Career Audit

You Can Go Home Again

The Grass Isn’t Greener, and Now You Just Want Your Old Job Back

Posted May 23, 2006 1:50 AM CDT
By Martha Neil

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Once, the grass looked so much greener on the other side of the fence. The air looked cleaner, the birds were chirping, the lawyers were laughing and hoisting martinis at 5, the end of the workday.

Make the leap and suddenly the luscious turf has turned to crabgrass, and the once-giddy partners have morphed into slave-driving ogres.

Suddenly, the old, familiar pasture doesn’t look half bad. But there’s no getting the old job back. Or is there?

“I do know of a number of attorneys who have done that,” says Carol Kanarek, a New York City lawyer who works with attorneys as a career counselor.

The key is to have left the old homestead on good terms and to be prepared to chow down a little crow.

When approaching a former firm, be flexible, Kanarek says. “Present yourself as being willing to meet whatever their current needs are,” she says, and “willing to come in at whatever billing rate makes sense.”

There’s also some fence-mending to do. By leaving, “you’ve sort of outed yourself as someone who might not be wedded to the mother ship forever,” she says. So try to persuade the partners that you really want to stay the course this time.

“You have to be somewhat contrite about the fact that you’ve had an epiphany, that you’ve seen the light,” Kanarek says.

A common scenario involves attorneys who opted for what seemed like a better opportunity in-house during the California gold rush of the 1990s tech boom. After a few years, it’s not unusual to return to private practice with a much cheerier attitude, Kanarek says.

Portland, Ore., lawyer Edward J. Sullivan has seen it happen in his 36 years of practice. In fact, earlier in his career, Sullivan, chair-elect of the ABA Section of State and Local Government Law, was involved in rehiring former attorneys. He wouldn’t hesitate to do it again, either.

Many who leave a practice do so to become more intensely involved in a nonlegal area that interests them, such as a real estate lawyer becoming a real estate developer, Sullivan says.

“Usually they’ve left not because they don’t get along with you, or they’re not good at the law, but they really like that part of the law that they’re in and want to see if they can do it full time, outside of being a lawyer,” Sullivan says.

But then the departed lawyer may find that he or she misses practice. “To some extent, it could be the money,” Sullivan says of the desire to return. “On the other hand, it’s more often intellectual fulfillment that brings them back.”

Firms Often Want You Back

From a law firm’s standpoint, rehiring a former lawyer whose work is a known quantity makes sense.

While some flatly reject the possibility of extending another offer to an attorney who once worked there, many are open to considering a rehire. In addition to being good lawyers, returnees are “usually pretty bright people who get along with others,” Sullivan says.

Attorneys who want to rejoin the law firm usually approach it gingerly and gradually, he says. “If they thought about coming back, they’d usually do it over a period of weeks or months,” he says. Initially, perhaps, a lawyer might mention to a friend at the old firm over lunch, “Hey, I’m having second thoughts about it.”

Chicago environmental lawyer David Joseph Scriven-Young says at least one lawyer at his firm has left and returned. “People leaving jobs need to remember that the grass is not always greener on the other side, and that you don’t want to burn your bridges,” says Scriven-Young, who chairs the Law Practice Management Committee of the ABA Young Lawyers Division.

“You always want to keep the door open, number one, in case you want to go back,” he says. “But, number two, ... you really want to make as many friends as you can in the profession.”

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