Last month I completed a coaching engagement with a newly minted attorney. About a year ago he was recruited out of law school by a Big Law firm into their litigation department. It was not a good match. My client was not well suited to the big firm workstyle but, more importantly, the main source of his unhappiness was the practice area. Litigation is not for everyone.
Litigation permeates the law. We are programmed in law school, to a certain degree, to think of litigation as the stock-in-trade of a lawyer. Moot court, courses on civil procedure, criminal procedure, evidence, and appellate practice all ingrain in us a vision of the glorious combat of the courtroom. The reality is different.
There are two factors that steer new lawyers into litigation:
- It's sexy. The fight, the drama, the intellectual challenge, and the chance to be on stage have enormous appeal for a young attorney.
- The jobs. Litigation is lucrative and thus is a staple practice area that requires manpower. Young lawyers are the worker bees and the worker bees feed the firm's profits. Lots of money to be made equals lots of jobs for young attorneys.
But making the choice to become a litigator is the wrong choice for many new attorneys. Not all lawyers, and in my opinion only a small minority, are well suited to the demands of the job. Smart people can do a lot of things well but that doesn't mean they enjoy them. Litigation requires long hours, stressful deadlines, and pressure from firm partners, opposing counsel, clients, and judges. It is inherently non-conducive to a good work-life balance.
In my coaching client's situation, we were able to position him in an in-house position that better suited his personality and work-life values. But that is not always the case. I have talked to a number of lawyers who are too far along in their careers to afford to retool to a different practice area or move to an in-house, government, or industry position. They are stuck doing work they are not well suited for and do not enjoy.
If you are a new lawyer, do not let this happen to you. Once you are situated in a practice area it is difficult to change and the longer you wait the more difficult it becomes.
My recommendation to young lawyers:
- Spend some time before embarking on your legal career to get to know yourself. Consider who you are, what you are good at (and not), and what your personal values are.
- Look to the future. Imagine your legal career in a variety of practice areas and types of firms 5, 10, 20 years down the road.
- Investigate, I mean seriously investigate, various practice areas. Interviewing lawyers in various practice areas would be a great idea. There are so many possible career paths for a young attorney, consider your options. You may very well find another area best fits who you are as a person and your particular talents as a lawyer. Take a look at the Managing Your Legal Career page on my website.
You have run the gauntlet of undergrad, law school, and the bar. You are obviously smart, organized, and determined. Don't let a hasty or not well-thought-out decision wreck or damage your legal career. Make the choice that is the right one for you.
I know this post sounds overly critical of litigation. That is only my opinion but it is an opinion formed from 25 years of my own law practice plus 20+ years of coaching attorneys, in many cases helping them transition to another practice area, law firm, or out of the law altogether. Litigation may be the perfect practice area for you. If so, Great! I only encourage you to take your time and do your due diligence in deciding on your legal career path. The effort will serve you well.
Have a Great Legal Career!