. The point is that the more mature a firm gets, the less likely it is to hire people who fit outside the box of what it is used to looking for.
Recently, I was working with a very talented attorney from the Department of Justice who spent several years at a major firm and was about 10 years out of law school. He had worked directly with one of the most influential attorneys at the Justice Department. The attorney had graduated at the top of his class from Stanford Law School and had an incredible record in all respects.
I sent him to a major firm in Washington, DC, that did the same sort of work this attorney did. I received a phone call from an administrator there: "I have been told to reject all attorneys with more than 6 years of experience and no business. That is our blanket policy and there are no exceptions."
I contacted a partner I knew at the firm. "I agree it is stupid not to talk to this guy," the partner told me, "but that is our policy."
More established firms are always going to be much more difficult to get into. An attorney needs to find a firm that is growing and has not "settled in" if he or she hopes to get into a new firm without business.
Would you consider your law firm to be healthy? Why or why not?
- They start grade point cutoffs, even for partners.
- They start requiring minimum amounts of business (which always increases).
- They have thorough performance reviews.
- They become much harder to get jobs with.
- They start having multiple tiers of partnership.
4) Find An Advocate Inside Your Firm With A Lot Of Business
The dumbest thing that any attorney inside of any firm can do is not bust their ass doing work for partners with a lot of business. You should shine their shoes and walk their dog if they ask you to. People with a lot of business can actually make your entire career if you do good work for them.
A strong advocate with a lot of business is what most young attorneys need to make a partner and stay a partner inside of a large firm. I have seen more attorneys than I can count make a partner due to the relationship with another partner who has a lot of business. I HAVE SEEN MORE ATTORNEYS THAN I CAN COUNT NOT MAKE A PARTNER AND LOSE THEIR JOBS DUE TO THE ABSENCE OF THESE SORTS OF RELATIONSHIPS.
The most important relationships you can have inside of firms are with the partners who have businesses. These are the same people to whom the decision-makers listen and who the firm wants to keep happy. Firms do not ever want to piss off partners with a lot of business if they can help it. They need their work and the money the partners generate. These are the people you need to work for, be loyal to, and impress.
I am not suggesting you actually become a sycophant who walks the dog for your boss – but you do need to do good work and show a ton of respect. You should (at the very least) get in the office before them and leave after them. Never say negative things about them. Show them respect and work harder than they do.
You need to be seen as the first choice and the indispensable choice of partners with a lot of business. They should feel that you are 100% needed and that they cannot imagine life without you. If you do this, your career will always be safe. They will gingerly take you from firm to firm with them and make sure you survive (mostly) no matter what.
Your career is not about your ego. It is about surviving and learning enough to survive on your own. You should work for people with a lot of business because they will show you how they get a lot of business. Find a mentor at your law firm and take the advice you are given. By watching and learning how these people operate, you will pick up more than you even realize—from their mannerisms to ways of working with clients—and this will help you when you start going after your own clients.
- See The Importance of and How to Find a Mentor for more information.
I know very well-compensated partners in their mid-60s who have been working for the same (now octogenarian) partners for their entire careers. When you work hard for people with a lot of business, they will take pride in taking care of you and helping you.
What other benefits could foster a relationship with a partner who has a lot of business have for your career?
5) Wait For A Healthy Economic Environment
If you are unhappy at your current firm and do not have enough work or any business; if you wait long enough the economic environment will improve. Every market eventually improves. This is just how it works. And when the economic environment gets active enough, there will be work somewhere, maybe even in a better firm than you are at right now.
When a market gets "white-hot," all of a sudden all sorts of attorneys who would not usually be marketable become marketable.
This happens in every hot market. If you wait long enough, you will become marketable when the market heats up.
Markets such as tax, trust and estates, ERISA, and others that are traditionally "very slow" in large firms have recently heated up and become very active. A senior ERISA attorney with 20+ years of experience is placeable in this market as is an ERISA attorney from a fourth-tier law school. A year later, these practice areas may be on the skids and something else will take their place. The point is this if you wait long enough, you will generally become marketable, even without business.
What is the legal market like right now for your practice area?
- In-house attorneys suddenly become marketable to firms.
- Attorneys without business suddenly become marketable to firms.
- Attorneys from fourth-tier law schools start getting jobs in major American law firms.
6) Downgrade The Quality Of The Firm You Work For And/Or Start Your Own Practice
You can generally get at least some type of job if you want to. There are all sorts of firms and attorneys (workers’ compensation, insurance defense, personal injury, employment, intellectual property rights, real estate, tax, solo practitioners) who need help at various points in time. There are lots of these jobs out there. It is work and it will not pay well, but it is there. I have seen countless big-firm attorneys and others switch firms to take jobs like these, just so they have something to do. This often makes a lot of sense when there is nothing else out there.
If you are "cast out" of the high class because you do not have any money (i.e., portable business), then you need to go back to associating and working with people who will have you. They will likely not be as "classy" or have the same high-class habits (i.e., quality of work) or associate in the same high-class circles (i.e., work with important clients), but they will have work for you. You can always move up to a larger and better firm if you do well there.
I have seen numerous attorneys go to work in smaller firms and then move back up to the big leagues years later. It happens all the time. THE MOST IMPORTANT THING YOU CAN DO AS AN ATTORNEY IS TO STAY EMPLOYED AND KEEP GOING. Never give up.
You can also take contract work. Many attorneys spend their careers doing this, even after years of working in major law firms as associates. You can often make a good living as a contract attorney.
Many attorneys also start their own firms. This is very common, but also very risky.
Most attorneys I know who have started their own firms after time in a larger firm do not do that well. Why would they? They were let go from their existing firms due to the lack of business. How on earth do they expect to suddenly start getting business without the resources, name, and support of a larger law firm? This is about as nonsensical as it gets. However, starting a firm with a partner who can generate more business could lead to greater success.
If you want to start your own practice—and I know tons of attorneys who have done it successfully—you sure as hell better believe that some of the clients of your firm would come to you because: (1) they like you; (2) they trust you; (3) they are dissatisfied with the firm; and (4) you are going to be a lot cheaper.
If you do not have that, at a minimum you must have a "niche" as well as a business idea for your practice. All it takes is just one good idea. I have seen some attorneys become FABULOUSLY RICH with good ideas about a certain type of lawsuit to file or a certain type of client to go after. It can be done and it is quite common. But you need an idea.
Just hanging out a shingle is a very, very risky proposition when you are coming from a major firm with nothing else to offer. It is very hard to get people to pay. It is very hard to get clients to come to you, and there are numerous issues you better be ready for. No one cares if you are a great brief writer or went to Cornell Law School out in the real world. They have problems they need solving.
It is better to start and try your hand at your own firm, though, than to quit practicing law altogether.
See the following articles for more information:
- Should You Start Your Own Law Firm? Top 10 Reasons to Start or Not Start Your Own Firm
- The Right and Wrong Reasons to Switch Law Firms
- Have you ever thought about starting your own practice or moving to a different law firm? How could this benefit your legal career?
7) You Can Stop Practicing Law Completely
This can be the right decision. Some attorneys are simply not meant to be practicing law. However, many attorneys are meant to be practicing law and should never even entertain the thought of quitting. If you are considering this, carefully weigh the reasons to quit and reasons not to quit practicing law before making your decision.
There is no shortage of extremely talented attorneys who stopped practicing law and now have great careers in politics, public relations, sales, business, and other pursuits. Today’s world offers a huge variety of traditional and nontraditional jobs that you can do with a law degree. Often, because being an attorney is so demanding, these attorneys have far more illustrious and exciting careers than they ever would have if they had remained practicing law. Also, consider how much a lawyer usually makes. If you can make more in a job outside of the legal profession, you should certainly consider it. The sky’s the limit. Many actors, authors, artists, and TV personalities with law degrees became famous without practicing law.
Have you ever thought about quitting the practice of law? What made you stick with it?
However, if you really enjoy practicing law, you need to get out there and get businesses to survive. How much lawyers make is highly dependent on bringing business in. But quitting something because you are not doing an important component of the job well does not make sense, especially at a pivotal point in your career. Far too many attorneys quit at the stage of their careers when they have a great experience, all because of a lack of business.
See the following articles for more information:
- 12 Sexy Things You Can Do With a Law Degree That 1) May Make You Famous and 2) Do Not Require Practicing Law
- 60 Nontraditional Jobs You Can Do with a Law Degree and Should Strongly Consider Doing
- Why You Should Quit Practicing Law
- Why You Should (and Should Not) Quit the Practice of Law
Building a business is fundamental for the long-term survival of an attorney. If you do not have the business, you have several options to choose from. But to continue being an attorney, you need to find access to work from somewhere. Without work, you cannot stay employed as an attorney.
- See Apprentice and Builder: The Two Stages of a Law Firm Attorney’s Legal Career for more information.
When attorneys come to me who are senior and do not have any business, I try to be very clear with them about what they are up against. At this point in the game, I usually cannot get them the business or show them how to do so. I do what I do best, which is finding firms "on the way up" with a lot of work. Oftentimes, I start aggressively marketing the attorney in a variety of cities around the country (and sometimes the world).
The good news is that something always opens up if enough time passes and the attorney is willing to look in enough markets. There are exceptions to this, of course. If you are in your late 60s or 70s, your odds will be severely diminished. There are many reasons why older attorneys have a more difficult time getting law firm jobs, from salary expectations to health concerns. Other universal issues can greatly hinder your job search, regardless of age. If you have a bad attitude, your odds are severely diminished. If you are not willing to work hard, your odds are severely diminished. If you have burned too many bridges, your odds are severely diminished
- See Top 10 Reasons Why Older Attorneys Have a More Difficult Time Getting Law Firm Jobs for more information.
Fortunately, in most cases, there is always something and everyone gets a job. The overriding message for attorneys and one they often learn too late is that you really, really need a business.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do you want to know the lowest-paid legal jobs while you are in law school? This should not deter you from considering any of these legal careers, but you should be aware that they will not pay as well as a BigLaw job. For your reference, here are some of the least paying law jobs.
What Are The Lowest Paid Legal jobs?
Attorneys who are public defenders are put in the position of representing criminals who cannot afford or cannot find a lawyer to represent them at a hearing or trial. Public servants in the legal field are notoriously overworked and underpaid. Public defenders make an average salary of $61,000, although it can reach $100,000 in certain cities.
Legal Aid Attorney
People who are unable to afford a lawyer are offered legal assistance by Legal Aid attorneys. Even though they do not make much money, many lawyers find satisfaction from doing public-interest litigation. As a general rule, legal services attorney earns a salary of $42,000, but in certain states and after years of experience, they can earn as much as $63,000.
Due to immigration law's hot-button status, there is a need for immigration lawyers all over the country. Immigration attorneys will likely be in demand where there are large pockets of immigrants. The firm represents immigrants and others who are dealing with government issues, whether they have committed a crime or are having trouble filing their immigration papers. Immigration attorneys make an average of $67,000 each year, though some areas pay as much as $106,000.
The majority of law school graduates find that they are only eligible for paralegal positions, which is surprising (and unfortunately). Paralegals, also known as legal secretaries, have specialized training and are not allowed to practice law. However, barred law graduates may also compete for paralegal jobs when the economy is bad.
The median salary for paralegals is $47,000, although the highest salary is $65,000. However, many firms are hesitant to hire JDs for paralegal positions, even though a majority of paralegal applicants are law school graduates. Law students who have underqualified and overtrained themselves apply for jobs they can find because of their overqualifications and training. Despite this, however, firm associate positions are hard to find, so new graduates apply everywhere.
Choosing the right job after law school is important (because you will probably have many student loans to repay afterward), but you should also think about whether you will maintain career satisfaction after law school, which is important to prevent burnout.
What Are The Different Types of Firm Departments?
It is almost certain that a person searching for a lawyer has a specific legal need in mind. Regardless of whether the individual is facing criminal charges, hurt in an accident, or needs estate planning assistance, this is true.
There are different types of specific needs, which are divided into separate "practice areas", which simply refer to an area of law with lawyers specializing in addressing particular legal issues. Consequently, there are various types of lawyers that assist individuals with specific legal problems.
Personal Injury Lawyer
Some attorneys fight for the right of an injured victim to receive legal compensation if you have ever seen a commercial urging you to call a hotline "if you or someone you love has been hurt in an accident." Injury attorneys are critically important for people who are injured and their loved ones who need and deserve compensation after an accident.
You would need a personal injury lawyer to prove that the responsible party's negligence led to the harm suffered in an accident. After receiving an offer of a fair settlement or a successful jury verdict, you may be able to receive the compensation you deserve.
Although personal injury lawyers are most often needed for car accident injuries, they are available for any type of accident that was caused by negligence or the wrongful act of another party. In 2015, the CDC reported that more than 92 million visits to physician offices were caused by injuries. It is not surprising that many of those injuries were the result of another's negligence or legal wrongdoing, illustrating why these lawyers are a vital ally when injured victims need justice and deserved compensation.
Personal Injury Lawyer's Average Salary: $73,000
Real Estate Attorney
Individuals with property issues can consult a real estate attorney for help. When buying or selling a home, the vast majority of people will seek legal counsel. The closing of real estate transactions must be handled by a lawyer in some states.
Some states in the south, such as Mississippi and Georgia, also require a lawyer at closing, particularly in northeastern states like New York and New Jersey.
Among the common real estate legal issues are buying and selling real estate as well as asset sharing, foreclosures, and appraisals. Real estate lawyers can assist you with navigating the legal complexities that arise from commercial and/or residential real estate issues.
Real Estate Attorney Average Salary: $95,316
By navigating the complexities of bankruptcy, a bankruptcy attorney can assist companies and individuals. The federal law governs bankruptcy rules and procedures since states are not allowed to legislate in bankruptcy cases. Therefore, preparing bankruptcy paperwork or even knowing how to file is difficult to impossible without the legal assistance of a bankruptcy lawyer.
Debtors receive the advice they need from a bankruptcy lawyer to determine which chapter of bankruptcy is best for filing bankruptcy. Chapter 7, 11, or 13 of the federal bankruptcy laws are the most common options for debtors. Each chapter has its requirements, advantages, and disadvantages.
If you hire a bankruptcy lawyer to assist in this process, you will be able to reclaim your debts much more efficiently and effectively.
Bankruptcy Lawyer Average Salary: $75.4K
Intellectual Property Lawyer
Intellectual property (IP) law is important if you have a favorite film, videogame developer, or author. Individuals and companies are provided with legal protection for the products and ideas they develop through this practice area.
Among the key areas of IP law are trademarks, such as the McDonald's golden arches logo. An inventor's rights are protected by federally granted patents when scientists or inventors consult patent lawyers. In addition, IP lawyers protect an individual's original, artistic works. The copyright law applies to literature, films, video games, and any other form of creativity.
These rights are protected by IP lawyers and their firms from anyone who might violate them.
IP's Lawyer Average Salary: $114.4K
Attorneys who practice corporate law for the largest corporations work for similar large firms (referred to as "Biglaw" in the legal profession). Many corporate lawyers work at average-sized firms (known as "midsize" firms), but the scope of corporate law remains the same.
Corporate contracts, agreements, and transactions are negotiated, drafted, and reviewed in this practice area. In other words, a corporate attorney acts as a safeguard to protect a business’s legal rights while adhering to its legal obligations.
Corporate Lawyers' Average Salary: $96.4K
The United States presents many challenges to immigrants seeking to settle here. Immigration and Citizenship Services. An immigration lawyer, then, can be a valuable asset in matters from ensuring that the immigration process runs smoothly and handling the heavy paperwork that comes with it.
Families are reunited, clients are represented during deportation proceedings, and similar issues can affect the lives and well-being of immigrants. The paperwork required to resolve immigration legal issues can be quite overwhelming for an immigrant, but an experienced immigration lawyer will help ensure these mistakes are avoided and that reliable legal counsel is provided at all times.
Immigration Lawyer Average Salary: $114,456
General Practice Lawyer
As the name implies, a general practice lawyer can do a little bit of everything, meaning they do not place limits on the type of law they practice. A firm that represents clients in criminal defense, employment law, and family law would be considered a "general practice" firm. Typically, this type of lawyer works for smaller firms, such as solo practices.
Furthermore, it is unfair to presume a general practitioner can not handle a case related to your specific legal needs. Most general practice lawyers in smaller communities have significant experience handling a variety of practice areas.
It depends on both the experience of the general practice attorney and the complexity of the legal issue of whether he or she is right for you. In several key legal areas, many firms usually provide their clients with reliable counsel and personalized service.
General Practice Lawyer Average Salary: $118,000
Whenever an individual signs or enters into a contract, key legal questions arise. Due to this, two parties to a "contract" may actually discover that no legal contract was ever formed. The legal ideas these lawyers deal with are complex, such as "consideration," which defines the legality of any contract.
This overview does not attempt to explain such concepts in detail, but the key point is that contract lawyers assist individuals in drafting, negotiating, and enacting legally valid contracts. For owners of small companies, landlords, and similar people who frequently act as legal agents, this is especially helpful.
Contract Lawyer Average Salary: $89,137
Workers' Compensation Lawyer
A workers' compensation lawyer can help injured workers or survivors of workplace fatalities seek compensation that protects their rights. A workplace injury attorney can analyze your claim for benefits as well as determine the employer's legal liability. Additionally, these attorneys protect workers from wrongful retaliation by employers or unfairly denied claims, benefits, and wages.
Furthermore, these lawyers are crucial to workers who are pursuing Social Security disability benefits and dealing with permanent disability cases. Obtaining these benefits without the help of an experienced attorney is notoriously difficult.
When it comes to receiving workers' compensation benefits, a workers' compensation lawyer can help you cut through the bureaucracy and long waiting times that too many disabled workers face.
Workers Compensation Lawyer's Average Salary: $72,000
Many people are not thrilled about paying taxes if any at all. Nevertheless, a tax attorney is an essential lawyer when it comes to paying taxes. The IRS tax dispute process can be particularly challenging for businesses and individuals.
With the help of an experienced tax attorney, you will be able to battle such disputes and similarly complex tax situations, such as a pending divorce, with confidence that you will not make any mistakes. Local, state, and federal tax law is a specialty of these lawyers. A tax lawyer should be consulted as soon as possible if you are experiencing tax problems.
Tax Attorney Average Salary: $77,624
A family lawyer is someone who handles all pertinent legal issues affecting your family. Families in need of assistance for prenuptial agreements, parents looking to adopt, or grandparents asserting a legal right can all benefit from the assistance of a family lawyer.
A family lawyer is more commonly hired to assist family members with divorce, child custody, and spousal support issues. Based on provisional data from the CDC, we are led to believe that there were nearly 1,000,000 divorces in 2016. Considering that divorce is only one of many family law issues, many Americans require legal counsel from family attorneys every year.
Family Lawyer's Average Salary: $48,000-$80,000
Medical Malpractice Lawyer
Lawyers specializing in medical malpractice laws have a specific area of expertise. Their main responsibility is to help victims injured by doctors, hospitals, or other medical professionals.
Depending on the state's laws, these attorneys can help victims with every aspect of filing a claim against those who failed to provide a standard of care. Compensation for medical malpractice can be received in most states when a lawyer can show that a doctor's care did not meet the standard that other doctors would provide under similar circumstances and facts.
It is common for medical malpractice to result in scarring and extended injuries that can be fatal. A medical malpractice attorney with experience in recovering damages for injured patients may be recommended for those who have sustained severe injuries.
Medical Malpractice Lawyer's Average Salary: $131,000
In the collective American consciousness, criminal defense lawyers receive more attention than any other type of lawyer. A criminal defense lawyer protects the legal rights of defendants.
Attorneys who handle criminal defense work deal with problems such as illegal arrests, bail and arraignment processes, plea bargains, trials, and similar matters that arise in criminal cases.
Criminal Lawyer's Average Salary: $114,529
Civil Litigation Lawyer
Clients can seek civil legal action against parties responsible for civil matters or they will be able to defend themselves against a civil lawsuit.
Civil litigation encompasses disputes over rent, leases, divorce, real estate transactions, and personal injury. In civil litigation, the target is money or some kind of performance rather than criminal sanctions. Outside of criminal law, this is the most common type of legal work.
Consequently, civil litigators typically specialize in one or two areas of law, although some civil litigators resemble general practitioners. From the initial investigation through the trial, these lawyers can assist in the handling of a lawsuit.
Civil Litigation Lawyer's Average Salary: $82,000
Social Security Disability Lawyer
A Social Security disability lawyer is in some ways more specialized than a workers' compensation lawyer. Social Security disability benefits are often sought by individuals injured at work, which creates a legal overlap.
In addition to handling eligibility issues, denial appeals, and unfair termination and reduction-related issues, these attorneys will guide clients throughout the full Social Security Disability process.
Social Security Disability Lawyer's Average Salary: $118,000
Do Attorneys Make A Lot Of Money?
It is no secret that obtaining an attorney's license is financially rewarding. It is one of the benefits of pursuing a career in law. The following represents an overview of the average lawyer salary in the United States, based on occupational data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
10 States Where Attorneys Earn the Most Money
Attorneys earn an average annual salary of $144,230, according to the BLS, which is close to being three times the average salary for all occupations, $51,960. However, this average salary is for the country as a whole and does not account for significant geographic variations, such as those between states.
Here are the top 10 highest-paying states for lawyers:
- California's average lawyers' salary: $171,550
- New York's average lawyers' salary: $167,110
- Massachusetts's average lawyers' salary: $165,610
- Connecticut's average lawyers' salary: $153,640
- Illinois's average lawyers' salary: $152,980
- Texas's average lawyers' salary: $150,250
- Colorado's average lawyers' salary: $147,560
- Arizona's average lawyers' salary: $145,750
- Virginia's average lawyers' salary: $139,180
- New Jersey's average lawyers' salary: $139,020
These are some of the highest-paid lawyers:
One of the highest-paid lawyers in the world is a trial lawyer. Around the globe, thousands of lawyers practice, but the most highly compensated are civil litigators who take on high-profile, high-dollar cases. It is important to remember, however, that not every lawyer makes a lot of money. The salaries of many public interest attorneys and solo practitioners are modest. In 2018, trial lawyers earned a median salary of $99,000.
Intellectual Property Lawyers
A patent or copyright protects ideas, including trademarks, trade secrets, and other lucrative concepts. Technology continues to advance, and it is also a lucrative area of law as well as one of the fastest-growing. Lawyers at the high end of the scale earned an average salary of $197,000; however, the median pay is $137,000 a year.
Whether you are an individual or a business, a tax attorney can assist you. As well as estate planning, they can also help with IRS lawsuits. If a new business is being started or contracts are being drafted, these consultants are often necessary. Tax attorneys earn decent salaries even though they are not as flashy as trial lawyers. According to 2018 data, the median pay is about $99,000, but some employees make up to $200,000 a year.
Employment and Labor Attorneys
Employers and employees rely on labor attorneys to maintain a harmonious relationship. Employers and managers are represented by them, while employees are represented by them. The compensation is good. An employment lawyer earns about $87,000 on average, and some earn as much as $185,000 a year.
Real Estate Attorneys
Licensed real estate attorneys review offers and contracts to ensure buyers get a fair deal. In addition, they make sure everything is fair for sellers. Nearly one in four real estate attorneys do not receive benefits despite earning a salary of $74,000 on average and earning as much as $145,000 a year.
Chief Legal Officers
A company's legal department is headed by a chief legal officer (CLO). Generally, the salary of general counsel is higher the larger the company. CLOs in large, multinational companies typically earn seven figures in salary. A chief legal officer's compensation package can include bonuses, stock options, and other types of perks besides his salary.
Federal, state, and local courts are presided over by judges. In the U.S., judges, and magistrates earn between $66,000 and $148,000 on a median basis. The high-paid judges are those in the federal court system, while judges and magistrates in local courts earn the least. Most judges receive generous salaries and benefits, as well as expense accounts and contributions to retirement plans made on their behalf, enhancing their compensation packages.
Members of Congress
Consider a career in politics if you enjoy changing laws to benefit a whole state or country. Law degrees are not a requirement for starting a career in politics, but they can certainly be helpful. Representatives and those in higher positions, like Majority Party Leader and Speaker of the House, make an average of $174,000 per year.
Law School Professor
The professor in law school teaches classes, carries out research, and publishes scholarly works in his or her field. Schools and regions have different salaries. Salary ranges for full professors ranged from $105,000 to $204,210, according to the Society of American Law Teachers' 2017-2018 Salary Survey.
Professorships at law schools are highly competitive. For top candidates, qualifications include a law degree from a top law school, publication credits in scholarly journals, judicial clerkship experience, and high-class standing.
Litigation Support Director
Technology is changing law practices, so tech-savvy legal professionals are earning more. On average, litigation support professionals make around $80,000 per year, and director and manager salaries can be far higher. Most top-earners possess a business or law degree.
Director of litigation support manages firm-wide litigation support activities, e-discovery initiatives, and technology resources. Since litigation support salaries are predicted to climb due to increased demand and a lack of experienced litigation support staff, litigation support salaries are predicted to increase.
Law Firm Administrator
Managing officers or administrators oversee the business and administrative aspects of running a firm. The duties of the administrator include handling finance, human resources, facilities, technology, marketing, and practice management.
Large firms pay their administrators the highest salaries. In New York, for example, firm administrators can earn up to $750,000, while salary levels in Washington, DC, can soar up to $650,000.
About Harrison Barnes
Harrison Barnes is the founder of BCG Attorney Search and a successful legal recruiter. He is extremely committed to and passionate about the profession of legal placement. His firm BCG Attorney Search has placed thousands of attorneys. BCG Attorney Search works with attorneys to dramatically improve their careers by leaving no stone unturned in job searches and bringing out the very best in them. Harrison has placed the leaders of the nation’s top law firms, and countless associates who have gone on to lead the nation’s top law firms. There are very few firms Harrison has not made placements with. Harrison’s writings about attorney careers and placements attract millions of reads each year. He coaches and consults with law firms about how to dramatically improve their recruiting and retention efforts. His company LawCrossing has been ranked on the Inc. 500 twice. For more information, please visit Harrison Barnes’ bio.
About BCG Attorney Search
BCG Attorney Search matches attorneys and law firms with unparalleled expertise and drive, while achieving results. Known globally for its success in locating and placing attorneys in law firms of all sizes, BCG Attorney Search has placed thousands of attorneys in law firms in thousands of different law firms around the country. Unlike other legal placement firms, BCG Attorney Search brings massive resources of over 150 employees to its placement efforts locating positions and opportunities its competitors simply cannot. Every legal recruiter at BCG Attorney Search is a former successful attorney who attended a top law school, worked in top law firms and brought massive drive and commitment to their work. BCG Attorney Search legal recruiters take your legal career seriously and understand attorneys. For more information, please visit www.BCGSearch.com.
Harrison Barnes does a weekly free webinar with live Q&A for attorneys and law students each Wednesday at 10:00 am PST. You can attend anonymously and ask questions about your career, this article, or any other legal career-related topics. You can sign up for the weekly webinar here: Register on Zoom
Harrison also does a weekly free webinar with live Q&A for law firms, companies, and others who hire attorneys each Wednesday at 10:00 am PST. You can sign up for the weekly webinar here: Register on Zoom
You can browse a list of past webinars here: Webinar Replays
You can also listen to Harrison Barnes Podcasts here: Attorney Career Advice Podcasts
You can also read Harrison Barnes' articles and books here: Harrison's Perspectives
Harrison Barnes is the legal profession's mentor and may be the only person in your legal career who will tell you why you are not reaching your full potential and what you really need to do to grow as an attorney--regardless of how much it hurts. If you prefer truth to stagnation, growth to comfort, and actionable ideas instead of fluffy concepts, you and Harrison will get along just fine. If, however, you want to stay where you are, talk about your past successes, and feel comfortable, Harrison is not for you.
Truly great mentors are like parents, doctors, therapists, spiritual figures, and others because in order to help you they need to expose you to pain and expose your weaknesses. But suppose you act on the advice and pain created by a mentor. In that case, you will become better: a better attorney, better employees, a better boss, know where you are going, and appreciate where you have been--you will hopefully also become a happier and better person. As you learn from Harrison, he hopes he will become your mentor.
To read more career and life advice articles visit Harrison's personal blog.