Find Satisfaction in Law: Planting Yourself in the Right Soil

Finding the right place...for you.

Many lawyers find themselves doing work that does not take advantage of their talents. Many lawyers work in offices ill-suited to their personalities. Many lawyers do work that is just plain boring. These problems are in one sense easier to handle, and in another sense far more problematic -- because they're far more common. The answer? First, you must choose an appropriate area in which to spend your waking hours practicing law. Second, you must strive not to be bored.

Pick Your Practice Area

The first decision you must make -- in an affirmative way -- is to decide whether litigation or a transactional practice is more appropriate for you. This is a basic question, but it's amazing how little thought goes into it for many.

Take a look at your personality. What do you enjoy? If you freeze at the very thought of speaking in front of others, then you should think very carefully before embarking on a litigation path. There are exceptions, but much of litigation involves confronting others. If you're still in school, take a litigation clinic. You'll either enjoy it or hate it -- and, either way, there's your answer. If you are academically oriented, then you should find a teaching position (an extremely difficult undertaking, for now) or a research position (many are in government agencies).

If...get it? The point is to put some thought into this. Choose -- for yourself -- what you want and where you should spend the majority of your waking life. Also, you should figure out, as soon as you can, where you think you'd like to be, x years down the road. Each project you finish, every case you work on...is another nail in the coffin -- a coffin of expertise and clients -- if that area of practice is one you don't want to be buried in. Plan ahead to move to a better area...if the one you're in is full of weeds.

The Role of Location

OK...on to geography. I was once asked whether it made a difference *where* one practiced. (I suppose my being in Hawaii, and having spent a few years in Micronesia, added to the suspense.) More specifically, the question was whether someone would be *happier* practicing in a certain place.

My answer? In short, No.

If you're unhappy with life as a lawyer, it's doubtful that (just) a change of scenery will make much of a difference. This raises a few points, because lawyers are pretty much the same, everywhere...as are their assignments. Geography can be important, but it's not the only factor in quality of life. Much more important is your attitude: will you accept the benefits of [wherever you end up], and also accept with grace the drawbacks?

Sure, if you like big cities, you shouldn't look for a job in Podunk, and if you're allergic to people, steer clear of Megaopolis. Yes, there is a connection between urban/rural, big/small, etc., but much more important is to pick the type of firm that is most suited to your interests, aptitude, and attitude. These topics are covered in several sections of The Young Lawyer's Jungle Book, but worth mentioning is a serious investigation into the true personality of a firm (yes, each firm really does have its own personality). Choose one that matches your own. This can be difficult for a law student, but not impossible. Your questions in interviews should include questions about whatever is important to you (assuming that that's not goofing off or something completely outside the firm's area). Pay attention, especially in your summer clerkships. Notice how the lawyers treat each other...and the staff. Interviewees obviously have a fine line to walk. Usually, mid-level associates are the best source of information, but be careful there, too. It's most helpful if you have (or develop) contacts in the working world who can clue you in to each firm's outlook. After you been practicing a while, you'll develop these contacts, and learn about various firms. In the meantime, don't forget the most important thing of all: getting your job done.

Also, it's easy to generalize about areas. Sure, firms in Boston will tend to be more traditional than firms in Reno...but not always. Notice what's missing? Do *you* like traditional, or not? Also notice the word "tend." There are cool firms in Boston, and there are stuffy firms in Reno. A statistical average is of little importance when you're in a single, solitary, stationary, non-statistical office.

(Also, "cool" might not be the best way to go. It depends on you. Are you self-directed? Are you complacent? Many cool firms are *more* sink-or-swim, and thus require greater self-direction, than uncool firms.)

So, I suppose the answer, in true lawyerly form, is: Yes and No. Where you practice is important, particularly if it's important to you, but it shouldn't be determinative. And don't overlook smaller legal markets; they can be wonderful places to practice...and raise a family. There're enough firms in most areas to go around, and to concentrate in those areas you like.

Thane J. Messinger is the author of The Young Lawyer's Jungle Book: A Survival Guide