Taking a Hiatus From Practicing Law

It is becoming increasingly common for attorneys desiring more than a few weeks off from the practice of law to simply quit their current jobs. Unlike some other professions, most law firms do not look favorably upon attorneys taking more than a few weeks off unless they are involved in "a major life event." In the calculus of most law firms, a "major life event" is primarily limited to such circumstances as the death of a close family member (usually a spouse), a life-threatening illness, or the birth of a child (only if you are a woman).

Accordingly, attorneys without such explanations often simply quit, explaining to flabbergasted partners that they want to take some time off for travel or reflection. The logic most attorneys follow in quitting is that if they take significant time off from their current firm under any guise other than one of these life-changing events, they will harm their chances for advancement in their current firm's eyes and therefore they need to quit completely and find a new law firm once they are ready to return to legal practice. Given the way that law firm politics generally work, that logic is pretty accurate.

The purpose of this article is to discuss (1) reasons you should not leave your current firm and take time off and (2) factors firms will consider in evaluating your candidate after you have taken extended time off. The legal profession is unique in many respects and we do not believe that law firms should look upon taking significant time off as negatively as they do. Nevertheless, firms do look negatively on taking significant time off.

Some of the attorneys whose time off is self-imposed are often the most accomplished attorneys: With stellar academic and work backgrounds, they are under the impression that they are "golden" and will easily land on their feet again in the legal profession after time off. This thought process is problematic because once you are no longer practicing for a major firm for a few months your odds of getting back in at a high level are severely diminished.

A. Reasons You Should Not Leave Your Current Firm and Take Time Off

We hate to be so frank about the fact that taking extended time off from the practice of law is a poor idea. Unless you have stellar reasons for doing so, however, taking extended time off from the practice of law is a very poor idea because once you are unemployed for a significant length of time: (1) future employers will presume that you were fired or have psychological issues, and (2) you will project to your next employer that the practice of law is not your "all consuming focus."

1. Once you are unemployed for an extended period of time other firms will presume that you got fired or have psychological issues

Lawyers by nature are extremely skeptical individuals. This skepticism carries over into the way that they make hiring decisions. Despite the fact that a great number of attorneys practicing in large law firms are not at all happy, their thinking is that nobody in their right mind would possibly leave the practice of law voluntarily unless (1) they were fired, or (2) have psychological issues. Now at this point, we realize how this sounds. Nevertheless, we should be clear that this is how most lawyers in large law firms do in fact think. Understanding this psychology merits delving into many of the depths of what type of people lawyers are and what type of backgrounds they are likely to come from.

First, most lawyers lead fairly conventional lives. They have mortgages and other responsibilities which merit them consistently working throughout their lives. Despite some public perceptions to the contrary, the practice of law as a whole is something that is a very middle class profession, made up (for the most part) of very middle class people. Lawyers support families and are dependent upon a paycheck in order to maintain a certain lifestyle. Most lawyers do not have the luxury of simply picking up and leaving the profession. In addition, because few lawyers have other marketable skills, they are very dependent upon the practice of law for support. When you add the modern day responsibilities of paying off student loans, you can see that most lawyers are highly leveraged as a group and need to work in order to live the lives they lead.

As a consequence, the idea that an attorney would voluntarily choose not to work is something that most other attorneys (with their own attendant responsibilities) simply often cannot believe. The prevalent thinking is: If the attorney is not working, they must have been fired or, barring that, they must have had a nervous breakdown. This logic can be compared with archaic legal systems where you are guilty until proven innocent.

2. Once you take extended time off, you will project to future employers that the practice of law is not your all consuming focus

Lawyers are extremely competitive individuals. Most attorneys get into law school and top firms precisely because they are competitive. Once you start work in a large law firm, you are, in many respects, under a microscope and things like your work product, how many hours you bill, how you relate to others, how you prioritize the firm and even how stable and outgoing you appear in the community are factors of paramount importance in a large law firm's evaluation of you.

You need to understand one of the reasons that lawyers are so judgmental with one another is due to the fact that every associate is competing to be partner. Because this is something that is extremely difficult to achieve, partners (and other associates) are always looking for reasons to disqualify rising attorneys from this race. Similarly, at the partner level, partners are competing for a share of firm's profits and are always looking for a reason to give other partners a smaller percentage.

If you eliminate yourself from this competitive environment, the message you are sending to other lawyers is that the law is not your number one priority. Despite talk about "collegial environments," "reduced hours" and so forth, virtually every significant law firm expects you to be totally dedicated to the practice of law. Once you send the message that you are not, you have likely done yourself significant harm.

3. Conclusions

There are certainly other reasons why taking a hiatus from the law is considered a negative thing by other attorneys; however, we have hit upon what we believe are the most important above. It is important to note that among the reasons mentioned above nowhere is there any reference to the suggestion that your skills might deteriorate after having been out of the legal field for a significant period of time. This would, in fact, be quite a legitimate concern for most law firms to have.  

B. Factors Firms Will Consider in Evaluating Your Candidacy After you Have Taken Significant Time Off

Nothing is impossible, but it is somewhat unlikely that you will land a job at another top law firm if you have taken an extended hiatus from the practice of law. How long is too long? While the number can certainly vary, if you have been out of work for more than three or four months you are going to have a difficult time finding a position with another top firm. In their deliberation to extend an offer to a lateral associate that has taken an extended hiatus, top firms consider several major factors. These factors are listed in their order of importance.

1. Does the firm accept the reasons you have given for your extended hiatus from the practice of law?

There are reasons that firms consider acceptable for taking an extended hiatus, which are listed at the beginning of this article. The best reasons for taking an extended hiatus generally involve issues that are beyond the attorney's immediate control or do not reflect at all on their day-to-day commitment. To the extent that you have such reasons, they should be emphasized in any explanation that you provide to a new employer. Given the concerns employer will have that were elucidated above, you need to ensure that the reasons you give for your leave from the practice of law take the employer's concerns into account.

2. Are you likely to be stable in your next position?

Another significant area of your resume that firms would critically assess deals with your stability. The fact that you left the practice of law for an extended period of time does reflect your potential future stability. However, you may have practiced for several years and this one move may simply be an aberration in an otherwise very stable legal career and therefore discounted.

Stability relates to your professional career as well as you personally. One factor that would reveal your stability is whether you have changed jobs and practice areas frequently throughout your career. If you have worked at three different firms since you graduated from law school about 5 years ago (and prior to taking your leave of absence) this would likely raise serious concerns in potential legal employers' minds. Conversely, if you practiced at the same firm for five years, left and now want to return to the practice of law, this would be far less likely to raise concerns. If you have ever changed your job after just 3-6 months, it would not bode well for you either. Your potential stability is the biggest hurdle you will need to overcome in your return.

3. What kind of experience do you have?

Regardless of your reasons for leaving the practice of law, firms will closely scrutinize your experience. Despite all the objections that a future law firm may have for the fact that you took considerable time off, they are still businesses and therefore are governed by the law of supply and demand. In addition, while some of the analysis in the preceding section may sound extraordinarily harsh, we place attorneys every month who have taken such hiatuses without any truly justifiable reason. In almost all of these placements, however, the attorney we placed was in a practice group that was highly in demand. Therefore, in deciding whether or not to hire you after an extended leave from the practice of law, you will be scrutinized for your experience and whether or not attorneys with your particular skill set are in abundance or short supply.

If the position calls for someone that has a specific experience, hopefully your resume will demonstrate your significant exposure to that practice area. If there is a demand for lawyers in a particular area of the law (such as bankruptcy in a bad economy or corporate in a healthy economy), law firms tend to be more lenient with respect to any issues with your experience. In addition, experience at a large or well-regarded law firm has value when a firm evaluates your resume. Litigators trained at well-regarded trial departments, such as Kirkland & Ellis or Jones Day, would always raise the interests of some firms even after an extended hiatus. Also, length of experience at such firms is key. If you were practicing at the top firm for less than one year, the value of the training you may have received is discounted by the fact that you were there for such a short time.

4. Your educational qualifications

Every firm is asking whether the potential candidate possesses the requisite educational credentials that are consistent with the firm's current academic standards. The word "current" is used here because most firms, if not all except for a small handful of firms in the United States, adjust their academic standard depending on their needs and the demand in the marketplace. During the late 90's, firms had piles of work and the demand for lawyers was so intense, and the supply of able lawyers was so limited, that the firms had to loosen their stringent academic standards.

The current climate is the opposite. With some exceptions, one would have to possess top academic credentials to raise the interests of top D.C. firms. The exceptions are for those hot practice areas, principally bankruptcy and patent prosecution/litigation in electrical arts. Even in these hot practice areas, solid academic credentials are expected.

If you have truly outstanding educational qualifications then firms will be far more likely to look the other way if you took extended time off. Law firms are businesses and are looking to maximize their return on investment. An attorney with a good record at a top law school is something that the firm can use to market to its clients (and get more business) and that will make other attorneys in the firm feel good about the level of educational accomplishment that their fellow attorneys possess. Nevertheless, if the firm is under the impression that you are likely to leave if you are hired-no matter how good your educational qualifications-the firm is unlikely to hire you.

Conclusions

Taking a hiatus from the practice of law is a risky proposition. There are many good reasons to take a hiatus that are considered legitimate to a law firm, but before you decide to give notice at your current firm, you need to think through this very carefully. The decision you reach could have long-lasting and significant consequences on your career.

Whatever decision you reach about quitting or taking time off, we certainly hope you consider the issues involved very carefully before doing so. As recruiters we have these types of discussions with attorneys throughout the country every day. Each situation is different and you may be in a good position to take time off and have perfectly cognizable reasons for doing so. Just make sure that you know whatever decision you make you know exactly what you are getting into.