How Can a Lawyer with Experience Find a Job?

Q: I got my law degree over 15 years ago (top 10% of class, law review), worked for a couple of years at a law firm and made partner. Six years ago, as a new mom, I made a decision to trade off the money for less stress and more time, and I took a job in-house. LOVED it. Now I'm a downsizing victim trying to find work again. The fact that I graduated in so many years ago seems to be a liability -- all the jobs specify a range of years of experience, and the maximum is less than mine. Is this a salary level thing? If it is, my last salary was equivalent to what graduates are getting at big firms in my area. But I'm getting ruled out because I have too much experience, apparently. How do I get around this without hanging out a sign -- "Will practice law for food and day care fees." ???

A: It is unfortunate that the practice of law in a law firm is one profession that seems to penalize experience, at least with respect to hiring. Although it may seem counterintuitive to someone with many years of relevant experience, firms are most often seeking to hire associates with between 2 and 6 years of experience. There are several reasons why the most marketable associates are less experienced: some of these are valid, some not so valid.

Although it is impossible to speculate about every single firm, we can make some generalizations about the ways law firms hire. Some firms believe lawyers will be set in their ways and will be resistant to change (or learn) after they have been practicing for 7 or 8 years. Firms often like to train their attorneys, and that training is easier with someone who is not already accustomed to a certain program. Firms may assume experienced lawyers will be less loyal to the firm, or its partners will feel somewhat threatened by more experienced lawyers. Also, the political dynamics of the firm may discourage the partners to hire an experienced lawyer who is then slotted as a senior associate, above those associates who had slaved at the firm for years with the promise of a partnership. Remember that the ideal time for lawyers to laterally move to a firm is after they have acquired 3-4 years of experience. Once you are beyond 8 or 10 years, we find that firms expect you to have some portable business to come with you.

Many lawyers call and offer to be treated as a law school graduate for the purpose of compensation, despite having graduated 20 years before. It is a common misperception that the reason a firm doesn't want to hire someone more experienced is because they don't want to pay an attorney at such a level. In fact, we have not had one situation where a firm was asking for a junior lawyer because a junior lawyer was all they could afford. Instead, the firm has gaps in the various staffing of files that needs to be filled. Hence, in light of the factors discussed above, in most cases firms prefer to fill those gaps with junior lawyers.

We field several calls everyday from experienced lawyers who are exasperated with how they are viewed by law firms. As seemingly narrow a view as it may appear to be, this is the reality of the legal job market, especially in an economy such as this one. It is true, therefore, that more experienced lawyers will find it more difficult to move to a firm than his or her colleague with substantially less experience. But that should not be the end. If you do have a significant book of business, or have a genuine potential to generate business within a year or less, firms may be persuaded to hire you. Even though I am stating the obvious, a law firm is in the business of generating revenue, and not, aside from some pro bono work, fighting for liberty and freedom. Of course, the successful firms are those that mesh their need to be profitable with the higher goal of providing the best legal service to each of their clients. But the current reality is that firms are operated like a business, and the days of working hard for 20 years and taking a semi-retirement while ascending up the partnership ladder are gone. "What have you done for me lately" is the norm and will most likely rule how the game is played in the future.

Your question implies that you are not fortunate to have garnered a significant book of business, or no one has promised you that they will send business your way if you join a firm. It is not all lost. If you are in a hot practice area, for instance bankruptcy or patent law, you may have some luck. If not, the best way to get around the hurdle is to use the resources and contacts you have established in your career to land a job with a law firm. You will be surprised by the amount of contacts you have established in your career if you sit down and generate a list. Perhaps, your best friend in law school is now a partner with a local firm in town. You should ask this friend to introduce you to the firm. Also, continue to network within your community church, high school reunion bash, or with the parents of your children's friends and explore each potential opportunity.

Also, if you are inclined to reach out to firms to apply, make sure to explain your seniority and that your willingness to reduce your class size to join the firm.

In conclusion, an experienced lawyer should approach job hunting in a variety of ways, including using non-traditional methods. Depending on your background, the region's employment climate, the zeal with which you approach your job search, and pure luck, it may take 3 to 6 months for you to land a position with a law firm in this current market.