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Control in Your Legal Career: Who Really Holds the Power Over You When Working in a Law Firm?

published August 03, 2021

By Author - LawCrossing

( 17 votes, average: 4 out of 5)

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We all like to think that we are in control of our life and our legal career. However, that is far from the truth. We try our hardest to get into a good law school, do well there to get into a prestigious firm and believe that this hard work will secure a good future in the legal profession.

For many people, careers in law are a dream come true. The opportunity to fight for justice and protect the rights of others is an attractive prospect that draws many into this fulfilling profession. However, when you work as someone else's employee or even on your own license without any partners, it can be difficult to maintain authority over how your career progresses.

Some might feel like they don't have enough say in their jobs since most clients want them doing what makes money rather than what would advance their future prospects-even if sometimes those prospects involve taking less lucrative cases with pro bono representation so lawyers could gain experience working with different types of people who need legal help but cannot afford private counsel.

You and your success are dependent on other people, the economy, your practice area, luck, and many other aspects, which can be very scary. When your success depends on so many outside things, it is straightforward to fail and not accomplish what you hoped for.

Rejection and failure can be very daunting and leads many lawyers to quit practicing law in a law firm or quit the law industry completely. This article discusses these factors beyond your power in your legal career and hopefully gives you tips on how best to understand and prevent or deal with these possible setbacks to your law firm path.

You Cannot Control the Economic Situation of Law Firms.

Law firms are businesses and work on the same basis as other businesses - they want to get the best and most qualified workforce for the least amount of money. Because law firms want to push the amount of money they have to pay their employees as low as possible without sacrificing the quality of the work and company culture, they often choose younger associates as they are more willing to work hard for less money.

Your price as an employee of a law firm depends on various factors, and this price decides whether a particular firm will hire you or not. The main aspects that create this price are, for instance, the law school you attended and how you did there, the law firm you are coming from, your background, personality, appearance, relationships with peers and partners, and many other things. They can either increase or decrease your value on the market and influence hiring decisions based on the economic equation in the law firm.

Once you "grow out" of your young associate years, you are still part of the equation; only the things that factor in your legal market value are a bit different. Once you get to a more senior position, you are expected to bring in business. Firms need you to bring in clients, work, and money. You are compensated for it with a higher salary and set higher billing rates, but you are also under constant pressure to bring in and keep enough business even with the high rates. This is something that is completely out of your hands.

The minute an attorney does not manage to fulfill the firm's expectations, they are replaced by one of the hundreds waiting for their opportunity. There are always attorneys willing to put in more work for less money, so attorneys' jobs are always at stake. It is not something you can command.

You Cannot Control Your Talent.

Every attorney is born with a different personality, predispositions, skills, and other characteristics that can either help them or hurt them in their legal career. If you do not have an extreme natural talent, that does not mean that you cannot become a good lawyer. However, it can make your journey more difficult than it might be for some other lawyers.

Your natural predisposition and talent are usually shown in things like the grades you get in law school or your LSAT results, so it may be easier for you to get into a good law school at the beginning of your legal career. Even those without this natural talent can succeed. But if you have such talent and are aware of it, you can really use it to your advantage. If you do not have it, you will have to work extra hard.

Just think of athletes. Those who have a natural talent are much more likely to get somewhere with the sport than those who do not have the natural skills. Talented attorneys, similarly, can easily understand complex issues, out-think other attorneys, and develop great strategies to win for their clients. If you do not have those natural skills, you can still become a senior attorney in the law profession, but it probably will be more difficult for you. Or you might not be able to do it at all and decide to quit practicing law completely. It depends on your talent, and that is something you cannot command.

Your natural enthusiasm and drive to practice law are also significant for your success but cannot be controlled. Being enthusiastic and positive is something that can go a long way in the recruitment process. If you have a natural propensity to be enthusiastic, you can be far better off.

You Cannot Control the Human Factor in Law Firms.

Human mistakes, not just yours but those of others as well, are also something you will never be able to control.

Mistakes and accidents happen. It can be personal issues, health problems, becoming a parent and taking time off, making a simple mistake, overlooking something important, filing the wrong document, or even getting too drunk during a work evening out. If anything like this happens and it paints just a tiny black mark on your resume, the law firm can use it to their advantage and fire you to hire someone without these "issues."

You can never know whether the remark you say about an assignment you think is unnecessary will offend a partner in your firm or whether, in the two months you have taken off, the firm will want to hire an equity partner's cousin. And that is okay. You cannot command it, and you should not try to. If something like this happens and sets back your career, you can do nothing about it.

You Will Never Be Able To Control The Economic Situation and Recessions in the Legal Industry

Recessions in the legal market are something no one can really rule or stop. Throughout my career, there has been a major recession every eight to ten years. There was a two-year recession period right at the beginning of the millennium. After a few years with the legal profession having an upshift, another big hit to the economy around 2008 lasted two years. The recent Covid crisis also resulted in a recession in the legal market.

While there are experts who usually can predict recessions to some extent at least a few months in advance, there is really nothing average people, attorneys, or law students, can do about it. In these periods of time, law students fresh out of school cannot get jobs, young associates lose their jobs in huge numbers, attorneys with some businesses lose clients, and very few firms can live through this without a huge hit.

Although recessions eventually end and the legal industry picks upwind again, the lawyers who came out of law school in this period of time usually feel the negative consequences throughout their whole careers. It is a massive setback right at the beginning of their legal careers. When the economy is good, most law students from good schools can get into large law firms, which then helps them find great legal placements for years to come. During recessions, the same lawyers generally do not get hired in these good firms (even if they have been promised a placement after a summer associate job), so they are forced to start wherever they can get hired, which are usually smaller firms in smaller markets with the less prominent customer, lower billing rates, and lower wages. This can put a "black mark" on their resume and categorize them as lawyers who are not fit for top law firms because they lack experience in them.

Career Progression (Advancement AND Demotion) Is Hard To Take Control Of

Advancement or promotion are often very random for legal professionals inside law firms, so taking rule over career progression is difficult.

Advancement in a law firm usually means becoming an equity partner, getting more money, bigger clients, or more responsibility. However, these are also things you can very easily lose in a firm. Equity partners often fear losing their title and privileges if they do not keep up with the standards set in the firm.

These career changes are often random or follow a different logic than what you expect. The promotion might not go to the most gifted attorney but rather to someone who can bill the most hours or fit the political tide inside the law firm. With the rise of the fight for diversity and equality, some advancements are made to repair social imbalance. A regular associate in the firm does not see how these decisions are made and cannot command them.

The same applies to demotions. Even when you have great relationships with the current leadership and are on the course to advancement, the firm might merge with another law firm that will want to change things up. These things are tough to predict, and you cannot really prepare for or rule them.

Attorneys Cannot Control How the Law Firm Is Doing.

Although good attorneys doing a great job is something successful law firms are built on, no single attorney can command a firm's overall success.

There are many mistakes law firms make that have nothing to do with the quality of the attorneys and their work. They can lose huge cases, get into scandals, or hire too many attorneys they do not have money for. They sometimes rent too much office space or open too many branches in a short period of time.

Attorneys often do not see into the inner workings of law firms. They may relocate with their entire families to work in a firm they think is very successful, only to find out a few months later that the firm is actually on the verge of collapse and hired some attorneys to try to save what they could. You never know these things from the outside, and you cannot really control the success of your current firm or the firm you might want to switch to.

Taking Control of Your Luck as an Attorney Is Not Always Possible

Many things in life and the legal career are based on luck (or lack of it). Meeting the right person, finding out and getting a great legal placement, or getting a big client are all things that often happen out of pure luck. You even might be reading this article, thanks to luck. Some attorneys have more of it, some less, and it is tough to command.

A lot of success in anyone's legal career is based on knowing the right people. Knowing people in the right places might help you get into a position before it is posted publicly. Or you might get access to important information about the firm's future before other attorneys on your level that will help you make good career choices and avoid fatal mistakes.

Many of the most successful lawyers often mention luck when they are talking about their success stories. And it really is a significant factor. But also one you can hardly supervise.

You Cannot Control Your Practice Area.

While you are responsible for choosing your practice area, what happens there is something you cannot really manage. Practice areas, their popularity, state, and prospects to the future can change very quickly.

When I started in the legal recruitment industry, the most in-demand practice area was patent prosecution. It was growing very quickly. Large law firms started focusing on this area, and attorneys chose patent prosecution as their focus in huge numbers. But when smaller firms and smaller markets started to do patent prosecution law services for much lower prices, large law firms stopped doing it and let go of most patent attorneys they employed.

But things like this happen in all practice areas. Moreover, most practice areas are very dependent on the economy. Corporate law slows down significantly when the economy is slow but picks up once the economic situation gets better. On the other hand, bankruptcy law does better when the economy is slow. Real estate law depends mostly on the interest rates - when they are high, real estate slows down.

Practice areas and their movements are complicated and cannot really lead but will determine your legal career.

You Cannot Control Whether You Are at the Right Time in the Right Legal Market.

The legal market you are in greatly decides how successful you can be (without having to move). When the economy is doing well, big legal markets like New York are thriving. The state of the oil industry decides whether states, such as Texas, are doing well. When the technology industry and tech start-ups are doing well, the legal market in California is also on the up. The same applies to the auto industry and Detroit.

It partly depends on the luck mentioned previously. If you are in the legal market currently doing well, it can help your legal career tremendously as there is usually much more work, business, and customers have more money to spend. But when you are in a market when it is not doing so well, it can be a huge setback for your career, and many attorneys give up practicing law during these periods. You cannot be leading what happens in the legal market during the time you are there. You can only hope it will work out in your favor.

You Cannot Control Your Politicking Talent.

Just as you cannot manage your overall talent, you cannot manage your politicking skills. You administer how much you work, how many people you talk to, and how much time you spend networking to generate enough business. However, how successful you are in this depends a lot on your politicking abilities.

When you are good at politicking, you can get much further in your legal career without working as hard as lawyers who do not have such good skills. Some have these skills naturally and do not have to do a lot to be successful in this. However, you can also develop them by mimicking those who have them. It can be parents, teachers, mentors, colleagues. However you get it, it will determine how far you can go in a law office. And it can be difficult to rule.


We often rely on our job to give us some sense of self-worth and accomplishment. However, there are many aspects of a job in the legal profession that is completely out of your hands. Thus relying on it is not a good indicator of your abilities.

There are many things out of your command that can determine your legal career. From your natural talent and skills, the state of the world economy and your legal market, to your firm and the people you know, they all have some say in how your career will look and how far you can get. You have to accept that there are many things out of your command and do your best to influence something.

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