Summary: When is the right time to put your law firm job search on hold? Find out in this article.
A pause in your legal career can result in dire consequences, particularly if you want to pick up practicing later in life.
In many instances, law firms are distrustful of attorneys who completely bow out of law practice.
An attorney needs to stay in the game in order for something good to happen, especially in their job search.
Several years ago, I hired an attorney to work as an editor in our company. He had not practiced law in over five years, and had formerly spent about four years as an associate in a large AmLaw 100 law firm. The work he did for our company involved editing tabloid articles for one of our sites, JD Journal. He made about $25.00 an hour and lived in an apartment with his brother to save money. He was depressed, had gained a lot of weight, and had been “shell shocked” by his inability to find a new position after having had the experience of working 2,500+ hours a year at his prior firm.
He left the practice of law because—after working three all-nighters in a row—blood started leaking out of one of his eyes and the same eye began to protrude from the eye socket. He took a taxi to the hospital and was immediately admitted and scheduled for surgery. A few hours later, while he was still undergoing surgery, the partner he worked for called his emergency contacts (who happened to be his parents) and told them that if he did not come back to the office and finish what he was working on that he would lose his job. Even his parents did not know where he was.
He had been out of work too long and law firms did not trust him. The recruiters would send him to a few “openings” or “contacts” and he would never hear from them again—just silence. He became distrustful of recruiters and lost faith that anyone could help him get a position with a good law firm again. After a few years of travelling, experimenting with meditation, working in a bar, and living with his parents, he decided he would respond to a job our company posted on Craigslist seeking an editor. He was a talented writer and thought that falling back on this skill was his best choice.
I respected this attorney, and the quality of his work caught my attention. Although he was making an hourly rate far below his potential, he was throwing himself into his job. He had been working for me for six months and was over-delivering. He was doing the best he could, and I respected this. His problem was not his attitude towards work; it was that he had used recruiters in the past and had completely given up on the legal recruiting process.
“You should let me try to find you a job with a law firm,” I told him. He delayed for some time. He explained that he had tried hard before and had given up—not believing he would ever get anything. Finally, a few weeks later he called me.
“I watch what you guys do and never understood how much goes into it,” he said. “Maybe this time it will be different.”
“My only condition is that you have to listen to what I tell you and do what I tell you to do in your job search,” I told him. “If you do that, I will be able to get you a position.”
This attorney had nothing to lose. He had been unemployed and his self-esteem was down.
As he predicted, I was not able to get much interest in him off the bat. I sent him to firms all over the United States, and most balked when they saw he was working as an editor and had not worked in a law firm for five years. However, everything can change in one week, and it did for him. After three or four months of working with him, he suddenly got five interviews—all in the same week and all across the country (California, New Jersey, and Ohio).
Had this attorney not allowed me to do my job, or given up quickly, none of this would have happened. He received the interviews he did because the job market shifted in his favor and it happened quickly. It often happens this way. For some attorneys, there is a force out there that is testing them and their perseverance. When you stay in the game, good things almost always happen!
One of the most common experiences I have when working with attorneys is frustration. The attorneys give up when they do not get a position right away and then drop off the map. More attorneys fail in their careers and job searches from giving up on their searches than for any other reason. When they do not get the results they want immediately, they simply throw in the towel or go in another direction (such as in-house, government, administrative jobs inside of law firms, and so forth).
This attorney who came to work for me let me assist him in his legal job search and he ended up succeeding because he did not quit. At first, he went to many interviews that did not work out. I prepared him as well as I could; however, he was out of practice. His self-esteem was also low, and this came across in interviews. But he did not give up—even when he was discouraged. I kept him moving forward and in the game. It was not easy, but neither of us quit. Finally, things started to look up when he got an interview with a small law firm in a mid-sized town.
After the interview, I called him and he said he liked the people but that the firm was very small. He did not believe the firm would pay more than $70,000 to $80,000 a year and he was unsure if it was worth moving across the country, taking another bar, and working more long hours for that sort of salary. He went out with an associate when he was at the firm for the interview and the associate showed him around the area. The associate was driving a 20-year-old Japanese car, and my candidate figured he might not make much money at the firm or have many opportunities there. The firm also had a “ton of work,” which made him nervous. I agreed with him.
I called the firm to see what they thought of him. They said they liked him a great deal but did not think he liked them. I told the firm that he was concerned the compensation might be pretty low.
“How much do you pay your associates?” I asked the head of the firm.
He was completely matter-of-fact and surprised I was asking such a question. “The same way I pay out everyone. He would receive 50% of what I bill him out at and collect. He would be billing at $550 an hour.”
Things are not always what they seem. The law firm liked to look to its clients and the public like it had low overhead (inexpensive offices and so forth) but in reality, the attorneys were making a killing—in my 20+ years in this industry, this was one of the best opportunities I have ever seen. The attorney only got this opportunity because he stayed in the game and allowed me to do my job. He did not interfere and he trusted the process.
I called him up on the phone.
“I just increased your salary by over 10X …” I told him. He could scarcely believe what he was hearing. He started crying. His life had now changed in an incredible way, and it happened in an instant.
He took the job, of course, and that was three years ago. He told me that during his first year he billed 2,500 hours. He is busy and making more money than most partners make in good-sized law firms throughout the country. He went from making $25.00 an hour to over $650,000 a year.
The problem with any service (as compared with any product) is that you cannot see, feel, touch, try on, taste, or otherwise use it. If you go to a nice store and purchase a Rolex, Mercedes, computer, or pair of designer shoes—what you see, touch, and walk away with is what you get. This is why most people are more comfortable purchasing products than services; they can control and understand the quality of products before they purchase them. If you purchase a cell phone and it does not work, or you do not like it, you can return it and get your money back.
You do not always know what you are getting with services. Measuring the quality of a service is complicated because you need to rely on your perceptions, word of mouth, and other intangible factors in order to determine if you want that service. People who provide a service to you are people like (1) your doctor, (2) your psychologist, (3) your real estate agent, (4) your investment advisor, (5) your insurance agent, and (6) your legal recruiter.
Service quality is extremely difficult to control. One doctor is not interchangeable with another doctor, even though both doctors may work in the same hospital and may have had the same training in the same specialties. Similarly, one attorney is not interchangeable with another attorney. I am sure you know attorneys who are very good and other attorneys who are not good. Likewise, legal recruiters are not interchangeable; some are great and can change your life, while others are substandard and can hurt your chances of success.
It is difficult for us to trust services because we are at the mercy of their providers and do not always know what to look for. Clients for legal services tend to stick with their attorneys as long as they feel like they are being taken care of. Large companies use the most prestigious law firms for their legal work and pay more because they trust the names of those law firms, their systems, and because they believe that what is going on beneath the surface of those firms is benefitting them. Clients of a service are also not in control of what happens in most cases.
For example, you are not in control of how many interviews you get in your legal job search. This is why not getting enough interviews is not a good reason to put your job search on hold. If you (1) trust your legal recruiter and (2) continue pushing forward in your job search, you will be successful in your job search. Learn more about the lessons that took this attorney from making $25 an hour to over $650,000 a year:
He Trusted the Service We Offered at BCG Attorney Search
The attorney-turned-editor (turned attorney) decided that he had nothing to lose and trusted the service we offered. You need to trust our service for it to be effective. If you resist, make up your own rules, and so forth, it will not work as often.
I often tell attorneys I am working with that if I needed a patent done, help with an initial public offering, or other legal assistance, I would defer to them and not tell them how to do their jobs. I know nothing about these things and would defer to them. In the same way, when attorneys make up rules with their legal job searches about how the job search is to be done (without understanding what we do), it ends up hurting them and working against them. Using a legal recruiter is throwing you at the mercy of a service. You need to trust that the service will be done correctly.
Because this attorney I placed was working inside our company, he ended up trusting me and the service I was providing. Many attorneys do not have the same “inside look” as this attorney did, so they do not understand how our service works and do not trust it to the same extent. This ends up hurting them.
You need to understand that hiring a legal recruiter is no different than hiring a lawyer, doctor, or investment advisor. It can, but never should be, a simple transactional relationship. It is a service you are receiving, and services are different than buying products.
He understood the intangible benefits I offered. A good recruiter is not just someone who is sending you jobs and forwarding your resume to firms. The skills of a legal recruiter involve the recruiter’s ability to connect with you, connect with law firms, keep you positive, research firms, understand where opportunities exist, keep you motivated, and more. The results you get from your recruiter will depend on the individual recruiter you select and his or her commitment, skills, and abilities. The knowledge of the recruiter, the recruiter’s commitment, and the recruiter’s abilities are central to the delivery and quality of the service you receive. These sorts of skills cannot be measured, and you need to have faith in these.
The attorney I placed saw the intangible skills we offered because he worked in the company. Most people do not see this sort of thing first hand.
He worked with me because he believed that something positive would come of it eventually, but not necessarily now. A legal recruiter is being hired for the possibility that he or she will make something happen in the future—not necessarily now. You need to believe in the future and not just in the here and now.
The attorney I placed believed in the promise that something good would happen in the future—even after bad things happened and even after he did not get great results immediately. He believed in his future, and I did as well.
He worked with me because he trusted me. You need to trust the person you are working with. You need to trust that this person has your best interest in mind and wants to help you—and not just help him or herself. You need to trust that your recruiter will represent you ethically, will constantly be trying to help you, and more. You need to trust that your recruiter will say the right things about you, not reveal things you would rather not be known (one of my candidates was once in the Miss America Pageant and did not want employers to know), and more. You should trust that the recruiter knows what he or she is doing.
The attorney I placed trusted that I knew what I was doing. He was close to me and he allowed me to help him.
He had a good relationship with me. You should be able to connect with your legal recruiter and communicate effectively with them. You need to feel comfortable with your recruiter. If you feel comfortable with your legal recruiter, then the law firms will as well. If you feel comfortable with your legal recruiter, the odds are that he or she understands you and can communicate effectively on your behalf to firms.
I took the time to understand the attorney I was working with and we clicked well together. This does not always happen. When this does not happen, you may be better off using someone else.
The memories he has of the experience were just as important as the experience itself. When it comes to your experience with a legal recruiter, you will always remember his or her care and attention to detail (or lack thereof) and your connection with him or her (or lack thereof). You want to feel good about the experience.
I have good memories of this experience, as does the attorney I worked with. This was life changing for the attorney and something that he will always remember. This is not the sort of experience that comes from an impersonal job board, for example.
He assumed an economic and career risk by choosing other recruiters besides me in the past. The aggressiveness, dedication, and commitment of your legal recruiter will have a lot to do with whether or not you succeed. A good recruiter can change your career and life, and a bad one can do significant harm.
The attorney I placed lost out in a major way—economically and from a self-esteem standpoint—by choosing the wrong recruiters in the past. You assume this risk when you choose a recruiter to work with in your search.
He Did Not Manufacture Reasons Why the Service Was Not Working or Find Reasons to Stop Using the Service
The most important component of working with BCG Attorney Search is to trust the service we offer. We have worked with and placed thousands of attorneys over the past few decades and are getting better and better at it each year. If we decide to work with someone at BCG Attorney Search, we know that we can place that person in a good law firm position. If we choose to work with you, it means that we believe in you and we are confident that we will be able to ultimately get you a good position if you trust us to do our job in the way we know how to do it. Our relationship with you is not based on “shopping and dropping” you if things do not work out immediately. We stick with you because we know that if you are in the game, we can get you something.
Here are some of the reasons attorneys frequently give for stopping their job searches too soon:
“There is no interest and therefore I should stop looking.” This is simply not good logic. All it takes is one firm and one job offer—that’s it. If you continue pushing forward, something always happens—always. A job search is not a “one shot deal”: The job market is a moving parade—you cannot predict when firms will be interested in you; it just happens. In a moving parade, everything is changing all the time.
At one point in time, there may be a huge interest in corporate attorneys.
A month later, there could be a huge interest in healthcare attorneys, and law firms no longer want anything to do with corporate attorneys.
Things are geographic-specific as well. At one point, energy attorneys may only be in demand in Washington, DC. At another point in time, they may be in demand only in Houston.
At some points in time and locations, senior attorneys without business in given practice areas are in demand, and at other points, they are not.
This parade is always at a different location. A lack of initial interest means nothing. I am working with a corporate partner in Northern California at the moment who has an unusual background and has been looking to move firms for over a year and a half. Very little has happened in his search so far, but he has stuck with it. Two weeks ago, he suddenly got three interviews in the space of a few days with firms we had been trying to get him into for over a year. One of the firms is close to making him an offer, and it will substantially improve his lot.
“I cannot deal with any more rejection and it is embarrassing.” I have never been clear why attorneys are embarrassed to look for a job. The majority of attorneys are interested in new opportunities and looking for jobs at most points in time. Being embarrassed about not getting an interview is like being embarrassed that you need to go to the bathroom, did not get into the college or law school of your choice, or you had your heart broken once—join the club.
In most major law firms, the majority of partners are willing to hear about better opportunities if they are available. This is how mature attorneys think because they realize that getting ahead is about putting your hat in the ring.
The majority of midlevel associates at major law firms in New York, Los Angeles, and other cities are always searching for and applying to new opportunities in the market. Most attorneys are looking. No one cares.
A major law firm may receive a few hundred applications (with tons of applicants from other major law firms) for each position it has. The partner reviewing your resume will not remember you or care. He or she reviews thousands of resumes and covers letters a year.
In most instances, only one partner is reviewing your resume—and he or she may even be looking around as well. (There did not used to be such a thing as “recruiting coordinators” inside of major law firms. Law firms realized that they needed recruiting coordinators in the 1980s, when all of their hiring partners started getting recruited away within months of starting their jobs because they were spending their days talking to recruiters.)
If there are 30 major law firms in town and one of them has an opening, the odds are that the law firm will receive applicants from almost every one of the other major law firms.
Rejection is part of life. Regardless of how great your background is, you will be rejected by lots of law firms if you are doing a search.
I often work with very talented candidates who believe that they should be able to get every job that comes along—but who find out otherwise and are embarrassed when law firms do not interview them and give up:
A few years ago, I started working with a Phi Beta Kappa and order of the coif Ivy League law school and college graduate, with a circuit court clerkship. She was doing plaintiffs-related work and decided that she wanted to switch over and do defense work with a major law firm. She had five years of experience, and there were plenty of defense litigation positions. But no one wanted to interview her in the first few months of her search. No one. Firms had a conflict with her because she was doing plaintiffs-related work and would not even interview her. I got her a few interviews with good firms, but they could not bring themselves to pull the trigger. She got frustrated and stopped searching for over a year. I kept in contact with her and told her she was marketable and needed to keep searching, but she ended up dropping out of the practice of law and becoming a community college literature instructor. She would have gotten a position had she continued with her search. She would be working at a major law firm and just needed to stick it out a little longer. That was her dream, and she gave up because she was not getting immediate success.
A year ago, I was working with a partner from a major law firm who had a $5-million+ book of business that was all flowing from one client. This is a respectable book and something that generally would open doors most places. He informed me that he was interested in my marketing him to six firms that he researched and selected on his own. I did so, and each law firm reported back that it had a conflict with his major client and could not interview him. He became incredibly upset and believed it was personal. It had nothing to do with him, though. It was a conflict. He was so upset he stopped his search and is now in a bad situation where he is getting paid far less than he is worth and supporting a lot of dead weight at his existing firm.
“I do not want to get my resume out there too much.” Many law firms we work with will never see your resume. Because they do not want to offend you, a substantial portion of law firms we work with ask legal recruiters like us to submit “blind submissions,” which means we provide a profile of you without providing your identifying details. We discuss your details generally (and positively) without revealing your identity. If a law firm is interested in you, the firm asks us to submit your resume. What is important to understand is that your resume is often not out there hardly at all—and if we are suggesting 25 firms to you, only 10 to 15 may see your resume.
You have no choice but to get your resume out there if you want to get a position. There is an incredible amount of competition for most jobs. Every law firm is different and gives different weight to things like:
Your law school and law school grades.
The firm you are coming from.
Where you have worked in the past.
Your seniority (or lack thereof).
Your specific experience in your practice area.
Factors that are not supposed to be considered but often are, such as your age, race, sexual orientation, political leanings, looks, weight, handicaps, and so forth.
The geographic area where you currently live.
The people they already know who are applying for the same position.
Without getting into specifics, there are thousands of reasons that law firms may not interview you or hire you. Trying to understand these reasons is like asking “why did God create me?” or some existential question that will take you down a rabbit hole. Who cares? Just move on.
“I am concerned about confidentiality.” When you use a legal recruiter, this is not a concern—your confidentiality is not disturbed. Law firms treat every submission with extreme confidence when the submission comes through a well-respected legal recruiter. Law firms know that if they disturb your confidentiality, it will destroy their reputations in the marketplace. The law firm does not under any circumstances want to be in a position where the recruiter will tell future candidates not to apply to a given firm because that firm cannot be trusted. That is suicide for a law firm. When you apply to a law firm on your own, however, you have no guarantee what will happen.
“I want to pause and ‘recalibrate’ and get a better experience, more business, and so forth.” This can be a good strategy in some instances; however, if we have chosen to work with you, we believe that you are marketable right now and the most important thing you can do is be persistent. The more persistent that you are, the more likely you will succeed in your search. You should trust the judgment of your recruiter about whether or not you are marketable. The economic climate, demand for a specific practice area, and so forth can change rapidly and suddenly. Your recruiter may tell you that now is the time to move or your recruiter may agree with you that the time to make a move is in the future.
“I only want to apply for jobs that are perfect matches and am going to wait until I find the perfect match.” Attorneys who do this typically spend a lot of time looking for positions. While your experience matters, you are going to be hired most often due to some (or many aspects) of your background that appeal to a particular firm beyond your experience. The quality of the law firms you are coming from, your law school, employment stability, connection with the geographic area you are in—and the number of qualified applicants for the job the firm is receiving—all factor into whether or not the firm will speak with you. Waiting for perfect matches is dangerous and rarely works out—even when there are perfect matches.
There are times when a law firm has a position that seems odd—but we work on the position anyway. Recently, a firm in Texas was seeking a corporate attorney who spoke Spanish, Russian, and Arabic and had four to five years of experience. I found an attorney who met these criteria in our database, called the attorney, interviewed the attorney, and submitted the attorney to the firm. The law firm immediately called me.
“Nice job finding this attorney, but we already know who we are going to hire. The person was referred by a client. This is not a real opening—we just need to advertise each position that we have before hiring anyone because that is our firm policy. Sorry!”
There are positions like this in law firms all the time, and I see this frequently. Just because a law firm has an opening does not mean it is real.
“I’m going to try in-house, the government, or another practice setting because this is not working out.” This is something I see all the time. People take the path of least resistance and give up because they want immediate results. Getting a position with a law firm can take time. Just because you are not getting immediate results does not mean you should give up and take a job that is easier to get. Law firms are difficult to get positions in because they have more prestige, pay more money, do more sophisticated work, and can have more long-term opportunities for growth than most other practice settings.
“I’m going to quit practicing law since everything is not working out.” Not true! Things DO work out for attorneys who stick with their searches. You worked extremely hard to become an attorney and get into this game. It will work out, and there are tons of strategies you can employ to make this happen, including looking at other geographic areas, approaching more places, working for less money, and more.
“This is too crushing for my ego.” None of this has anything whatsoever to do with your ego. Your ego should never be involved in your job search. The second you insert your ego into the search you begin to have problems. Once you allow your ego in, you will lose perspective and crash your search. Law firms are making business decisions. Business decisions are made based on countless factors. Many attorneys have no problem spending years going to various seminars and meeting hundreds of people in an attempt to get clients; however, when it comes to their careers, they are afraid of rejection. Litigators get shot down and rejected by judges all the time, but when it comes to getting rejected by a law firm, they lose all perspective. Rejection is part of the program, and a business decision has nothing to do with you.
“My recruiter must be doing something wrong and therefore I need to find a new one.” Sometimes people fire their recruiters when they do not get success at the pace they want and expect. If your recruiter is not constantly sending you fresh job openings, making suggestions, and keeping in touch with you on a weekly basis, then your recruiter may be doing something wrong—yes. Your recruiter should know what he or she is doing, and there are not many recruiters or recruiting firms that understand this business at a high level. Recruiters are middlemen who have access to information. Their job as a middleman is to keep you moving forward and in the game. It is important that you stay in the game and constantly move forward in your search. Your recruiter should also understand you and your strengths and be communicating these strengths to law firms. If your recruiter does not contact you often, does not take the time to understand you, gets off the phone quickly, is not available, writes and communicates poorly, and gives off other warning signs of ineffectiveness then, yes, your recruiter might be doing something wrong.
Most attorneys do not have the sorts of results in their job searches they should because they give up and get frustrated too easily and too early on in the process. They believe that there is something wrong if they get rejected and if law firms are not always interested in them. They believe that it is “bad” for them to put themselves out there. But you must remember that it is the attorneys who trust the process and stick with it who end up getting the best results in their searches and careers. It always is.
Early in my career, I worked with three attorneys I will never forget. I will close this article by telling you their stories.
The first attorney had attempted to go to Russia to start a diaper company after spending years as a partner in a major law firm doing securities work. The diaper company failed when Proctor & Gamble came to Moscow and undercut him with better products and distribution. He was wiped out financially and emotionally by the experience and realized he needed to go back to the practice of law. On a whim, he sent me a resume. I convinced him he could get a job, continue practicing law, and that good things would happen to him. I ended up getting him a job working in a law firm in the Pacific Northwest, as the personal securities attorney to a billionaire. He almost quit the practice of law and had been unemployed for years when I met him. I told him to let me do my job, and I would save his career. The job I found did not require him to have any business and paid extremely well. He is still at the firm to this day.
The second and third attorneys both got positions at the same firm. One day, I was reading a news article in a legal periodical about a firm in the Bay Area of California that was small but very busy. The article quoted the head attorney in the firm as saying something to the effect of “I’ve been practicing law for 30 years and never seen so much work! I don’t know what to do!”
I called the attorney and told him I could help him. He had never spoken with or used a legal recruiter. I had a few candidates I had been unable to place and thought might work with this firm.
The first candidate was a woman who had been sexually harassed in law school by a professor. The law school had terminated the professor. She started work at a new law firm, and on her first day, she was shown to her new office and—to her astonishment—she was seated in the office next to the professor whom the firm had hired. She could not believe it and was even more stunned when the firm took the side of the older attorney. She quit the firm and was unemployable because she did not have any experience and had stayed less than a month at her firm. She had not worked in a year when I started working with her.
The second candidate was a man who had formerly worked in the Los Angeles and Washington, DC offices of his firm. He was one of the top rainmakers in his firm and was doing very well. He had been nominated for an important government position in Washington, DC, but that did not work out when the media uncovered the fact that he was married to two women at the same time. He lost his job and his reputation (in his defense—if you can call it that—he had a pending divorce in California at the time he remarried a new woman in Washington, DC). It also came out that he had a serious cocaine addiction. When I met him, he had been out of work for several years, was running a solo practice, and had a bizarre nervous habit of chewing his lower lip, which was scabbed and bleeding. By the time I met him, he had gotten himself together, was genuinely remorseful, and wanted his life and career back.
I was able to get both attorneys positions with the small law firm in the Bay Area. This is not the best part of the story, though. Within a few months of them starting at the new firm, the firm merged into one of the largest law firms in the world. Both ended up at more prestigious law firms than they ever had worked at before. This was over 15 years ago, and both are still with the large firm to this day.
The recruiters at BCG Attorney Search have many stories like this (although not always so exciting). They occur on a monthly basis. Success happens when people stay in the game. It does not happen when people lose faith. If you lose faith in your search, your recruiter, and yourself, then you are doing yourself a great disservice. The most important thing you can do is to stay in the game.
How can you stay in the game as an attorney? What are some ways you deal with stress as an attorney in a big law firm? Which is worse, the stress or working in a big law firm, or the stress of being unemployed and struggling to find a decent job?