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How Can Attorneys With 5+ Years of Experience Save Their Careers

published June 30, 2021

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Just as with any other company, law firms and lawyers rely on having business to survive. If you cannot generate business, you have no work; thus, your career is on the line. This is especially true for attorneys with more than five years of law experience and still don't generate enough business to have successful careers.
 

Attorneys in Such Situation Usually Do One of Seven Things:

 
  1. They go in-house
  2. They try to generate more business
  3. They switch to a healthy firm with enough work
  4. They associate themselves with a lawyer in their firm who has business
  5. They wait for a better economic situation
  6. They switch to a lower quality firm or open their own law practice
  7. They stop practicing law



How Important Is Business for a Lawyer?


You might be asking yourself how important business really is for you as a lawyer? Truthfully, there are not many factors that are more important than having enough business. It is the only way you get a constant stream of work, which is vital for any career.

Creating business gets more important the higher up you are in your seniority level. Younger associates are rewarded based on how much they can work for their superiors. In contrast, senior associates and partners get paid based on how much revenue they can generate for the firm. If you have been in a job with a company for years and don't bring in any work, you become a burden to the firm, and they might want to let you go.

However, law firms are willing to overlook many serious problems with your behavior if you bring in enough business. I knew a lawyer who had well-known problems with substances, switched firms a lot and made enemies wherever he went. But he could bring in several million every year, so law firms still fought over him. They need clients, resources, and work to succeed.

Young associates charge less for their work, so they get a lot of work from clients who want to keep their bills low. Senior associates and partners have higher fees. Because partners usually get twice as much money for work they do themselves than work they delegate, they often choose to do the more "senior tasks" themselves. This leaves many senior associates without work.

If you find yourself in such a position, you have to make a difficult choice. The most common options are:
 

Going in-House


Going in-house is often a choice of attorneys who don't have any other alternative. If for some reason, they weren't able to succeed in the world of law firms, they don't have many other choices than to go work as a legal counsel in a company.

It is not all bad, of course. Working in-house comes with more time outside of work, which is why many lawyer-mothers choose this option to spend more time with their families. However, you won't find ambitious go-getters in such a position.

Law positions in companies are commonly filled by people who lack the commitment needed in high-pressure law practice, don't want to work long hours, or don't have enough business to sustain their profession as a higher-level attorney in a law company.

It doesn't always have to be like this. If you have the knowledge and years of experience to become a counsel in one of the huge corporations, you might be able to have a great profession with a very high salary. However, this is the case for only a handful of lawyers who go in-house. For most, it is a sign of surrendering. It can often be the worst decision for your legal career.

When a talented attorney thinking of going in-house comes to me for advice, I always give them this comparison with the medical industry:

When you move from being a lawyer in a big law firm to going in-house, it is like studying hard and managing to get a job in a prestigious hospital as a neurosurgeon and then wanting to switch to being a nurse in a hospital in a small town.

This comparison might seem extreme, but the gist of it is true. As an in-house counsel in a company, you don't have any pressure to bring in clients and business. The work you do is mainly routine because the more complex legal work is always done by external lawyers hired from law firms. The environment is not competitive; no one pushes you to do better work or grow and be better. Such a work environment might suit some people, but going in-house is not the answer if you are ambitious and want to grow your counsel.

As a legal recruiter, I see this issue from a different perspective. If you have been an in-house counsel in a company and want to get back into a large law firm afterward, you might not be able to. Big law firms do not like to hire in-house attorneys because they consider these people as someone who has given up on practicing high-level law. If you weren't able to survive in the world of a big law company once, why would they risk hiring you after you have been sitting in a corporate office for a few years?

Law is a fast-paced game, and if you step back, you might not be able to get back into it. It is not entirely impossible, but it isn't easy. So, if you are thinking of going in-house, you should consider it from all sides. It might save you when you don't have any business, but you should know the cost of it.
 

Generating More Business


When you don't have enough business as an attorney, the next logical thing is to get more of it. If you get business, it will solve all your problems - you will have work to do, increased income, and it will save your position in the company. You also suddenly gain possibilities to change firms, open your own law practice, or move forward in your legal profession. You will be doing what you set out to do and fulfilling your dream of being a good and successful attorney.

If you cannot do so, it is a huge problem, and you are on track to lose your job. When your superiors or people from other firms look at you and see that you don't have any business, what will they think? Not anything good! They might consider you as someone not dedicated enough or not good enough for the world of practicing law. They might make excuses saying that their firm doesn't want them to bring in their own clients because they have a lot of work as it is. But most firms are happy when their associates bring in a lot of business because they get a percentage. So those are really just excuses. The best attorneys always generate business, regardless of the climate or habits in their company.

I have personal experience from the start of my profession. I worked in a major law firm as a second-year associate and generated quite a lot of business. I have always worked really hard and networked with the right people, so I was quite proud of doing that while still at the beginning of my legal employment. But the law firm I was at had a lot of work on its own and didn't really want to take on clients and work generated by the associates. They only wanted their lawyers to do the work they assigned to them. So I left for a company where I could use my business-generating skills, and it was a good choice for my long-term profession. But, unfortunately, the attorneys in that firm who only worked their asses off and never tried to bring in their own work don't work there anymore, and most of them ended up in small firms trying to survive.

Only generating business will secure the future of your legal career. Without it, you are at risk all the time because you have no control of your career. If the firm you are in goes under or fires you, you have nothing. You are at the mercy of your employer. However, if you have enough clients, you can take them to the next firm or continue on your own. So, if any firm tries to tell you that they don't want you to bring in any business on your own, move somewhere else.

Learning how to generate business is a long process that really cannot be done without you going out there, meeting people, trying, and failing at it until you succeed. However, one of the vital aspects of succeeding is your desire to do so. Without passion and really want it, there is no point in even trying. Being an attorney and generating business has to be the thing you really, really want. Only after that will you be willing to put everything into your job and work as hard as you need to accomplish everything you want. From my practice, the attorneys who want it the most are always the most victorious. Of course, they also network everywhere they go, talk passionately about their work, advise for free, and work hard to get business. The people they connect with see this attorney as someone who can help them. What really makes the difference for this attorney is that they want to succeed and build clientele to get more business.
 

Finding a Healthy Law Firm


When lawyers don't have any business and want to do something with their lives, their other option is to find a firm with a lot of work. Even though you cannot get access to business for some reason, there are always firms with attorneys who can. When you join such a law firm, you will get access to work.

This is actually a lot of what I do with our legal services at BCG Attorney Search. We try to find healthy law firms for all attorneys, even those who have no business or have not worked for a long time.

Since the start of my career, I've been doing this since I know that different people appeal to different firms. This is because many people need senior attorneys to do work and can't do it all themselves.

One of the first lawyers I was able to place was a securities department partner. He had no business, hadn't worked in a long time, and I placed him at the predecessor firm of K&L Gates in Seattle because we had a good relationship with the company. He became a personal attorney for an extremely wealthy man with that firm, and he managed to become successful again.

Many profitable companies and law firms will have work for you; you have to know how and where to find them. If the market is booming, firms don't really care about the work you can bring in. They have enough of it on their own. They need attorneys who have some experience and will do the job.

The work is always going to be in certain markets. Miami is an interesting example. There's always a market for attorneys to do certain types of corporate work, regardless of how senior they are, because there are many tiny law firms. It would help if you found healthy firms that need people. Some firms are busy, and other firms aren't busy, the next month it can be completely reversed. The legal work moves around to different firms. And the job of a good legal placement person is to find where that work is.

They also have to know when and where certain markets are active. The Bay Area almost always has an active patent prosecution market for technical fields, so you have a good chance there as a patent lawyer. Patent legal work in the biology industry, for instance, moves quite a bit depending on various economic tides. Recently, it moved from California to the New York market because of developments of new medicine there.

On the other hand, when the economy is in recession, law firms in a big market, such as New York or Los Angeles, become expensive for clients, so they often move to smaller law firms with less expensive services.

If you want to find success in any situation and be ready for everything, you must understand how these markets work and find healthy markets. It would help if you were interested in other markets and the know-how they function. For instance, your law school may be significant in some major market and at a big firm, but in other markets is not going to be as important. So, if you cannot generate enough business to keep you afloat, you have to think about these things and figure out how to get into a healthy market. You have to know where the work is.

Litigation often picks up during a recession because people sue a lot. However, the costs get too high, so the market stops suddenly once most lawsuits end up in settlements. Real estate attorneys have to look at how the interest rates are moving because once they decrease, their market will go up. Bursts of economic activity almost always start at the coasts and only then get into the markets in the country's center.

The point is, there is always a place, a firm, or a practice area with a healthy market and enough business for you. But you have to be smart about it.
 

Associating With a Partner With a Lot of Business


If you cannot get business for yourself, but there are senior associates or partners in your law firm with a lot of business, don't worry about working for them. Having a powerful advocate with a lot of business on your side can make or break your legal career. These relationships are often what determines who makes a partner and who doesn't. And sometimes they determine who gets fired because in most firms, if you don't make a partner after a certain period of time, you become a burden for them, and they have to let you go.

Although all of your relationships in your firm matter, the ones with partners and people in power who have business weigh the most in how your career will go in the future. They are the ones who have a say in what is going on in the firm because the whole firm is counting on them and their business. So, they are the ones to focus your energy on.

If you can get close to them and become their right hand, it can change your whole career. First, you have to convince them that you are vital for their job. If you can do that, they will take you with them if they change firms or move forward in the legal industry. Your career will be safe with an advocate like that. So, find someone like that, do everything you can for them, follow their advice, and you will be able to survive even if you don't have enough business on your own.

Besides being given enough work to survive, you will learn a lot about the law, gain important law firm experience, new skills, and establish good personal client relationships. Such experience and skills are indispensable.
 

Waiting for a Better Economic Situation


If you cannot get business because the economy is stagnant, one option is to wait it out. However, as mentioned previously, legal markets are dependent on the economy, which means they are dynamic. Therefore, the economic situation will almost always improve with time.

If you can wait until this happens, you can be sure that it will work for you somewhere. Even slow markets, such as trusts and estates, can become very active once in a while. So, if you really want to go from being a counsel in a company to a large firm lawyer, it can happen. Just wait until the market picks up. If you can wait long enough, you will be able to get into major law firms with less than stellar law schools, zero business, or coming from in-house.
 

Downgrading Your Firm or Starting a Private Practice


Even in the worst situation, there is always something out there for you you can do. If you can lower your demands a bit, you will find that places, such as tax law offices or employment or personal injury places, always need lawyers to help them with their cases. It will not be a firm with a big name. You will want to advertise everywhere, and you will probably not get your dream salary (far from it). But you will have a job, and you will avoid being unemployed, which is extremely important for any attorney.

You can only work with the best if you are up to par with their work expectations. These also include having enough business. If you cannot meet the demands, you have to be okay with working in a less demanding environment with attorneys who are not as competitive or ambitious as what you have been used to before.

You can always move up again once you can generate enough work to get to the higher level, but you have to make do with what you can get until then. The worst thing you can do is not work at all. Once you are unemployed for any period of time, your marketability and employability decrease significantly.

Law degree and passing the bar examination automatically give you a legal business license which means you can also take contract work or open your own private practice. Doing contractual work is great throughout your career. Many lawyers do it on top of what they do in a law firm their whole legal careers.

Opening your own law practice is a bit risky, especially if you have trouble getting clients and work, but the option is always there. If you had to leave a firm because you didn't bring in enough revenue, opening a law practice on your own is probably not the greatest idea. However, if you can do it with a partner lawyer who is excellent at bringing in clients, it might be a wonderful opportunity for you. But to take opening your own practice seriously, you should be sure that at least some of the clients you take care of within the law firm will go with you. Whether it is because they trust you and enjoy working with you, don't like how the firm treats them, or want to better deal with a starting practice, make sure you have someone on your side. And if there is no one like that (yet), you have to have a particular specialization to make sure you stand out in the market and attract new clients. Without an established name and reputation, it can be challenging to gain the trust of potential clients, so you have to figure out how to appeal to them.
 

Stop Practicing Law


Some attorneys are just not cut out to practice law. For someone like that, it is best to stop the practice of law altogether. But some lawyers are really great for this profession and should not quit just because they are not bringing in enough business. That is why you should really consider this option from all sides before making a decision. First, think of why you wanted to become a lawyer. Why did you go to law school? It would be best to consider quitting and reasons for not quitting, then try to figure out the right decision for you.

Lawyers have a great reputation for being hard-working, competitive, and great with people, which opens many doors for them. As a result, many attorneys quit and pursue careers in government, politics, acting, media, sales, or public relations and are often more victorious and wealthier than they would be if they stayed in law.

But if you really enjoy the practice of law and think you could be great at it if you had enough business, you shouldn't quit just because the times are hard right now. Especially not after that many years of law practice under your belt. That is when you should work even harder, gain new knowledge and experience wherever you can, and push yourself and your career to the limit.
 

Conclusions


Having enough business is one of the most important aspects of success as an attorney and a long-term legal career. If you don't bring in enough business after years of experience, your career is out of your control, and you are at the mercy of your employer. However, not all is lost. You always have several options to choose from. If you are determined, focused, and willing to work hard, you will always find a way to keep working.

See also:
 

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