Summary: This article reveals the reasons lawyers are not long term employees.
Law firms are more concerned whether you will enjoy working for them than your qualifications. Getting in the door is about your qualifications (mostly). Getting a job is about whether or not the law firm believes you will be happy working there.
There are, believe it or not, attorneys out there that are likely to be happy virtually whatever law firm they go to. There are also attorneys that are likely to be unhappy whatever law firm they go to.
Which one are you?
When I review resumes of attorneys each day and see how law firms react to each resume, after you get beyond the obvious qualifications of the attorney, what I am looking for is the same thing law firms are looking for: Attorneys who will be happy wherever they go.
In my own experience hiring people for my company, the people who were at their last jobs ten years or longer, in most cases lasted the same number of years (or longer) with me. In contrast, the people who lasted one or two years at their prior employers tended to stay the same amount of time with me.
The people who lasted the longest all manage to get along through ups and downs. They commit and give as much as they can. They are honest, tend not to gossip and are secure. Instead of finding reasons for their job not working for them, they find ways to make it work. They are advanced because they are committed and they commit. Law firms want to hire people like this.
In contrast, the people who do not last all tend to commit at first and then start finding fault and reasons to be unhappy (usually within six months or so). They start gossiping, finding reasons to be unhappy, being critical of supervisors, management and others and feeling like all sorts of things are wrong with their jobs and the people around them. These people then start looking for other jobs and then do this at their next jobs as well. Law firms do not want to hire people like this.
The attorney who commits and makes things work wherever they go is someone likely to be happy. Law firms like these sorts of attorneys because they know this attorney is going to be predictable, bill hours, not rock the boat and make the law firm function predictably. The law firm will be in control. These attorneys do well. Even without business, this sort of attorney is often made partner in major law firms in every city. I’ve seen this time and time again—law firms respect the people that do not gossip, put their head down, are pleasant to be around and work hard. Law firms do not want the opposite. One is a good employee, and the other is not.
When the good employee is elevated to a partnership role, the people around this employee all say good things about them and that they are happy for them. People want to do nice things for the people that work hard, are committed and make their workplace a good place to work. Do good employees lose jobs and have other issues and get taken advantage of? Of course, they do. However, more often than not these sorts of people are not taken advantage of and end up doing well. The smartest law firms hire them and keep them because they are good for the organization and law firms can recognize these sorts of people on paper and in person relatively quickly and easily.
One reason law firms are so concerned with you being happy is because they need you to sit down, bill hours, and project stability to clients. They also want other attorneys in the firm to be happy, and they know that one unhappy attorney will rock the boat. One of the reasons that law firms fail and have issues is because they hire too many attorneys that are unhappy and unstable. Law firm mergers of two law firms in trouble often are horrible ideas because they are mergers of two groups of unhappy attorneys that make each other even unhappier. Law firms that are having issues often hire far too many unhappy attorneys, and this exacerbates the problems they have. The death spiral of a law firm often comes when it starts hiring unhappy attorneys.
I am not sure why some people are happy, and others are not. I think it has a lot to do with the sort of person you are deep down. Here are some of the ways that law firms can tell you are likely to be happy wherever you go and some that are not.
How a Law Firm Can Tell You Are Likely to be Happy Wherever You Go
You Have a Long Period of Stability at Your Last Law Firm Employer
If you lasted five or more years at your last employer, the odds are you will last as long (or longer) at your new employer too. An attorney who can last a long time with a single employer can do so because of a lot of factors.
First, the attorney needs to be able to get along with people in the firm and be liked by them. The law firm will not keep the attorney around for long if they do not like them and the attorney will not stay around for long if they are not liked. Therefore, the fact that the attorney has been at their firm a long time is generally a sign that the attorney has good social skills for the office setting.
Second, the law firm will not keep the attorney around for long if they do not do good work. Attorneys are kept around and stay at the firm for a long period only to the extent they do good work and other attorneys continually give them work to do. Attorneys who are at an employer for a long period tend to do good work.
Third, most attorneys in large law firms are constantly solicited by recruiters, friends in other firms and others to move firms. If an attorney has been at a law firm a long time, they are likely loyal and the sorts of attorneys likely to not respond to solicitations and be interested in staying where they are and not moving for trivial reasons.
You Are Moving Back to the Area of the Country You Grew Up in After Years Working for a Law Firm in Another Region of the Country
Law firms tend to be very receptive to attorneys relocating back to their home market after years living and working in another area of the country. The reason for this is that attorneys who are relocating home are doing so for reasons that suggest stability—they want to be closer to family and are likely to stay if they are relocating back to where they are from. Anything that suggests stability, staying power and commitment is attractive to law firms. The candidate returning home is so attractive to law firms that I often suggest they reach out to places that do not even have openings—the majority of law firms that hire lateral attorneys relocating do so without them even having an opening.
Another attractive thing to law firms is when the same attorneys are relocating back home their reasons for leaving their firm are unlikely to be related to any issues with their performance at their firm. When an attorney is moving firms in their existing market, there is always a suspicion that there might be issues with the attorney’s performance, ability to get along with others, or stability. In contrast, when an attorney is returning to their home market to be close to family, their reasons for relocating are most often not performance related.
You Are Leaving Your Firm Because of Extenuating Circumstances at Your Employer
Extenuating circumstances include things such as an office closing down, a practice area being eliminated, partners who formerly gave you work leaving or retiring, the loss of a major firm client and other major issues beyond your control. If your reasons for leaving are sufficiently dire and serious, a law firm is likely to look positively on you are someone who is likely to be stable in their next position.
Circumstances do not include things like too much work, a failure to pay high market salaries, to poor morale at the firm due to a few issues and other things that are not that serious. All law firms have various issues on an ongoing basis, and if you leave at the first sign of trouble, the odds are you will do the same at your next firm as well. Law firms are looking for people that will commit and stay there for the long term.
You Are More Concerned About What You Can Contribute that What You Can Get
When a law firm interviews an attorney, they can quickly tell if they are more concerned with what they can contribute than what is done for them in exchange. This comes across in the questions you ask about salary, benefits, working at home, time off, perks and other things that may indicate you are more concerned with yourself than contributing to the success of the group. From a primal point of view, law firms are groups of people, and as groups, they are about supporting each other. Anytime someone seems excessively out for their self-interest, the odds are these people will be seen as people the group cannot count on.
Attorneys come across as more interested in the group when they do not ask self-serving questions and are more likely to ask about the work they would be doing and express enthusiasm for the work as well. Your mindset needs to be group oriented and when it is law firms tend to be much more interested in you and believe you will stay. The attorney more interested in themselves is always going to be evaluating their self-interest over the groups and will conclude their self-interest benefits them leaving each successive firm they go to because someone offers something a little bit better.
Your Resume And Interviews Do Not Scream You Have Anything to Prove
Attorneys with something to prove do not do well in most law firms. The law firm is too conformist for the most part. An attorney with something to prove will frequently go “over the top” on their resume about various achievements and other things they have done in the past. While there is nothing wrong with achievement and this is a good thing if someone has something to prove they will frequently not stay around for long in a law firm because law firms tend not to give very much positive feedback at all.
You Do Not Say Negative Things About Former Employers
An attorney who says negative things about former employers blames others for the issues they are having in their jobs and not themselves. If an attorney has criticisms about their former employers, they will likely have criticisms of their new employer as well and end up leaving due to these criticisms.
Your Orientation Comes Across as More Group-Oriented that Personal Oriented
An attorney who is group oriented is likely to be more interested in others than themselves. The group-oriented attorney gets their identity from a sense of belonging and contribution to the group. These sorts of attorneys tend to do quite well in law firms and be happy there.
You Have Concrete, Solid Reasons for Wanting to be a Law Firm Attorney
Attorneys that are good fits for law firms most often have strong reasons for wanting to work in law firms. Their parents might have been attorneys, they may have wanted to be attorneys since they were young, or there were some events in their life that solidified their desire to be a law firm attorney. Regardless of the reasons, someone who wants to be a law firm attorney is likely to have staying power inside of a law firm.
Your Resume Does Not Look Like You Aspire to Do Anything Else With Your Career
Attorneys with stuff on their resume that looks overly entrepreneurial, public interest-oriented, government-oriented, or far removed from the practice of law, are unlikely to be good fits for law firms because they are more likely to gravitate back to these interests instead of working in the law firm. Law firms want to hire people who are likely to stay there, put their heads down and be happy there.
The Firm You Are Trying to Move to Represents Something Important to You
Many attorneys dream of moving and working in certain law firms—and have for some time. For some attorneys it could be working in the best firm in their city, for others, it could be working at the firm with the best practice area for the sort of work the attorney does. Regardless, if the firm the attorney is trying to move to represents something significant to the attorney the attorney might very well be quite happy moving there.
How a Law Firm Can Tell You Are Unlikely to Be Happy Wherever You Go
An Attorney Who Has Gaps of Unemployment on Their Resume is Not Unlikely to Be Happy Wherever they Go
If an attorney has gaps of unemployment on their resume, they are unlikely to be happy wherever they go. Unemployment means one of a few things: Either the attorney does not need to work, does not want to work, or is not being let work (by a law firm that let them go). None of these are good things.
I’ve seen attorneys decide they are no longer interested in working and take several months off before starting to look for a new job again. In almost all instances, these attorneys get poor reception in the market when they are interested in looking for a new position. Once an attorney starts working in a law firm, the rule is that they are expected to continue working there indefinitely with no gaps of unemployment. It is as simple as that.
If an attorney does not need to work, they rarely are interested in the hours, stress and difficulties often associated with working inside of a law firm. These sorts of attorneys rarely stay very long.
If an attorney does not want to work in the law firm and takes time off for that reason, this is generally a “non-starter” because these sorts of attorneys are almost always unhappy when they return. For whatever reason, attorneys who take a break from the law firm world and come back very rarely stay very long and are most often unhappy and leave within a short period. Even a gap as short as a few months is often fatal. Once an attorney leaves a law firm voluntarily and decides not to work for awhile, they have made their priorities clear. Law firms expect that the priority of every attorney is working—it should take precedence over everything else.
An attorney who is not working because they were laid off, fired, or something of the sort, is also unlikely to be happy in their next position. An attorney who has lost a job often goes into their new position overly sensitive that something will go wrong in their next position as well and they will lose that job. They tend to be defensive, slightly angry and worried they will lose their next position. This defensiveness they bring to their next position creates a situation where they will likely be unhappy and suspicious of the people giving them work. Due to this defensiveness, law firms frequently avoid these sorts of attorneys under the belief they will be unhappy.
An Attorney Who Goes In-House is Not Likely to be Happy in a Law Firm
An attorney who goes in-house is voting with their feet. If an attorney goes in house they are going to be likely to be unhappy once they return to a law firm. Attorneys who leave law firms to go in-house most frequently do so because they want less work, stress and a different sort of practice setting—i.e., they. Law firms know that if they hire these attorneys back again, they are unlikely to be happy when they return and will leave for another in-house (or similar) opportunity that is not a law firm in the future. Once an attorney goes in-house, unless they can bring a lot of work back with them, the odds are very slim that the attorney will be happy once they return: The same reasons the attorney left the law firm before will motivate the attorney to leave again.
An Attorney Who Switches Firms Every Few Years is Not Likely to be Happy Wherever they Go
Once an attorney has moved firms a few times, they are not likely to be happy wherever they end up next. There are generally good reasons for moving firms, and many attorneys move for the right reasons. However, many attorneys move because they find fault with, or cannot get along in, different environments they end up in.
Attorneys who are “serial movers” often switch firms a lot because they (1) do not do good work and get criticized for it, (2) they have social problems within their firms, (3) they are looking for something from a law firm that does not exist, (4) they find reasons to be unhappy in each law firm they go to, (5) they enjoy the process of moving—interviewing, moving to a new firm and meeting new people.
Regardless of the reasons a serial mover switches firms a lot, they almost always will repeat their pattern of constantly switching firms at the next firm they join as well. This is what serial movers do. Law firms want to avoid these types of attorneys because they will do the same thing with their next firm as well in most instances. Even if there are good explanations for each move, law firms often do not buy these after some time.
An Attorney Who is Interested in Switching Practice Areas is not Likely to be Happy Wherever they Go
If an attorney is interested in switching practice areas and is moving for that reason, they likely want a change because they are unhappy with the practice of law in general. While I have seen this work for the attorney and new law firm, in most instances if an attorney switches practice areas their legal career will not last long. The attorney who switches practice areas typically will not be happy in that practice area either and will often only practice law a few more years.
Attorneys interested in switching practice areas rarely get interest from new law firms—regardless of the strength of their qualifications.
An Attorney With a Series of Moves to Smaller and Smaller Firms is Not Likely to Be Happy Wherever they Go
Attorneys often start in large law firms and then move to a smaller law firm, and then a smaller one after that. These moves are often motivated by a desire for fewer hours, fewer politics and a more “collegial” environment. However, once an attorney has done this a few times, it becomes obvious to each successive firm that they are not likely to work out either.
An Attorney With a Strong Entrepreneurial Bent is Not Likely to be Happy Wherever they Go
While starting and running a law firm is certainly an entrepreneurial activity, law firms are not interested in hiring people with a strong interest in business. Attorneys with interest in business are likely to leave their law firm and start businesses. Law firms want to hire soldiers and people who will do the work and bring in work—not attorneys interested in starting businesses. Attorneys with a strong interest in business are almost never likely to be happy working in law firms.
An Attorney Who Does Not Aspire to Be a Partner in a Law Firm is Unlikely to be Happy in a Law Firm
If an attorney does not have an interest in being a partner in a law firm, the odds are they will not be happy in a law firm. The entire structure of a law firm is dependent upon people working hard for the prospect of advancing. If the attorney does not aspire to be a partner in the law firm they are joining, they will constantly be looking for something else outside of a law firm and never commit. Not being committed, they will not work as hard as they otherwise would and contribute as much as an attorney interested in advancement.
An Attorney Who is Moving Firms for Trivial Reasons is Unlikely to be Happy Wherever they Go
Attorneys who have trivial reasons for moving that does not sound serious to the law firm are unlikely to be happy regardless of the law firm they join. The attorney will find trivial reasons to leave the next firm as well. This is why one of the most important things that law firms consider is your reasons for wanting to join them.
An Attorney Who Says Negative Things About their Current or Past Employer is Unlikely to be Happy Wherever they Go
If an attorney has negative things to say about their current (or former) employer, they will likely have issues with their next employer as well and find reasons to be unhappy there. Law firms want to hire people that are able to be happy wherever they go and do not find fault with their environments.
An Attorney Who Has Ever Sued a Former Law Firm is Unlikely to be Happy Wherever they Go
Once an attorney chooses to sue a former employer, they will almost always have issues getting another position with a law firm. Law firms will avoid them under the belief that they may be unhappy there as well.
An Attorney With a Consistent Substance Abuse Issues is Unlikely to be Happy Wherever they Go
Attorneys with consistent substance abuse issues that interfere with their work are likely to be unhappy wherever they go. While lots of attorneys have issues with various substances, attorneys with substance abuse issues often get quite depressed from using these substances, and this leads to them also being upset with their jobs.
An Attorney Who Aggressively Negotiates Salary is Unlikely to be Happy Wherever they Go
When a law firm is hiring an attorney, if the attorney starts aggressively negotiating their salary, the attorney is likely to be unhappy with their position in the firm in the future. While almost every attorney is interested in receiving the best salary possible, attorneys who aggressively negotiate and nitpick on various salary issues when they are hired initially are likely to do this with their salary and other issues in the future. Because others in the firm and other firms will always be better compensated that this attorney, the attorney is likely to be unhappy in the future as well when they are not compensated well.
An Attorney Who Wants a Reduced Schedule is Unlikely to be Happy Wherever they Go
Attorneys who want reduced schedules often do not last long in law firms—even when they get reduced schedules. While I have certainly seen attorneys on reduced schedules succeed in law firms—and they can—for the most part, this does not work. There are many reasons for this; however, the attorney on a reduced schedule often ends up being treated differently by the law firm and resented. Once the attorney starts to feel like they are being treated differently and negatively, they become unhappy with the law firm and their position in it. I have placed several attorneys in reduced schedule positions in the past, and most of them do not end up lasting long at their new firm. There are exceptions to this, of course, but once an attorney is anything less than fully committed to a law firm they tend not to be happy there.
An Attorney With Jobs on Their Resume that Have Nothing to Do with Practicing Law Since Graduating from Law School is Unlikely to be Happy Wherever they Go
Attorneys that have done things other than practice law since graduating from law school are unlikely to be happy in a law firm. While there are exceptions to this if an attorney has interests that are greater than working in a law firm they are unlikely to be happy inside of a law firm. Attorneys that do best in law firms tend to have prioritized working in a law firm above all other things.
Your Resume Shows a Pattern of Belonging to Organizations that Are Concerned With Numerous Right Wing or Left Wing Causes
While many law firm environments are becoming increasingly politicized, attorneys that have strong interests in various political issues will often find reasons to be unhappy inside of law firms. For many attorneys, their political and social beliefs take priority over their interest in practicing law. If an attorney is more concerned with things other than their position in a law firm, they are unlikely to be happy for very long.
You Want to Move to a Given Area of the Country Because You Have Romanticized the Lifestyle and People There
It is very common for attorneys from all over the country to be interested in places like Colorado, Seattle, Portland and other areas they believe are associated with a given lifestyle. Attorneys increasingly move to areas like these because they believe that life working in a law firm there will be different. This is simply not the case. Law firms (especially large ones) are quite similar in every area of the country. When people make geographic moves expecting they will be happier practicing law in a new area, they are frequently disappointed once they reach the new area and discover that the profession of practicing law is no different there either. Moving to a different part of the country does not change what it means to work in a law firm.
You Want to Move to a Smaller Firm Because You Believe that it Will Mean Fewer Hours, More Responsibility, or Something of the Sort
Attorneys also often move to smaller law firms because they believe it will change things for them—they will have fewer hours, more responsibility, or have other beliefs about what will come of this. While there is often some truth to this, in the majority of cases (not all) attorneys are disappointed when they make these moves and discover that things are no different at the new firm either.
Your Reasons for Wanting to Leave Your Current Employer are Rather Trivial
If an attorney has trivial reasons for wanting to leave their current firm, they are likely to have trivial reasons for wanting to leave the next firm as well. They will find reasons to be unhappy there too.
You Only Want to Do a Certain Type of Work
If an attorney is dead set on only doing a certain type of work, they are likely to be unhappy when they are required to do work other than the work they want to do. Law firms are businesses, and as businesses, they survive by doing the work they need to make money. When an attorney demands that they only do a certain type of work and is upset about having to do other types of work, this is a sign they are not a team player, and this creates difficulties.
You Were Fired From Your Last Job and Are Unemployed
If an attorney has lost a job and is unemployed, they are likely to be angry at their next employer as well. In almost every instance I have seen where a fired attorney is hired by a new firm, that attorney ends up “firing” their new law firm as well and quitting, or creating issues once there. This does not always happen but often does.
Anytime a law firm gets an attorney’s application, they want to see if they can make arguments for not hiring the attorney. In most cases, the attorneys who end up getting hired are the ones who have the fewest arguments that can be made against hiring them. Law firms want to hire people, but most often it is difficult for them to do so because there are too many arguments that can be made against hiring each attorney. While the list above is quite extensive, these are many of the reasons that law firms find for not hiring attorneys that would otherwise be qualified on paper for jobs.
One of the unfortunate things about the decision to practice law is that you are in a profession with lots of competition—law schools have been pumping out far more good attorneys into the job market for decades, and most law firms have tons of options when it comes to hiring people. Law firms have no incentive to hire you when they can find people who are likely to be happy and not unhappy with the job.
What reasons do you have for not being happy at your law firm job? In your view, is happiness the most important factor in a law firm job? What options do you believe one has to stay at a law firm even if they’re not happy?