Saturday, February 7, 2009

Taking the Road Less Traveled - Another Guest Poster -- Different Track Guy

I want to thank HP for letting me hijack this very instructive blog to present a different perspective on employment. I did not enter the big firm route for my career path. When I graduated from a Top 25 law school and subsequently passed the bar exam, I was facing an economy in deep recession where a major law firm in the biggest city proximate to my home collapsed and thereby put 200+ experienced attorneys on the street. Having grades in the top 1/3 of my class weren't enough to garner employment at the big firms in said big city, and I did not want to seek another market. I sought out small- and medium-size firms, but the salary offers were so low on pay and benefits that I could not accept a couple of offers that were made to me. So began a different track:


Job 1 - Solo Practice: In an act of extreme arrogance and potentially deep mental illness, I set out to establish a solo practice. I had to make a decision as to where to locate. I chose an office where a sitting state representative and the incumbent counsel for the city were located. I realized the importance that these connections may provide in both my current, new lawyer status and the value of these connections later in my career development. Elected officials and municipal officers are great sources for client referrals and eventual job recommendations as their connections run deep. Be selective where and, more importantly, with whom you locate.


I had to furnish my office. I bought a basic PC (today a laptop would make most sense), printer, and bought my desk, chairs and bookcase from an automobile dealership that was closing due to the then sour economy. The furniture was from the dealership president's office and looked very professional with my diplomas professionally framed in the background. Do not skimp on office decor and on framing. Much like HP discussing clothing, I need to state the obvious in that how your office looks (in a situation where you actually meet people in your office versus conference rooms at large firms)  makes a lasting impression on new clients.

I had to decide the areas of law in which to practice. The counsel for the city connection proved fruitful immediately as he offered me work as a per diem assistant to him and he convinced the Mayor to provide me with a steady stream of income performing municipal tax matters for the City. Immediately, I could meet all of my overhead! My grandparents who were then living provided the inspiration for my other practice area. They were both senior citizens living in an elderly building housing hundreds of seniors. I immediately decided to learn everything about elder law. Next, after learning this area after many cram sessions and CLE classes, I found myself speaking to the elderly building's association on the topic and a significant practice area was opened to me. So be open to the business that your colleagues offer to you, be aware of your own community's demographic opportunities, and be willing to leverage your own family if it will help you build your practice.

So for the next few years, I was doing ok. I had steady municipal work and I was building my elder law practice. I was not getting wealthy, but I could afford to buy a house on my own which wasn't that bad for a single, 27 year old guy at the time.

Job 2 - Agency Counsel: One day, I was reading the primary state lawyers' newspaper and saw an ad where a state agency was seeking an attorney with knowledge of estate planning and elder law concepts to join its legal department. The pay grade was strong for public service, and I immediately applied. I was torn as to whether to leverage my relationship with the State Representative and made the decision that I would only mention him if I got to the stage where a list of references was required. I interviewed and was offered a second interview a week later where I was told to bring with me the names of two references. I brought the names of the counsel for the city and the State Representative. I believe, to this day, that my expertise in the desired area of law gave me an edge over any other applicant, but I am not oblivious to the fact that providing the State Representative as a reference surely didn't hurt. And, it should go without saying, even if you're happy in what you're doing, keep an eye on the want ads. You never know when a great opportunity may be there for you.




For the next six years I practiced law for that state agency and found the road to be predictable with steady salary increases, but it did provide not a whole lot of intellectual challenge or promotional opportunity. My work was primarily centered on estate work with more than a dabbling of fraud issues. And to add to the fun, I was able to maintain my solo practice of law after hours so long as my practice areas did not conflict with my state job and I have done so to this day.


Job 3 - Manager at the Agency: After six years as agency counsel, my internal agency client offered me a managerial position in its department where I would have the opportunity to manage about 20 staff and begin to impact agency policy. I now had to make the decision of whether to continue to be a full-time lawyer or advance my career in public service taking an alternative career path. For me, it was an easy choice because I knew that the legal career path in public service would require years for me to advance as I would have to wait out a few baby boomers (and turnover was negligible in this agency). I took the managerial job and served in that capacity for a few years.




Job 4 - Jumping Ship to Another Agency: Three years ago, I saw an ad on the state jobs web site where a different state agency was seeking a higher level manager with fraud and legal experience. I applied, interviewed, and was offered the job in short order without a second interview being required. I served in that capacity for two years, and I was considered an effective change agent by the agency's senior management. Now, after only three years at the agency, I am leading an entirely new department, and I am serving as a member of the agency's most senior staff. My salary has increased approximately 30% in the past three years which is no small achievement in this economy, but it was reflective of merit-based pay increases and a significant promotion.




So where does this admittedly long story lead you? I'm hoping that it will make you recall Frost's great poem where he mentions that famous road that diverged in the wood. HP's blog does a wonderful job of preparing you for the road most traveled. But there is another, less traveled road where, if you believe in yourself, you can establish and maintain a solo practice of law that can, at minimum, meet your expenses while having an opportunity to buy a home and begin to live the traditional American dream. And even more importantly, you can direct your career toward public service and potentially inform policy decisions for a state agency impacting tens of thousands of lives.




I know that this biographical post was very long. Thank you for indulging me in telling my story. I could offer many more anecdotes, tips, and advice to anyone interesting in solo practice or public service and will be glad to do so at HP's request. Good luck to all of you in your careers. The law is a noble profession where you can use your education for so much good. Be sure to find a way to do so.

26 comments:

Anonymous said...

not all that useful for me, but i still found it interesting. thanks for sharing.

f-3 said...

Thanks for the post -- inspirational, encouraging, and offers hope for many whose law schools never really prepared them for thinking outside of the BigLaw track.

Hiring Partner said...

Even if this is not a path you desire (and let me just say that in the current environment, many will need to branch out), DT's post emphasizes an important notion: keeping your eyes and ears open for different opportunities and not assuming just because you pick X, you are stuck with X forever.

A lot of us get very settled; while that can be good, we should remember that change is often good as well. I know so many people who have advance - in firm life, and elsewhere -- because they made a change. Had they stayed, they may not have been as successsful. While change can be scaring, it can also be reaffirming and a fresh opportunity to establish an even more impressive reputation.

f-3 said...

HP / DT / GP,

DT was able to move, but he had a constant connection to a specific area of expertise (elder law). What about switching gears even more drastically - from one subject area to a completely new one, or even from litigation to transaction - or vice versa?

How would you plot such a move especially in the law firm environment? After three or four years, will any firm give you even a remote chance to make such a change? As the senior partner / hiring partner, what would it take for someone to convince you?

teasinglydiverse said...

Thank you for this post! I'm a 1L and seriously considering taking the path less traveled and focusing on public service and public policy in my future career. It's so encouraging to hear a new perspective from somebody who hasn't been on the firm track.

Anonymous said...

Great post. If you have any friends who have gone in-house, I'd love their career stories as well. Also, any friends who have made the switch from law to business down the road, especially into investment firms

Hiring Partner said...

thanks for your comments. Yes, HP's next guest poster I hope is either a CC (corporate counsel) or a recruiter (aka headhunter). You can see, hopefully, that HP practices what HP preaches, which is to maintain and build your friendships and networks. HP doesn't just stay in contact with own firm colleagues, HP has broad base. This is important in many respects.

Different Track Guy said...

Quick clarification to f-3, the last move that I made had nothing to do with elder law. Elder law ended up pairing with some fraud issues and that is where that particular focus shift moved. Elder law opened some doors, but I ultimately needed to adapt to advance and convince others of my adaptability.

One another note, as agency counsel, I specifically asked the Chief Agency Counsel and his direct reports (my bosses) to be assigned to do other things and was rebuked which made my accepting the internal agency management position.

Thanks for the early positive feedback. It is very gratifying.

Anonymous said...

I'd love to hear the answer to f-3's second paragraph question about switching practice areas

Hiring Partner said...

It is difficult to switch practices areas in a firm - especially as you get more senior. Typically the firm might require you to take a "hit" in seniority (class year for promotion) and possibly pay, since firm cannot bill you out at same rate as 4th year since you do not know same amount.

I have seen it done, usually for a very beloved associate the firm really wanted to keep who wasn't busy in original department or who another department really wanted. The best way to do this is to start to get some assignments if you can from desired other department and to get to know the partners and senior attorneys in the desired department. They would be more apt to advocate for allowing you to switch if they know you and your work. You can also get to know them by participating in firm management activities (recruiting commitee, pro bono committee, etc) with them. That way they can see how you handle yourself, follow up on tasks etc. Thus, make a good impression in whatever context you are dealing with other attorneys -- esp. those you may want to work with.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post. Great details about transitioning from one place in your career to another. Very useful for a 2L who is unsure what path to take. Please post again!

f-3 said...

HP and DT - thanks for the clarifications. Very helpful for future reference!

Small Town 1L said...

HP - do you have any colleagues who could write a post about working & networking in a small(er) town? I'm a 1L looking to relocate to a small town after graduation for family reasons, and my school's career center advice started and ended with "good luck".

I am definitely planning summer and other work experiences there throughout my school years. I'm willing to go into any area where I can get a job, but I don't want to get stuck defending DUIs for 30 years. I'd love any advice that you or any of your friends could give.

Anonymous said...

Hey HP - With the terrible job market, does it make sense to stay in school (or go back to school) for an extra year to wait it out? In other words, is an LLM worth it in this economy? Does it matter that the potential LLM student currently does not have a specialty practice area?

Anonymous said...

I am going to be an SA this summer and want to position myself so I can secure long term employment. Can I just come right out and ask my mentor (after a few weeks) which departments are busiest and which will likely be the best picks to make sure I'm not axed as a junior associate due to decreased work load? Or is this something I'm going to have to try to feel out? I'm not sure on etiquette about asking about health of firm and practice groups.

Anonymous said...

I think I just saw a tumbleweed . . . .

Anonymous said...

Yeah, what's up with this Blog? It's so hit and miss in terms of posts ... z-z-z-z-z-z-z

Anonymous said...

Agreed...I like it a lot, but if there's another couple times with no post for a week I'll probably stop checking it.

Jiminy said...

[crickets]

Anonymous said...

I don't know where HP is right now, but wouldn't you think that maybe, just maybe, HP is entitled to a vacation? Maybe HP had a business or family emergency? Maybe HP has writer's cramp? What a fickle bunch....

Anonymous said...

[chirp] [chirp]

f-3 said...

Yes, there has been silence, but this is not a news blog either.

Also, there have been 16 posts since January - and that does not include advice given in the comments. Assuming there is no additional post for the remainder of this month, that's still 16 posts for 58 days, which translates into more than a post every 4 days. I find that more than reasonable.

Anonymous said...

F-3 is a gigantic brown-noser.

f-3 said...

Not only am I a gigantic brown-noser, I am also obviously not very smart, given that I'm using an anonymous name to kiss up and can't benefit from doing so.

And I'll gladly be called more names if it means showing a bit of consideration and respect for people who take time to give free career advice, especially where they are also remaining anonymous and can't benefit materially from it either.

Anonymous said...

Nothing is done for free, and not all benefits are monetary.

HTH

Anonymous said...

A blog can only survive if it's interesting and timely, that's all we're saying ... and this one is too inconsistent in both content and timeliness ... it's called constructive criticism