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There Are Only Three Reasons an Attorney Should Ever Switch Law Firms

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Last Updated: May 17, 2022

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Harrison Barnes' Legal Career Advice Podcast - Episode 45

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  • Attorneys who switch law firms often do so for misguided reasons.
  • Truly, there are only three reasons an attorney should leave one firm for another.
  • Those are (1) you don’t fit in your current firm’s politics, (2) you have no work, and (3) you can get into a more prestigious law firm.
  • Otherwise, you should stay put in the firm you are now in.

There Are Only Three Reasons an Attorney Should Ever Switch Law Firms

Summary: Should you switch law firms? Find out if it’s really worth trying to make the move in this article.
Should you switch law firms?
 
A. Harrison Barnes
Harrison Barnes
 

Attorneys make the decision to switch jobs for a variety of reasons.

I have found that many attorneys’ reasons for switching jobs are misguided. Out of every 10 attorneys I speak with, I tell four of them that their current situation is just fine—they should stay right where they are. The other six have solid grounds for making a switch. Ultimately, their reasons boil down to the three described in this article.


Here are the three main reasons you should ever switch jobs: (1) you are on the wrong side of the political climate of your office, (2) you do not have access to work, or (3) you can get into a more prestigious law firm (but this is not always a sufficient reason either). There is quite a bit of depth to each of these reasons; they are more fully explored below.

At the outset, I want to make an observation that I hate to make because it is so harsh, but it’s true. If you are ever unemployed as an attorney for any length of time, it is exceedingly difficult to get a new job. There are many reasons for this, but the main reasons are that any new law firm reviewing your resume presumes you either (1) could not play political games correctly, or (2) did not have access to work.

 
 

These “intangibles” operate in the background, determining every attorney’s future inside of a law firm and ultimately governing what happens in their careers. If an attorney does not do these things well, the presumption is they will not succeed in their next law firm. When evaluating your candidacy as a lateral hire, law firms judge whether or not you are currently employed and ask a bunch of questions in your interview about how busy you are. (You should always be busy).

This is how the profession works. Yet, incredibly, many senior partners and most associates never fully grasp the importance of access to work and navigating firm politics. This is why most attorneys do not succeed in large law firms.

Law firms (and the rest of the world) always seem to cheer for the attorney who is trying to move up and get into a more prestigious or larger law firm. Attorneys who are motivated to constantly challenge themselves and push themselves to get better are always respected by future employers. You should always try to improve and advance.



 
 
 

1. Political Reasons: The Tide of Opinion in the Office is Against You and You Are Not Part of the “Group”

 

In most law firms there are individuals with lots of business and power. The individuals close to these powerhouses derive their strength from this. If you are part of a group with lots of business and power the following happens:

 

 

  • You can advance and make partner without any business. People with power surround themselves with allies. The people in power want to be around those who support them, make them feel good and show they can be trusted.
  • You will be protected during layoffs and recessions. The people who lose their jobs during recessions are generally those who do not have strong enough political allies. If you have powerful allies, they will generally protect you during recessions and your job will be spared if at all possible.
  • You will have consistent access to work. Some allegiances are strong. Parents always feed their children and countries always feed and pay their armies. Similarly, work goes to the people who are closest to the rainmakers. Those in power give work to their allies first and foremost.
  • You will learn how to get business. If attorneys with business are supporting you, they will also teach you how to get business yourself, or you will pick it up from watching how they behave around existing and prospective clients. Being around those with business will help you develop your own rainmaking skills and advance within the firm.
  • You will have the option of moving to new firms. If you are close to powerful people with business, they will probably bring you along if they switch firms for some reason. I see attorneys with moves on their resumes all the time because someone in power brought them along. Those with business and power always want to bring allies to be their eyes and ears and support them at their new law firm.
  • You will be privy to important information that can protect your career. Those in power will often share important information with attorneys close to them. Insider information can help an attorney avoid certain people or matters or get close to certain people and matters—or know when and when not to look for a job.
  • You will be given business as a partner. Most partners in major American law firms are close to other partners with major clients. The partners with major clients keep those without clients busy. If you do not have business as a partner, nothing is more important than staying close to the right people.

 

 

Sometimes there is only “one” powerful person with all of the business, and everyone tries to get close to him or her. Other times there are several of these people or even groups of these people—some more powerful than others. You need to be part of the most powerful tribe you can. This will help you be a better lawyer and have a stronger career.

The people with the power in any legal office generally control things such as who makes partner, who gets the most compensation as a partner, who gets laid off during recessions and who advances. If you are not part of this group, or if these people are against you and you can’t rectify the situation, then you are generally going to have a very difficult time advancing.

 

It is not always easy to spot who is in power inside of a law firm; however, the longer you are at the firm, the more you will be able to identify these people. These people sometimes even operate in the background, affecting the future of everyone else in the firm.

I was a summer associate inside of a law firm in New York when a partner I had never seen suddenly appeared in front of me at a cocktail party.

“Are you enjoying getting experience?” he asked me.

“Yes,” I said.

“Good. Because that is why we have brought you here for the summer. We want you to get experience.”

He then disappeared as quickly as he had shown up. It gave me a strange feeling at the time. I felt like what he was saying was, “I hope you are enjoying all the money we are spending on you.” It was unsettling and did not feel good—even though he seemed somewhat friendly when he said it.

Later that summer I learned the law firm had wanted to cancel the summer program because things were slow. Years later I realized the man I spoke with was the most powerful partner in the firm—a guy with $30+ million in business. What he was saying, in effect, was, “I hope you are enjoying the money I am spending on you. You’d better at least be getting some good experience that will make you valuable to me later.” He was clearly not too happy to be largely footing the bill for the summer program.

A few years after law school I joined a different New York-based law firm. The associates I met all spoke of “working there a few years” and then going to a new firm. I really didn’t understand this at the time and it didn’t make a ton of sense. It seemed to me that the pay was good and the firm was well-respected, so why not stick around?

I later learned most young associates in these large law firms are harshly reviewed early in their careers. They make mistakes and this makes them stronger and better attorneys. In the course of being trained, however, many associates also make a ton of mistakes and get a reputation for being less-than-stellar. In large law firms in New York and other cities, being stellar is the only option if you ever hope to advance.

Instead of taking their chances somewhere where they are considered less-than-stellar, many associates pick up and move to another firm. This is a positive move in some cases. You can literally improve your career by moving because you start at a new firm with a “fresh slate.” This new start gives you the opportunity to build a new reputation and impress those in power.

 
 

One of the reasons young attorneys often move firms two or three times before they find a home—whether they are doing it consciously or not—is they are not part of any group that is going to protect them. Young attorneys are learning on the job and they enter their jobs not knowing what they should be doing. Just as important as the quality of work an attorney does and the number of hours they bill are their political skills. This is also important for more senior attorneys as well. Senior attorneys in a situation where the political tide has turned against them are often far better switching to a new firm than staying where they currently are.

As a preliminary matter it is important to note that the talk about hours, political skills and so forth is all premised on “being close” to the people with the most work. The people with the most work and clients are generally the ones that control what happens in a law firm. If you have business, you are generating money to support the law firm. The attorney with business is like the “King” and everyone is currying to be near him, influence him and receive favors and gifts from the King.

Regardless of how you are regarded politically, impressing a King within a firm is one of the most important things you can do. I know an attorney who spent nine years in a large law firm toiling somewhat anonymously in his office, churning out briefs and arguing relatively unimportant motions for superiors. By a series of events, he somehow made it onto a trial team with a colleague with tens of millions of dollars in business who is one of the more well-known litigators in the United States. For six weeks the two of them worked out of a hotel in a small Midwestern town. The associate tirelessly worked on briefings, anticipated when the partner wanted a cup of coffee, discussed trial strategy and witnesses with the partner every night and gave the case his all.

It was the smartest thing the associate could have done. A few weeks after returning to the firm’s main office, the partnership voted on new partners. Suddenly someone who was poised to wander off in-house or maybe become “of counsel” was nominated for partnership and championed by the most powerful partner in the law firm. Of course everyone wants to do what the King wants, so the young attorney made partner and succeeded because he impressed the King.

For most attorneys, though, if you are an anonymous worker drone inside of a law firm not much will ever happen to you. You are like a cow sitting out to pasture, helplessly waiting to be slaughtered. You are eating the grass—but you are going to die eventually. The only way to rise above all of this is to understand that you need to get in with the right people, play the right political games and not do anything to doom you politically. Here are the political mistakes you must avoid at all cost:

 

a. Don’t make careless technical mistakes that look bad to those in power.

 

Attorneys often make mistakes early in their careers (or even later) that literally destroy their options with a given firm and undermine the trust that others have in them. In some cases, it could be filing a wrong document, failing to file a given document, or giving a client completely wrong advice. In other instances it could be forgetting about an assignment or doing something late. When this occurs, the tide of an entire office can turn against an attorney.

Due to the highly technical nature of being a patent attorney and the many mistakes that can be made in scientific equations and analysis, it is exceedingly common to see patent attorneys jump around from firm to firm when the tide of one office turns against them. The mistakes are never discussed (to do so would make the firm and attorney look bad), but they often result in patent attorneys being “blackballed” inside of law firms.

Litigators often forget to file a certain document or file something late. Even the best litigators on the verge of making partner in a large law firm will be “frozen out” and lose their jobs if they make a serious mistake.

Once those in power look down on an attorney for making a mistake, recovery is often difficult—or even impossible (depending on economic conditions and how much work the firm needs to be done). Attorneys then make the decision to look at new law firms.

 

b. Don’t Make a Careless Remark.

 

Attorneys make careless remarks all the time that “reveal their cards” and permanently get them politically blackballed or even forced out of the firm. Careless remarks include things such as:

 
  • “That’s administrative work; can’t you have someone else do it?”
  • “I’m not comfortable working on Saturday/Sunday.”
  • “This is the sort of work I did as a junior associate, isn’t there someone else that can do it?”
 

Anything that shows a lack of commitment will be met harshly and severely. In fact, even one remark like this will often doom an attorney as someone who cannot step up and get things done when someone is counting on them. Even your facial expressions, body language, sighs and so forth are something that can be taken the wrong way.

Law firms (and higher-ups bringing in the work) believe that work is a privilege and having work is something attorneys should respect and want to do—the more work the better. Work helps you bill additional hours, helps the tribe succeed, and allows everyone to advance. If you turn away and/or avoid work it’s not looked upon kindly.

Other types of careless remarks include saying something negative about a powerful superior, making a racist or sexist remark to the wrong person and so forth. These sorts of mistakes have devastating consequences if they get back to the wrong people, and can negatively impact on an attorney’s career.

You need to watch your mouth and be careful about the things you say. Words have power and can cast a negative light over you, often instantly and permanently.

 

c. Don’t choose the wrong friends.

 

From a political standpoint, the smartest attorneys are generally cordial but careful about choosing friends when they get into any new situation. In fact, politics in law firms can be so dicey and fluid that the smartest, most political attorneys often keep their distance, acting friendly with people but avoiding “alliances” for years! This is often the right way to go because choosing the wrong friends can be a real mistake inside of a law firm.

The calculus is pretty simple. If you are friends with someone inside of a law firm that is pissing off those in power, is making trouble and is seen in the wrong way, you too are going to be “guilty by association”—especially if you are not well-known to those in power. Therefore, your job inside of a law firm is to keep your nose clean, be careful about firm alliances and be nice and friendly to as many people as possible without overcommitting.

When you are close to the wrong people they will constantly want to share their negative opinions about the firm and job with you, complaining about what an awful place the organization is (despite the fact it has been around for decades and will likely still be functioning when they die). These opinions will eventually rub off on you, start depressing you and make you believe you are in the wrong place. You will think it—and if you think it (even if you do not say anything), you will show it in the office.

People are “tribal” animals, and the last thing you want to do is be associated with the wrong tribe. Law firms expel those who are antagonistic to their interest of survival and making money; this is how all economic units and groups work. Your job is to avoid association with these groups if you want to survive in your current firm. Nevertheless, these are the same sorts of groups that may leave to join a new firm, form their own firm, or help your career in other ways. Your job is to be as smart as possible and choose groups wisely.

 

d. Don’t avoid billing.

 

Some attorneys get a reputation for working hard and others get a reputation for finding solutions quickly and not billing a lot of hours. In many law firms, there are certain clients and matters that partners always want a lot of work done on, where associates can bill a ton of hours. If you do not bill a ton of hours then the partner makes less money and is unhappy.

When I was a young associate I worked on behalf of a Middle Eastern “monarch” and also on behalf of a billionaire deposed dictator/president of an Asian nation. I was the third associate to work for the powerful partner that represented these people. These clients had no care in the world monetarily. One was in a dispute with a perfume designer who received $8,000,000 to design a personal fragrance for his family. Another was in a dispute over $500,000,000 he had stashed in a Swiss bank. These people made more money in interest on their billions each hour than a team of attorneys could possibly bill in a day.

When I started working for the partner I quickly picked up that the two associates who had done work before me had gotten into trouble. The previous associates had found a lot of the work “unnecessary” and told the partner as much. In response, the partner had stopped giving them work—and so had all the other partners in the firm. One literally spent six months with no work before he got the message and started looking for a new job.

When I was assigned to the matter I was tasked with writing an incessant number of memos. I was encouraged to stay late and work weekends on these memos, and it involved tons and tons of busy work. I wrote memos on the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure that were so routine I felt like I was basically rewording what was written in various treatises. I then turned in these memos and was given additional memos to write. I followed instructions and billed 70+ hours a week writing these memos. I did this for weeks on end. Then one night at about 9:00 p.m., while I was writing one of these memos, the partner stopped by my office and in his own way told me I was doing a good job:

“You’re a good soldier,” he said. “I need a soldier and you are being a good soldier.”

What he meant, of course, was that I was billing and doing what was asked of me. It made no difference that I could pull out a treatise and answer his various questions in minutes instead of hours. He wanted the memos and he wanted me to bill. Perhaps the billionaire dictators wanted to see a bunch of memos, or perhaps he needed to cover his ass for every move because that was what the handlers of the billionaire dictators required. Who knows? It was really none of my business.

The point is I saved my job and got into the good graces of this partner because I did what I was told. He respected me so much he hired me years later to be his recruiter when he moved firms. You need to do what is expected of you. If you are under the impression that lots of billing is expected or required, that is what you need to do. Your job is to follow orders, do the best possible job and bring in the money.

I’ve seen many associates get 100% frozen out by calling their superiors “unethical” for asking for too much work. Law is a business. You earn political points and stay in the good graces of the right people by billing as many hours as expected, when expected.

 

e. Pick an “in” tribe.

 

If you choose to align yourself with a given group, make sure you pick the right group.

Sometimes the group you choose may be one or more partners that do work for a certain type of client, or even one client. If they lose that client or the client(s) go out of business, this can have serious repercussions for the partners in power. The tribe no longer has access to business; without access to work it is in trouble.

To stay safe politically, an attorney needs to be part of more than one tribe, or part of a tribe that has access to more than one line of business (i.e., several clients). There is no other way.

In addition, there are different tribes within most law firms—some more powerful than others. One tribe with the most business may want for whatever reasons (fewer client conflicts, animosity towards other powerful members of another tribe) to push another tribe out of the firm. In this sort of situation, being part of the wrong tribe can also have devastating consequences for your career.

 

f. Avoid getting involved in a practice area that does not generate much money for the firm or is on its way out.

 

The first firm I joined out of law school started out primarily as an employment law firm, but became a commercial and intellectual property firm by the time I joined. The problem with employment litigation and counseling is attorneys cannot bill as much doing this sort of work. As the law firm grew and partners started making a lot of money doing commercial litigation, they suddenly told the employment attorneys they could no longer do this sort of work unless they billed more money to their clients. The employment attorneys were thus in the situation where their only option was either to leave the law firm or stop doing employment litigation and hope they could find other work. Most of these attorneys ended up leaving the firm because they had no choice.

Law firms are continuously discarding attorneys in practice areas they now consider “beneath” them—even if they used that practice area to build the law firm initially. Practice areas that are constantly at risk of being eliminated (and the attorneys thrown out with them) include:

  • Trust and estates: Often attorneys cannot command a high rate for this type of work.
  • Patent prosecution: A lot of patent prosecution is “flat fee” work, and there is a tremendous amount of competition in the patent space. Much of the work is now shipped overseas to India, China, Korea and other areas to cut costs. Attorneys in the United States then sign off on the foreign attorneys’ work. Consequently, there is not as much money in patent prosecution as before. Patent litigation is more profitable.
  • Trademark law: A lot of trademark work is also routine. This pushes down the bills.
  • Immigration law: “Flat fee work” is common in immigration law, and many clients cannot afford to pay much. Some companies and firms bring in programmers and other contractors from overseas to fill out visas and take care of routine paperwork. There are a lot of attorneys willing to do this administrative legal work, which pushes down the rates.
  • Employment litigation and counseling: Companies like Walgreens constantly face labor and employment suits from disgruntled cashiers and low-level people. The cases are so similar the work becomes routine. This pushes down the rates that firms can charge.
  • Family law: Many clients cannot afford to pay their family lawyers much. Family lawyers often face difficulties collecting on their bills, and are constantly competing with lower-charging attorneys.
  • Bankruptcy: The amount of available bankruptcy work fluctuates widely. While bankruptcy work for major companies is complex, lower level bankruptcy work is often routine and formulaic. This pushes the rates down.


Many practice areas are constantly at risk in large law firms. When a company is in serious trouble or is trying to get a major deal done, it hires the best litigators or corporate attorneys it can find, regardless of how much it costs. For routine work, average attorneys can be used and money can be saved. It is always important for an attorney to understand where her practice area is in terms of the political makeup and economic hierarchy of the law firm.

**

The reason that these sorts of mistakes are often “fatal” is because young attorneys do not yet have any political capital. Without political capital it is often difficult for them to recover. Political capital can often be recovered in many large law firms by doing the things that law firms value most—working an incredible number of hours, bringing in business or doing outstanding work—but it is not easy. In a politically-charged environment with all sorts of rules—including rules that are often subtle, if not invisible to most people—attorneys often have no choice but to work as hard as possible to get into the right social environment.

The rules of a law firm are difficult to understand for young attorneys, and can turn against older attorneys quickly. If you are not part of the right group inside the firm the best choice is often to leave. In fact, because young associates make so many mistakes, understand so little of what is going on and often find themselves in the wrong group, the best choice is often to leave. When you see partners inside a law firm in trouble and without any business, they are often in a situation where they too may be isolated and not getting work for higher-ups or clients. Ultimately, much of what is going on inside of law firms is political, and the political game is something that makes attorneys leave.
 

 

If the political tide of the law firm is against you and you do not believe it is fixable, you should look for a new job. If the political tide is in your favor—and possibly even improving—you should stay.

A final option in terms of the political tide of a law firm is that you are completely clueless. Perhaps you are just some nameless drone coming to work and leaving each day. This is quite common. Unfortunately, most attorneys cannot go on like this forever. While you may land an “of counsel” or similar role if your work is good enough, further advancement will ultimately depend on forming more powerful alliances. Of course, maybe advancement isn’t even something you’re interested in; if it is not, you may be perfectly happy never getting involved in any of the political games of the office.

 

2. You Do Not Have Access to Work

 

Access to work is the most important thing you need in any law firm. There is nothing more important than access to work. Without access to work, you cannot bill enough hours, and if you cannot bill enough hours you will not be able to keep your job. Incredibly, I have seen major law firms work associates to death and have them bill numerous 3,000+ hour years in a row doing deals or working on large cases. Suddenly the work slows down and the associate spends six months on track to only bill 1,500 hours for the year. Then the law firm fires them for not having enough work to do. There is no appreciation or calculation for the years of superhuman billing. The work slows down and the associate is fired.

If you do not have enough work to do, you will almost always lose your job. There is no question about it. Whether you are a partner or an associate, if your work slows down you are in danger of losing your job. Law firms are happy to make lots and lots of money off you, but the second it looks like they are losing even a little most law firms toss you on the street.

Associates, partners and others call me all the time looking for new jobs. My first question is always about how busy they are. Then I ask about the political situation in their office. Many times the political situation is fixable, but getting access to work may not be. There are several reasons you may not have access to work inside a law firm:

 

a. Political.

 

For the reasons discussed above, the political tide of the office may be against you. You may receive very little work or be frozen out completely. If this is the case, you should fix the political issues if they are fixable. Otherwise, you should leave.

 

b. Structural (Problems with the Law Firm)

 

The law firm may be doing a variety of things that are preventing it from getting work.

  • It may be overpricing its services. Many partners leave law firms because the billing rates get so high it becomes exceedingly difficult for them to generate more business. Law firms often retard their growth by having billing rates that are far too high. This affects partners, associates and others who don’t have enough to do after clients start getting scared off by the high fees. Many satellite offices of national law firms are dangerous places to go. Firms open offices in smaller cities, but clients in those areas often refuse to pay their rates because they’re higher than others in the area. These offices then find themselves without work; associates who join them thinking they are going to have careers with major law firms find themselves quickly unemployed because there is no work.
  • It may have a partner compensation structure that is driving away those with business. Partners with business generally want to work in firms where they can make the most money. While there are lot of factors that go into an individual partner’s calculation of the best place to be (availability of other practice areas to send work, quality of associates and support staff, number of offices, the firm’s reputation), ultimately most partners are motivated by money. Many firms will play with formulas for compensating partners. But if they play with this too much, partners with business will start leaving. This means there is less work to do for everyone else.
  • It may be emphasizing the wrong practice areas (or have emphasized the wrong practice area in the past). Certain law firms may over-hire in some practice areas when business is good. For example, corporate hiring may pick up when the economy is good. If you join one of these firms and then the practice area slows down, you will often be completely out of luck and need to find a new job. In corporate and real estate, it can often take firms years to recover during a recession. If many litigation cases settle at the same time, a law firm may even go out of business.
  • The law firm may be the product of a merger (or series of mergers) that have left it disjointed, confused and functioning as a set of separate “tribes” that are fighting and not doing well. This is far too complex of a situation to discuss in a lot of detail; however, sometimes firms become fractured and disjointed. They can become so prone to infighting that small groups of people hoard the work. This often happens for minute and crazy reasons that are nearly impossible to understand. In these sorts of situations, an associate or partner without a lot of business may suddenly find himself in the midst of a guerilla war with too many sides to keep track of. At that point, it is time to leave. (See Should I Stay or Should I Go: What Should Partners Do When Their Firm Merges With Another Firm? for more information.)
  • The law firm may have over-hired. Law firms may simply over-hire for the wrong reasons and not have enough work available.
  • The law firm may be too top-heavy or bottom-heavy. The law firm may have too many people at the wrong levels. If you are one of too many junior associates or senior associates, there may not be enough work to go around at your level.
  • The law firm may have lost an important client (or multiple clients). If law firms are overly dependent on one or more clients, the loss of those clients can have devastating consequences.
  • The economy may be in a recession. When there are recessions attorneys generally need to move fairly quickly to find new positions if the work is too slow at their existing firm. One nice thing about recessions is that there is always work—it is just not always being done by the largest and most successful firms. Our recruiting firm has had some of its best years ever moving associates to smaller and midsized firms outside of major markets when the economy slows. Companies generally save money during recessions by sending work to smaller law firms.
 

c. Problems with Your Seniority Level

 

As attorneys get more senior, their billing rates increase and get very close to what partners charge. Clients would prefer to have partners do the same work, and partners would prefer to do the higher hourly rate work themselves because they make more money on their own billables. Thus, a law firm may simply not have enough work for high-billing senior associates, partners without business, or counsel types. The legal landscape contains tens of thousands of attorneys in this situation. Their options are generally quite limited if they stop getting work in their existing firm.

Regardless of why you or your law firm do not have a lot of work, it’s not something you should spend a lot of time thinking about. If you are slow for more than a few months, your future will be at risk and you need to keep your options open.

The most important thing for any attorney is to constantly have access to work. During slow times, the attorneys who survive will generally do whatever it takes to seek out those in the firm with work or bring in additional work from clients—or even “make work” to be done, as described below. An attorney’s skill often lies in her ability to find work that needs to be done rather than just blindly following orders when asked to do a certain project.
 


Every successful business identifies a need in the market and sets out to fulfill that need. Whether it is a computer program, a web service, a new type of kitchen appliance, a new book about something or a television show, every successful person and company “creates work” to be done. The best attorney convinces clients and partners that a certain type of work needs to be done for the client. This keeps everyone busy.

There is always work to be done. One reason that law firms look so poorly on attorneys who lose their jobs for not having enough work is because the attorneys who do not have enough work are often seen as not being proactive enough to get work from others in the firm and from clients. The best attorneys know how to get clients and create work.

I will never forget going to the graduation party of one of my friends in high school. His father was an attorney who had gone to a fourth-tier law school and ran his own solo practice law firm. He did very well and the party was in a huge, modern house that he had just built on a lake. The attorney represented petty criminals, divorcing couples and people with traffic tickets. Notwithstanding the nature of his work, he made a lot of money.

I had received a traffic ticket and decided to speak with him about this. I told him about the ticket and he launched into a frightening monologue telling me I needed an attorney, it was very serious and he needed to do some research. Under no circumstances should I pay the ticket because it could have dire consequences on my insurance rates, and I did not need this on my driving record. Thinking I must be from a wealthy family, he asked me for my parents’ phone number. He told me he needed to call them and that he would “take care of it.”

In reality, the ticket was not serious. I went to court, the officer who caught me speeding did not show up and the ticket was dismissed. Nevertheless, the reason this attorney was so successful even doing little cases was he created as much work as possible every chance he got. He frightened the hell out of me and I was left with the impression I needed the best attorney possible representing me. After our conversation, I was ready to sit my parents down and tell them I needed a retainer of a few thousand dollars.

Law firms want attorneys who know how to create work. It is very important.

That is why the partner at the one firm had me write all sorts of memos for him about various topics. He was creating work. Creating work gives people access to work. All work needs to be created and all attorneys need to know how to create work to be successful.

 

Attorneys who do well find projects and additional work to be done for those they are working for—whether it is a partner or a client. They are constantly finding new angles and new types of work to be done on each matter that is presented. Ultimately, the more closely an attorney or group of attorneys looks at an issue the more likely they will be to win in any negotiation, case, or deal. The best attorneys and the largest law firms look at all matters they are working on more closely than their competitors. The best attorneys and firms provide more expensive services, but ultimately their efforts to create work provide clients with better service and more wins. The attorney who had me write all those memos never lost a case in his career.

You need to stay busy and you need to create work. If you ultimately can’t do these things, it is generally time to leave your firm and find a place with work.

 

3. You Can Get into a More Prestigious Law Firm

 

When you are in law school, the only method law firms have to evaluate you and distinguish you from the mass of other attorneys applying to them is essentially (1) your law school and (2) your grades there. This will ultimately determine where you end up.

After you have been out for a few years, things like your practice area and experience become more important. Once this occurs, you may find yourself suddenly marketable to large law firms in major cities, when you were not before. The ability to go from a small or midsized law firm to a major American law firm has all sorts of advantages:

  • You will get access to more important work on behalf of larger clients. Large law firms get work on behalf of the largest clients. The most important work in the country goes to large law firms in large cities. To get access to headline-making work, an attorney often needs to be with a large law firm in a large city. If you want to do IPOs and other sorts of important work, you generally need to be with an important law firm. 
  • The quality of work expected will often be higher and greater and your skills will develop more. Large law firms can charge a lot more money and get work on behalf of larger clients because what is acceptable in lesser law firms is generally not acceptable there. Large law firms require a high degree of perfection in terms of analysis and attention to detail. They often have multiple layers of attorneys and others reviewing work. You learn to be sharper, more detail oriented and harder-working on matters in a large law firm because the clients of these law firms are more than willing to pay for this—and expect it. 
  • You will be practicing around more motivated and competitive attorneys—and will learn to play more advanced political games. Large law firms have competitive and motivated attorneys and attract the best. The highest-performing attorneys with the best social skills and educational pedigrees are the ones who most proportionately end up in the largest law firms (compared to the smaller ones). This means that when you are surrounded by these attorneys you will pick up their ways of thinking about issues and approaching situations and you will become more like them. This is something that will help you. You will also understand complex political and other dynamics that will serve you well throughout your career. 
  • You will gain a “pedigree” that will make it easier for you to move to another larger law firm in the future. The most important credential for law firms hiring laterally is the quality of the law firm you are coming from—not where you went to law school. The reason for this is because the law firm you are with will shape your work habits and your approach to issues. They will have trained you politically and as a lawyer—much more than a law school ever could. You will also be exposed to larger clients and the sort of work that other large law firms do. Large law firms prefer to hire attorneys from other large law firms—the more prestigious the law firm the better. 
  • You will gain new contacts and have new experiences you might not have in a smaller firm. Attorneys from large law firms are typically from major law schools and have a pattern of achievement that puts them on an upward track. These attorneys will go into important positions in firms, major corporations, and the government. They will be part of a network that can advance your career as you move forward. You are likely to meet more of these people in large, prestigious law firms than you are in smaller firms. 
  • You can generally move back to a smaller law firm later and your experience in a major law firm will be valued more highly then. The small law firm values people with large law firm training (just as large law firms do). If you move to a large law firm and get exposure to sophisticated training and deals, small law firms will find you quite attractive. There is nothing wrong with getting high-level training, practicing at a high level and then using your experience in a smaller law firm later. You will be more adept politically and also probably more detail-oriented if you practice at a large firm before returning to a smaller one. 
  • You will usually make much more money (sometimes even TRIPLE what you were previously making). An attorney in a larger law firm may make significantly more than an attorney in a small firm. This money goes a long way for saving, paying off student loans, or qualifying for a mortgage. 
  • You will have the opportunity to go in house with a much larger variety of companies. Large law firms often place their own attorneys in house so they have allies there. Additionally, corporations want to hire attorneys from the most prestigious law firms to work as in-house counsel because they believe these attorneys have better training and represent a better economic deal. (They are getting the services of an attorney from a name brand firm like Skadden Arps for a low price compared to what they would have to pay per hour for the same attorney through their old firm). Companies prefer to hire in-house attorneys from the most prestigious firms that they can. 
  • You will have a “pedigree” that will potentially enable you to work internationally, or have a “credential” that will open other career possibilities for you. If an attorney wants to work internationally, they generally need to have experience working for a major, name brand law firm. Law firms in other countries only recognize the big names. Additionally, a big name enables you to have access to a variety of opportunities with government, nonprofit and other organizations that would otherwise not be available to you. 
  • Working for a major law firm will enable you to bring in bigger “brand name” clients because they typically want to have work done by larger “brand name” law firms. Large, prestigious companies almost always hire the most prestigious and well-known law firms they can for various matters. They do this because the name of the law firm connotes power and quality, and reflects how seriously the company takes itself and its legal matters. Large, successful companies pay for the security of a law firm’s name and reputation. When you are with a large, prestigious law firm you will have the opportunity to bring in major, brand-name clients who wouldn’t give you a second look if you were at a smaller firm.
 

Many attorneys in practice areas such as real estate, corporate, patent, tax, ERISA and others start out in small law firms and end up moving to major American law firms despite not having attended the best law schools or gotten the best grades. I literally see this all the time. It can be an outstanding career move for the attorneys who take these jobs.

There are also drawbacks of course such as longer hours, the difficulty of making partner, the increased likelihood of losing your job and more. Every attorney needs to make this calculus. What I have seen in my career, though, is that most attorneys will jump at the chance to move to a prestigious law firm when the opportunity presents itself. The more specialized your practice area, the fewer attorneys like you there will be, increasing the odds of moving to a larger, more prestigious firm.
 

Conclusions


If the political tide of your law firm turns against you and it is not fixable, or if you do not have access to work for a prolonged period, it is generally time for you to find a new law firm, no question about it. On the flipside, if the political tide of the firm is in your favor, or even neutral, and you have access to work, you should stay at your current firm. The one exception is if you can get into a more prestigious firm.

Attorneys with access to lots of work generally have at least six months of employment security in front of them at all points in time. If you suddenly run out of work, or it slows down dramatically and this drags on more than three or four months—or looks like it will–you’d better start looking for a job and fast.

The politics of any law firm are difficult to understand. It can take attorneys months (or years) after leaving a law firm to understand what they did wrong or how political forces were operating against them. Nevertheless, if you are in a political situation and you feel it is fatal, then it probably is and you should go.

Finally, while there are real advantages to moving to a more prestigious law firm, it is not without risk. If you believe you are in a situation to move to a more prestigious law firm it is generally something that is recommended because the advantages generally outweigh the disadvantages. Law firms and the rest of the world always respect those who are trying to improve themselves and move up.

 
Frequently Asked Questions
 

What Happens When Your Attorney Leaves The Firm?


Lawyers who leave their firms and their departing firms owe a duty to their clients. Communication and enacting reasonable notice periods for lawyers leaving their firms are part of these duties.

Additionally, law firms cannot deny departing attorneys access to client files and support staff to the extent necessary to provide diligent representation to clients.
 

Duty to Communicate


As part of Model Rule 1.4 of the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct, lawyers are required to communicate relevant information to clients in a timely manner.

According to Formal Opinion 489, released by the ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility, the departing lawyer and the firm may communicate that information unilaterally, but the firms should work towards a joint communication to all clients with whom the departing lawyer has had significant contact. This gives the client time to decide whether to stay with the departing lawyer, remain with the firm, or hire other lawyers.

Several states, such as Florida and Virginia, have rules regarding what lawyers can do regarding informing and soliciting clients.

According to the opinion, departing lawyers do not have to wait to inform their clients that they are leaving, provided the firm is notified simultaneously.
 

Clients Control Choice of Lawyer


"Clients choose who will represent them, not anyone else," the opinion emphasizes. "When a law firm dissolves or a lawyer transitions to another firm, lawyers and law firms may not divide up clients," it adds.

When a departing attorney was the client's primary legal counsel, prestigious firms should not assign new attorneys and try to displace the lawyer "absent client direction or exigent circumstances arising from a lawyer's immediate departure from the firm and impending deadlines needing to be addressed for the client."
 

Obligations of Law Firm Management


The formal ethics opinion stressed that to comply with Model Rule 5.1, small and large law firms must establish “reasonable procedures and policies to ensure the ethical transition of client matters when lawyers change firms.”

For example, the legal agency and departing counsel "must coordinate" to ensure that "all electronic and paper records of the client are up to date and organized for transfer to the new firm or new counsel," according to the client's choice.

The ethical obligations that apply to the "confidentiality" of Model Rule 1.6(c) must be followed by these firms' attorneys. This implies that law firms must take steps to prevent inadvertent release. It also entails that "departing lawyers return and/or delete all client confidential information in their possession unless the client is consenting to such disclosure or the lawyer is otherwise permitted by law or regulation."

These procedures and policies also require that most law firms "establish a system for designating" those records as "cauterized," so that any destruction of these records will not violate their duty to preserve client confidentiality. The ultimate goal is to ensure that they comply with Model Rule 1.15(a), which requires that "lawyers retain the property of clients or third persons that is in a lawyer's possession in connection with a representation," for "the period required by law."
 

No Unreasonable Notice Periods


According to the opinion, legal firms must not impose notification requirements on departing attorneys that would obstruct client choice of counsel or restrict departing lawyers from providing competent service to clients during transition periods.

The opinion cites Model Rule 5.6(a), which provides that many lawyers do not make partnership or employment agreements that restrict a lawyer’s ability to practice law after the lawyer leaves the firm.

“A lawyer's obligation to notify a judge of his or her intent to resign is not one that can be tailored or strictly implemented without regard for client instruction, or used to coerce or punish a lawyer who wishes to leave the firm, nor may it be used unnecessarily delay the diligent service of a client.” The opinion states.

The opinion notes that if these notification requirements cause a client's selection of counsel to be "If they would influence a client's choice of counsel or serve as a financial disincentive to a competitive departure, the notification period may be in violation of Rule 5.6."
 

Access to Files


The opinion also prohibits law firms from restricting a departing lawyer's access to "adequate firm resources" during the transition period. This implies that the company may not force the departed attorney to work remotely or at home. Furthermore, the outgoing lawyer must be able to contact "assistance personnel."

In addition, attorneys may not be prevented or restricted from “accessing email, voicemail, files and electronic court-filing systems where such services are necessary” to the lawyer's ability to “adequately and diligently represent clients during the notice period.”
 

Why Do Lawyers Leave Law Firms?


A brilliant, hard-working, and formerly employed law firm associate is a well-known occurrence among practicing attorneys. Perhaps she departed to spend more time with her family, or perhaps she desired to work for a smaller “lifestyle” firm in order to reduce her hours, or maybe the company culture made it difficult to stay. Whatever the cause, her academic and professional credentials are top-notch, and she is a valuable asset to the company. What could the firm have done differently to keep her from departing?

Many law firms place a high value on associate retention, and in order to improve retention, they have implemented initiatives. Law firms have introduced reduced-hour schedules and other alternative work options, established mentorship programs, formed steering committees, and engaged consultants to look for solutions, but associates continue to depart law firms at a rate of one every two weeks.

Following are some of the reasons why lawyers leave law firms:
 

Toxic Work Culture


It all begins with a company's culture, and if a lawyer in a law firm finds the atmosphere unpleasant, it will generally be the first reason they quit.

With employee retention so crucial, ensuring leadership and the executive set an excellent work environment, particularly by example, is critical. Lawyers should feel valued and appreciated – without these qualities, it is more likely they will be dissatisfied and leave – if the culture is founded on mutual respect, basic courtesy, and high professionalism.

When things go wrong, having a clear dispute resolution procedure demonstrates to your employees that management is open to resolving issues instead of ignoring them or pretending they do not exist.
 

Poor Firm Management and Organisation


Poor management might create a hostile working environment.

If the firm's management vision for the legal practice is short-sighted – and all that matters is the revenues – with no medium to long-term business strategy in place, attorneys could be on their way out. Providing a vision or purpose statement for new recruits is one method to avoid this scenario.

When a company undergoes structural transformation, such as after a merger or if a partnership terminates, one of the potential fractures points is when management requires it. The manner in which management directs and informs this transition is also critical to retention.
 

Lack of Career Progression: Promotions and Salary Increases


Lawyers, like other professionals, are generally driven and will enter a position wanting to develop and expand while being recognized and compensated for their efforts.

By tapping into our experience with other firms, we are able to guide you through the process of becoming an iconic brand. We can assist you in successfully navigating this path by showing you how to utilize these strategies for your company at large. Although it is difficult, the main thing is to approach mentoring with an attitude that will help both parties succeed. Mentoring can be a powerful tool that should not be taken lightly. It might become necessary if your company does not have enough specialized knowledge of its own employees or you are looking for someone who has expertise in areas where your current staff lacks.

Taking on younger lawyers and engaging them in a program of career progression also has other distinct advantages, such as:
 
  • Them being with the law firm over a longer period.
  • Molding younger lawyers to the law firm’s style and ethics.
  • Bringing in new blood and a fresh perspective.

Mid-level lawyers who do common legal work and engage in more executive responsibilities, such as business development and mentoring younger lawyers, maybe dissatisfied since their value is not recognized by the firm. This is where more traditional forms of recognition and advancement, such as more money or pay review, would be beneficial in retaining their services.
 

Disenchantment or Lack of Job Satisfaction


A lack of job fulfillment is another job retention aspect linked to firm culture.

This may happen as a result of any of the previously mentioned causes, but it is also influenced by other elements, such as the desire for a "human touch" in legal services. A desire to provide legal services that are not offered by commercial/corporate firms, for example.

"This disillusionment is partially feeding a small but growing hunger for lawyers looking to leave law firms so they can change practice areas and achieve greater job satisfaction tied to more than just money or working for well-known firms."
 

Fatigue With Highly Corporate Environments or Large Teams


Although 2020 provided us with the COVID-19 epidemic, which wreaked havoc on nearly all workers, lawyers included, it also prompted new thoughts on work methods and locations.

Some attorneys may reach a point where they wish to “escape the rat race,” choosing for more personal employment situations at boutique firms or smaller firms in remote or regional locations. Working for these businesses has its benefits:
 
  • The ability to work effectively with others, particularly bosses and clients.
  • More control at work with the chance to interface with customers from start to finish.
  • Being less compartmentalized, with more direct exposure to adjacent or interrelated professions.
  • A lawyer's professional existence may be supported by a particular lifestyle.
 

Reasons Why an Attorney May Withdraw From a Case?


Attorneys may withdraw from a case for a variety of reasons. However, it is essential to remember that your lawyer can not simply drop your case without cause. Here are some of the most frequent reasons why an attorney might want to step down or terminate their services in a situation where counsel is declining or terminating representation.
 

The Attorney Can Not Provide Representation As Promised


Life happens. There may be times when an attorney is required to file a motion to withdraw due to circumstances beyond their control. If the attorney is unable to continue serving because of injury or sickness, they must leave the case. This harm or disability, whether physical or mental, prevents them from carrying out their obligations under the client-attorney agreement.

This is, perhaps, the most uncommon reason a lawyer would submit a request to withdraw. When illness or injury are responsible for your attorney's withdrawal, they will typically entrust your case to one of their company's competent partners.
 

The Attorney Finds the Client Is Not Being Truthful


When an attorney is on your side in court, they are risking their professional and personal reputation. A lawyer cannot advise a client who has been found to be deceptive throughout the course of legal procedures.

If an attorney is made aware that their client has lied about circumstances or situations, or has given false testimony while under oath, they must file a motion for withdrawal. If the attorney's reason for wanting to withdraw is of this sort, they will state that the request is based on "ethical duties."

Even in the most trying circumstances, you must be trustworthy throughout every step of the legal procedure, including private discussions with your lawyer. Not only will this help you avoid a withdrawal from your case, but it will also ensure that you receive the best possible outcome.
 

The Client Starts Using a Different Attorney


The most frequent reason an attorney files a motion to withdraw is that they want to! A client may change attorneys due to personal issues while their case is still ongoing. This is not advised for a variety of reasons. However, you can learn more about terminating your lawyer before settlement here.

Even if the client is the one to request a change in representation, an official motion must be filed with the court, which is then approved.
 

The Client Refuses to Pay Legal Fees Outlined in Contract


An attorney-client contract must be signed before an attorney can begin to represent a client. This agreement covers the specifics of the case, including how much will be paid. If the consumer fails or refuses to pay as promised in the agreement, the lawyer may exit the case.

Typically, an attorney will give you several warnings before they proceed with a motion to withdraw in order for you to pay your fees.
 

The Client Refuses to Listen to Attorney’s Legal Advice


There is a reason why a client hires an attorney. However, the client may feel that they understand their case better than the lawyer. It might be tempting to reject the legal counsel of an attorney in these circumstances.

It is critical to keep in mind that your lawyer is working in your best interests. They are striving for your success and, as a result, their own. If an attorney tells their client not to do something or take action, but the customer stubbornly disregards this counsel, the attorney may walk away from the case.
 

The Client Breaches the Contract Signed at Start of Case


There are many more ways a client may violate their legal agreement. The attorney-client contract contains critical information such as the cost structure of the legal representation, the involvement of additional lawyers and paralegals, and communication protocols.

Since this contract serves as a distinction between the client and the attorney, it advantages both equally. If an attorney believes that the client has violated the agreement, they have the option to withdraw from the case. It is vital to remember that a customer may also terminate their engagement if they believe their lawyer has breached it.
 

The Client Asks Attorney to Violate Rules of Conduct


While the lawyer is hired to defend their client in court, they must guard their own reputation as well. If the consumer instructs the attorney to break professional ethical standards, or if the attorney believes that the client is misusing his or her services, the attorney may withdraw from the case.

One example is when the attorney believes that the client is continuing to engage in criminal behavior or utilizing their representation to maintain their criminal business. At all times, the lawyer must keep in mind that their personal and professional reputation is on the line whenever they act as a legal advocate for someone else.
 

What To Do When Lawyer Withdraws From A Case?


For the most part, even the most basic involvement in a legal case is stressful and vexing for us. However, if your attorney leaves your case, this is multiplied! While this can happen for a variety of reasons, it is frequently perplexing and distressing. Many individuals are left with queries as to how to proceed after a motion to withdraw. 

What happens when an attorney withdraws from a case? An attorney may withdraw from a case for a variety of reasons. The attorney must file a motion to withdraw with the court, providing a valid reason. The court will either accept or reject the request. If it is approved, the client must find a new lawyer to represent them in court. However, the motion to withdraw may not always be granted, in which case it would go to court for a decision.

As you can see from the short description, having an attorney withdraw from your case can be quite traumatic and inconvenient. In addition to forcing you to look for a new legal representative, a motion to withdraw will certainly extend your already lengthy court procedure by several months.

To withdraw from a case, an attorney must go through a specific procedure. The following are the typical stages in this legal process:
 
  • Attorney Determines The Need for a Motion to Withdraw
  • Attorney Submits the Motion to Withdraw to the Court
  • Judge Notifies Client of Intention to Withdraw From the Case
  • Judge Accepts or Denies the Motion to Withdraw
 
It is vital to remember that a judge rarely accepts an attorney's motion to withdraw. If the request is not accepted, the case will proceed to court, with the client and counsel representing their respective sides of the problem before a final decision is rendered.
 

What To Do If Your Attorney Files a Motion to Withdraw


If your attorney files a motion to withdraw from your case, you will undoubtedly have a lot of questions. What should you do if your case is halted? Do you have any ethical duties to fulfill during this time? Depending on the circumstances surrounding your attorney's request for withdrawal, they may inform you as to how to proceed. Fortunately, the path forward is rather clear if your attorney is less than helpful.
 

Determine Whether You Will Object to the Motion to Withdraw


You will be able to object when your attorney files a motion to withdraw from your case. It is essential to remember, though, that objection will result in the motion going before a court hearing. This will simply extend the duration of your lawsuit. You should accept the motion and hire a new attorney if this is what you desire.
 

Contact a New Attorney to Take On Your Case


When your lawyer informs you that they are going to withdraw from your case, it is critical that you seek a new legal counsel as soon as feasible. To avoid extra delays in your case, you should begin working with your new legal representation right away.

Your present attorney must turn over any paperwork or information related to your case. This is your property, and you must get this information as soon as feasible to avoid delays. You have just completed signing a contract with your new attorney, and you are ready to get back to work on your legal issue, hopefully in a timely manner.

Although having an attorney withdraw from your case may be distressing and stressful, you should consider working with a new lawyer if that is what is best for you.

Click here to contact Harrison

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.


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