Nothing is more frustrating than working toward a career only to find you’re dissatisfied with it.
This happens often within the legal profession.
The question is, why are you unhappy?
What will it take to make you happy?
Summary: Find out the underlying reason you are not happy practicing law, and what you must do to be happy.
Lately, when I have received calls from attorneys wanting to make lateral moves, I have told a fair number of them to stay right where they are. I have been doing this because it was clear to me that they wanted to move firms for the wrong reasons. They did not understand their roles as either soldiers or generals in the law firm world and mistakenly thought that simply switching firms would solve their problems. This is a common problem for attorneys working in law firms and it is what this article is about. At each step of your career, you need to embrace the role that is expected of you as either a soldier or general and excel at it.
The most vexing issue that destroys the morale, careers, and lives of many attorneys is the internal conflict they have between being a soldier or a general. Every attorney I speak with is either one or the other, and the attorney is happy or unhappy depending on his or her ability to be one or another. To succeed in the practice of law and at a law firm, an attorney must first be an effective soldier and then needs to transition to being a general.
If an attorney tries to be a general before it is time, the attorney typically gets crushed and has an unsatisfying career—the attorney never reaches his or her full potential in the practice of law.
If an attorney remains a soldier and does not transition to being a general—the attorney will have an unsatisfying career and not reach his or her full potential either.
This dichotomy plays out in all phases of an attorney’s career. You cannot start your career as a general and expect to succeed, just as you cannot have a long-term career as a soldier and expect to be successful. You start out as a soldier, but you always need to transition to being a general.
For thousands of years, the battlefield has been broken up into soldiers and generals. Soldiers are expected to work hard, fight, be expendable, dedicate their hearts, bodies, and souls to the cause, and learn the ropes. The best soldiers are the ones who fight hardest, follow orders, respect their superiors, earn the respect of their peers, get general mentors, learn how things work, and do the best they can to become generals. Those who do not do these things stay soldiers, die fighting, or end up doing something else completely. This is exactly what happens in law firms as well. Most people never become generals because they do not excel as soldiers and they do not have the level of commitment and discipline necessary to become a general.
Young attorneys inside of law firms always are expected to be soldiers. They are expected to work extremely hard, be incredibly dedicated, and not question authority. The experience of being a soldier is simply learning on the job what it takes to be a general. You watch, follow orders, and carry them out. You do not question the orders, you do not talk behind the general’s back, and you fight with everything you have to make the general and other soldiers look good. This is the role of the associate in a law firm, the counsel in a law firm, and the attorney with no business who gets work from generals.
The problem with this for many “soldiers” (talented young attorneys) in “elite law firm armies” is that they want to be generals before they are ready. They are extremely ambitious, smart, and think highly of themselves. They went to top law schools and did well there. Most have been told how important, smart, and special they are throughout their lives and most have worked very hard before getting into law firms and are ready for the rewards that come with success. None of this is meant to be. The armies of the major law firms are so elite that just getting into them is the first step: Once you get into a prestigious law firm your work as a soldier is just beginning.
One of the most fundamental of human needs is to feel important. Everyone wants to feel important and like they are in charge of their careers. We want to feel like if we work hard and apply ourselves that we will develop the ability to master our lives. Attorneys are like this as well, and they want to feel important, in control, and as if they are accomplishing something important and meaningful with their work. Unfortunately, the law firm environment does not always allow for this.
There is a theory of human motivation called self-determination theory (SDT) that deals with the psychological needs of people to want to grow. This research has consistently demonstrated that people are motivated more by intrinsic motivation (doing an activity because it satisfies them) than extrinsic motivation (doing an activity because they are paid, for example). Two researchers, Edward L. Deci and Richard Ryan, expanded on this research and found that there are three main intrinsic needs that are important for the psychological health of a person:
Competence. People want to feel in control of outcomes and believe they have mastered tasks. The research found that if people are given positive feedback on tasks, then their motivation to do the tasks increases. Positive feedback makes people feel competent, and this is important for their continuing interest in the subject matter of their tasks. Negative feedback has the opposite effect.
Autonomy. People feel autonomy to the degree that they feel control over their lives. People want to feel like they are in control and this motivates them to work harder. Research has found that extrinsic controls, like deadlines, typically decrease motivation because they restrict control.
Psychological Relatedness. This is the need to interact with others and feel connected to them. The more people feel connected to others and care about them, the more psychologically healthy they are likely to be.
Unfortunately, when it comes to these three intrinsic measures, the law firm world is one where—as a soldier—the attorney is likely to be very unhappy.
Law Firm Soldier Attorneys Often Do Not Feel Competent. It takes a great deal of time to learn to be an effective attorney. To have a good understanding of any practice area takes at least five years. Young attorneys also typically receive little positive feedback—in fact, to make them learn to get better at their jobs faster, they typically receive mainly negative feedback. The more negative feedback the attorney receives, the less the attorney cares about his or her work.
Law Firm Soldier Attorneys Often Do Not Feel Autonomous. A soldier attorney in a large law firm may typically be working on small subsets of matters with all sorts of deadlines associated with it. They are not running matters and are simply responding to others’ demands to get things done. They feel a lack of control.
Law Firm Soldier Attorneys Often Do Not Experience Psychological Relatedness. Soldiers in law firms typically will not feel all that related to the people they are working with. In fact, other soldiers may be competitive with them and trying to undermine them and creating problems for them. The work is also isolating because the attorney may spend days in an office working long hours with little human contact.
Nothing is all that healthy from a psychological standpoint about working in a law firm as a soldier—and it is not easy. In fact, working as a soldier in a law firm is arguably more difficult than being a soldier in most other legal environments because it is simply not healthy from a psychological SDT standpoint. Depression, health problems, substance abuse, relationship, marital problems and other issues are all to be expected because the law firm is not a healthy place. Everything about it from a work environment standpoint is simply the opposite of what it should be to be healthy. It is thus no wonder that young and unhappy soldiers working under such conditions desire to become generals before it is time. The pressures associated with being soldiers often drive talented young attorneys crazy.
When I am talking to soldier attorneys, I am typically speaking with attorneys such as the following:
The motivated, young attorney who thinks he or she understands the system and does not think his or her superiors know how things are done, who thinks he or she should be making more money, and who wants to go somewhere with (a) more opportunity, (b) partners who will listen, or (c) a higher salary immediately. The attorney may have been fired or may simply be looking.
The motivated, young attorney who does not pretend to understand the system, respects his or her superiors, is not overly concerned with compensation, and is looking because the attorney is simply trying to improve his or her career. The attorney may be looking because there is not enough work, or because the attorney is not getting enough experience in his or her practice area, or simply because the attorney wants to move to a better firm.
The attorney who has worked very hard for a few years in a major law firm and has concluded that the “system” does not work for him or her and wants to go in-house, or to a boutique law firm with fewer demands.
These sorts of attorneys typically make a series of career choices to try and be generals immediately—they go in-house, take jobs with smaller firms where they feel important, or try and do something on their own. More fail than not—but not all do. These attorneys are being motivated by self-determination needs: If these attorneys were to stay with the practice of law as soldiers and become generals many might succeed. Most do not realize this, though, because they are so psychologically stressed by the law firm environment and their needs for self-determination.
Competent. The attorney who wants to feel competent will take jobs that are beneath the attorney, or where he or she can be surrounded by people who make the attorney feel important. The Harvard Law graduate working in a public interest job after a year in a law firm (very common), the person taking an in-house job with a small company, the Yale Law School graduate going back to teach law school after a few years of practice, the attorney dropping out of the big law firm world and becoming a solo practitioner, starting a small business and so forth. The need to feel competent runs deep, and it is extremely important for people.
Autonomous. The attorney who wants to feel autonomous and in control will take positions where there is no one telling him or her what to do, and where the attorney can do the job in the way he or she wants to do the job. These attorneys will start their own law firms, find jobs that allow them to work in an unsupervised fashion (often government, fellowships, or public interest), start businesses, and do other things that allow for more freedom. The attorney might start a business, write a book, start a solo law firm, become a legal recruiter, sports agent, mortgage broker, contract attorney, investment banker, real estate investor, or something else. These attorneys make the choices they do because they want to feel autonomous.
Connected. The attorney who wants to feel connected will seek out environments where he or she feels respected for who he or she is. These attorneys may join law firms composed of people like themselves (big firm refugees), may go back to school, may go into less competitive environments like government or public interest, may go into teaching, or may start businesses like yoga or pilates studios (two things I have seen recently). Seeking to feel connected to others, the attorney will often go to great lengths to find work where the attorney can experience this connection.
Attorneys who want to be generals before it is time generally will experience all sorts of problems along the way. They will get in-house and realize that they are expected to be soldiers there as well. They will take jobs in smaller law firms and realize that they are expected to be soldiers there too. They will take jobs that do not use their legal skills and then realize they cannot go back to the law firm. They will take jobs outside of the law, or in jobs that are only marginally making use of their legal skills, and never make use of their potential as an attorney. Because they want to be self-determining, they will run and gravitate towards jobs where they feel very important and feel like generals.
Many attorneys cannot take the pressure of being soldiers in law firms and leave before they should. The process of becoming a good attorney is the process of learning to be a soldier and becoming the best soldier you can be. Before anyone will make you a general and trust you with this responsibility, you need to first become a solid soldier. It is not easy being a good soldier inside of a law firm and it is a difficult thing to become competent at. The attorneys who become excellent soldiers are the ones who are taken under the wings of generals and advanced. It has always been this way and always will be. You need to walk before you can run.
The main reason I tell so many highly qualified attorneys to remain right where they are (as soldiers) is that there is no point in them lateralling if they are lateralling because they want to be generals, or feel that lateralling will somehow change the psychological issues they are experiencing. The lack of feeling competent, related, and autonomous goes away with time, and the attorney learns the job, gets more responsibility, and feels less competitive with his or her peers. The issues of self-determination largely go away when the attorney becomes a partner.
Large law firms all have an “up or out” system within them where most attorneys are expected to leave when they get more senior or are asked to leave. Some are asked to leave at their eighth or tenth year, and others are made partner and then given a few years to become self-sufficient. Regardless of what happens, attorneys inside of law firms are expected to become generals, and if they do not become generals, then they will not have job security.
What is a general inside of a law firm? A general is someone who has his or her own clients and generates work. The general gives orders, is in control, and controls his or her destiny. It is fun being a general, and it is everything that being a soldier is not.
Competence. Generals typically feel quite competent because their work is not subject to constant criticism. They are doing work for companies that are paying them for their expertise. Their opinions and work are respected by soldiers. They are held in high regard as partners and feel competent.
Autonomy. Partner generals with business typically feel in control of their lives and careers. Their compensation and levels of success are most often a product of how much business they bring in. They also often set the terms for how their work should be done.
Psychological Relatedness. As partners, there is less competition for attorneys to get ahead. They are treated well by associates and others for whom they provide work. They speak with clients and can connect with them. There is less psychological isolation as a general than a soldier.
The entire point of spending ten or more years as a soldier is to become a general. An attorney succeeds and is happy to the extent the attorney can be effective as a general. The attorneys with the most business and power in the legal profession love the work. They rarely retire and continue practicing for their entire careers because it is rewarding and psychologically healthy for them.
See the following article to learn about additional issues you may face after making partner:
When you think about being a soldier, it is not supposed to be fun and not every soldier is expected to be around long enough to be a general. The general has more authority, is respected more, lives better, and is seen as happier than the soldier. This is how it works in law firms. Soldiers need to buckle down before they become generals. I speak with a few different types of attorneys on an ongoing basis:
Attorneys with a decade or more of experience at a major law firm who often are gently nudged out because they do not have business and the law firm does not have work for them. This is very common, and a good percentage of attorneys in the lateral market fit this bill. These attorneys want to go in-house or find a law firm with a lot of work. These are attorneys who are still soldiers when they are expected to be generals.
Attorneys with a decade or so of experience at major law firms who are slowly developing a book of business, getting very competent in marketing (speaking, going to industry events, writing and so forth) and are considering making a move because they feel that there would be more opportunities for them with their books of business elsewhere. These are attorneys who are slowly becoming generals.
Attorneys who are generals—who have large books of business, who consistently do well year after year, and who are looking for firms that will provide them with better platforms, better support, or more take-home pay.
The problem for all attorneys in the law firm environment comes when they have ten or more years of experience and they are still soldiers and not becoming generals. The attorney who is getting more senior and asked to leave is being pushed out because he or she does not show potential to be a general. The partner with no business and the counsel with no business are looking for jobs because they are “senior generals” with no business.
Attorneys who are at the general level but still soldiers have a difficult time staying employed in large law firms for an extended period unless they become generals. You can only be a soldier for so long. When a more senior attorney is still a soldier, the attorney experiences all of the stress that a soldier does such as lack of autonomy, competence, and psychological relatedness. If the law firm environment does not provide them opportunities for autonomy, competence, and psychological relatedness because they are still soldiers, then they are going to be unhappy. Most attorneys without business in major law firms are always going to be unhappy.
Should an Attorney Go In-House, or Take a Position Outside of a Law Firm?
I only make law firm placements. Nevertheless, when it is clear to me that an attorney will never be a general, then I always recommend they go in-house and refer them to a service that can get them an in-house job like LawCrossing.com. If you are not going to succeed as a general, and do not have the potential to be general, the law firm life is not something that is going to work for you. You should take a position inside of a company, or do something outside of the practice of law. Nevertheless, if you have the psychological fortitude to be a good soldier and are working for a firm that has the work to keep you busy, then there is nothing wrong with remaining a soldier as long as you can—as long as you understand that you will not be able to remain a soldier forever and that your job will generally end at some point.
One mistake that many attorneys make is being under the impression that because they cannot be a general in one firm, this means they cannot be a general in any firm and therefore they need to go in-house or do something completely different. This is just not the case. Being a general at a major New York law firm is extremely difficult. Being a general for a smaller army is much easier. Attorneys with major law firms often drop out of the practice of law early because they are under the impression they will never succeed based on how difficult it is to become a general wherever they are working. This is due to high billing rates, potential conflicts, and so forth. It may be difficult to be a general in the largest law firms, but this is not the case for the talented attorney in a smaller market, or in a smaller law firm.
The life and career of a general can be very rewarding, and attorneys should do their best to become generals. This is the entire point of the law firm model and the most rewarding part of your career. When you are a general, you have your own clients, you control your income, and you have people below you doing your work. You mentor others. You have power and influence. You can move your practice to another firm if you are unhappy, let attorneys go to save money if you get slow, and will be respected by your clients and subordinates. The life of a general is far different than that of a soldier, but it takes time and sacrifice and vision to become a general.
If you are getting senior and are still a soldier, GROW UP AND TAKE CONTROL. This is the only solution to your feelings of helplessness and the unhappiness you may be experiencing practicing law. You need to take control, stop being a soldier, and do whatever you can to become a general. Generals become generals because they are motivated, know how to fight, and get things done. Your career as an attorney and the level of success you experience will be directly proportional to how effective you are in making the switch from a soldier to a general.
When you think about it, there is a certain level of brilliance behind the law firm model. Attorneys with lots of ambition, motivation, and smarts are put inside of law firms and told to give everything they have towards succeeding. They do this when they are younger and when they have high amounts of energy and do not yet understand the system. In general, the system will make them work like crazy for several years and never tell them that they can only succeed if they become generals. Most attorneys in the law firm “war” get psychologically fed up, confused, and do not understand what is going on and quit before they even become generals. This is as law firms want it. They only want generals left over at the end, because generals are what make the entire program run.
Early or later in their careers, many attorneys conclude that they have no interest in working in a law firm anymore. In most instances, these conclusions come fairly early on: An attorney a few years out decides he or she wants to go in-house, take a job with the government, or do something else for a career. Partners in many law firms reach similar conclusions and go in-house, or to another job early in their careers. However, the need for getting out of law firms and into other positions is usually not where it all ends. The majority of attorneys I speak with who leave law firms and go in-house have very short tenures there—some last a year, but very few ever last more than a few years. There are economic forces at work, of course, that drive many of these attorneys away from in-house jobs, but the majority of them are unsatisfied as well. They are leaving because they do not feel rewarded and in control of their careers. They are leaving because they still feel out-of-control: People do not listen to them, they are not praised, they have very little control over their compensation, and they realize that very little of what they do matters.
Regardless of whether you do so in a law firm, or in-house, you eventually need to become a general if you are ever going to be happy and fulfilled practicing law. The majority of the angst and dissatisfaction with practicing law happens to the soldiers and not the generals. The only solution to the madness is to become the best soldier you can and along the way learn to become a general.