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Legal Career Path Mistakes

by Jon Lewis

For the most part, it is very difficult to provide one-size-fits-all career advice for attorneys. The same guidance which may make perfect sense for a senior associate hoping to make partner at a Vault 100 firm may be of little use to a second year at a small firm who is looking to someday go in-house. However, regardless of class year/credentials/objectives there do exist some universal pitfalls which all attorneys should try to avoid.

  1. Unstable Employment History: One of the first things a law firm or in-house recruiting professional will consider in evaluating a resume is job stability. Few things have a more detrimental effect on a candidate’s prospects than a history of short stays at multiple employers. Any tenure of less than a year in a given position will almost always raise some eyebrows, and in general it is best to have stints of at least two years or more. At least as bad are breaks in employment between positions. While a gap between jobs may of course be unavoidable in the case of a lay-off, it is not something to voluntarily inflict upon yourself. Absent truly extraordinary circumstances it is almost never a good idea to leave a current position without first having a new one lined up.
  2. Misguided Specialty Shifts: Some attorneys find that a practice area they have selected (or had selected for them by a firm) isn’t the right fit. In such situations it’s okay to make a shift if you can. But only once. And only early in your career. Changing a second time, or as a more senior attorney, is not only difficult to accomplish but will also raise red flags to potential future employers as to your commitment/staying power. So, if you hate being a litigator and want to switch to trusts and estates, try to do so while you are still junior, and plan on then staying in T&E for the long haul.
  3. Moving for the Sake of Moving: When I ask a candidate why he or she is thinking of changing jobs one answer that makes me cringe is “I just think it’s time for a change.” While some candidates will say this simply in an effort to cover up a bigger problem (as in “I just think it’s time for a change … because I got laid-off yesterday … “) I have found that other candidates do genuinely seek change for its own sake. At one time or another many of us have experienced the unpleasant feeling of being in a rut in our current jobs. But changing positions solely for a “fresh start” is seldom a good idea. Not only does this add another employer to your job history (see point 1 above), but unless you have a specific, well-considered reason for a move you are just as likely to wind up worse off after moving, rather than better. Before even considering a new opportunity take the time to carefully think through exactly what you hope to accomplish by changing jobs. Hokey as it sounds, consider actually writing down your objectives, as this exercise can be a useful way to force yourself to focus your thought process.
  4. Improperly Balancing Short v. Long Term Objectives: Especially in the case of more junior attorneys, it’s a good idea to weigh beforehand the impact any contemplated career move might have on future potential moves. For example, suppose you are an associate at a top large firm hoping to go in-house to get better lifestyle (by the way, a move which doesn’t always deliver as expected, but that’s a different article). After looking unsuccessfully for a while for in-house positions, you are offered an opportunity to join a smaller firm which appears to offer significantly better hours than your current firm. Should you accept? Quite possibly, as some small firms do offer work-life balance as good/better than many in-house spots. But in making this decision you should understand that a subsequent in-house move may prove more difficult once you have moved to a less prestigious home. This is not to say that some sacrifice of future potential might not be well worth it for a better position in the here-and-now. You can drive yourself crazy staying in a bad situation if you insist on waiting for something else to come along that is perfect in all respects. However, if you are going to make such a trade-off, you should do so with eyes wide open as to the benefits and risks, both short and long term.
  5. Mismatching Capabilities and Objectives: There are very few, if any, legal jobs that are truly “good” or “bad” in the abstract. Typically, the real issue is whether a given position is a good fit for a particular candidate’s (a) objectives and (b) capabilities. This much is obvious to most candidates. What is sometimes over-looked, however, is the importance of considering the relationship between those two elements. Many a career has been seriously sidetracked because of an attorney’s failure to honestly ask themselves whether a role they think fits their goals is really a good fit for their interests/abilities. If, for example, you like making lots of money, being a partner at a large firm certainly has its advantages. But if you hate the very idea of developing your own significant book of business, a long and happy career in such a role frankly isn’t all that likely. Can’t stand bureaucracy/office politics? If not, that in-house position at a major Fortune 500 company probably isn’t for you after all, no matter how great it may sound in theory.
  6. Premature Exit from the Law: Shocking as it sounds, I hear that some people actually don’t like being lawyers. A move to another line of work is something many attorneys consider at one time or another. I myself practiced for almost 14 years before becoming a legal recruiter in 1999. A word of caution, though: don’t make this jump too quickly. I am always very concerned when a second- or third-year associate tells me they are ready to leave the law. He or she will have spent a lot of time and money getting his or her way through law school, and that investment should not be compromised lightly. Once you get out of the law it can be very difficult to get back in. Moreover, as most seasoned attorneys will testify, the practice of law is very different for a partner, counsel, or even senior associate, than a junior associate. Just because you hate the unrewarding, time-intensive tasks you are likely to get as a second-year doesn’t mean that you are necessarily doomed to forever hate being an attorney. Also, I can say from personal experience that the practice of law can be very different at large firms than at smaller firms or in-house. There is of course nothing wrong with eventually deciding that the legal rat race just isn’t for you, but make sure that you’ve actually run a few laps at a few different tracks before jumping to that conclusion.