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The New Normal

More Legal Jobs. But Will They Last? What Is Your Plan Beyond Holding on to Your Job?

Posted May 10, 2011 1:30 PM CDT
By Patrick J. Lamb

Patrick Lamb

Monday’s ABAJournal.com contains this upbeat headline: “A Promising Spring: Legal Industry Adds 1,500 Jobs, Demand for Legal Services Increases.” The reason for this growth appears to “increased demand” which has caused firms to “selectively [add] more attorneys.” This is good news, clearly better than the months of stories on layoffs, the term law firms chose to use rather than the more apt word, terminations.

But good news aside, the addition of new attorneys made me wonder about the real question for people in the profession: toward what end? Whether you are new hire fortunate to have landed a BigLaw job, or whether you are a more senior associate or even an income/nonequity partner, what is your future? When I started my legal career, two-tier partnerships were fairly novel, and the odds of making equity partner were fairly good. By today’s standards, the odds were outstanding.Today, the odds of getting hit by lightning or winning the Powerball lottery are better than making equity partner at a major law firm. OK, not better, but you get the idea. The number of equity partners is likely to shrink even more as firms move toward the Goldman Sachs model. The Goldman Sachs model is one with comparatively few equity holders in the firm. In Goldman’s case, there are 475 partners out of 35,000 employees.

So what to think about all of this? For one, a paycheck, especially a good paycheck, is a good thing. But what assurances do you have that it will be there when you need it—say, when your second child comes along, or your spouse has lost his job? Think your employer will give you a pass because it’s an inconvenient time for you to be fired? Some will say you should be loyal to your employer. That’s true, if your employer has earned that loyalty. If you’re simply “overhead,” then why on earth would you be loyal to a spreadsheet?

You need to look at your firm from the standpoint of return on investment. If you are “putting in time” at a firm, what are you getting out of it? If you are making yourself more marketable for the future, great. If you are deepening a relationship with a client that you will be able to move with, fantastic. But if you are not developing the career tools need to survive when your family needs you, you need to spend some time contemplating what the best career path is.

Some will scoff and talk about survival. I do not mean to suggest that survival is not an essential consideration. But once you get past the immediate risk, what is your long-term plan? Hanging on long-term because of survival is not a career strategy, it is a prayer. You can choose to take control or you can let “the man” control your life and make you a slave to his whim. There are always reasons to hunker down and keep what you have: law school loans; newly married with kids to support; or college tuition for your kids. If you look to find a reason to remain where you are, you’ll find one.

The alternative is to bite the bullet, knowing that the pain/risk is short term. Life is about passion, about doing what you love with people you want to hang with. Everyone who has read this column knows that I believe that BigLaw is a model that if not dying is certainly going through an incredible metamorphosis. In a few years, it will not at all look like it did just a few years ago. Agree or disagree, the most important thing is to apply the same intellectual rigor and the same cynical judgment to your career choices and career development that you do to the world going on around you.

Patrick Lamb is a founding member of Valorem Law Group, a litigation firm representing business interests. Valorem helps clients solve their business disputes and coping with pressures to reduce legal spend using nontraditional approaches, including use of nonhourly fee structures, coordination with LPOs or contract lawyers, joint-venturing with other firms and implementation of project management tools to handle lawsuits or portfolios of litigation.

Pat is the author of the the recently published book Alternative Fee Arrangements: Value Fees and the Changing Legal Market. He also blogs at In Search Of Perfect Client Service.

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