by David Madison, Ph.D.
Three of our busiest senior counselors, Ellis Chase, Jim Borland and Kate Wendleton, took time recently to sit down with our Associate Editor, David Madison, and share their thoughts about counseling attorneys. Ellis has helped about 50 lawyers in the last couple of year alone, Jim has worked with them in his private practice and as Five O’Clock Club branch head, and Kate regularly sees lawyers in her executive-level private practice. The observations and advice of these seasoned counselors are summed up in the article that follows.
They don’t want to be doctors (“I don’t like blood”) or accountants (“I don’t like numbers”),
but “Perry Mason sounds cool.”
“Lawyers over 40,” Jim Borland points out, “complain about the loss of civility in the law. People get very nasty very quickly.” The loss of civility may be a reflection of declining morale in the field. The current mood reminds Ellis of the climate in banking following the crash of 1987. “I have never heard so many professionals so unhappy.” Our counselors admit, of course, that they tend to see the unhappiest of the lot—the people who have decided to get career help—but even so their clients may be representative of a high proportion of those in the business. “We see the attorneys who are miserable,” Kate admits, “but they say that everybody is miserable.”
They may be projecting their low spirits onto others, but no matter how high or low the “unhappiness index” may actually be, it is clear that the world of law is not immune to the turbulence of the business world in general—leading many lawyers to rethink how they want to make a living.
The idea of permanence is no longer there. People are jumping from firm to firm and
getting pirated by recruiters.
The Changing Landscape in Law
Several factors may have contributed to the loss of civility and morale. Financial expectations, for example, may have reached new levels. “The whole nature of billable hours at the law firms has become so oppressive,” Ellis says. “The pressure for profitability is just as high as it is anywhere else—but the law firms carry it to a more extreme degree. Consequently the partnership track doesn’t exist the same way anymore. If you’re good—that’s not enough. People can’t just practice law anymore, they have to bring in business now.” He described one of his clients as a “brilliant lawyer, and a terrific writer, but a very introverted fellow; he intensely disliked bringing in business. It became clear that he would never make partner.” And Jim described one of his clients as a “classy guy, Ivy league, Park Avenue attorney” who had made partner years earlier. But his firm was acquired, and the new managing partner raised the quota on billable hours considerably—and Jim’s client was out within a year.
Thus the stability that was expected of the world of law has eroded. Ellis believes that “Ùthe idea of permanence is no longer there. People are jumping from firm to firm and getting pirated by recruiters. It’s much more like the rest of the corporate world than it ever was before.”
The mergers and acquisitions mania of the last decade has had impact as well. Kate notes that corporate general counsels are facing a tightening job market: “Usually when two companies merge, there’s room for only one general counsel. A lot have lost their jobs and they have very tough searches.”
Faulty Concepts of What Lawyers Do
Low morale may also be traced in large part to lack of careful forethought and career planning. Ellis suspects that “Ùmany people who become attorneys don’t do it with self-awareness or self-assessment. They want to be in a profession, but don’t want to be doctors (âI don’t like blood’) or accountants (âI don’t like numbers’), but âPerry Mason sounds cool.’ But they have a faulty concept of what the law is, and what the jobs in law require. It’s really disciplined, isolating work, commonly at firms that aren’t well managed. Decisions are made prematurely, poorly—this is epidemic in the field.” Jim thinks that the law school system plays a part in failing to manage expectations: “The first year of law school is living hell. And what you learn in law school has very little to do with what you’re going to do—or how. Most kids get internships or summer associates, and usually—but not always—find this exposure a turnoff, but they have to continue.”
Consequently, it is not uncommon for people to get to a place where they’re making a lot of money—and not enjoying it in the least. Ellis finds that “Ùa lot of lawyers are very unhappy because they wanted to be litigators, but didn’t really understand what that meant. Litigation requires years and years of research —even when you become a top litigator, you’re still doing a lot of research.” Borland reports counseling a woman who had become partner at a small law firm by age 28, earning $350,000 —but found the work unbearable. Kate sees lawyers in the $200,000 to $300,000-range who are, by any reasonable standard, successful. “But they didn’t realize how tedious and isolating it was going to be. The very first words out of their mouths when they walk in my office is that they want to leave law altogether.”
With her new law degree, she managed to land a $32,000 job as a paralegal at a giant corporation. Of the 60 paralegals on the staff, 50 were members of the bar!
The Big Fees Don’t Go to Everyone
Spectacular salaries notwithstanding, the difficulty of making a living is a much more common dilemma, and plays a role in prompting attorneys to seek career help. The law schools in the New York area alone turn out thousands of graduates a year, and the competition for jobs can be intense. Jim worked with a client recently who, with her new law degree, managed to land a $32,000 job as a paralegal at a giant corporation. Of the 60 paralegals on the staff, 50 were members of the bar! Turnover was low because everyone was counting on promotion to achieve some career progress.
Attorneys who make a try at private practice discover the harsh realities of self-employment. Ellis finds that “Ùmany don’t do well because they’re not great marketers. Even those who carve out a niche must be flexible and adaptable. You have to be open to a lot of different kinds of law. If you need someone to explain things to you, if you’re not resourceful, you’re going to have a lot of trouble in private practice. You have to be able to swim.”
In most cases—in the experience of our three counselors—lawyers don’t change careers as much as they change environments.
The Role of Assessment and Transferring Skills
Attorneys who join the Five O’Clock Club or who are referred to one of our counselors for private sessions are asked to do our basic assessment exercises, the Seven Stories and Forty-Year Vision. These usually provide the clues to finding a more satisfying way to make a living, although Kate has found that it can be an uphill battle with lawyers. They have the hardest time coming up with enjoyable accomplishments—and “enjoyable” is key when doing the Seven Stories. “It is striking to me when people cannot come up with seven accomplishments. Those people have been unhappy in their entire careers —that’s a sad thing. I definitely see it more with lawyers. One young man who had been practicing law for seven years, and who had done brilliantly in law school, could not list one enjoyable accomplishment. I had to ask him to try to remember enjoyable courses in high school and college.”
But the assessment work pays off in most cases, and in most cases—in the experience of our three counselors—lawyers don’t change careers as much as they change environments. Highly trained, highly skilled, and in many cases highly paid, it won’t do to try drastic leaps. Attorneys must self-assess very well, research targets and brainstorm—and use their legal knowledge in different contexts.
Other Industries Prove Appealing
Ellis recalls an Ivy league law graduate, a 10-year veteran of a Wall Street law firm, “Ùwho hated every minute of law school and hated working for a firm.” A grandson of Holocaust survivors, he had an intense interest in Holocaust studies—and the Seven Stories revealed a strong need to do good. The not-for-profit world turned out to be logical place to search and provided several promising targets. Heavy networking led to interviews with a Holocaust reparations agency, which was impressed with his legal background and strong understanding of contracts and documentation. He was ecstatic to land a position that involved reviewing reparations claims and negotiating with banks and insurance companies.
Another of Ellis’ clients, a graduate of second-tier law school, had landed with a personal injury law firm—and disliked it intensely. The work itself was not displeasing—and he enjoyed hard work. But the atmosphere of the firm and the pressure for billable hours were too stressful. Brainstorming options with Ellis, he decided to quit the firm and sample the market by working for a temp law agency. He got an assignment with an insurance company, doing basically the same work he had done with the law firm. Within a few months he called Ellis with good news, “I love it here, and they’re about to offer me a permanent position.” Within two years he was promoted to Vice President.
One of Kate’s clients, a senior partner with a law firm who had put in too many grueling 70- to 90-hour weeks, was looking for a way out—and simply peddling himself to another law firm was not the answer. Several accomplishments on the Seven Stories revealed his passion for wine, but he had never considered this seriously as a possible career path. With correct positioning on the rÌsumÌ, appropriate targeting and networking, he was able to land a position as senior legal counsel for a wine company.
A senior partner with a law firm who had put in too many grueling 70- to 90-hour weeks—and had a passion for wine— became senior legal counsel
for a wine company.
A senior general counsel who came to Kate changed environments by going from a state government position to the private sector. At a state health department he had overseen a staff of 85 litigators, but was obviously viewed as a great catch by a health-care company that brought him on board as senior counsel.
Some Make Bigger Leaps Than Others
Another of Jim’s Ivy League graduates had stalled in a low paying ($42,000) position with a Federal regulatory agency. After more than six months of networking he landed a position as compliance officer with a leading brokerage house; he eventually was able to move into a trading role that involved forging international deals—and tapped his skills as a lawyer. One of the clients at Jim’s Five O’Clock Club branch who been associate general counsel at one of the Big 5 landed a position at a Fortune 100 company that is buying accounting firms.
Jim has seen others move from law firms into the entertainment field. One attorney found a position with one of the major TV network as business development officer. This may appear at first to be one of those unlikely “drastic leaps,” but he works in a division that markets artists’ properties, so his considerable skills in copyright law play a key role in his new position. And another, a working mother of two small children, could no longer put in the 18-hour days demanded by her firm. She found a job in TV production, working on programs that deal with law and media.
The dot.com world has cast its spell on a few attorneys as well. One of Kate’s clients decided to focus all his energy on mastering the emerging field of Internet law, and has established a profitable niche there. Another in Borland’s practice found a role in Internet business development.
Some lawyers manage eventually to buy their way out of traditional career tracks. The high-stress, high-pay jobs have allowed the accumulation of considerable capital, and this can bring options. One of Kate’s clients was able to buy a small manufacturing business with a skilled management team in place to help him learn the ropes. Another senior legal counsel, who was stymied by the shrinking market, chipped in with some friends to buy a company. There he was able to function as legal counsel, but also served as business operations head, thereby enhancing his experience.
Kate tells other stories—of a corporate attorney who became a priest, a trademark attorney who became associate executive director of a cultural not-for-profit, and many an attorney who moved to the business side.
For those Who Love the Law
Not so long ago Ellis heard that a Wall Street law firm recently paid a law school grad $165,000 to start. “This is probably a record—but they’re competing with other industries now.”
The dot.com world has cast its spell on a few attorneys as well. One client mastered the emerging field of Internet law.
And people 4 to 5 years out of law school are at a premium. Hence it’s clear that the market is very good for lawyers on the way up, who thrive on heavy work and who love the law as it is practiced at the firms or offices of corporate counsels. The ability to adapt and survive will count for a lot.
It’s not so clear why people who don’t love the law are putting their toes in the water. Our counselors are skeptical of the recent trend of opting for law school instead of business school—especially for those who do not anticipate a career in the law. “There are so many law schools,” Jim points out. “Anyone can get into a law school—which isn’t true of other professions. It’s a classic myth that law school teaches you how to think. If you go to the right school, you may have a leg up.” “It’s a mystery to me,” Ellis confesses. “Why do people who don’t plan to practice law want a law degree? It’s three years of grueling study—are you sure there’s going to be a payoff?”
Why do people who don’t plan to practice law want a law degree? Are they sure there’s going to be a payoff?
We can only hope, based on our counseling experience—and hearing so many the reports from the front lines—that only people who understand themselves very well, and who understand what they’re getting into very well, will chose law as a career.