By Jean M. H. Fergus
The National Law Journal, May 28,1990

Today's law firm associates are playing a game of roulette with their careers, but most don't even notice. Today, associates need to reposition themselves in the legal market and get on track with goals that will preserve a bright future.

At a time when they should be concerned about their futures, many associates sit by complacently - immersed in their files and attached to high-paying jobs with golden handcuffs that lock them into a money-oriented lifestyle. Yet, for current associates, the indications are that the chances of gaining partnership are several times less than even five years ago. The reason is clear: since 1985 law firms have grown dramatically and the number of associates has doubled, tripled and even quadrupled in some cases.

This growth and heightened competition have not been matched by comparable increases in partnership opportunity. Law firms today are increasingly bottom-heavy, and each associate's shot at partnership has been significantly, if quietly, diminished.

The job market for lawyers is tight, and more lean years are ahead. A reduction in service needs by law firm clientele has serious repercussions at the costly senior-associate level. As recent firings and layoffs in New York indicate, the golden handcuffs can be unclasped on either side. When the firm lets the associate go, the gold wears off to reveal a lining of tin - the associates' standard tin parachute of three to six months' severance pay, outplacement service and little more.

What this means is that associates need to take a clear-eyed look at their careers. Lawyers who have two to five, perhaps even six, years of experience have a window of opportunity. This is when they are the most marketable, and it is the prime time to consider a career adjustment. Any job prospects should be reviewed with the utmost seriousness, and smart associates will go a step beyond by taking an active look at their lives and professional goals. The attorneys who are the most successful are not necessarily those who are the smartest or the hardest working, but are those who are most adept at making the right move at the right time.

In the simplest terms, associates should be looking around and making themselves aware of enhanced career opportunities. More than getting a resume typed up, this involves a significant amount of soul-searching. Associates should identify their strengths and their preferences and match them with current business trends.

Assessing Goals
Assessing career goals is rarely easy, and it is especially difficult for associates. After all, many signed on with firms after being recruited in law school when they had little knowledge of what work would appeal to them. Two to five years later, these attorneys should have a much deeper sense of their career needs.

In checklist fashion, young lawyers need to articulate their values in four areas: type of work, compensation requirements, lifestyle needs and options.

Associates need to determine what type of work they love. Evaluating one's peak interest in being a lawyer is crucial to future career plans. If the attorney can't answer with specifics -such as, "I love being able to give advice to commercial clients on the structuring of deals that can save hundreds of thousands of dollars," - trouble lies ahead. Vague answers about prestige or professional credentials won't go very far in formulating career plans.

Attorneys should next break down the work they do into distinct tasks, attempting to identify those aspects of practice that are most important to them. For example, an attorney should determine what type of clients he or she finds most interesting. He or she should also determine which assignments command particular satisfaction. For example, the challenge of conducting a deposition, the drafting of complex real estate documents, the personal contact with trusts and estates clients or the research and writing of appellate arguments may be areas that are particularly satisfying.

In essence, an attorney's first years at a law firm are an apprenticeship. But the field of law is in constant flux and the need for particular skills changes. The attorneys who were assigned to areas that are shrinking in demand - LBO financings, for example - will need to be creative in logging their skills and applying them to developing areas. The attorney should complete an inventory of what specific skills have been acquired. For example, drafting, financial research, contract writing or fact investigation may be among an attorney's acquired skills.

The associates also need to do an analysis as to what types of openings in the legal marketplace are hot. An attorney should determine what further training may be needed to transfer skills or to become competent in a developing area of law. Associates may be able to position themselves within their current firm to build experience by volunteering for a particular work assignment or seeking a pro bono project with a certain slant. If an actual work assignment is not possible, seminars or training programs could be available for the lawyer to attend.

Finally, the associate should take a look at the structure of practice and decide what type of law firm seems most enjoyable - large, small, specialized, participatory management, big name or progressive. An in-house counsel position involving work for a single client may have appeal

For some people, this process of evaluating work satisfaction will end with the blunt realization that they really don't enjoy the practice of law. Some might prefer the business side, while others might crave creativity, flexibility or place a high value on a more active home or a vocational life. Whatever the reason for the disenchantment with law, these individuals must begin. In earnest to explore their transferable skills and contacts.

Money issues are often the most difficult for young lawyers to evaluate and to face. Essentially, many associates, particularly those who want to work for large law firms with dazzling entry salaries, may have to adjust their compensation expectations.

Respectable salaries are garnered by many lawyers, but few attorneys topple into the category of extraordinary wealth. Associates who wish to pursue the practice of law need to do a financial assessment to realistically determine what their dollar needs are and where their comfort levels lie. Money may be either a way of "keeping score," or it may be fundamental to the person's sense of well-being and lifestyle.

Many young lawyers want to do work that is challenging and receive exceptional financial rewards. One may have to give way to the other. The more willing associates are to moderate their financial expectations, the greater the job possibilities are that will open up to them.

What generally makes people feel best or worst about their jobs has little to do with money and is only partially related to the actual work. More important are the intangible factors that create the work environment - the culture. These factors include management style, sharing of work, recognition, autonomy, billable hours, responsibility, attitudes toward the community and toward families, even the level of socializing and office decor.

Each of these issues should be weighed and rated. Associates may have tried similar exercises as law students, but now they have firsthand experience with which to evaluate the rhetoric they heard.

One way to assess the intangibles of a job is to roam through the list of partners at the firm. It may be helpful to identify who among the partners are role models and what aspects of their lives or practices are attractive. What they are like in their personal relationships, their outside interests, their involvement in government, arts or civic activities may help an associate to make assessments. Partners often select those most like them to join the partnership. If there are no lifestyles among the partnership that are appealing, a strong message is being generated that it's not a place to stay.

Reviewing Options
The final step to planning a career move is to scrutinize the job market and to match personal goals with potential employment opportunities. Only the exceedingly rare position will satisfy all of an individual's needs. Trade-offs are inevitable. After prioritizing goals and values, the real issue is an assessment of the opportunities to fulfill some of those goals in making a job move.

Two factors - subtle pressure and fear - prevent attorneys from moving to new positions, even though a change may be exactly the right prescription.

Subtle pressure is found in office after office, where firm lore holds that "no one ever left who the firm really wanted to keep." Individuals depart because they just couldn't cut it, the theme goes. This may never have been true.

In the current climate, some solid achievers will be left out in the cold for reasons unrelated to their work or abilities. Firms cannot financially support the continuous promotion of all their personnel.

Some associates hang on to their jobs because they fear that the next job might be worse. Not uncommonly, the word spreads that a person who left is terribly unhappy in a new position. The statements are often not true. Although, of course, those left behind can feel self-satisfied.

On the contrary, there are distinct signposts to look for when determining if it is time to leave. Associates should independently take stock of things such as the firm's business position and determine, for example, if major clients have financial difficulties or if an associate's large class may make advancement improbable. Associates should also consider how many partners are being voted in each year, and whether some attorneys are being given make-work assignments.

Associates then need to dispassionately ask themselves three tough questions: Do they get consistently strong reviews? Are they being assigned the best work? Do they get to meet clients? If they cannot fully answer "yes" to these questions, they need to become active in the search process.

Few people schedule themselves for life re-examinations as they do for physical checkups. For all too many, it takes a major jolt - a death, an illness or a layoff -- before serious self-study is undertaken. But, associates who want to stay on top of the game should begin at once by blocking out some vacation time, simply sitting still and conducting a detailed career inventory. For those in the two-to-five-and beyond years category, doing nothing may no longer be a viable option.

© 2003 Fergus Partnership Consulting Inc.
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