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  1. 1. 1.800.973.1177CAREER COUNSELOR’S CORNERPAGE 1 continued on backWhat seems different in yourself; that’s therare thing you possess.The one thing that gives each of us his worth,and that’s what we try to suppress.And we claim to love life.Andre Gide (from an unknown work)Working in a law firm is an extremely difficultoccupation. Attorneys working in law firmshave unusually high rates of depression, sub-stance abuse and a variety of other physicaland mental difficulties. (W.W. Eaton, J.C. An-thony, W. Mandel & R. Garrison, Occupationsand the Prevalence of Major Depressive Dis-order, 32 Journal of Occupational Medicine1079 (1990). It has been well documentedfor years that attorneys seek counseling andassistance in getting out of the practice oflaw. (W. Bachman, Law V. Life: What LawyersAre Afraid to Say About the Legal Profession(1995)). As a general rule, a large propor-tion of attorneys in law firms are extremelydissatisfied with their careers. (AmericanBar Association, At The Breaking Point: TheReport Of A National Conference On TheEmerging Crisis In The Quality Of Lawyers’Health And Lives, And Its Impact On LawFirms And Client Services (1991).Attorneys do not need to see any documenta-tion or supporting evidence to be aware ofthe fact that working inside a law firm canbe an extremely disaffecting experience. Oneof the largest issues dissatisfied attorneysinside a law firm have to deal with is decidingwhether or not to continue in their currentsituation. The worst possible life move youcan make is to live out your career in a jobyou do not like. This can only lead to unhap-piness.This article analyzes whether or not youshould consider working outside of a law firmenvironment-or outside of the law complete-ly. First, this article considers some of thepressures out there to work inside a law firmand reasons for doing so. Second, this articleexplores some of the negatives associatedwith working inside a law firm. Third, this ar-ticle considers the fact that you need to makea decision sooner than later about whetherworking in a law firm is right for you.For many attorneys, working inside a lawfirm is the best choice for them. However,for many attorneys, a career in a law firmis arguably the worst choice for them andthey end up not enjoying it. By continuing lifeinside a law firm, they are only guaranteeingpersistent personal and professional dissat-isfaction in their careers.A. The Reasons Attorneys Feel Pressure toWork in Law FirmsEvery law student and attorney has his orher own reasons for wanting to work insidea law firm. The reasons can be varied. As alegal recruiter, I speak with many attorneysand law students throughout the year andtherefore have a good understanding of thereasons that attorneys and law students tendto flock towards law firms in large numbers.First, I believe that positions at the best lawfirms are considered the most prestigiouspositions available to attorneys because ofthe difficulty of obtaining them. Attorneysare a competitive species at heart. The levelof competition among attorneys is generallythe highest among those who have gone tothe best law schools and received the bestgrades there. These attorneys have beenquite competitive their entire lives-from thetime they were in middle school, they com-peted for the best grades and the best testscores and so forth.When you put people like this together, beit in a law firm environment or even in lawschool, they are going to be competitive withone another. The way these attorneys viewtheir own sense of accomplishment will mostoften be dictated by their level of accom-plishment relative to their fiercely competi-tive peers.Second, law firms generally pay the mostmoney. Because we live in a capitalist andcommercial society that values individualsbased on their economic achievement, manyattorneys feel pressured to take the highestpaid jobs and derive their sense of accom-plishment based on how much money theymake.Third, because of the (1) competitive pres-sure of their peer group (other attorneysor law students) and (2) the values of ourcapitalist and commercial-oriented soci-ety, many attorneys believe that if they areanything less than law firm attorneys, theyhave somehow failed. The dread of failure issomething that is quite extreme among highachievers and people living in a society wherevalue is placed on having access to money.Choosing to Not Choose a Law Firm[A. Harrison Barnes]Law firms attract the majority of top attorneys. Why? With many other choices out there for attorneys, before you make what you may have been condi-tioned to believe is the obvious decision to work at a law firm, ask yourself this: Can you handle it?
  2. 2. 1.800.973.1177CAREER COUNSELOR’S CORNERPAGE 2 continuedI would like to note, however, that not all at-torneys and law students share these threereasons for working in law firms. Indeed, attop law schools such as Yale, Chicago and afew other select schools, much of this thinkingregarding the need to work in a law firm islargely not there. At many night schools andlower-tiered law schools, this thinking is alsolargely absent.I would also endeavor to argue that this think-ing is less prevalent among attorneys whocome out of very well grounded families andare extremely well grounded themselves on apsychological level. Finally, I would argue thatthis pressure for law firm life is less prevalentamong people in smaller communities as op-posed to those living in large cities.The fact of the matter is, though, that thereis a tremendous amount of pressure for themajority of attorneys to work inside law firms.What is so startling to me about the threereasons most attorneys go to work insidelaw firms is that very few of these attorneys’motivations have to do with themselves. Thecompetitive concern, desire to make moneyand worries about what other people think ofthem are all things that have to do with oth-ers and not what the attorney or law studentmay actually want for themselves. None ofthese reasons have anything to do with what isimportant to the law student or the attorney.None of these things have anything to do withwhat will make the attorney the most happyand fulfilled over the long term. They all haveto do with how attorneys should feel aboutthemselves, based on societal influences, ifthey are not practicing law in a law firm.There are, however, many good reasons forpracticing inside a law firm. Unfortunately,these reasons are rarely mentioned to mewhen I am discussing why an attorney wantsto work inside a law firm.First, a law firm often offers the best trainingof any legal environment (perhaps next to ajudicial clerkship). The training and qualityof work expected is very high because thereare competitive forces at work in the marketthat require law firms to produce a good workproduct if they are to survive. The largest lawfirms have tiers of associates and partnersreviewing work, training associates and moni-toring the work product. In terms of becominga good attorney and staying a good attorney,a law firm is an outstanding place in which tobe trained and to maintain your skills as anattorney.Second, a law firm offers the opportunityto become very specialized. Many attorneysnaturally gravitate towards certain types ofwork and practice areas. Working in a lawfirm offers these attorneys the opportunityto do the type of work they enjoy most and tocontinue to grow in their field.Third, a law firm offers the opportunity forcontinual advancement if you do exception-ally well. At the associate level you can rise topartner as your work increases. In addition, atthe partner level you can also rise if you arecontinually bringing in more and more busi-ness and your work product improves. As along term career option, a law firm cannot bebeat in this regard.Fourth, a law firm offers the opportunity toget access to extremely sophisticated work.This is especially so in practice areas such ascorporate, intellectual bankruptcy and others.If you have a passion for one of these practiceareas and want exposure to very sophisticatedwork, a law firm is the best place to be.There are many additional positive reasons forworking inside a law firm that will continu-ally assist an attorney in growing throughouthis or her career. Notwithstanding, mostattorneys out there seem to ignore many ofthe more “positive” reasons for wanting towork inside a law firm and instead gravitatetowards other pressures which have less to dowith them and more to do with the perceptionothers will have of them if they choose a dif-ferent career path.B. The Negatives Associated With Law FirmLifeThere have been entire books dedicated to the“negatives” of working inside a law firm andso only a brief discussion here is necessary.First, law firms are economic institutions that(in most cases) are based on the billable hour.Accordingly, the worth of many attorneys totheir superiors becomes associated with howmany hours they can consistently bill. Whilethe billable hours needed from firm to firmcertainly vary, for the most part the billablehours required of attorneys are exception-ally high. Unfortunately, these billable hourrequirements often leave little time for asocial life.Second, there is an “up or out” mentality atmany law firms. Because people are oftenbeing terminated inside law firms, there isa perception of very limited job security anda tremendous ongoing sense of insecurityamong many attorneys. This is very unpleas-ant for many attorneys to live with and canlead to a constant state of paranoia.Third, law firm attorneys who work in practiceareas that suddenly fall out of favor may findthemselves with no work. As their careerscontinue, they may suddenly find themselvesout of work with no marketable skills if themajority of the work in their practice areagoes away. This is something that has hap-pened with many corporate attorneys in theUnited State recently.Fourth, as an attorney gets more senior heor she will become accustomed to the moneythat his or her job pays and the correspond-ing lifestyle. This lifestyle will be mandatedby a large mortgage and other expenses thatmay make an exit out of the practice of law allbut impossible. This is what is known as the“golden handcuffs” syndrome.Fifth, law firms are not often the most col-legial of environments. Due to the pressure
  3. 3. 1.800.973.1177CAREER COUNSELOR’S CORNERPAGE 3 continued on backof clients, fellow lawyers and others, law firmwork can be very demanding. People practic-ing law often actively dislike both the attor-neys they are working with and the practice oflaw itself.There is no need to go into excruciating detailabout why many lawyers dislike practicing lawinside a law firm so much. The fact is they do.If you are practicing inside a law firm, you canprobably point to many reasons you or otherattorneys inside your firm do not like practic-ing inside a law firm. While it would seemlike such rampant job dissatisfaction wouldcause law firms to take pause and think aboutmaking drastic changes to their operations,this will probably never happen - too manyattorneys are willing to put up with the longhours, the strict requirements, and everythingelse that goes along with law firm life.If you recognize that you are unhappy insidea law firm, then you need to look at this verycarefully. Most attorneys who have been un-happy for more than a few years have had dif-ficulties with their personal lives, some nega-tive psychological symptoms as well as otherproblems. Like any problem in your life, youneed to fix this for things to get better. If youbuy a $20-million airplane and forget to putjet fuel in it, the plane will not fly. Similarly, ifsomething is drastically wrong with your lifeyou will not go forward either-not to mentionreach anything close to your full potential.C. You Need to Make a Decision Sooner (Rath-er Than Later) if Law Firm Life Is for YouAfter my first month of law school, the Profes-sor that was the head of our section got upbefore our contracts class of 30 studentsand started lecturing about something thathad nothing to do with contracts at all. Thesubstance of the lecture was how many peoplehad gone to law school in order to makemoney and how they should not be in thelaw for that reason. In addition, he spoke forsome time about how unpleasant the law wasas a profession: the long hours, the fact thatlawyers serve the people that actually do theimportant things, and more. After about a 15-minute tirade, he concluded by stating:“If any of you do not want any part of this, youshould get up and leave right now.”There was silence in the room for a fewseconds. Then, in the silence of the room, Iheard the sound of a book close and one of thestudents got up and walked out of the class.None of us ever saw him again.For weeks various people in my section spokein tones bordering on awe that someone couldjust drop out of law school like that. The ideathat someone would work so hard to get intolaw school and then just throw it all away wassomething that was shocking.When I started practicing law three years lat-er, I noticed that a lot of lawyers often thoughtof leaving law firm life. In retrospect, I believethe action of that law student who walkedaway from the practice of law (and a law firm)that day was one of the bravest things I haveever seen. How many lives of lawyers workingin law firms everywhere would be improved ifthey simply walked away from something theydid not enjoy?If you want to work at a law firm because youenjoy the work, the people, the challenge andit all makes you happy (for the most part) thenthat is where you should be. There are lawyersinside law firms who love their jobs. Thesesorts of lawyers think about work in such away that they would be happy getting out ofbed and rushing in at 5:00 am to get started onone project or another.If you dread work, and it does not make youhappy on a consistent basis, something iswrong. If you have changed firms and foundthe same thing at your new firm then some-thing is wrong. If you are unhappy with yourjob and remain unhappy then no good willcome to you in the long term.In Marsh Sinetar’s book, Do What You Love,The Money Will Follow (1987, p. 19), shequotes a middle-aged executive working for alarge multinational corporation:It’s too late. I’ve spent too many years doingexactly what’s expected of me: being a goodson, a good husband, a good father. In mycompany I’m known as a “good soldier.” WhenI ask myself what I am about, I’d have to say Idon’t know anymore. I’ve tried for so long tofit in, I’ve held back for so long, I don’t knowwhat or who I am.Inside each of us there is something uniquethat drives us and is part of who we are. Whatdrives us the strongest is also what makesus the happiest. What makes us happiest isnot going to have very much to do with otherpeople’s perceptions. It will be all about us.Some of the happiest people I have known inmy life were the people who, like the law stu-dent who walked out of class, simply did whatthey liked-unmotivated by others’ concernsfor how they act.Many who are afraid to leave the practice oflaw will never do so because they are worriedabout what their spouses, parents, friends orothers will think of them. If you leave a lawfirm and people do not like you for it, the (andI hate to say this) they never liked you for theright reasons to begin with. Do not allow yourlife and motivations to be controlled by whatothers think of you.I have seen probably more than 75% of thelawyers I know pondering and investigatingalternative careers, whether it is owning a7-11, a trucking company, producing soap-youname it. If these are the sorts of things thatget you excited (and there has to be somethingthat gets you excited) then you should mostcertainly pursue it. If practicing law inside acorporation or for a nonprofit organizationgets you excited, then you should considerthat, as well.I have a short message for you if you are con-sidering doing something that has nothing todo with the practice of law. Most attorneys are
  4. 4. 1.800.973.1177CAREER COUNSELOR’S CORNERPAGE 4tremendously accomplished and disciplinedto a far greater degree than most people insociety. If your dream is to start a companythat does something like washing windowsbecause you like to be outdoors, you should.If you do something you like, you will putmore passion and discipline into that than youever did into the practice of law. In addition,lawyers are smarter and more hardworkingthan most people. They also have very highlydeveloped social skills. If you put these traitsinto a setting outside of the law, you will beastonished by your level of success.In closing, I have a short story for you aboutone of the more impressive men I have evermet. I grew up in a very wealthy suburboutside of Detroit called Grosse Pointe. In mytown, there was a man who spent his week-ends cruising around town in one of severalFerraris he owned. I often saw him out to eatwith his family and having a very nice time.I knew one of his children, and he was veryhappy and well-adjusted. This man also livedin one of the largest and most extravaganthomes in our town.One day I went over to this man’s house tryingto sell him some work on his driveway. I gotto speaking to the man and discovered that hehad once been an attorney. This man left thepractice of law because he decided that he didnot like it. Instead, he decided he would washthe windows of the homes in Grosse Pointe.And that is exactly what he did for a living. Hehad people helping him; however, his littleoperation was grossing several thousands ofdollars per day and he was in a line of workyou would never think would pay those sortsof financial rewards.What this man said to me, though, really stuckin my mind. He said he did what he did be-cause he liked being outdoors, liked meetingnew people at every house and liked drivinga pick-up truck during the day. This man hadnever liked sitting behind a desk and he saidhe loved going home to see his wife for luncheveryday and spending time with his family. Ihave often thought about this man because hemade me realize that it does not matter whatyou do. This man was obviously extremelyintelligent, but just decided he would puthis motivation in another field-one that heenjoyed.In life and in work, you need to do somethingyou enjoy.