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How to Efficently Manage Your Legal Career

published May 23, 2005

Cary Griffith
( 2 votes, average: 4.4 out of 5)
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<<When Bill Lindbergh was in law school, he was proficient enough at the analytical requirements of law to acquire his J.D. and pass the Bar. But his first couple of years practicing law—as a solo practitioner and then with a law firm—left him restless and unfulfilled. He wanted more.

Stephen Seckler became a member of the Bar in 1988. His first law-related job was working for the Massachusetts Office of Continuing Legal Education, where he organized and developed conferences and training. For several years, he enjoyed his work, but two factors lead him to consider a career change: children and a lifelong yearning to leverage his entrepreneurial spirit.

Like most legal professionals, they each began their working careers in markedly different circumstances from those in which they now find themselves. Today, all of them would say they were more satisfied in their current positions than in their first or even second jobs out of law school. And if the histories of their career satisfaction were plotted on a graph, they would be long, unbroken lines, steadily rising. They would also be typical.

According to a 2000 ABA survey of young lawyers (ABA Young Lawyers Division Survey: Career Satisfaction), most lawyers begin their work lives with the notion their jobs will change—sooner, rather than later. The study found that "despite a high level of overall satisfaction with current positions and the practice of law generally, more than sixty-five percent indicated that they would consider switching jobs within two years." And those were young lawyers. Surveys like these support the notion that most legal professionals are only partially satisfied with their positions and yearn for something more.

There are many reasons lawyers change jobs. Some analysts point to the stereotypical negative perception of the profession. "The first thing we do," said Dick the Butcher in Shakespeare's Henry VI, "let's kill all the lawyers." This line is often used to malign the profession. The truth, of course, is that the dialogue and play's action were meant to entertain and illustrate quite the opposite. Shakespeare recognized that lawyers are the very professionals who often lead the charge against tyranny and oppression. Hence, Dick the Butcher wanted them gone.

Other legal professionals pursue career changes because of work/life issues. With more law offices ramping up billable hour requirements, it's easy to understand why more young associates, craving some sort of personal life, become disillusioned with 60-hour workweeks.

While some may pursue different careers out of dissatisfaction with the profession, or billable hour requirements, our anecdotal survey points to more personal reasons for making job changes. Often, the greatest motivating factor for changing jobs is desire—desire for a reasonable standard of living, but perhaps more important, desire for more meaningful work.

When workers are young, their notions about work and life are untested. Changes are slow to develop in the crucible of the workplace. Most people's careers are illustrative of the idea that change is inevitable but not dramatic.

"Take baby steps," advises Seckler, when counseling attorneys about career changes. Since February, Seckler has been the Managing Director of the Boston Office of BCG Attorney Search. He is the author of numerous career counseling articles, most of which have appeared in the Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly. And prior to his work with BCG, he spent part of his time as a career coach.

While his job as a career coach was different from his work with the Massachusetts CLE Office, it satisfied two of his most personal career requirements. First, he had always wanted to be more entrepreneurial. Striking out on his own enabled him to build a business and gave him the independence he'd always desired. And then there was the matter of his second child. He needed to make more money. The motivation arising out of both requirements gave Seckler the impetus to make a change. But he was still working within the legal profession and making use of the law degree he'd spent substantial time and money acquiring.

When Lindbergh became frustrated with private practice, he switched jobs and began working for West Publishing Company. For the next 20 years, he worked mainly in roles that leveraged his natural affinity for building and maintaining relationships. "When I was at West," Lindbergh explains, "I enjoyed the role of being of service to the bench and bar and forever associated with the practice of law."

After West was sold to Thomson, Lindbergh reflected on his strengths and interests and decided to make another career change. When Bill was young, he'd worked as a resident adviser and a camp counselor. "At West, I'd done work with the National Association of Law Placement. I was attracted to legal-career-related issues."

After a brief stint as a nonprofit fund-raiser, Lindbergh decided to begin his own practice as a career coach. To date, he has coached more than 100 attorneys, who seek his counsel regarding everything from career transitions to how to re-engage with the law to "how to have a life and be a lawyer, how not to give all of yourself to your legal practice."

Lindbergh is pleased with his business and, now more than ever, content with his career. In part, it was because, as Seckler advises, he made "sure to take time out to reflect."

Seckler also suggests that lawyers "talk to someone who can help you get perspective. Because it's hard to get perspective." He suggests using career coaches or "a more experienced lawyer who has been around the block or a lawyer who has left the profession" as a way to gain insight from people who have faced the same career dilemmas.

By the time Baquero's children were older, she decided to go to law school. After four years, she acquired her J.D., passed the bar, and was ready to work as an attorney. Her first position was with a corporation, managing a group of lawyers who gave phone advice for a company that specialized in all forms of employee advice—including limited legal advice. Baquero had done enough self-reflection to know working in a corporation wasn't the best environment for her. And "being a supervisor, for me, was awful. We had meetings about meetings, and I wanted to practice and work with the Latino community." She knew she wanted to use her Spanish and she wanted to practice law.

A fortuitous encounter at her parents' 50th wedding anniversary put her in touch with the priest of a parish with several Spanish-speaking parishioners. Some of these parishioners needed legal assistance. Baquero began volunteering one night a week. Then two. Then more, until she finally realized she could start her own practice as an immigration attorney. Following Seckler's advice about "taking baby steps," she pared down her corporate job to half time while she ramped up her practice. Ten months later, she finally quit the corporate job altogether. Now she's practicing law, making a reasonable wage, and using her language skills to help the Latino community.

Managing your legal career doesn't have to involve crisis. The best legal-career change is made with care and only after self-reflection, experience in the marketplace, and attending to your own peculiar perspective about how best to make a living.

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