Harrison Barnes' Legal Career Advice Podcast - Episode 36
- Many attorneys believe that if they do well in law school, get a good job and work hard, they will have happy and successful law firm careers.
- Failure is far more likely than success.
- Most attorneys put a ton of work into becoming attorneys, working in law firms, and failing.
- It is not called failure, of course. Most of the time, it is something else.
Many attorneys believe that if they do well in law school, get a good job and work hard, they will have happy and successful law firm careers. Failure is far more likely than success.
Most attorneys put a ton of work into becoming attorneys, working in law firms, and failing. It is not called failure, of course. Most of the time, it is something else.
- Your failure could occur by the law school you choose to attend.
- Your failure could happen when you do not do well in law school.
- Your failure could occur when you are a summer associate in a law firm.
- Your failure could happen when you are a first-year in a law firm.
- Your failure could occur five, ten, twenty, or thirty years down the line.
Regardless, there are so many factors you will be unable to control that your odds of failure are much higher than your odds for success.
I have met talented attorneys several times in my legal career who lost control over their legal careers. They often do so through minimal fault of their own or simply because they could not process what was happening to them in the best way. I have seen many attorneys go to prison who had top law firm and law school credentials. I have seen countless attorneys die prematurely. However, most frequently, I have seen attorneys give up or quit law firms, or quit law entirely.
For the most part, attorneys and future attorneys believe that the negative things that happen to others will not happen to them. From what I have seen, though, this belief is wrong. Bad things do happen to a lot of attorneys, and many people cannot control what happens and need to be aware and ready for these things.
The world is a meritocracy where the people who work the hardest and do the best succeed. However, the legal profession is not a complete meritocracy. Instead, many things happen that you simply have no control over and can do profound and immediate harm to your legal career inside a law firm. This article discusses many of these things.
- Why Your Attorney Mind Self Sabotages Your Life and Career
- Another Lawyer Suicide: How the Psychology of Being a Big Firm Lawyer Can Tear You Down
- Seven Reasons Why Practicing Law Might Be More Stressful Than Spending 18 Months in a POW Camp
Ⅰ. You Will Never Be Able to Control The Economic Equation Inside of Law Firms
Law firms are relatively simple businesses when it comes to their relationship with attorneys. They hire the highest quality labor they can to work at the lowest price to produce legal services for paying clients. There will always be downward pressure on wages in any law firm. The more people there are like you, the less they can pay.
Law firms want to hire the best human machines they can to do the most work they can at the lower possible price.
The type of machine you are is determined by the schools you've attended and your academic performance. Other factors are your work history, your intelligence, personality, looks, connections, and age. Law firms prefer "newer" machines because they will work harder, for a lower cost, than older machines. Law firms like machines that do not break down and do not complain. The more money you want to make in a law firm, the better a machine you should be.
Law firms also expect attorneys as they get older to bring in business. If you do not bring in business, you will most likely lose your job when you get more senior. These are "special" machines, and firms keep these machines around but pay them as little as possible. But they need to pay them more than "average" machines. As long as you bring in far more than the law firm pays you, you will be useful as a machine.
Law firms continually raise partners' billing rates, and, in turn, partners need to sell this to clients to keep them.
This economic equation inside of law firms creates profound anxiety for the attorneys working there. There is always massive downward pressure on what a law firm wants to pay its attorneys due to this economic equation.
Attorneys who do not produce lots of excess profit and bill the most hours are always in danger of losing their jobs. Law firms are continually letting attorneys go without enough hours. This "culling of the herd" happens at all law firms. Attorneys are so aware of the importance of having lots of hours that they often leave the firm when their hours are down before being asked to leave.
An attorney is always getting older and at risk of being unseated by younger attorneys. As an attorney gets older, there will always be hungrier and more enthusiastic people coming up behind them. An attorney's job is constantly threatened by other attorneys who are willing to produce more for less money.
Law firms want to produce the highest quality work they can at the lowest price they can. This constant pressure on you is something that will never go away and will be with you for your entire career. Law firms expect you to work as many hours as you can and contribute more than your peers. Most attorneys that leave law firms complain about the hours, the work, and so forth, seek to go in-house where they hope they are not measured the same way.
If you are a partner, you need to bring in as much work as possible, do as much of that work as you can, and accept the firm's money. Most partners fight with firms about money and pay, which causes departures to successive firms—and unhappiness. Most partners that leave law firms to go in-house do so because they do not like fighting about origination credit, steadily increasing billing rates that make it difficult for them to keep clients, and the pressure to bill more and more hours.
- Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Law Firm Compensation Plans
- How Can a Partner Make a Lateral Move Without a Book of Business?
- The 'Dark Side' of Going In-house
Ⅱ. You Will Never Be Able to Control Your Natural Talent
As an attorney, you are either going to have natural talent and be very good at what you do—or not. Your natural talent will be evident to some extent in how well you can do on tests like the LSAT and get good grades in law school. Some attorneys have this natural talent, and others do not. If you go into the legal profession without this skill, you can do well, but you will be severely limited in how far you can advance.
Lawyers need to be able to understand complex ideas and out-think and maneuver other attorneys. These are not abilities that everyone has naturally. Understanding how to process information is a crucial skill that attorneys need to be successful. It is something many attorneys do not have. If you do not have these abilities, other attorneys with better skills will eat you alive.
You can learn to practice law, and some attorneys pick up the mechanics of the profession at a different pace than others. Nevertheless, if you do not have a fair degree of natural talent, you will never be as successful as possible. Your advancement, ability to do good work, attract and hold on to clients—and more—will be affected by your natural talent.
If you do not have a fair degree of natural talent at practicing law, you are no different than someone with no athletic ability trying to play a sport. You will not do as well as you could in a profession where you have natural talent. While there is a place for attorneys of all skill levels in some firms, you will never get very far if you do not have some natural talent in law practice. There are too many other players out there, and unless you are talented, they will quickly overwhelm you. You will not serve your clients, or yourself well playing the game inside law firms.
While you may be employable despite a lack of natural talent, you will be the most dispensable. You will be the one most likely to lose your job. And you will have the hardest time maintaining a long-term career in the legal field. You will be fighting an uphill battle unless you can carve out a niche for yourself.
Another component of talent is your interest and enthusiasm for whatever it is you are doing. The more enthusiastic you are and interested in what you are doing, the better off you will be. You cannot be interested in and enthusiastic about something you do not like or enjoy.
Ⅲ. You Will Never Be Able to Control Human Mistakes and Vulnerabilities Completely
An attorney I know is in jail and going to federal prison for several years. I met her when she was looking for a job. She had been in an unfortunate auto accident, was injured, and was prescribed pain pills. She never had drunk or used drugs before this. She had graduated from the University of Chicago Law School and worked in a series of top law firms. She became addicted to pain pills and could not stop. She started buying the pills on the "dark web" and started committing financial crimes to buy them. She lost her job, her husband divorced her, and she lost custody of her child.
Her career is over.
While this sort of example may sound extreme, I have seen this sort of thing often happen to attorneys—and it is not just drugs and life events. Your career can be over and sidetracked for various reasons that may be as innocent as some of the following I have seen in the past few years:
- A first-year attorney tells a young partner that doing a particular assignment is unnecessary. He is fired and blackballed in the legal community three months into his career.
- A father takes a "paternity leave" for three weeks and returns to a major firm as a tenth-year associate. He is never given another assignment and gives up trying to become a partner and goes in-house.
- An attorney is fired for forgetting to attach a signature paper to a discovery response.
- An attorney sleeps in and is late for a deal and is fired and cannot get another job.
- A partner had an affair with a paralegal several years ago. When this comes out during the middle of the MeToo movement, he loses his job. He is blackballed nationally despite having a huge book of business.
- The head of a practice group at a large law firm has too much to drink and insults another attorney in the firm. He is fired and cannot find another job.
- An attorney posts a negative comment on an online discussion thread about his firm. He does not realize his firm has screen recording software on his computer, and he gets fired for this.
- A partner is fired from a major law firm and blackballed because the jeans he wears on "casual Friday" have a rip he is unaware of that shows his underwear.
As discussed earlier, law firms expect attorneys to be "machines." As machines, the most valuable ones are those that do not have problems—or cause problems. When you work in a law firm, all sorts of things can happen. You can make mistakes in your personal and professional life that can sidetrack your legal career.
- Why You Should Never Say Anything Negative about Your Former Employer as an Attorney
- 10 Biggest Career Mistakes Big Law Firm Attorneys Make (and 10 Ways to Survive in a Big Firm)
Ⅳ. You Will Never Be Able to Control Recessions in the Legal Market
Like clockwork, every eight to ten years, a major recession hits the legal market.
There was a big one in 2000 through 2002—first with the dot com meltdown and then after 9/11.
There was another big recession in 2008 until 2010 brought on by subprime lending, a credit crisis, and so forth.
Another recession occurred in 2020 with the Coronavirus.
When recessions occur, it becomes tough for new attorneys to find jobs, young attorneys to hold on to jobs, and partners holding on to business. Specific practice areas such as corporate typically fare the worst during legal recessions. Many attorneys leave law firms and try and find places that are more recession-proof such as the government. As money and opportunity become scarce, attorneys who lose their jobs have difficulty finding new positions.
Attorneys that start their legal careers during recessions often never fully recover. They may have offers to work in large law firms that are canceled when recessions occur. These attorneys then go to work in smaller law firms where they do less sophisticated work. They never advance to working in larger law firms again.
When there is a recession in the legal market, all bets are off. You cannot control this.
- What an Attorney Should Do to Protect their Career if (1) You Are Worried About a Recession, (2) This is a Recession, or (3) a Major Slowdown in Work at Your Firm (or in Your Practice Area)
- BCG's Top 10 Reasons Partners Should Move During a Recession
Ⅴ. Advancement or Demotion Are Difficult to Control for Many Attorneys Because they Are Often Random
For most young attorneys, advancement in a law firm means becoming a partner. For others, it may mean earning more money than their partners earn. Or becoming an equity partner instead of an income partner, or advancing from an associate to a counsel role, or from a staff attorney to an associate attorney. At the same time, people with titles inside law firms are always nervous about losing their titles. An equity partner is always at risk of losing their title and being demoted to an income partner, or counsel.
The problem with advancement and protecting against demotion is that it is challenging to predict what will happen to you. The person who makes partner in a law firm may not be the most talented, but the person who bills the most hours for the most years. The person who advances to a partner may not be the person who even bills the most hours. They could be connected with someone in the firm who has the most political weight. Other advancement decisions may be made based on trying to correct social imbalances.
At the same time, demotions can happen for all sorts of reasons beyond our control. A law firm could merge with another law firm, and we could be demoted or asked to leave. There is too much we cannot control in the average law firm that determines whether we advance. We may succeed for a time but then be unseated by a rival.
- Never Focus on the Money: Focus on Your Higher Purpose and Contribution
- Is the Demotion of Partners Becoming a Legal Industry Trend?
Ⅵ. An Attorney Cannot Control the Success of Their Law Firm
Attorneys can work hard and contribute business to their law firm, but no individual attorney can control their firm's success. Law firms make all sorts of financial and other mistakes that create problems for their attorneys. Law firms lease too much office space. Or enter into agreements to pay their partners too much money. They sometimes get firm-ending malpractice verdicts. They open too many branch offices. Or get embroiled in scandals. Or they take on too much debt. Or do not prevent mass departures of groups of partners with large books of business. The brand and presumed market strength of a law firm is often no bar to any of this occurring—it can, and does, happen to the best of them.
I have known countless attorneys who joined law firms they believed would be successful. These attorneys thought they were going to do well and have good careers - until they went out of business. Some of these attorneys uprooted their families to move to where these law firms were located. They then found themselves without jobs and with houses they could not sell when the law firm went out of business.
If an attorney joins the right law firm out of school, they may be carried along by the firm's success and do well there. In my career, I worked in three law firms – two large New York law firms that went out of business and one Los Angeles law firm that took off.
When I was in law school, I worked at a law firm called Reid & Priest. I almost moved to New York to work for when my clerkship ended. It is a good thing I did not because the law firm (which was one of the oldest law firms in New York) went out of business. Then I joined a law firm called Quinn Emanuel after my clerkship with 50 attorneys at the time I joined. That law firm took off and made many, many people very successful. Then I joined a law firm called Dewey Ballantyne, another very old law firm from New York that went out of business.
Two-thirds of the law firms I could have cast my lot with failed, and others succeeded.
Ⅶ. An Attorney Can Often Not Control Their Luck
Much of your success (or failure) as an attorney is due to luck—luck you can control to some extent, but not completely. Getting a job in the right law firm is often due to chance. Getting the right client can be luck. Getting the right mentor can be luck. Even finding this article giving you all of these rules (if you use them) is a matter of luck.
Several years ago, I was working with an attorney who was looking for a job. She was a senior associate at a large law firm in Chicago. She was looking for a new job because she did not have any business and knew she would need to find a new job shortly. A few weeks into our search, she was at a networking event for African American attorneys. She met the general counsel of one of the largest corporations in the United States that invited her to submit a proposal to do some work for the company. He explained they needed more outside counsel who was African American. Within a few months, she was giving their firm over $10,000,000 in business a year. A short while later, she was made an equity partner in their law firm. If she had not been at the right place at the right time, this never would have happened.
Many times inside a law firm, your success and advancement are contingent on working with the right person at the right time. If you have the right mentor, that person can often advance you, and if you do not, you may be out of luck. Your law firm may lose attorneys in your practice area. This may create an opening for you to become a partner, or take over a book of business – you just do not know. There are so many luck factors that determine what happens to you.
When I speak with successful partners inside the best law firms, I am often surprised at how lucky they were. They may have been hired as associates by a partner in their late 50s and then given a large business book when that partner retired. Had they been hired when that partner was in their 30s or 40s, they may never have succeeded. Other attorneys are fortunate to be in the right practice area at the right time and place. Or in the right legal market, or they may have succeeded in bringing in a specific type of case.
So much in your legal career is dependent on luck, and it is often the sort of luck that you cannot control. You can make your luck, but luck is also something that you cannot predict one way or another.
Ⅷ. You Will Never Be Able to Control What Happens with Your Practice Area
Attorneys often join practice areas where things happen that they do not have a lot of control over.
When I started in the legal placement business, the hottest practice area was patent prosecution. Large law firms were hungry to get into this practice area, and they were hiring everyone they could. There was a lot of money in it and far more demand for patent attorneys than people who could do the work. Then everyone started going into this. More people went to law school with science backgrounds. Lawyers in third world countries learned to do patents and started offering their services more cheaply. Smaller law firms began offering to do the work at a fixed cost and not billable hour rates. As a result, it became difficult for large law firms to maintain clients.
Large law firms stopped doing as much patent prosecution, and more and more of the work was going to smaller law firms. Large law firms started letting patent attorneys go. It is common for large companies like Microsoft and Amazon to have patent work done by a small law firm or even a single attorney who does the work at a fixed cost.
Large law firms also got very interested in patent litigation, and this became a busy practice area. This practice area was bustling for some time until the Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank Intl decision limited patent trolls' ability to bring cases only to jurisdictions where alleged infringers were located (and not plaintiff-friendly jurisdictions). Once this happened, the volume of these suits went away, and thousands of patent litigators in major firms all over the United States lost their jobs.
As mentioned earlier, corporate work tends to take a significant hit when the economy slows down. Other practice areas such as trademark also do poorly when the economy slows. Traditionally, real estate has done poorly when interest rates are high. Bankruptcy tends to be countercyclical.
The political party in power will often control environmental work (and the lack of it). Democrats typically favor environmental legislation, and Republicans do now.
Your success can be due to your practice area. Your practice area is subject to broader socio-economic forces in the economy that you have no control over.
Ⅸ. You Cannot Control Being in the Right Legal Market at the Right Time
The legal market you are in will have a lot to do with your success.
When gas and oil prices are up, the Texas legal market does well – and when they are down, it does not.
When the economy is doing well, and there is a lot of corporate work, the New York City legal market does well, and when it is not doing well, it does not.
When the tech market is doing well, the Bay Area legal market tends to do well, and when it is not, it does not.
When the automotive market is doing well, the Detroit legal market does well, and when it does not, it does not.
All of this is to say, and you have very little control over what happens in the legal market you join. If you are in the right market at the right time, you may do well, and if you are not, you may not.
Many careers have succeeded based on attorneys being in the right economy at the right time, and others killed off by being in the wrong legal market.
Ⅹ. You Cannot Control Your Natural Political Skills for the Most Part
While you may be able to control how hard you work, and even to some extent, the amount of business you generate in your law firm, you may not ever be able to control your political skills. Much of your advancement, ability to hold on to jobs and get hired for new ones will depend on your political skills—which you may or may not have. People naturally get these skills, pick up from their parents and environments, and either develop over time or do not. Some people have these and others do not.
Your political abilities will, in a broad sense, determine how far you go inside a law firm and how successful you can become. If you do not develop political skills and master this game, you will not be as successful as you might otherwise be.
A great deal of our self-worth and security comes from the work that we do. However, when you choose a law firm's career, a lot of what happens to you is beyond your control. Many attorneys inside law firms experience a great deal of anxiety because there is always so much they cannot control. Things that determine our self-worth and how we perceive ourselves. We are controlled by our political abilities, the economy, where we live and work, the national economy, our practice area, our human weaknesses and mistakes, our luck, and more. Everyone wants financial security, the ability to keep a job and have long-term respect. But in the law firm environment, there is more we cannot control than what we can control.
About Harrison Barnes
Harrison Barnes is the founder of BCG Attorney Search and a successful legal recruiter. He is extremely committed to and passionate about the profession of legal placement. His firm BCG Attorney Search has placed thousands of attorneys. BCG Attorney Search works with attorneys to dramatically improve their careers by leaving no stone unturned in job searches and bringing out the very best in them. Harrison has placed the leaders of the nation’s top law firms, and countless associates who have gone on to lead the nation’s top law firms. There are very few firms Harrison has not made placements with. Harrison’s writings about attorney careers and placements attract millions of reads each year. He coaches and consults with law firms about how to dramatically improve their recruiting and retention efforts. His company LawCrossing has been ranked on the Inc. 500 twice. For more information, please visit Harrison Barnes’ bio.
About BCG Attorney Search
BCG Attorney Search matches attorneys and law firms with unparalleled expertise and drive, while achieving results. Known globally for its success in locating and placing attorneys in law firms of all sizes, BCG Attorney Search has placed thousands of attorneys in law firms in thousands of different law firms around the country. Unlike other legal placement firms, BCG Attorney Search brings massive resources of over 150 employees to its placement efforts locating positions and opportunities its competitors simply cannot. Every legal recruiter at BCG Attorney Search is a former successful attorney who attended a top law school, worked in top law firms and brought massive drive and commitment to their work. BCG Attorney Search legal recruiters take your legal career seriously and understand attorneys. For more information, please visit www.BCGSearch.com.
Harrison Barnes does a weekly free webinar with live Q&A for attorneys and law students each Wednesday at 10:00 am PST. You can attend anonymously and ask questions about your career, this article, or any other legal career-related topics. You can sign up for the weekly webinar here: Register on Zoom
Harrison also does a weekly free webinar with live Q&A for law firms, companies, and others who hire attorneys each Wednesday at 10:00 am PST. You can sign up for the weekly webinar here: Register on Zoom
You can browse a list of past webinars here: Webinar Replays
You can also listen to Harrison Barnes Podcasts here: Attorney Career Advice Podcasts
You can also read Harrison Barnes' articles and books here: Harrison's Perspectives
Harrison Barnes is the legal profession's mentor and may be the only person in your legal career who will tell you why you are not reaching your full potential and what you really need to do to grow as an attorney--regardless of how much it hurts. If you prefer truth to stagnation, growth to comfort, and actionable ideas instead of fluffy concepts, you and Harrison will get along just fine. If, however, you want to stay where you are, talk about your past successes, and feel comfortable, Harrison is not for you.
Truly great mentors are like parents, doctors, therapists, spiritual figures, and others because in order to help you they need to expose you to pain and expose your weaknesses. But suppose you act on the advice and pain created by a mentor. In that case, you will become better: a better attorney, better employees, a better boss, know where you are going, and appreciate where you have been--you will hopefully also become a happier and better person. As you learn from Harrison, he hopes he will become your mentor.
To read more career and life advice articles visit Harrison's personal blog.