Find Satisfaction in Law: A Firm Choice

While there is some truth to the observation of Henri - Frederic Amiel, "The man who insists upon seeing with perfect clearness before he decides, never decides", she must also recognize that when faced with any issue, dilemma or conflict, she makes an affirmative choice even by inaction; i.e., "not to decide is to decide."

Our previous column, Your Options in the Law, included a Career Options Exercise. The instructions encouraged wide-ranging exploration, with the hope that those taking the exercise would expand their horizons. If you were one of those, did any setting or field become more or less appealing after you followed some of the links? At some point soon you will begin to group some of your preferences and narrow the focus of your search based on what you have discovered about yourself in the self-assessment phase. This is the time when many become nervous about committing time, energy and hope to a directed search. As career counselors, we feel constrained to reply that being open about your options is good, but that keeping your options open is bad.

This is so because the key to finding opportunities post law school is being able to promote yourself effectively. This requires you to explore a sector of the economy, to learn the structure of a typical organization, to learn about the duties and skills needed by key employees, to identify the major companies and individuals, to draft appropriate promotional material (resume, or brochure) to contact others and network in such a way that you uncover openings or opportunities. The time that it takes to do this well will not allow you to pursue more than a very few carefully chosen directions. There is no on-campus interviewing in the real world. In the present climate, many openings for professionals are filled because employers create positions for activist applicants while other lawyers start their own firms, businesses or organizations. In the near future you will learn that headhunters are aware of a small number of jobs, and some job notices appear in legal and general circulation newspapers, but the vast majority of openings never appear in writing. You will need to target your search to be effective.

Once you accept this principle, the rest is obvious. To be in a position to promote yourself effectively and find a position you must be able, at some point, to 1) choose a setting, 2) select a field or industry within that setting and 3) describe in some detail the duties and responsibilities of a position you want and 4) defend your choices in terms of your basic values. The alternative is waiting for someone to contact you to do "whatever" or choosing to work with products that appeal to you, services that excite you or on behalf of people and causes that matter to you.

As Gary Munneke says in The Legal Career Guide at page 53, "Sometimes people who are good at what they do hate their work. If we looked at skills alone, this would not make sense, because we predict that someone who has the skills to do the job will be successful at the job, and if she is successful, she will be satisfied. But if the work does not satisfy her work values, then she will not be happy even though she is competent to handle the work."

Choosing a Setting

What does it mean to choose a setting? One of the most critical first decisions lawyers need to make is whether their next position should be in a law firm. How do you decide to eliminate from consideration the law firm setting? In part you need to know what you dislike about law firms. To what extent are they inconsistent with your workplace criteria? Is this true for all law firms or just your law firm? Do all of them require you to use skills you have but don't like to use? Skills you don't have? Are you a litigator interested in a firm which has a commercial practice? Are you a litigator working on business litigation interested in representing children and women? Would you benefit from moving from the large firm where you have little responsibility and have no client contact to a much smaller firm?

Looking at the Career Options Exercise, were your checks grouped around large, medium, small law firms, public law firm, or government prosecutor? All of these are indicators of interest in the traditional law firm world. Did your preferences appear to be in the area of business, commercial and transactions or were they more litigation and individual focused? The latter interests practically demand law firm-like settings; but the former may open onto business settings beyond the traditional practice of law.

Do you know the demographics of the law firm world? Do you know that of the 70% of all lawyers who are in law firms, over two thirds (66%) are in firms of 5 or less lawyers and that one-half of all lawyers in private practice are solo practitioners? That means if you ignore in your search firms of 5 or less for any reason (If you believe that those in small firms are those who "couldn't make it" in big firms, you better investigate because you are in for a big surprise), you are ignoring over two-thirds of the market for opportunities - often ones that provide early responsibility, client contact and representation of individuals.

Many lawyers in law firms are distressed because they have little autonomy, are uncomfortable in their workplace, are not learning anything, are not gaining skills and do not believe they are providing a service to anyone. And yet the authors' combined 55 years of experience have convinced them that these complaints, so opposed to the professional ethos, are not inherent in the structure of law firm practice, and that thousands of lawyers in law firms across the country find satisfaction in a diverse range of firms.

And yet, what about other settings? Were almost all of your results on the Career Options Exercise slanted toward settings outside of law firms? Will you be willing to focus your search so intently or some of these options that you will actually consider them compelling enough to consider leaving the "prestige" of the law firm; to consider moving to a setting where the title will not necessarily be "lawyer" and where your friends and family might begin to ask you why you decided to "waste" your law degree?

What about corporations, large and small, for profit and non-profit? Do you find the law firm too isolating and hierarchical? Do you long to develop your creativity, manage and grow an institution and work more with a team? Did you go to law school to gain the knowledge of the legal process as a tool to help you run a business? Are you a manager, a financial planner?

Are your checks grouped around four other settings - government agencies, non-profit organizations, bar associations and academia. Do you find the adversary process uncomfortable or unrewarding? Do you think that you are more of a counselor, listener, mediator, educator, writer or advocate? Do you have a passion to help a particular group of individuals or work for a specific cause?

Are your checks scattered among all the settings? This is not a cause for concern. Many lawyers initially voice a concern that they are "trapped" and therefore, must stay where they are. You know now that you have an interest in a number of settings in which other lawyers practice.

The continuing focus in this article and the next will be on affirmatively choosing the path which will provide you with the most satisfaction.

(A) lawyer will not develop as a professional unless the lawyer is in an employment setting where he or she can effectively pursue his or her professional and personal goals. .. In order to find employment that is consistent with his or her professional goals and personal values, a lawyer must be familiar with the range of traditional and non-traditional employment opportunities for lawyers." The MacCrate Report, page 220.

In the next article we will begin by assuming that you have decided to leave your position in a law firm. We will develop a framework to help you make your transition in a logical and deliberate manner - a schematic that allows you to look at certain aspects of your present situation and analyze the implications and consequences of changing that variable.

By Mark L. Byers, Ph.D. and Ronald W. Fox, Esq.