By the time many attorneys get out of law school, they are so tired and burned out after years of high pressure that they have already given up. They want to collect a paycheck and start working and living their lives—on their terms. Some attorneys talk about “going in-house” and other low-stress jobs before they even start their jobs with large law firms. Attorneys on the fast track, feeling helpless and unfulfilled, find themselves asking “What’s the point?” Incredibly, more and more attorneys are giving up when the race has just begun—sometimes before they can even get to the starting block.
- See Why Do So Many Attorneys Ask "What's the Point?" for more information.
Most of the world is not made up of large law firms. If you care about other peoples’ problems and finding a way to solve them, the last thing you should be doing is plotting your escape from practicing law a few months (or even years) after working in a large law firm. Instead, you should be plotting how to find a better environment for your skills. There are many people who are ideal for the legal profession, regardless of where they work. These people should never quit. Saying you want to quit practicing law because you do not like working for a large law firm is like saying you never want another friend because your best friend was mean to you. An insane theory—but that is exactly what many good attorneys do after having a bad experience in one law firm.
This is what happens:
- The most highly qualified attorneys give up practicing law more often than lesser qualified attorneys.
- The odds are high that if someone went to a top law school and practiced with a top law firm, they are more likely to give up a few years into their career than someone with lesser qualifications.
- In contrast, if someone starts out in a smaller law firm, they are more likely to be practicing law 5-10 years or more out of law school.
Why the discrepancy and why do the people with the most potential for practicing law often give up?
There are many reasons, which I will discuss below. Some of these reasons are good, while others are not so good. If an attorney’s reasons for leaving are good, then he or she probably should quit practice of law. If they are poor reasons, quitting may be ill-advised. Unfortunately, I see too many good attorneys who end up leaving the practice of law for the wrong reasons.
- See 15 Reasons You Should Not Quit the Practice of Law for more information.
Attorneys should only quit practicing law if they are unfit for it. Most attorneys who end up quitting are simply in the wrong environment—a problem that can certainly be solved
1. Some Attorneys Are Unfit for Practicing Law
If you are not fit for practicing law, you should not be doing it. Here are some questions that can easily identify if you are in the right profession:
An attorney who is not fit to practice law generally does not care about many of these things. They are not overly concerned with the quality of their work or their clients. If you feel yourself putting on an act, you should get out of the legal profession now. You have very little business being an attorney. Regardless of your practice area, it is important that you are interested in the work you are doing and see it as both motivating and valuable.
Being an attorney is not about you—it is about protecting other people and doing everything you can to make sure that justice is served and the other person is helped. This understanding should be natural, visceral and something that motivates you in all respects. If it isn’t, you should not be practicing law.
- If working a weekend or 18 hours a day is necessary to help your client win, you should do it—and want to do it.
- If traveling across the country interviewing witnesses to get a certain piece of evidence is necessary, you should do it—and want to do it.
Again, being an attorney is not about you. It is about your client and making sure they get what they want and need to win. This understanding is so fundamental and important that if you do not have it—or do not care what happens to your client—then you should not be an attorney. It can be hard to ask this question of yourself, and even harder to admit the answer. But consider this:
- A police officer who does not care about defending the helpless should not be doing police work.
- A doctor who does not care if the patient lives should not be a doctor.
- A fireman who does not care if a building burns down and people die should not be a fireman.
- An attorney who does not care if his client gets taken advantage of, or is prosecuted improperly, should not be an attorney.
One of the best attorneys I ever knew was once meeting with a client and the client asked: “Why should I hire you?”The attorney had a very simple response: “Because if you hire me I will eat, drink and sleep this case and so will everyone working for me. Every case I take is the most important thing in the world to me.”
Who would you want representing you? Some guy who looks good in a suit but is condescending to you and works on his terms, or someone who devotes himself to your case and thinks it is the most important thing in the world?
- See Play Each Day Like It is Your Most Important for more information.
People who should be practicing law take their work product extremely seriously. They work like every day is their most important day. I’ve seen attorneys kick a trash can across the room when they find a typo in a document. I’ve seen attorneys spend two days in bed when their client loses an important case. These are the people who should be practicing law—people who have the “spirit” within them that makes them completely fit for doing this. The best attorneys never retire! That is the last thing in the world they would want to do. Helping people and advancing their interests is too fundamental to who they are. They never let the #1 attorney career killer—lack of commitment—even enter their vocabulary.
- See The #1 Attorney Career Killer that Attorneys Are Never Taught for more information.
This “spirit” that makes good attorneys cannot be measured by your LSAT scores, law school grades, the quality of the law school you went to, or the law firm where you work. In fact, some of the most successful attorneys went to the worst schools and may have had the lowest test scores—yet their success is without limits. They are personal injury attorneys with their own private jets and people you see on television and in the news. They have this “spirit,” which is precisely why they are so successful. Law schools are factories that produce standardized goods without the capacity to measure what really matters—whether the person is truly motivated by helping other people.
What are test scores and grades anyway? All they really exemplify are ways that society packages and rates various goods that are produced for consumption by the mass market (law firms, who are in turn consumed by companies). This is very similar to the way that wines are ranked an “85” or a “92,” which influences their value. Compare an attorney to a wine with a ranking:
- The wine is purchased by a restaurant—the better the restaurant, the better the wine it buys.
- The wine is then used by a company. The better or richer the company, the more expensive restaurant it visits to have more expensive wine (i.e. more highly qualified attorneys).
While the “ranking” of an attorney may influence the attorney’s “value” to an employer, it never truly influences the attorney’s “value” to the client. The value to the client is determined by what motivates the attorney and how dedicated they are winning the case.
When I see an attorney without a true motivation to help clients, I rarely work with that attorney. This type of lawyer is a “flash in the pan” who is in the wrong place and made it through the system to get where they are, but will not remain. In my experience, the attorneys who are not fit to practice law do not take their clients’ problems as seriously as they would take their own.
If you truly care about the work you do, then you should never quit practicing law. The best attorneys love what they are doing and take it extremely seriously. They are motivated by helping other people solve problems in the most effective manner possible.
How can you tell when it is time to go?
The other day I received a telephone call from someone who had started his career at a top law firm. Then exactly one year into his practice, he quit being an attorney and started some sort of small company that ended up failing.
One year later, the attorney was out of money and interested in relocating out of a “high-pressure city” and finding a mellow job in a law firm in a smaller city. He talked about the need for weekends, being able to leave “at 5:00 or 6:00” and so forth every day. These calls are quite common and there is nothing wrong with not wanting to work hard. Not every athlete wants to be in the Olympics—nor should they want to.
“I just want a normal law firm job,” he told me.
“You don’t want to have to work weekends if one of your clients is selling a company and the work needs to get done?” I asked.
“No, of course not.”
“You don’t want to have to meet potential clients for drinks or dinner a few times a week to try and bring in business?”
“No, I would like to spend that time with my family. I am not interested in dealing with clients or other peoples’ problems after normal business hours.”
This attorney should not be practicing law—at least not in a law firm. I told him this. He has no interest in the work, helping clients, or being an attorney. His priorities are about him and that is fine. There are countless professions for someone like this, but would you want him protecting your interests? I sure as hell would not.
I speak with attorneys all day and can generally quickly tell the attorneys who are not fit for practicing law, because all they talk about are themselves. You are, of course, expected to have wants and needs—but being an “advocate” means you care about protecting and advancing others’ interests. This is what being an attorney is all about. The more someone talks about their work, their clients and what they love about their job, the more fit they are for practicing law. The same goes for just about every profession. You want people representing you who care about you, where you are coming from, and what is important to you.
- See Parking Benefits and Falling in Love with Your Job for more information.
You should never, ever quit practicing law if solving other peoples’ problems excites and motivates you.You are fit to practice law, no matter what others around you may lead you to believe. This is something that is “natural”—no one can teach you. You either have it or you do not. Some people are natural athletes, some are math geniuses, others are naturally social. If you are motivated by other peoples’ problems and the quality of work you do on their behalf—truly motivated by them—then you are in the right profession. There is no question about it. The last thing you should ever do is to quit practicing law. The world needs you.
2. If You Are Fit to Practice Law, You Need to Find the Right Environment
When I was in law school, I was dating a girl from a small town in Pennsylvania. I became close with her family and they arranged an interview for me with a small law firm in the town. I had a meeting that was unlike anything I have ever experienced before or since. The law office was in a home that was several hundred years old and furnished with various antiques.
- I met one attorney who had to leave at 4:00 to go coach his daughter’s soccer practice.
- I met another attorney who had just returned from a two-week trip to Costa Rica.
- Many of the attorneys had golf paraphernalia in their offices and one told me “we like to play at lunch.”
- The offices were large and homey. Some had fireplaces in them and nice rugs on the floor.
- A few of the attorneys spoke about a local country club they belonged to.
- As my final interview concluded (it was now 5:30), I realized that over the last 30 minutes or so I had heard the creaking of stairs and luxury cars starting in the parking lot as everyone in the office left for the day.
- The law firm had not hired anyone in years and most of the attorneys had been at the firm for their entire careers.
- Several of the attorneys spoke about community-oriented things they were involved in (Chamber of Commerce and so forth).
- The attorneys seemed well-balanced and happy in all respects.
This small law firm represented several important local clients (a hospital and a few other businesses) that generated plenty of work. They represented people who got in trouble and businesses that needed help with transactions. The work was stable, profitable and something the attorneys enjoyed. They also had lives outside of the office and did enough work to do a good job, but nothing more. They were not concerned about needing associates to work crazy hours to pay crazy salaries or crazy office space payments. They were operating a stable, normal law firm. The sort of law firm that has existed in one form or another for hundreds of years—when lawyers were lawyers and had not been turned into profit-producing, expendable machines.
Although I did not know it at the time, this was the greatest opportunity I ever had to be happy practicing law. It took finding a small bucolic town in Pennsylvania with Amish people driving down the street in horse-drawn buggies to find it, but I did! I was being offered a gift of what being an attorney could be: a respected profession, with leisure and a nice work environment with peers who worked together happily. It was something that I would never see again.
This, of course, was hardly the sort of law firm that I ever imagined I would be working in. These attorneys all went to law schools that I had never heard of. I knew they would have no plans to offer me the sort of salary I felt I was entitled to and deserved. I certainly thought I was better than this.
Why do we turn down the perfect job?
It seems to be a law of the universe that every attorney will encounter a job that is perfect for him or her at some point in his or her career—and most will turn these jobs down. I have seen it more times than I can count, which is both frustrating and upsetting. Attorneys find jobs with the government, small companies and other places where they could be happy, but they do not take these jobs and wind up unhappy instead. Their minds have been conditioned to believe that bigger and more prestigious is better—even if it is not better for them.
I have helped countless attorneys find ideal jobs like this. But the same attorneys either 1) turn the jobs down outright, or 2) get jobs with more “prestigious” law firms in big cities and choose these jobs instead. I see it over and over again, as frequently as several times a month. Someone has worked at an ultra-prestigious New York firm, for example, and relocates to a small town. I find them a great job there—a job with nice people, where the work is steady and where the attorney could easily spend the rest of his or her career. Sure, the job pays $125,000 a year and not $275,000 a year, but you can also work normal hours and buy a nice house for $150,000.
“Are you kidding?” I ask them. “Why wouldn’t you take the job?”
“I just feel like it is too much of a step down.”
I really do not understand this logic. You are still working and found a group of people you can work with for your entire career. Just because you no longer want to work for one of the most aggressive and highest-paying firms on Earth doesn’t mean you have to quit instead of accepting something less. But this is what people do all the time—they quit because they consider anything less than one of the largest firms in the country to be a step down. And once you leave a law firm, returning to the legal profession may be impossible.
- See Beware! Once You Start Working in a Law Firm, If You Leave You Will Almost Certainly Not Be Able to Return for more information.
One New York attorney I know spent years trying to get a job doing white-collar litigation. I finally found him a job with a small law firm in the suburbs of New York that paid about $100,000 a year. Then one of his friends from law school got him a job doing general litigation in a giant New York law firm (more prestigious than his current huge, New York law firm) for $170,000 a year. He took his friend’s job—even though it was exactly what he did not want. “How can I turn down a firm with that name?” he told me.
He is now working as a part-time document review contract attorney and has been for years. He hated the large law firm and after two years of billing 2,500+ hours per year between commutes back and forth to his $3,500/month studio apartment for a few hours of sleep each night, he gave up practicing law completely before deciding to “return” to the practice of law on a part-time basis. What would have happened to him if he had gone to the small law firm? Why did he—and countless other attorneys—make such strange decisions?
Young attorneys are also faced with the added pressure of having the idea that it is important to be practicing law with a big-name law firm drilled into them constantly. Faced with concerns about how they look to others they often ignore how they feel on the inside, leading to these common scenarios:
- Some (wrongly) feel it will look better to others to quit practicing completely instead of continuing to play the game at a lesser firm. There is plenty of support for this idea among attorneys’ peers inside of law firms (fewer attorneys = less competition) and others who have left (people in similar circumstances love the moral support).
- Some (wrongly) feel that anywhere they work will match the demands of a large institutional law firm, so they give up practicing altogether. But the vast majority of attorneys in the United States do not work in large institutional law firms and are not under the same intense pressure.
Large law firms often require massive hours from their associates, partners, and others not because all of this work is necessary for advancing the clients’ interests, but because it is what makes money. Law firm profits and the ability of firms to recruit associates, partners, and others is almost always a function of how much money they bring in and generate—and not always the quality of work that they do for their clients. This, in my opinion, is where one of the most significant disconnects in the legal profession comes in: Work is being done for work’s sake, not because it is what the clients need to protect their interests. Young attorneys often see this and leave—not realizing the difference between unnecessary work and doing what it takes to help a client.
This is a crucial distinction: what is needed to help the client vs. what is needed to help the law firm. It can be one of the few reasons to leave a law firm, and good attorneys often do when they conclude their clients’ interests are being harmed (for example, they are being overbilled or taken advantage of). Someone who is motivated to help others and be a good attorney should leave when they believe they can be a better advocate for their clients in a different environment.
- See There Are Only Three Reasons an Attorney Should Ever Switch Law Firms for more information.
One final point about finding the right environment—you need to be with people who make you feel supported and comfortable. Nothing is more important to your long-term happiness as an attorney than practicing law with a group of people whose firm culture and needs match your own. Just because you are working with people who you don’t like (or who don’t like you) doesn’t mean that you are in the wrong profession. It may just mean that you need a better environment.
- See Firm Culture Matters Most for more information.
The years of hard work that it takes for attorneys to get into large law firms merely gives them a “ticket” to work harder than they have ever worked before on a “big league” team. It is no different than working really hard to get on the Olympic Team and then thinking you have made it just by being on the team—or no longer wanting to compete at all.
This could not be further from the truth. You have the right to be in this competition. You just have to step up and prove yourself every step of the way:
- The harder you work in law school and the better you do, the better law firm you will get into.
- The better law firm you get into, the harder you will have to work.
- The harder you work, the more you will advance.
But not everyone wants to be an Olympic athlete—and that is fine. Some people love the sport and want to play, and they should play. I know people in their late 80s who love tennis and play every day—and they would do so regardless of how good they were at it. If those same people were required to practice tennis 14 hours a day, seven days a week to make someone else money, they probably would not do it. They would say to themselves: “This is crap! I like tennis, but I am not doing this for 18 hours a day just to make other people money.”
Do you like practicing law? Do you like the work of being an attorney? It is no different than someone who likes playing tennis or doing anything else. Just because you do not want to do it on an industrial and massive scale does not mean you should quit. In fact, if you truly enjoy it and are motivated by helping other people solve their problems, the last thing you should do is quit.
There are many reasons you should not quit the practice of law. Take your skills where you are happy and can use them the way you want to. If you no longer want to work in a law firm, there are many nontraditional jobs you can do with a law degree. Wherever you land, the key is finding a job that is the right fit for you.
See the following articles for more information:
- Why You Should (and Should Not) Quit the Practice of Law
- 15 Reasons You Should Not Quit the Practice of Law
- 60 Nontraditional Jobs You Can Do with a Law Degree (and Should Strongly Consider Doing)
- See Love What You Do for more information.
- See Top 20 Reasons Why There Is No Better Profession Than Practicing Law for more information.