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Sacrifices to Becoming a Partner in a Large Law Firm

I seem to have it made as a 37-year-old lawyer: partner with a "Big Law" firm here in Pennsylvania, nice house in the suburbs with spouse and kids, recognized as a solid producer by senior management. I can probably run the table here until retirement in 25 years. Only one problem: I'm not really excited and thrilled about staying here forever. Spoke to a few colleagues and friends in confidence, and they stated, "You've got it good; be grateful and stay the course." What do you think? 


I've had the opportunity to counsel many lawyers over the past 20 years who outwardly seem to be on what may be called a "successful track" - but they are not happy. Although they may not be depressed about the situation at work, the question arises: "Is this it? Is this all there is for the next two-plus decades?" Some lawyers will note honestly they are not getting the same gratification they did 12 years ago as an associate. Of course the money/compensation is great, but the pressure today at the firm may be more business than professional with each passing year.

There are probably more Young Lawyers Division attorneys who are right now considering their options, career aspiration and work-life balance issues. As they move toward age 40, their priorities and values may change. Maybe the lawyer wants to spend more time with his/her growing children, pursue a hobby or avocation or downshift to a different employment culture within or outside the practice of law. This is not a sign of weakness, I explain to clients in my career consulting practice. My second son is executive director of major gifts at an elite East Coast university business school. He was hired by the associate dean of development, a lawyer who had been with "Big Law" on the partnership track but who decided to alter his career and is much happier for it. Yes, the external gratification is not as good as partner at his old firm, but he finds the position in senior management at the university to be challenging and enjoyable. He is also able to schedule personal and professional activities that he was not able to do previously in his role with the firm.

On my desk is a framed notation, which I have used with clients since leaving to start my own private career consulting practice two decades ago. It says, "Read This At Your Own Risk." We are about to urge you to take more chances in life with your career. That's not an easy thing to do for most people, yet it is important to take risks in order to grow and experience life. Risks, however, can be tricky - not only hard to take but hard to define. Maybe one is considering taking a chance with our career, when we are actually just playing it safe!

So, be sure you are really stretching yourself by trying this simple test. Add the word "what" to any career risk you are considering. Are you risking anything real and valued - something you would mind losing? If you don't really care very much about what you might lose, you are not taking a risk. Chances are good that, win or lose, you'll end up "status quo," which is not necessarily bad, but it's not the way to grow and earn some of the special rewards that can be enjoyed by risk-takers.

If you were to read magazines such as Inc. or Fast Company, you would be amazed to see the number of young professionals who have left the "comfort" of a career track to take on the career challenges they have - and done so successfully. For some it is Act II in their career span, which has provided increased gratification.

Counseling lawyers through this soul searching is a process and commitment. Some lawyers over the years have stayed or "put in their time" while others have made significant changes and, I believe, ultimately have found happiness and joy in their work - again. Good luck!

David E. Behrend, M.ED., Director, Career Planning Services For Lawyers has been successfully counseling attorneys going through a career or employment transition for over 18 years. He has written and spoken prolifically on career development issues for lawyers going through changes. He can be reached at:;  or 610-658-9838.