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Looking For a Legal Career in All Different Places

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This article is intended to help you find happiness in a legal career. But simply figuring out what type of law you want to practice and how to do well in law school will not guarantee you happiness as a lawyer. Finding the right work environment-an organization with the right structure, size, and personality - may be much more important. Will you have a supportive boss or one who's abusive and who takes credit for your ideas? Will you have colleagues who view you as the competition or who work with you as part of a team? Do you thrive in the formality of a large organization or feel swamped by the sheer size?

Looking For a Legal Career in All Different Places



Matchmaker, Matchmaker

If you've decided you'll like being a lawyer, the perfect legal job for you is out there somewhere. You just have to find it. How? By focusing your search on the types of job settings that are most likely to be ones you'd enjoy. You find that focus through a process of elimination. Eliminate the clients that you'd prefer not to work for and you've taken a big step toward finding the lawyers that you'd like to work with.

You can use this generalization in your process of elimination. If you feel uncomfortable with large corporations, you will likely feel uncomfortable with the (usually large) law firms that service those corporations. Not only will you be asked to do work that you might feel uneasy about; you will be doing it with people who don't share your reservations, and will likely be working in a firm that shares the corporate culture and values of the corporations it represents.

Similarly, if you think personal injury plaintiffs are simply hoping to win the lottery by blaming someone else for their problems, you'll be unlikely to want to work with the lawyers who represent personal injury plaintiffs. On the other hand, if you think personal injury plaintiffs are only seeking just compensation for injuries that should have been avoided, you should consider working at a plaintiffs' personal injury firm. Either way, if you can't stand up in court and project your sincere belief in your client, you will be neither effective nor happy as a lawyer.

The basic idea here is to eliminate what you find uncomfortable. If you're a woman or a minority group member, maybe it's a firm or corporation with few mentors for you or which you feel has shown insensitivity in hiring. If you went to public schools, maybe it's employers dominated by those who prepped at private schools. If you grew up in another part of the country, maybe it's a firm that expects you to have business contacts in the area. If you're a private person, maybe it's a company where the whole gang hits the happy hour after work.

You won't find information about these topics in the corporation's annual report or the law firm's hiring brochure. You may not gain that type of information from others who have worked at a place before you. You'll have to ask perceptive questions and keep your eyes and ears open as you interview. To help you out, though, let's look at some of the different settings in which you might practice law. If you can eliminate whole categories of jobs, your task of focusing in on what you might really like will be a lot easier.

Private Practice

Private practice lawyers are lawyers for hire. They represent clients but are not employees of their clients-they are self-employed or employed by law firms. Private practitioners are the lawyers you usually see on TV and in the movies. This is probably the kind of lawyer you thought you wanted to be when you first thought you wanted to be a lawyer.

Lawyers in private practice handle every type of legal issue imaginable, from arbitration to zoning, from banking to trusts and estates work. Aside from the subject matter of their practice, the obvious distinctions among private practitioners include the number of other lawyers with whom they practice and the types of clients they represent.

Private practice-are solo practitioners, often known simply as solos, are lawyers who may be specialists in a particular practice area-real estate, divorce, personal injury litigation-or may be general practitioners. General practice solos were once quite common in years past, and still are in many smaller communities. Solo general practitioners are fairly rare in larger cities today.

Solos have the freedom to practice as they wish. They are their own bosses within their offices, responsible to no one but their clients. That freedom can be liberating, but can also be stressful and lonely. Solos often have no one else to bounce ideas off of or to share problems with. Solos reap all of the profits from their practice, but must bring in business by themselves and must bear all of the costs of the practice. When they are busy, solos have no one to help them meet obligations to be in two courts or with two clients at the same time. Perhaps because of mistakes born of this time pressure, solos are far more likely to have malpractice claims made against them.

You shouldn't overlook solos as potential employers. Many solos or two- or three-lawyer firms would like to grow their offices into larger firms.

As an associate to a solo or very small partnership, you'll be getting in on the ground floor. Over the immediate term, you could help relieve some of the time pressure an individual practitioner faces. You will not likely earn the salary you could with a large firm, but you will likely get more practical experience earlier and have a better chance of becoming a partner. Be careful, though. If you associate with a solo, you want to be sure that you've chosen a good mentor and entrepreneur. You want to find someone who can build a successful practice while teaching you well, rather than someone who will merely throw you in the middle of the lake to see if you can swim.

Of course, you could simply hang out a shingle and become a solo yourself. You'd then enjoy the benefits of your own practice. But becoming a solo is not a decision to be made lightly. Too often, it is made out of desperation because no other job is available. There are many books written about going out on your own. Read them before you do so. And consider the significant start-up costs, the difficulty in finding enough paying clients, and the problems of learning to practice law without a mentor.

All law firms are, in essence, collections of lawyers that work together in differing degrees of coordination to represent clients. Beyond that, it is difficult to generalize. Areas of practice, type of clients, form of firm governance, and nature of compensation systems all vary greatly across firms. And most of these characteristics are not apparent to the prospective employee of the firm. As private entities, little public information exists about law firms. There is no annual report you can read to learn more about a firm. You'll have to do your own investigating.

The most obvious way to distinguish among law firms is by their relative size in a particular locale. Generally, the larger a firm in any community, the more "prestige" there is in being associated with it. People in the community will have heard of the firm. The larger firms are likely candidates to handle the legal work for the larger corporations in the area. Larger firms generally charge more for their services (thereby pricing themselves out of certain types of lower-budget work). These firms generally pay their associates better. Often the larger firms earn the resentment of other lawyers in town. As is true with any type of organization, larger size leads to greater bureaucracy and makes it increasingly difficult for individuals to make a dramatic impact.

Smaller firms are usually more freewheeling. The rules are often less formal. The time it takes to become a partner, for example, is usually shorter, and promotion to partner may be decided on a case-by-case basis. Smaller firms are often more directed and entrepreneurial. They sometimes can react-and have to react-faster to changes in the marketplace than larger firms. Small firms generally have to rely on the personal contacts of their lawyers, rather than the firm's name, to bring in business.

Style of firm governance is another aspect for you to consider in deciding whether a particular firm is right for you. Whatever size a firm may be, it can be run as an autocracy, an aristocracy, or a democracy. No lawyer is likely to describe his or her firm as anything other than democratic, so you'll have to look for subtle clues to figure out the real story. The general form of partner compensation will tell you a lot. If partners are compensated primarily on the basis of such factors as seniority with the firm, without significant distinctions among partners of the same relative experience, the firm is likely to be relatively democratic. If partners "eat what they kill"-that is, get paid based on the amount of legal business they bring into the firm-the rainmakers are likely to rule everyone else. (Be careful about raising these sensitive issues in an interview. Better to pick up this kind of information as a summer associate or from a former summer associate.)

Firms can specialize in certain types of law or can be general practice firms. Even firms that hold themselves out as general practice firms may practice predominantly in one or two fairly specialized areas. You should find this out, because it may affect your fit with that firm. If you end up in the predominant department, you will more likely become a specialist. If you end up in a smaller department, you will likely be more of a generalist.

Keeping track of your day by six- or ten-minute intervals is a pain. What's worse, though, is the effect the billable-hours system has on a lawyer's personal life. There will be direct and indirect pressures on you to work evenings. You may have to fight to keep weekends to yourself and your family-and doing so may affect your standing in the firm.

As you think about where you'd like to end up, consider how joining a particular firm will affect your career mobility. When you start with a firm, you're on the "partnership track"-working to become a partner. Most law firms hire more new lawyers each year than they can possibly make partner when the time comes. (The time, by the way, varies significantly. Usually it's between five and ten years of practice. Don't forget to ask.) Thus, many of a firm's associates will leave the firm someday.

If you leave one firm to go to another, you're an actual or potential competitor. But if you go in-house, you're an actual or potential client. The difference can have interesting consequences. What keeps many associates working at a firm is the prospect of making partner. In addition to increasing your job security, making partner usually increases your compensation. Instead of receiving a salary and/ or bonus, partners receive a "draw" or "share" of the firm's profits. When a law firm does well economically, the firm's partners can do very well indeed. With few exceptions, the best-paid lawyers are partners in large law firms.


About Harrison Barnes
Harrison Barnes is the founder of LawCrossing and an internationally recognized expert in attorney search and placement. Harrison is extremely committed to and passionate about the profession of legal placement. Harrison’s writings about attorney careers and placement attract millions of reads each year. LawCrossing has been ranked on the Inc. 500 twice. For more information, please visit Harrison Barnes’ bio.

About LawCrossing
LawCrossing has received tens of thousands of attorneys jobs and has been the leading legal job board in the United States for almost two decades. LawCrossing helps attorneys dramatically improve their careers by locating every legal job opening in the market. Unlike other job sites, LawCrossing consolidates every job in the legal market and posts jobs regardless of whether or not an employer is paying. LawCrossing takes your legal career seriously and understands the legal profession. For more information, please visit www.LawCrossing.com.


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Harrison Barnes does a weekly free webinar with live Q&A for attorneys and law students each Wednesday at 10:00 am PST. You can attend anonymously and ask questions about your career, this article, or any other legal career-related topics. You can sign up for the weekly webinar here: Register on Zoom

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Harrison Barnes is the legal profession's mentor and may be the only person in your legal career who will tell you why you are not reaching your full potential and what you really need to do to grow as an attorney--regardless of how much it hurts. If you prefer truth to stagnation, growth to comfort, and actionable ideas instead of fluffy concepts, you and Harrison will get along just fine. If, however, you want to stay where you are, talk about your past successes, and feel comfortable, Harrison is not for you.

Truly great mentors are like parents, doctors, therapists, spiritual figures, and others because in order to help you they need to expose you to pain and expose your weaknesses. But suppose you act on the advice and pain created by a mentor. In that case, you will become better: a better attorney, better employees, a better boss, know where you are going, and appreciate where you have been--you will hopefully also become a happier and better person. As you learn from Harrison, he hopes he will become your mentor.

To read more career and life advice articles visit Harrison's personal blog.

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About Harrison Barnes

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