Attorney Career Planning and Realistic Expectations

by Jon Lewis

Most of you readers don’t know this, but I am a very lucky person. In fact, I’m so darned lucky that I’m fairly certain that someday soon I’m going to win a multi-million-dollar lottery jackpot. Which means that I don’t need to worry at all about planning for my eventual retirement.

No, not really. I’m actually no luckier than normal, and need to save for retirement just like most people. But if I actually were planning my entire financial future around lotto, you would quite rightly consider me delusional, likely destined to spend my twilight years eating cat food.

What, you might ask, does the above have to do with an article about legal careers? Unfortunately, there is a parallel: far too many otherwise level-headed attorneys who would never be so foolish as to trust their finances or other aspects of their lives to a mere pipe dream nonetheless seem willing to plan their careers around dangerously unrealistic and unattainable objectives. As a practical matter, for example, the vast majority of associates at Vault 100 firms are not making partner at such firms; the vast majority of litigators are not going to find an in-house job; and the vast majority of partners with $200,000 in business are not going to earn $400,000 a year for any length of time. Yet many recruiters hear goals just such as these expressed with surprising regularity.

Now, I understand that none of the foregoing eventualities are truly impossible or even of lottery-like improbability—some associates do make partner at Vault 100 firms; some litigators do go in-house; and some partners do make more than they originate (at least for a while). But such occurrences are rare, even more so than many candidates will acknowledge to themselves. It’s fine to dream the (nearly) impossible dream (maybe I really will win the lottery someday), but I wouldn’t want to spend a significant chunk of my career waiting for it to happen, at least not at the cost of ignoring/failing to plan for more realistic and attainable objectives.

So how can you do a reality check in order to make sure that your career objective is at least plausibly attainable? There are several ways, including the following:

  1. Follow the Money: First and foremost, ask yourself whether what you are looking for honestly makes economic sense for a potential employer. For example, if you are a law firm associate and you neither have any real business of your own (as is typically the case) nor are you vitally important to partners who do control a significant book of business, the odds are quite strong that you are not making partner. No matter how competent and well-regarded you may be, no matter what you may have heard (or thought you heard) at your reviews, if a firm has no strong financial incentive to make you a partner they are very unlikely to do so. Similarly, no matter how technically skilled they may be, a partner cannot reasonably expect to find a firm which will pay them income totaling 60-100% or more of their own originations over the long term, for the simple reason that no firm can make an attractive profit from such a partner. The harsh reality is this: what candidates may feel they want or even need in terms of compensation is much less important than what the economics of the market dictate they are worth. Attorneys (or anyone else for that matter) charting a career path ignore this most basic fact at their own risk.
  2. Learn From Experience: You’ve probably heard the saying “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” This line (or variations thereof) is most often attributed to either Winston Churchill or Spanish philosopher George Santayana. While to the best of my knowledge neither Churchill nor Santayana ever worked as an attorney or a legal recruiter, the expression is certainly very true in the context of an attorney’s career aspirations. You may think that a particular objective is perfectly reasonable and should be achievable, but if a job search has generated no attractive offers over an extended period (say a year or more), there is a good chance you may be barking up the wrong tree. That doesn’t necessarily mean you should give up, but rather that you should take a step back to try to assess whether you might be confusing admirable perseverance with stubborn pig-headedness. If you can’t identify specific, sensible reasons why your luck may change in the future it’s safe to assume it probably won’t.
  3. Listen to Recruiters: Legal recruiters owe much of their livelihoods to their ability to help place attorneys in attractive positions. For this reason, recruiters can be very useful sounding boards for assessing the viability of a contemplated career move. If a recruiter declines to work with you after hearing what you are looking for they are likely not being mean or lazy, but rather simply do not believe that they will be able to earn a fee by placing you. And if multiple, experienced recruiters all tell you they cannot help you, you should consider the distinct possibility that your goal is one which is unlikely to be achieved.