Fear of Failure or Lack of Vision? Why unhappy attorneys stay at big-law firms.

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Fear of Failure or Lack of Vision? Why unhappy attorneys stay at big-law firms.
The buzz on legal job search websites is that there's a job for every J.D. out there, it's just a matter of being willing to look outside the box. Law school grads run the gamut from those in the top tier schools whose GPAs and Moot Court Awards thrust them into the big-name firms' notice, to those whose greatest accomplishment in law school was to chair the local chapter of the Law and Wine Society. However, it seems that every law student begins law school with a dream of landing a job at a firm offering them $160,000 just to start. What they don't know is that these entry-level lawyers may be miserable for years with little chance of achieving a notable career. And those individuals who were "lucky enough" to secure the big-name law firm position, and then found themselves disillusioned, continue to stay. Why would these eager entry-level attorneys stay at dead-end jobs? There are a number of reasons lawyers stay at high-paying jobs that leave them feeling burnt out and unfulfilled. Read on to find out.
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Liz Brown, author of the new book, Life After Law: Finding Work You Love with the J.D. You Have, has first-hand knowledge of the way young lawyers get stuck working for big firms even when their expectations aren't being met and they're putting in the necessary 2000+ hours a year.

"The whole point of writing Life After Law was to encourage people to find work they love, work that fits their talents and interests, and to dare to leave behind the safe misery that so many people-lawyers especially-experience in their careers. My view is that young lawyers remain in firms where they have little chance to rise for the following reasons:
  1. It's expected of them after law school, since on-campus recruiting makes it the easiest option.
  2. It's the most direct way to start paying back their massive loans.
  3. It's a high-status, high-pay first job, one that few other people in their mid-20s can get access to.
  4. They don't know yet what else they may want to do, since few law schools prepare them for the many realistic alternative options out there.
  5. They don't yet have the self-knowledge or self-confidence to pursue something less traditional.
  6. They may feel that they can learn a lot in the first year or two while paying down loans, with the goal of getting out quickly, but then find that getting out is not as easy as they thought it would be.
  7. Many corporate firms have a 'silo' mentality that implicitly denigrates lawyers who want to move out of law."

Liz Brown
Harvard-trained former partner at an international law firm who now teaches business law at Bentley University
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This is a subject I am interested in because I worked for corporate law firms (most recently Sutherland) for 7 years before leaving to found my own firm (Combs & Taylor LLP) in March of 2012. Based on my experience, young lawyers are attracted to and stay at large corporate firms for three principal reasons.
  1. In law school, big firm jobs are all that anyone talks about. The promise of a $160,000 starting salary seems too good to pass up and most law students become convinced that there is a great deal of prestige associated with landing a summer associate position and an eventual fulltime position at a big firm. It is also my opinion that law school career services departments push their students toward big firm jobs to boost their post-graduation employment statistics and national rankings.
  2. The cost of law school is so great that many students graduate with monthly loan obligations in excess of $1500 per month. To be able to begin a life (get married, buy a home, have children, etc.) while also covering a fixed obligation of that magnitude starts to seem unmanageable without a big firm salary, particularly after getting used to receiving a large regular paycheck. The golden handcuffs are difficult to remove.
  3. Law schools and big firms train their students and associates to be risk-averse. There is a lot of pressure to not make mistakes and not take on legal issues outside of one's area of expertise, which, for big firm lawyers, is generally pretty narrow. That pressure is stifling and it saps young lawyers of their entrepreneurial spirit. Leaving the firm to try something new, which will likely pay less money, at least to begin with, starts to seem like too great a risk.

Evan Taylor
Combs & Taylor LLP
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Entry-level Attorneys      Entry-level Lawyers      Law Student      Life After Law     

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