As the United States slowly crawls out of the recessionary abyss, firms across the country continue to lay off attorneys at all levels and cut back on new hires. Firms are disbanding as a result of major clients that hit the wall. The sky is either falling or cracking severely in most markets.
Attorneys are uniquely ill-equipped to respond to bad job markets. Most joined firms directly from law school and entered a structured, cloistered work environment. Associates work long hours toiling on tasks dropped in their laps and try to decipher internal firm politics. Client skills develop slowly, and external economic forces are typically not on associates' personal radar. At the larger firms, expensive lifestyles take hold and are actually encouraged. The golden handcuffs syndrome can be treacherous when the economy turns south.
The situation can be even worse for equity partners who have borrowed money to buy in to their partnership and have never really focused on their partnership agreement's exit provisions. For most attorneys, leaving a firm involuntarily usually results in severe economic pain.
To fight the tsunami of job loss in this or a future recession, attorneys need to incorporate disaster planning into their careers. They must grow sensitive to the economy as it impacts firm clients. The clients' problems are ultimately their lawyers' problems. Fewer files will arrive at the firm. Billing hours will trend downward. Partners will exhibit increasing signs of nervousness. The idea of adding a bankruptcy practice to the firm will gain popularity.
Understand that firm loyalty is an antiquated concept. The bottom line now drives firms, which will not hesitate to chop away unprofitable associates or partners. One department will not support another. If forced to do so, the profitable group will break away and leave the remainder of the firm to fend for itself.
ATTACK THE PROBLEM
1. Get out of denial
Almost all attorneys will face the challenge of changing jobs at least once in their careers, if not multiple times. Major firms hire squadrons of associates, knowing full well only a small fraction will be around eight or 10 years later to ascend to partnership. Of course, partnership is by no means a tenured position. Failing to prepare for the eventuality of exiting a firm is courting disaster.
2. Update that resume
Do this at least annually. Draft several versions. Tailor the career objective section so it speaks to those hiring for the particular type of job sought. Highlight job history and educational background relevant to the specific future employer.
3. Do the homework
Lawyers should read a few books on executive job changes, scour Internet job sites to get a feel for the market and make friends with a headhunter. They should study target employers and build an argument for why those employers need their skills.
4. Build a network
Lawyers should make time every week for expanding their contacts and increasing their visibility. Lunches provide opportunities to contact new people outside one's regular sphere of influence. Bar association activities need volunteers. Soccer leagues need coaches. And don't forget social networking; Facebook and MySpace pages should reflect a positive, energetic personality.
5. Be prepared to relocate
This can be the steepest hurdle in the survival process. Newly affluent young attorneys tend to weigh themselves down with mortgages, private school tuitions and other commitments that can turn into anchors. Lack of mobility seriously limits job opportunities. One city may be collapsing while another part of the state is prospering. Great talents may be useless if local clients are struggling.
6. Be prepared to be locked out of the office
The day will come when it's over and a lawyer is toast. The call from someone in power will come: "Mr. Jones, please come to my office." More than likely (and I mean 99 percent of the time) the recipient of that call is sent home, and the firm offers to send his personal effects to him at a later date. He is now a pariah. No lawyer should count on having access to any piece of paper or computer after being canned. No matter what happens, try to exit with grace. A job hunter will need any goodwill he can salvage for future references.
7. Consider the entrepreneurial way
Many lawyers consider finding another firm or in-house legal department as the only viable path when faced with the inevitable job change. However, with clients seeking to contain costs by slashing legal fees, the solo (particularly one with an established firm background) has new leverage. The economy is forcing clients to move away from high-billing attorneys and to seek more economical alternatives.
Over the past 10 years, technology has leveled the playing field for the solo. A Web presence is more important than mahogany furniture. Computers, printers and smartphones give the solo big-firm capabilities with only minor overhead.
8. Above all, stay positive
Legal skills are in demand somewhere in the market. Lawyers simply have to take responsibility for their careers and exercise personal initiative. Those who increase their visibility and take advantage of today's technology can lock into a new and improved career path.
Charles R. Peissel manages the Law Offices of Charles R. Peissel in Austin, Texas, and has practiced law for 33 years. He received his B.A. from Stanford University, his M.B.A. from the University of Texas McCombs School of Business and his J.D. from the University of Houston Law Center.