Summary: Find out how you can be a truly happy law firm attorney without making a move or career change in this article.
When you look at a football team, there are all sorts of different types of players on the field. There are 375-pound linemen, quarterbacks, kickers, running backs, and more. Everyone has a specific role to play. The lineman is there to block, the quarterback to throw and run the ball; they each are endowed with various skills that make up the team.
- If the quarterback decided they suddenly wanted to be a defensive tackle (blocker) because they admired the position and did not want to have to throw the ball anymore, it would be a disaster. They would be too small and would get run over – and probably seriously injured.
- Similarly, if the defensive tackle suddenly started to admire all the glory that the quarterback received and wanted to throw and run the ball, that would be a disaster as well. The defensive tackle would likely be too big, slow, and uncoordinated to do that.
You too are endowed with a certain set of skills that make you special and unique. You’ve come this far and although I do not know you, I know that the odds are very good that you are incredibly special, unique, and one of a kind because everyone is – especially people motivated enough to do well in college, go to law school, and who read articles like this in their quest for self-improvement. Your uniqueness may be your
- social skills,
- issue spotting ability,
- ability to understand complex problems,
- oral skills,
- business-generation ability,
- the ability to bond with firm clients,
- multitasking ability,
- ability to defuse difficult situations,
- work ethic,
- easy-going nature even in the face of stress,
- your looks or sense of style,
- uptight nature that prevents things from getting by you,
- editing ability,
- ability to compartmentalize issues,
- the fact that you are just good at following directions, or
- your ability to anticipate what people want.
I am sure that I mentioned at least one thing that makes you special and gives you the sorts of abilities others do not have—and there may be more. Regardless, you have some serious skills in certain areas and need to understand that and make the most of those skills. You have legal skills of which you may not even be aware.
In football, everyone has a certain set of skills and role to play on the field. The skills that the quarterback has are natural and unique to him. Even if the 375-pound lineman wanted to be a quarterback, the size that nature has endowed them with would not make this possible. Nature and your environment have endowed you with certain skills as well. These skills are unique to you and something that no one can take away from you. The sooner you realize the position you need to play with your law degree and your unique skills, the better off you will be.
See the following articles for more information:
- What Makes You Unique?
- The Kick-Ass Marketing Secret of the Most Successful Job Applicants and Employees
If people do not play their positions and do what they are most skilled at, the odds are that they will fail. I am not saying there is anything wrong with trying new things, of course—there is not. Nevertheless, you are endowed with a certain set of skills and abilities that have gotten you to where you are today (as an attorney) and if you do not make the best use of those legal-oriented skills and believe you should try something completely different, the odds are that you will experience many setbacks before you start to succeed—if you ever do. One of the biggest mistakes that attorneys make is entertaining the idea they should do something completely different when they have a certain set of skills that have made them successful.
Just because you are unhappy with certain aspects of being an attorney (or your role in a law firm) does not mean you should be doing something completely different—but it may. There are certain people who should not be attorneys. (I will get to that in a moment.) There are also certain types of attorneys who should be in different practice settings, firms, or doing different types of work. (I will also get to that in a moment.) But before you do something drastic with your skill set, you sure as hell better realize that it will do you very little good if you take your unique set of skills and apply them somewhere where they may not be used as effectively as they could be.
One of the largest issues confronting attorneys is that many of them are trying to be something that they are not—or want something they do not have. This constant wanting to be someone different is something that never goes away and that you hear from a substantial number of attorneys on a daily basis. Not realizing their unique skills and abilities, they often suffer from the perception that the grass may be greener doing something else. They seriously explore the idea of:
- Working in a larger or smaller firm—or just a different firm
- Working in a different city (or country)
- Going in-house, working for the government, in public interest, or another practice setting
- Switching practice areas
- Pursuing another sort of career altogether (outside of the law)
- Starting solo law firm practices
- Going back to school
I am going to explore each of these potential career decisions with you later in this article—once I have given you more context for these potential decisions and whether or not they make sense for you.
Because it is relevant to our discussion, I want to talk a little bit about your confidence and whether or not you are doing what you believe you should be doing. The environment you are in will often largely dictate how you feel about yourself and your confidence in what you are doing. It is an attorney’s environment and ego that often determine how happy or unhappy that attorney is practicing law. Many people believe they should not be doing something because of the input they are getting from their environment. They may even believe they are incompetent. Depending on the environment and people with whom you are practicing law, you may believe you are very good—or not very good.
I clerked for a federal district judge in a relatively small town in Bay City, Michigan after I graduated from law school. While attorneys came to this courthouse from all over the country, the majority of the litigants in the court were local attorneys from Bay City and around the area (Saginaw and Midland, in particular—and Detroit from time to time). There were also a fair number of younger attorneys who came to the court who had graduated from law school within the past ten years or so (they usually came with older attorneys).
The local attorneys who practiced in this courthouse were not out to impress one another. They typically went to law schools in Michigan (including the University of Michigan), drove middle-priced American cars, did not wear expensive clothes, take expensive vacations, spend weekends in the Hamptons, or live in expensive homes. They lived nice, comfortable, noncompetitive lives for the most part. They were not all that competitive with one another and seemed relatively happy practicing law. They smiled and were relatively easy going.
I had been a summer associate in a major New York law firm, and that was the exact opposite. Back then the other summer associates I worked with were buying Hermes ties, talking about where the partners were spending their weekends and everyone was very competitive with one another about where they went to school and all sorts of things too numerous for me even to remember. No one (not even the partners) seemed too happy practicing law. It was a much different environment in all respects.
Not too long ago I looked up several of the people who were my “near contemporaries” that I remembered from around Bay City 20 years ago. I did this because I started noticing so many talented attorneys (young and old alike) dropping out of the practice of law in New York and other markets, but realized that when I was working with attorneys in smaller markets (and smaller firms), this rarely occurred. I wondered to myself why people continued to practice law in smaller markets and not in larger markets and wanted to see if the attorneys I remembered from Bay City were still practicing law.
It was the attorneys who came from the largest markets (or largest, national firms—which often are located in some small markets) who seemed the most disillusioned with the practice of law and were making the worst career mistakes. It was often the most qualified attorneys (in terms of their educational pedigrees and backgrounds) who were making these career mistakes and bad decisions.
When I looked up the attorneys from around Bay City, I was able to find every single one of them—and they were all still practicing at the same firms where they had practiced when I knew them. Conversely, throughout the years, I have encountered several of the attorneys I knew from the firm where I was a summer associate in New York, and they have had multiple jobs and have moved around quite a bit and seem to have had very difficult careers—several no longer practice law. Most days, hundreds of people apply to work with BCG Attorney Search, and now and then, I see resumes from people I remember—and almost all their resumes have more 7, 8, or more moves on them and all sorts of issues. When I speak with these people as part of my recruiting practice, they always seem to feel the need to tell me why whatever they are up to is “important” and prestigious as well. They are still holding on to that “competitive spirit” that makes them believe they have to look better than others in their (or someone’s) eyes. This means working in big cities and with important employers.
I bring this up because I believe whether or not you enjoy practicing law and are happy doing it is a product of the environment you are in. If you are in an environment that makes you happy and brings out your best and where people look out for you, the odds are you will stay. Firms in New York City (and many other major markets) are so dangerous for attorneys because they are hyper-efficient and competitive markets. The best attorneys flock to these markets, but these law firms have few partnership spaces, there is profound pressure to produce “perfect” work for clients paying the highest billing rates, hours need to be high to justify your salary, overhead, and the other costs of being in a major city. Attorneys are incredibly competitive and cutthroat in these markets. Attorneys are put down, demoralized, and made to feel unsuccessful and incompetent (even if they are not) because winners and competitive people need people failing around them for them to feel successful.
See the following articles for more information:
- Control Your Environment
- The Importance of Environment
- Understand the Nature of People, Jobs and the Environments You Commit To
- Seek Out Environments, Conditions, and People That Create Positive Beliefs in Yourself
- You Need to Be in the Right Environment
- Be Around Those with High Expectations of You
- Surround Yourself with Positive People
When I was younger, I was very good at soccer. The game came naturally to me, and I enjoyed it immensely. People in my neighborhood thought highly of me, and people in my school were impressed with me. It was very good for my self-esteem. I felt proud and happy.
Because I was so good at soccer, my father (who had gone to Michigan Law School, Harvard for college and was very competitive) decided that I needed to be in special programs where I traveled around the state with the very best players and competed at all the national camps. Pretty soon I was playing soccer every day of the week and competing and playing with kids to whom soccer was not fun. The adults were incredibly serious too. Kids would cry and scratch themselves when they made mistakes, and it turned into this serious thing. Instead of being fun, it drained my self-esteem. Not only that, but the kids I was playing with were so good and so talented when I started competing at national camps, I was suddenly no longer the best player. Playing soccer also became very exhausting because I was spending all of my time being driven across town to practices and games to play and compete with the best kids. In the practices and games, it was incredibly serious and something that became extremely stressful. Because it was so competitive to get on the sort of team I was on, people were always in danger of being cut or not played if they did not perform. This was not a fun way to spend ages 10 to 13 growing up.
By the time I was 13, I no longer liked soccer and sabotaged myself. I no longer had the enthusiasm. I would find reasons to miss practice and not put my heart into games or practices. Pretty soon I was demoted from a top team to one that was not as good. When I started playing there, I did not do well either. My father was extremely disappointed in me because he got a lot of satisfaction out of seeing me be such an excellent athlete at such a young age. My lack of enthusiasm for the game became so profound that I was not even that good when I got to high school and barely made the varsity team my freshman year—and was hardly played (and then quit after that).
I just did not have the enthusiasm anymore and did not want to play. I was too depressed and no longer had the drive to play. I felt burned out and tore down by the competition, criticism, and other issues that I had experienced being around people who were fiercely competitive and better than me. I was also tired of being overworked in practices and games year-round and hearing nothing but “soccer, soccer, soccer.” Had I continued playing locally when I was younger, I probably would have been an awesome high school soccer player and felt good about myself. I might even have played in college.
After dropping out of soccer, I tried a variety of different sports. I tried football, lacrosse, hockey, and tennis. I never was very good at any of these sports—much worse than I even was at soccer at that point. I had never played these sports before and was competing with kids who had played them before. I was not an “expert” in these sports. I understood soccer and was good at it, but my spirit and enthusiasm for something that had once been fun was crushed. I also did not have a lot of confidence or enthusiasm for sports left in me. Sports represented too many bad things to me. Had I fixed this part of me, I would have done very well, but I never did.
When an attorney feels unsuccessful, unvalued, put down, stressed out, and unworthy, they react the way I did: they give up, their self-esteem takes a hit, and they feel the need to escape. Large law firms do to attorneys what competitive soccer at a young age did to me: they overwork them, make them feel inferior, and drive them to escape and do something different.
When an attorney’s spirit is broken, they do what I did: they rebel and try to escape. They often decide to try something different. This may or may not be a good decision. Here are the decisions you face regarding the direction of your career that I brought up to you earlier.
- The Lateral-Move-New-Firm Cure: Switch to a Smaller, Larger, or Similar Firm
As someone who moves attorneys around for a living, I can tell you that moving law firms is often an excellent decision and something that can profoundly change your level of happiness practicing law—but it may not.
Here is why. When most attorneys who are unhappy practicing law switch law firms, they simply move somewhere where it is more of the same thing. Instead of going to a law firm that is different from their current one, most attorneys end up joining law firms that have similar business models and pay similar salaries. That is, the attorney from a large law firm will end up joining another large law firm that similarly demands lots of hours, is competitive, and has the same pressures that made the attorney unhappy in their previous firm.
The reason most attorneys do this is twofold.
First, and most importantly, their egos tend to get involved in their search. Most attorneys are very competitive with their peers and want to be at firms that look good to others. Attorneys are incredibly conscious of the prestige levels of different law firms and always want to be at the most prestigious one. This drive for significance is something that ends up hurting attorneys because it puts them in situations where they are more concerned about what others think about them than how the environment makes them feel about themselves. This would be no different than me playing for a local soccer team instead of an important travel team as I did. If you feel that certain environments are beneath you, you will tend to stick to the environments you feel are at your level even if they make you unhappy.
Second, attorneys often value money over their happiness. While large law firms pay large salaries to their attorneys, there are major disadvantages to taking a large salary. If a law firm is paying a large salary to an attorney, the attorney is often in a position in which their compensation is frontloaded towards the start of their career, because the odds against them making partner and the odds for them losing their job exponentially increase the higher the attorney salary. The higher the salary, the more work and insecurity the job will give the attorney. Therefore, if an attorney makes a career decision based on a high salary, they will often be unhappy.
If an attorney is unhappy and considering giving up, the last thing in the world they should do is to move to a similar firm. Instead, the attorney should try to move to a firm that is different and where the attorney feels supported. A high salary is not necessarily something that means a law firm can be a bad place to work. Instead, a more realistic measure of what will make an attorney happier is going to be the environment in which the attorney works.
The culture and environment is the deciding factor in most cases of whether or not an attorney will be happy practicing law. People feel comfortable and valued in different environments. In most cases, if you are unhappy practicing law, it is due to the environment you are in and the people with whom you work. If the people you are working with do not make you feel good about yourself or valued, the odds are quite good that you will end up feeling unhappy. People are social animals and want to be in environments where they feel safe, feel they are making a contribution, and believe that others care about them. If you are in an environment that is the opposite of this, you will most often be unhappy.
Therefore, moving to a smaller firm may not necessarily solve your issues. Moving to a similar-sized firm may be a good choice if the environment is right for you. You want to be around people who make you feel valued, protected, and good about yourself – and you can find this in large law firms.
Before moving on, it is important to understand that moving to a smaller law firm is not always the right choice if you are trying to get out of long hours. For one, smaller law firms are businesses—just as large law firms are businesses. Because smaller law firms are businesses, they very much want to be busy and have a lot of work. If a smaller law firm has work, they will do it and make their attorneys work hard—there is no other option. One of the most common things I see is attorneys moving to small law firms, taking a massive salary cut, and ending up extremely unhappy when a lot of work comes in and they suddenly have very long hours. This is quite common.
If you are going to contine to practice law in a law firm, unless you are in certain practice area that does not demand long hours (trust and estates, tax, ERISA, and patent prosecution, to name a few), you are going to need to be prepared for long hours. This is just the nature of the business. However, before giving up on the practice of law in a law firm, you really should do what you can to consider if a different environment will make you happy. Each law firm is unique and has its own culture and way of treating people. In most instances if you are unhappy practicing law it may be related to the environment you are in and not the practice of law itself.
See the following articles for more information:
- The Right and Wrong Reasons to Switch Law Firms
- There Are Only Three Reasons an Attorney Should Ever Switch Law Firms
- Top 10 Ways Attorneys Can Move to a Better Law Firm and Get a Better Attorney Job
- 15 Reasons You Should Leave Your Law Firm and Look for a New Job
- 15 Reasons Law Firm Attorneys Should Not Look for New Jobs
- How Can I Move from a Small Boutique Firm to a Big Law Firm?
- The Geographic Cure: Working in a Different City (or Country)
Another thing attorneys try to change when they are unhappy is their geographic location. If an attorney does not like practicing law (wherever they are), they often consider picking up and going to another part of the country.
Believe it or not, this can often be a very good decision. As I have said earlier in this article, attorneys in smaller markets tend to fare much better (psychologically, physically, emotionally, and more). Attorneys in smaller markets tend to be more “tribal” and protect one another because they have fewer options when it comes to moving firms. There also tends to be much more stability, and because the pressures are (most often—not always) different, these attorneys also tend to have better families and careers. There are many smaller markets (my favorite are the cities in upstate New York) where attorneys tend to keep fairly normal hours, have time to attend kids sporting events, have homes, cars and live nice lifestyles, and not go crazy practicing law. Attorneys who relocate to these markets from places like New York City are often profoundly happier and believe that doing so saved their lives and careers.
On the other hand, geographic relocation is not always something that will make you happier and solve your problems. Most unhappy, stressed-out attorneys will often relocate from one ultra-competitive market to another. The attorney in Los Angeles moves to Silicon Valley. The attorney in Houston relocates to Atlanta. While every city has a “feel” that attorneys gravitate towards, for the most part, law firms are going to be similar in most large markets.
The larger the market, the higher the average billing rate. The higher the billing rates, the more competitive it is to get work, stay employed, and generate work (as a partner). The larger the market, the more people there are waiting to replace you, and the more readily available attorneys are. If you are in Los Angeles and doing a certain type of work, if the law firm you are at wants to replace you, they can do so quickly—regardless of your skill or specialty. In a fluid market like Los Angeles, law firms want the best talent working for them. If they do not like you and can do better—they can probably find someone better for them. Just like when I played for the best soccer team and players were constantly being replaced, the same thing happens in larger markets. There is constant pressure to have the best people working on issues and people are fungible and always being let go to bring in better performers. This sort of thing does not happen in smaller markets nearly as much because there are fewer people to replace you.
The most important component when doing a geographic relocation is to find a firm in the market you are interested in that has the right culture and environment for you. If you are unhappy in your current market, a geographic cure is not likely to work if you go to a firm with the same culture and business model as the firm for which you are currently working.
See the following articles for more information:
- Why Relocating to a Different Market Is the Greatest (But Little Known) Way for a Law Firm Attorney to Get Ahead in the Legal Profession
- How to Relocate to Another Area of the Country as an Attorney
- Should I Lateral to a Secondary Market? 5 Factors to Help You Decide
- Top 10 Reasons Attorneys Should Look at Multiple Markets in Their Job Search
- Why Every Attorney Should Look at Multiple Legal Markets When Doing a Job Search
- A Comprehensive Guide to Bar Reciprocity: What States Have Reciprocity for Lawyers and Allow You to Waive into the Bar
- How Can I Make Moving to the West Coast from a New York Law Firm Easier?
- What’s the Best Way to Convince a Firm That I Am Serious about My Geographic Move?
- How Do I Get a Job in a City Where I Have No Local Connections?
- Breaking Into a Smaller Market
- The Practice-Setting Cure: Going In-House, Working for the Government, in Public Interest, or Academia
Attorneys often believe that switching their practice setting will make them happier.
Going in-house is one of the primary desires of law firm attorneys and something many of them aspire to. I have written extensively about this decision elsewhere: See Why Going In-house Is Often the Worst Decision a Good Attorney Can Ever Make. I recommend reviewing this article before making the decision to go in-house.
Understanding the reasons you think the way you do is something that is important. The large law firm ecosystem is set up to encourage attorneys to go in-house. Attorneys start out in large law firms expecting to leave the firms by the time they have around 8 to 10 years of experience. Large law firms want them to go in-house because when an attorney goes in-house, this means the attorney is likely to send them work in the future. Going in-house is romanticized because attorneys believe it will entail less stress, less work, and a better lifestyle. This is, in fact, often the case. However, the problem with going in-house is that it often results in far less job security for the attorney. When you are in-house, you are a cost center and not someone who is generating money. This means you are more prone to be laid off when things slow down and because companies are the way they are—likely to lose your job when mergers happen, business units are sold and so forth. Very few in-house attorneys last very long.
Regardless of the practice-setting change you choose, the largest and most dangerous issue with these changes is that when you change your practice setting and move out of a law firm, it is almost impossible to go back to a law firm. There are some exceptions to this. For example, attorneys from the U.S. Attorney’s Office can often transition back. However, as a general rule, this is often next to impossible. Once you leave the law firm world, your odds of going back are very slim indeed.
See the following articles for more information:
- Why You Can Never Stop Practicing Law for More Than a Few Weeks Once You Start
- Beware! Once You Start Working in a Law Firm, If You Leave You Will Almost Certainly Not Be Able to Return
- Don’t Give Up! Why You Should Work with the Best Law Firm You Can as Long as You Can
The law firm model is fairly simple to understand. You go to a law firm and acquire skills. Your objective is always to have work – the more, the better. If you are close to a powerful partner or have rare skills, the law firm will continue giving you work and advancing you as long as it serves their interest. Ideally, you are expected to develop your skills and then go out and network, meet people, and eventually bring in business to feed yourself and underlings with work. You will support the law firm by giving them part of your fees, and they will support you by giving you a brand, support, and an institution in which to run your business. If you are an attorney with business, you can always move firms if you are unhappy where you are.
When attorneys talk about going in-house (or to another practice setting), they are deciding to leave behind a future of running their own business. They are deciding to do something where they will be working for other people and dependent on them forever. They are deciding to be employees and not to run their own business. There is tremendous security in running your own business, being an expert in something, and not having to depend on an employer. Depending on an employer is extremely limiting. Attorneys who have their own business and stay inside of law firms are most often much better off than those who do not.
When an attorney moves firms, they need to consider if where they are going will allow them to generate more business or not—or if they have skills that will result in them being given a lot of work wherever they end up (or if they can align themselves with a powerful attorney or attorneys with a lot of work). The most important aspect of any move—and an attorney’s career—is having access to work. Law firms are the perfect platform for long-term success if you play the game in the right place. You need to play the game in a place where you have long-term access to work and can generate business. You will have much more employment security in a law firm than most other practice settings (and end up a better attorney) if you remain in a law firm.
See the following articles for more information:
- The 'Dark Side' of Going In-house
- Going In-house? Why You May Be Saying Goodbye to Law Firms for Good
- A View from the Other Side: My Life as an In-House Attorney
- Frequently Asked Questions on In-House Legal Careers
- Should You Become an In-House Attorney?
- Should You Become an In-House Lawyer?
- Pros and Cons: In-House vs. Law Firm Practice
- What Do In-House Attorney Positions Pay?
- Everything You Need to Know about a Career as In-House Counsel
- The Pros and Cons of Working as a Government Attorney
- Can I Move to a Government Job then Come Back to a Law Firm?
- The Practice-Area-Switch Cure: Switching Practice Areas
Many attorneys believe that they can be happy if they switch practice areas. Litigators will often say that they want to switch because they dislike confrontation. Corporate attorneys will often say that they want to switch because they like reading and writing, and hate the tediousness and clerical nature of corporate-related work. People with an interest in environmental law, employment, real estate, or other areas who are stuck in another practice area often have an interest in switching to these practice areas.
In most instances, the attorney interested in switching their practice area is not going to be any happier in a new practice area than the one they are in. There are exceptions to this, of course, but if you do not like your current practice area, working in a new practice area is not something that will work most of the time. When attorneys I know have switched practice areas in the past, what most often happens is they find reasons not to like the new practice area either. This does not happen all the time, and there are certainly good reasons you may be interested in a new practice area and thrive there. However, in most instances, attorneys who are unhappy in one practice area and believe a switch will improve their happiness end up where they started when they get into the new practice area.
As a general rule, however, there is a simple test you can use to see if you are in the right practice area.
- People who tend to be dominant and best in math-related disciplines, science, and that sort of thing tend to be more suited and happier doing transactional-related practice areas (patent prosecution, real estate, and corporate, for example).
- People who tend to be dominant in verbal/reading and writing-related disciplines (English, history, and sociology, for example) tend to be more suited for litigation.
You can most often tell your dominance by what you enjoy doing and excel at. Would you rather write a paper or do a math problem? What type of classes did you prefer to take in school? What were your best test scores and grades in?
If you are a math-science person in a transactional practice area, the odds are extremely high you will be dissatisfied if you go into litigation or another transactional-related practice area. If you are a verbal person, switching to another verbal-related practice area, or a transactional-related practice area is also likely not to work out as well.
If you do switch practice areas, you need to remember that the most important thing is going to be your commitment. You will never be happy practicing law in any practice area unless you commit. People do this sort of thing with relationships and other things all the time. In relationships, a person may date someone for years despite having no interest in marrying them because they (subconsciously, or otherwise) hope and believe that someone better may come along. Because of this attitude, they spend years unhappy and never fulfilled in one relationship because they cannot commit. People succeed to the extent they commit in relationships, work, and everything. You cannot become good at practicing law and your practice area without commitment. You cannot lose weight without committing to an exercise program. You will never get good at anything, or be happy doing anything if you do not commit.
See the following articles for more information:
- Is It Possible to Change Practice Areas in Big Law Firms?
- Third Year Associate Wants to Switch Practice Areas
- Biglaw Associate Thinking of Changing Practice Areas
- Is Changing Practice Areas within a Law Firm a Good Move?
- A Realistic Approach to Changing Practice Areas
- What’s Your Advice on Trying Out Another Practice Area in My Current Law Firm?
- How Corporate Attorneys Can Market Themselves for Real Estate Positions
- How Can I Change Practice Areas Early on in My Career as an Attorney?
- Changing Practice Groups: Mission Impossible or All The Right Moves
- BCG Attorney Search Comprehensive Attorney Practice Area Guide
- The Quitting-Law Cure: Pursuing a Career Outside of the Legal Field
Another common decision people make is to pursue a completely different career. If you are unhappy practicing law, the thinking goes, you should try something else. That change may be becoming a writer, a yoga teacher, going to business or medical school, joining a company in a non-legal capacity (often a startup), and more. In short, attorneys not happy practicing law will stop doing what they are doing and pursue completely different careers.
I have these sorts of conversations with attorneys regularly and have been having them as long as I can remember. It is time for you to realize some of the risks you are taking with your life and career as you fantasize about a different life. This may be extremely productive—but also may be extremely risky. If you move your life into something that you are not skilled at, and do not understand, you are doing yourself a real disservice because you may be more suited to the practice of law than you imagine. Having spent years becoming an attorney and (however much time you have spent) working as an attorney, you likely know far more than you imagine. You are very good at what you do even if you do not think you are.
It is important to understand what happens when you do something you are not suited to and how this generally plays out.
When you are doing something you already understand, you tend to know a lot more and are likely far better at it than you realize. Practicing law is something that is not easy. There are all sorts of tricks, maneuvers, social cues and other things that you understand wherever you are practicing that make you unique at what you are doing. You presumably went to law school because you (thought) you had an interest in the subject matter. You did well enough in law school to get a job, and you made an impression on whoever hired you, and they believed you had potential as well. Everything worked out for you because there were things about you that made you look suited to what you are doing. I am not saying you are suited to what you are doing, but there are things about you that made you look quite suited to others.
The longer you have been practicing, the more likely it is that others around you believe you are suited to what you are doing. The longer you have survived, the more likely you are to have good skills for what you are doing. Every day you are learning new skills and becoming more and more adept in a legal environment. You are getting better at your job because you are learning to anticipate issues, avoid problems, and become a more and more effective attorney.
Now keep in mind I am not saying you are not burned out—you may be. I am also not saying you are in the right environment—you may not be. What I am saying is that you are necessarily becoming extremely adept and skilled by doing what you are doing. The longer you practice law, the more you think like a lawyer and are a lawyer.
When lawyers start businesses (other than law firms), they often fail. The way lawyers think is often not that conducive to other lines of work. Lawyers are taught to be plodding, cautious, and to find out what can go wrong. This does not always work in other lines of work. The odds are very good that if you are practicing law and do not have such a profound distaste for it that you quit after a year or two, that you are suited for practicing law, and another career may not be a good idea. Throwing away all of your experience and trying another career is very risky. Once you do this, you most often cannot return. The grass is not always greener, and lots of professions could be more fun, but the risks of walking away from the practice of law are profound and are most likely not the solution to what you are dealing with.
See the following articles for more information:
- 60 Nontraditional Jobs You Can Do with a Law Degree (and Should Strongly Consider Doing)
- 25 Reasons Most Attorneys Hate the Practice of Law and Go Crazy (and What to Do about It)
- Top 11 Non-Legal Careers for Former Lawyers
- Best Non-Legal Jobs (As Told By Ex-Lawyers)
- Why You Should Quit Practicing Law
- Why You Should (and Should Not) Quit the Practice of Law
- Why Do So Many Attorneys Ask "What's the Point?"
- Why Attorneys Often Fail as Businesspeople and Entrepreneurs
- So You Want to Quit Law. Now What?
- Burnout and Anxiety: The Things That Destroy Lawyers
- The Solo-Practice Cure: Starting Their Own Law Firms
Many attorneys decide at some point in their careers that they would prefer to have their own practices. The earlier you make this decision and do this, the worse. To learn most practice areas and become proficient at them requires at least five years. To learn how to bring in clients and become proficient at that can take even longer. Attorneys who start their practices without business, or serious legal training from more experienced attorneys, often never fully develop as attorneys and spend their careers doing small matters that barely pay the bills. Several of them fail. It is one thing to sit down at your desk and do legal work. It is something else entirely to run a business, do marketing, bring in clients, and succeed at this.
Starting your practice may be a cure for the unhappiness you feel practicing law, and many attorneys do prefer it—especially when they have clients. Nevertheless, it is difficult to make a good living with your practice. First, you typically will be doing work for small clients who do not have the money to pay large legal bills. Second, you do not have the brand to command work from large clients. Third, it is difficult for most small firm attorneys to get work as well. Most attorneys from large law firms that start their own practices end up very discouraged.
Unless you have the experience to know what you are doing, the connections to bring work over, and an understanding of how to generate significant business, starting your own practice is often very dangerous to your career. Once someone starts their own practice, law firms most often will not want anything to do with them because they realize the attorney is likely to leave (and potentially take clients with them), like before. If you show by your actions you are unhappy with the law firm environment, law firms will not want you in the future.
See the following articles for more information:
- Should You Start Your Own Law Firm? Top 10 Reasons to Start or Not Start Your Own Firm
- Starting a Law Firm as a Solo Practitioner
- Planning to Have a Solo Practice after Law School: How Realistic Is It?
In most instances, the unhappy law firm attorney is unhappy because they are: (1) in the wrong law firm environment; (2) allowing their ego and need to impress others to dominate their thinking; (3) suffering from the-grass-is-always-greener line of thinking; (4) not committed to being an attorney; (5) not realizing that they have unique skills and abilities as attorneys; and (6) lacking in confidence due to being in the wrong law firm environment for too long.
This is crazy.
You need to get in the right environment, stop caring what others think, stop admiring other environments, commit to your job, realize what you are good at, and fix your confidence.
I realize this is easier said than done—but this is the issue, and it explains your wanderlust. Of all the things that are most easily fixable, I believe your commitment is the most important thing that you should fix. Without a commitment to your present situation, you will end up with a career that never really goes anywhere and where the rewards for your efforts are met with less and less enthusiasm from the legal market. That is your future if you do not decide on a course for your career and commit to it now.
See the following articles for more information:
- Why Most Attorneys Are Depressed and Unhappy
- The Only Way to Be Happy Practicing Law
- Why You Are Unhappy Practicing Law: Soldiers and Generals in Law Firms
- Why Your Ego Is Making You Unhappy Practicing Law and with Your Life
- Why the Best Attorneys Are So Hard on Themselves and Others
- The #1 Attorney Career Killer That Attorneys Are Never Taught
- The Most Important Characteristic Attorneys Need to Succeed and Why It Is Almost Impossible for Them to Keep It
Share Your Thoughts
Are you truly happy in the law firm environment you’re in right now? Why or why not?
Did you end up in the practice area you thought you would be in law school?
Do you prefer practicing law in a law firm, in-house, the government, or at a public interest firm?
Share your responses to these questions and your thoughts about how to be a happy attorney in the comments below.
About Harrison Barnes
Harrison Barnes is the founder of BCG Attorney Search and a successful legal recruiter. Harrison 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.