As I provide career consultations to young lawyers, from recent graduates to newly-minted partners, I am often asked if opportunities have changed since the onset of the economic recession in late 2007. The answer is an unqualified - yes. The practice of law might well have transitioned in this decade anyway, but has been accelerated by the 5-year-old stagnant economy, with erosion of positions throughout the profession, from law firms to in-house corporate to government jobs. For years, upon graduation, most young lawyers have pursued traditional avenues in the tightly focused "triad" noted above, with a smaller percentage pursuing not-for-profit or public service/social enterprise jobs.
Some associates with three to five years' experience as large firm refugees have chosen to skip the partner track for a shingle on their own, or with colleagues, recognizing their entrepreneurship spirit. Others have done it for a lifestyle choice more than financial remuneration. In addition, a recent survey by CISCO, the giant international telecommunications company, reflected that flexibility may be more important than compensation. The survey stated that to employ and retain professionals, including lawyers, telecommuting options need to be considered as part of some package practices.
As we move through this decade, a significant amount of opportunities for young lawyers will be positions that did not exist in the last decade. Aside from legal and social skills, many will require entrepreneur and business know-how. Although there will still be a certain percentage of young lawyers under 40 in lockstep up the ladder to partnership, firms in this decade will not require as many practitioners as they did prior to 2007. Increased management efficiencies of scale, outsourcing, increased client billing oversight, developing legal technology and contract employment will result in less permanent opportunities.
The catalyst for change will result in YLD practitioners pursuing positions with legal service firms and related businesses, the fastest growing sectors of the profession. They include names such as Novus Law, E-Law, Legal Zoom, Practical Law, Cybersettler, Pange3 and Mindcrest. These and other growing business enterprises do work that previously may have been done by firms themselves.
This paradigm shift is probably here to stay, impacting law firms' productivity, efficiencies and ultimately profitability. After all, besides serving clients, law firms are a business run by equity partners. Those of you who have or will look outside the traditional areas of employment, rather than viewed through "tunnel vision," cannot be risk averse in today's market. The best opportunities may be those that scare us the most. I started my private practice in career counseling at the height of massive inflation; Microsoft did so during a recession, and the late founder and CEO of Apple, Steve Jobs noted his success was due in large part to "adapting to the times and taking risks."
An entry-level position after law school or an uninspiring job you might be in now is not a permanent career ending. I have found in counseling lawyers over these 30 years that "things don't always fit neatly together in life." The next opportunity may utilize your developing client and relationship skills, analytical ability, initiative, interests and enthusiasm for a career choice you might well not have thought about or considered while in law school! In the challenging employment environment ahead, it does pay to also "think outside the box" of traditional choices, recognizing that achieving internal gratification may be as important to you in the long run as financial/external gratification.
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: www.lawcareercounseling.com; Behrend42@aol.com; or 610-658-9838.