The modern lawyer is a mobile creature, with plenty of opportunities across multiple platforms for meaningful employment. She can enter the profession through one door and, over the span of a career, move across different platforms and types of employers, and exit out another door, all with great satisfaction.
A rounded perspective
As an example, over a 32-year career, the author was an associate and partner in two international firms, a federal regulatory and enforcement lawyer, in-house counsel at a major Wall Street firm, owner of a solo practice, and partner in a medium-size litigation boutique. He also served in several leadership positions on the board of a prominent public interest law firm that serves low-income families.
While the platform, clients, perspective and objectives may have changed with each move, the practice (litigation) and subject area expertise (financial services) remained the same. Practicing the same type of law from a number of vantage points helps round out a perspective on how the law operates on each actor or community of persons in a given situation and enables a 360-degree perspective on any issue, which is invaluable for strategy and planning purposes.
Such careers typically evolve through serendipity, by being prepared for an opportunity that presents itself. Ideally, the opportunity represents a step up and step forward on one's career path, even if on a different platform. The key to knowing whether an opportunity in another environment represents a step forward on one's career path requires knowing a bit about oneself, first, and where one hopes and intends to end up. That self-awareness provides a prism through which to see the relative benefits of a given opportunity, and whether it advances some part of one's overall objective. It calls to mind the adage "if you don't know where you're going, how will you know when you're lost?"
In the highly competitive legal environment that prevails in most major U.S cities, lawyers experience and endure all types of complex pressures and feelings. Many will periodically reflect on whether their work still provides motivation and fulfillment. Some will aspire to higher heights, or to derive satisfaction from making a difference in the lives of everyday people, or serving the public good, a pet cause, or even a different, non-legal capacity. And many, if not all, will at some point consider whether to remain in place or look for an alternative environment where they can find renewed inspiration and new opportunity.
This article offers a perspective on life and practice in a number of private law firm environments — small offices, medium firms and large firms — for those who may be reflecting on whether their current position remains the best home for them and their practice, for the long term. Later articles in the series will profile life and practice in government, a corporate in-house legal department, and a public interest law firm.
Solo and small practices
In solo offices and practices of fewer than 10 lawyers a lawyer can have a fluid practice, i.e., one that takes on any matter within the lawyer's areas of competence and set one's own hours and hourly rate. Until the firm becomes known to a particular clientele, or for a particular expertise that helps attract repeat business, the goal is simply to survive and keep the lights on.
The challenge comes in having to be "chief-cook-and-bottle-washer" which, on the practice side, means active marketing to generate business, then servicing and shepherding that business to a favorable outcome for the client - to be considered for future work - and then billing and collecting for work done. On the administrative side, being solo means having to pay all expenses and payroll oneself, identify and form relationships with reliable vendors and service providers, and hope they deliver/perform on time - which can be a process of trial and error.
To be profitable and to help manage an active law practice, a solo or small firm partner needs associates, at least one, and an administrative assistant. Otherwise, the hourly value of the partner's time is squandered on activities performed more cost effectively at the administrative level.
Being solo also means identifying and associating with enough fellow practitioners to be able to have a few good sounding boards when questions, unfamiliar or challenging issues arise, and to make and share referrals and court appearances. Despite the challenges, for those who enjoy wide autonomy and are willing to control costs, scrape and claw — as all start-up founders are sometimes required to do — and establish and adhere to a routine, a solo or small firm can be the height of professional freedom and fulfillment.
Small firms eventually grow into medium firms that can attract the interest of larger firms seeking to add talent to a particular practice, or to establishing a new practice, or an office in a new geography, presenting merger or acquisition opportunities.
Medium firms of 15-50 lawyers are small enough for everyone to know one another, yet large enough to have multiple sources of revenue, i.e., multiple clients, repeat clients or multiple partners with clients. At this size, a firm is likely more widely known in the community, providing more stability than a solo or small practice.
While medium firms are less subject to the risk of immediate instability from the loss of a single client or lawyer, as might impact a solo or small firm, they are subject to the constant threat of talent loss. This is because they have to compete for talent with bigger firms that usually have more to offer. This can be a hindrance for medium firms vying for significant or high-profile engagements.
Yet, because life in a medium firm can entail fewer formal commitments and allow for more time away from the office than bigger firms, it has those advantages for practitioners seeking greater work-life balance. Other potential downsides of medium firms are that they may offer lower compensation than peers in larger firms and the possibility that the firm is later acquired by or merges with a larger firm that then changes the equation and working conditions.
Large firms, those ranging from 50 to 7,000+ lawyers, aka "Big Law," is the target destination for a lot of graduating law students and aspiring young lawyers, and for some senior lawyers as well, all of whom are in search of the elusive brass ring — equity partnership and the financial security it brings. Big Law firms pay higher compensation, often have prominent citizens, former judges and elected officials among their partners, and celebrities — including business leaders — among their clients, making them a perpetual lure for the most talented and ambitious lawyers in smaller firms. To succeed in Big Law a lawyer must take the long view while daily giving of their time, energy, intellectual rigor and creativity.
Yet, just as there are many lawyers eager to get into Big Law, there are others who want out. Life in a corporate law firm is not for everyone. At least not over the long term. To succeed requires long hours, getting clients to pay high hourly rates, and the frequent need to market and develop business. The need to develop business is important for any firm to survive. However, developing business in the Big Law context is particularly challenging because of the intense competition among law firms for corporate work, and the sometimes long-standing relationship between a company and a particular law firm or group of firms.
Big Law firms can go through, i.e., hire and lose, hundreds of lawyers a year. Over time, however, the arrival of new lawyers from different firms and the departure of longtime colleagues can affect and even alter the culture and personality of a firm, for better or worse. For example, the focus of the firm's practice can narrow, to cover fewer areas, squeezing out certain partners. Or it can expand to include practices that drain resources away from one's own practice.
Firms can begin to lean more in one political direction or another, or tighten requirements for partnership or become more profit oriented. Each of these developments can alter the way one feels about one's employer, and even one's colleagues and partners. Indeed, changing culture was one of the leading reasons 28% of partners recently surveyed by Major, Lindsey & Africa (the firm of the author) said they left a prior firm.
Lawyers who after a period of time in practice find their daily practice has become a grind or uninspiring should not conclude the law is not for them. It simply may be that they need to experience the practice in a different setting or on a different platform, one that more closely matches their personality and ambitions. In the era of the mobile lawyer, changing platforms is no longer unusual or frowned upon. Rather, it is viewed as bringing in a new perspective. Indeed, a lateral move can often be critical to broadening and honing an attorney's professional skillset and, ultimately, in advancing their career.