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What Taking Time Off From Practicing Law Can Do to Your Career

published July 30, 2021

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Almost everyone in the legal community has those days when they feel like they need a long break. They want to experience something different, try out new things in life and not constantly work day after day. You see, many lawyers do that and quit their associate job in a well-regarded law firm to travel the world, start a business, help out a family member, or just rest. You might be thinking that you want to do the same. But should you?
 

Getting back into the legal profession can be difficult, if not impossible, after a prolonged break, as law firms and employers do not look kindly upon attorneys who decide to take this step. When taking such a break, you might be compromising your career and financial stability for a few months of rest, personal fulfillment, or adventure.


This article looks at some of the reasons why law firms and other legal employers look down upon lawyers taking time off from law practice and what it can do to your legal career.

Of course, life happens, and sometimes a major life event comes. You might need to take time off for an illness, to help out a family member who is very sick, having a baby, or other family events and issues that need your immediate attention. However, even when you have to take hiatus for these valid reasons, you shouldn't take more than is your assigned vacation days. It might sound unfair; however, that is just the reality of the industry. If you step out of the practice of law for more than a few weeks, it won't be easy to get back in, and you might never be able to get back to the level of working you were at before.

An important thing to note at the beginning is that if you really need a break because of your physical health, mental health, or family, I do not want this article to discourage you from doing that. You need to take care of yourself. This information is for attorneys who think of taking a break because they feel like they have worked hard enough and deserve some time off.
 

Why Most Law Firms Don't Like Those Who Take Extended Leaves From Law Firms


When you look at attorneys practicing law around the country, most of them live a very similar ordinary middle-class life. They have families, go to work every day to take care of them, keep the roof over their head and try to pay off their student loans and mortgages with the money they earn. They cannot afford to pick up and travel around the world for a few months or leave their stable legal career to pursue their dream of owning a restaurant. They would put themselves and their closest ones at risk with such an action as the law is a middle-class profession where everyone works more and harder than those before them.

Many of these middle-class attorneys are the people who look through the resumes and interview the applicants that want to work in their law firm. When they come across a resume with a significant gap in employment, it automatically raises eyebrows. The hiring partners will probably automatically assume that something bad happened. Either you were unable to fulfill your work duties and were let go, you were unmotivated, didn't have enough skills, had problems with the people in the firm, weren't motivated enough, or had other problems with the company that prevented you from being employed and that is why you needed a break. These initial guesses paint the candidate negatively, so most hiring personnel look at attorneys with a gap in their resumes with an unfavorable outlook.

Working hard is extremely valued in these circles, and so if you are not working hard enough, you will not be considered dedicated enough with a gap in your resume in many law firms. And also, we as people do not like to be looked down upon, so many attorneys do not choose to break from practicing law out of fear of being looked at negatively.

Many attorneys, especially the middle-class majority of them, truly care about what others think of them. Things such as law schools, law firms, law firm politics, neighborhoods, houses, cars, all of this matters. Leaving a large law firm is not regarded as the norm and will not be met with a positive reaction most of the time.
 

What Taking a Break Might Mean For Your Future Law Firm Job Search


Your Potential Employers Will Think Attorneys Were Fired


Most attorneys usually take a break from the practice of law only temporarily. Sooner or later, they will want to get back into the legal system, but if the gap in their resume is too long, most law firms will think that you have been fired from your last position and struggled to get a new one during the time of your hiatus. With hundreds of other applicants with truly outstanding educational qualifications and experiences, law firms tend to choose legal professionals without such windows of not practicing law without these serious concerns.

This might not be as big of a problem in smaller markets where there isn't as much competition as in the big markets, but it might be a serious issue if you want to find success in New York or Los Angeles.
 

Potential Employers Might Think Lawyers Had Psychological Issues


If your potential future employers don't first think you were let go from the firm, they might assume that you had some mental difficulties in the job that prompted you to quit or got you fired. Just having an extended gap in your resume is a crazy concept to most attorneys. When they come into contact with something like that, they automatically assume something negative must have happened.

That is not to say that sometimes things like this don't happen, lawyers are stressed, overworked, burned out, and sometimes they really need a mental health break. But the truth also is that firms, especially the very fast-paced and competitive ones, are wary of employing people after such an episode. And sometimes, they have quite a legitimate concern, as the pace and responsibilities in the new firm are the same as those in the attorney's previous firm. But even if these concerns the employer has are not valid, they already have set negative preconceptions that will not help you in your job search.
 

Potential Employers Might Think That the Law Firm Will Not Be Your Main Priority


The most accomplished attorneys are always very competitive in nature. They have to be; otherwise, they would not be on the top. Attorneys dive into their work and strive to move forward with everything they do. They move to more senior positions, bigger clients, bigger cases, better law firms, more money. They also often care about what other lawyers think of them and are happy to show them that they are doing well.

So, when they see someone who is not doing the same, someone who is not trying hard always to get better and is not as competitive as others, it is viewed negatively. It tells them that the law firm and your job as a lawyer are not your top priority, and you will not do everything in your power to be the best. And that is not something law firms want and need.
 

Potential Employers Might Think That You Will Lose Your Lawyer Skills


Although your brain is not a muscle, you can train it like one. And just as your muscles lose some of their abilities once you stop training, your mental and cognitive abilities will deteriorate once you stop using and exercising them daily.

Legal work is very challenging on your brain. Some of the tasks are quite specific, so if you spend a significant amount of time focusing on anything else and stop using your brain for law-related tasks, you will inevitably see a change in your abilities. And the longer you are out of the legal community, the bigger this change is, and the worse your abilities become.

Of course, if you are to get back into the work on the same level, you will regain your lawyer skills. But you might not be able to get back to where you left off because people in law firms might not want to hire you out of fear that you have lost your abilities. The longer your break was, the less confident the firms will be about your skills.
 

Things Most Law Firms Look At When Considering Hiring Attorneys After a Break


The previous section might have enraged you, especially if you have taken an extended leave or consider one. You might be asking yourself whether you have any chance of getting employed with something like that on your record. The truth is, it is not impossible; you are still employable. It is just going to be much more difficult. Your potential future firm evaluates several aspects related to your leave as well as your resume to decide whether they are willing to recruit you. Factors firms look at are:
 

Why Did You Take Your Extended Leave of Absence?


Law firms are managed and lead by attorneys who are still only people. And people can empathize and understand your reasons for taking a break if they consider them valid. If you have a considerable gap in your resume, the interviewers will always be curious and want to know what has happened.

If you had to take a break because of some major life events out of your control, the people interviewing you would understand that. They know that lawyers support families and have to take care of them in situations that involve serious illnesses, death in the family, having a newborn baby, etc. However, you have to let them know about it. Even though it sometimes might be personal and not easy to talk about, you have to explain to the hiring partners why you had to take the leave. Tell them that you were not fired nor had a nervous breakdown at work, and show them that your abilities as a lawyer are up to par with the firm's standards and you are committed to the practice of law. If you can persuade them about these things, you might be able to pass even a large law firm's evaluation and get back on top of your career.
 

Can the Law Firm Count on You To Stay in the Job Long-Term?


Law firms want stable employees they will be able to count on daily. You have just had a break from practicing law tells them that you might not be as stable as they need you to be. You need to persuade them that this has just been an exception and you are otherwise a very stable and dependable employee.

One thing that might help you persuade your potential legal employers' minds is your previous work record. If you have been working for years with great results and stable growth before you took your leave of absence, it will tell the management in the law firm that you are stable, have the potential to help out the firm, and will pull your weight when it comes to the amount of work that the firm needs to be done.

Another way to convince the hiring personnel about your stability and dependability is if you were able to practice law in the same firm for a long time. Every significant law firm expects the employees to want to work in the firm long-term, and if you have been able to stay in one firm for years, they will believe that you will not switch firms with the first opportunity that arises.

If you have family in the area where the firm is, have just bought a house there, or want to settle down and start a family in that location, it will tell the employer that you will not just pack your bags one day and move across the country.

If you can show these qualities during the interview, your break might not be such a setback for your career.
 

What Is Your Law Firm Experience?


The legal industry, just as any industry for profit, is based on supply and demand. That means that if you can offer something law firms want and only a few fellow attorneys possess, you will get hired no matter your prolonged break from law practice.

If you are in a practice area currently in demand, you are much more likely to be hired even with a "time off" on your resume than someone from a practice area that is not currently booming. Trust and estate lawyers are currently in high demand, so if this is your practice area, you might be lucky. On the other hand, litigation is a very competitive area, with tons of attorneys doing the same thing without a hiatus on their resume. It might be a bigger problem in this practice area.

The same goes for very specialized skills. If you have skills many law firms want, but only a few lawyers have, they will be willing to overlook the gap in your resume.

If you could get experience and training from top-quality law firms in large legal markets and departments in law practice before your leave, it could also help you in your career. For instance, training from well-regarded trial departments can help litigators immensely get back into the legal market after a break.
 

What Educational Credentials Do You Have?


Your educational qualifications can make a difference in finding a job after a leave, especially for young attorneys who don't have that much top law firm experience. Law schools generally don't matter that much the longer you are out of them, but some big names sometimes continue to open doors even years after law students graduate.

If you have excellent academic credentials, such as graduating at the top of the class from Yale, Stanford, Harvard, or The University of Chicago, it is so highly regarded in the law practice that it might help you even a decade after your graduation. Law firms can market their employees' accomplishments to their potential clients, so they would be increasing their return on investment by hiring you. However, the type of school that can get you this advantage depends on the firm's current academic standards. If almost everyone went to the top law school, it wouldn't go as far as in a firm where most attorneys graduated from second or third-tier schools.

Of course, that does not mean that if you have these credentials on your record, you can do whatever you want, take extended leaves every time you are tired, or frequently change practice areas. It might help you a bit, but it doesn't give you a free pass.
 

Conclusions


Taking a break from the practice of law for any prolonged period of time is very risky. There are many understandable reasons to do so, but large law firms generally do not like their attorneys to have gaps in their legal practice. Factors like a great law school, experience in a major firm, or in-demand practice area can help get back into law. Still, you have to think very thoroughly about such a big decision as taking a long break as it can disqualify rising attorneys very easily.

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