Career Corner – advice on a career move for a commercial litigator

Written by David E. Behrend

Question: I am a senior associate at a downtown law firm specialized in complex commercial litigation.  I am finding it harder all the time to deal with the stress and a I am coming to realize that I simply don’t like commercial litigation. I am thinking that a move to a smaller town and a shift to a solicitor practice would suit me better.  Am I crazy?  What can I do to make sure this is the right move and if it is, what can I do to effectively move the plan forward?

Answer: You are wise to be thinking through your options. When you start out in law it is difficult to know what area of practice, and what kind of firm is going to be the best fit.

Yes, working for a large firm has certain advantages, as well as disadvantages. Included in the benefits are; excellent legal resources available, good administrative staff, prestige, and certain working conditions, usually with very bright, talented, ambitious, proven lawyers.In addition the compensation is well above average for your position as senior associate. Finally, you generally know what is expected of you to remain in good standing with the firm.

The downside is a sense that ‘we own you’, meaning that your life is centered around the practice of law. All other aspects of your daily life outside being available for work, such as family, friends, outside activities play a secondary role. Also, as a senior associate, unless one is actually bringing in business to the firm, your role will ultimately be a ‘staff partner, or ‘service partner’ as I call it, with no chance to become an equity partner. Finally, you may be working with a managing partner of litigation who is, shall we say, very, very demanding, and not easy to deal with, even if a terrific lawyer, who brings valued clients into the firm, and is always excellent in the # 1 chair in the courtroom.

It is not surprising that commercial litigation is so demanding, with complex cases a given, much more than say, trust and estate work. There are indeed many reasons why commercial litigation may not be for you. After eight years with the firm you know it is time to move on. Maybe you knew it years before, but were unable or unwilling to move on. Many clients I have served over 20 plus years stay on until it becomes impossible, as the physical and mental stress gets to them, feeling like a ‘robot’ on workplace overload which may be the case for you now.

Meditation, yoga, and other forms of positive energy release and relaxation from the daily grind of a litigator may be enough for some of your associate colleagues, but you recognize that this will not solve the problem. Most litigators are Type A, and some enjoy the adversarial relationship both leading up to and during the trial. With clients in my national private practice, I ask them how much they actually ‘enjoy’, or get internal gratification from the work they do, and unless one can say, at a minimum, ‘two thirds the time’, it is best to move on. I consider 75% good, and most lawyers will never reach 90% internal gratification in their daily work. Possibly, the equity partners in your firm may have that gratification level, but did they pay a high price to achieve it?

Since you wish to move to a smaller town environment, from the big city, let’s think of the opportunities. As a general rule, if you have been successful with a large firm, and gained a lot of knowledge, your value could fit into a smaller firm, or possibly, as you note, as a solicitor. It is not unusual for lawyers at this stage of your career to explore positions, like that, making a conscious decision to have a better quality of work – life balance.

Most lawyers have what I call ‘ tunnel vision’, as ‘all I know is commercial litigation!’  The question is how do you transition to your possible goal as a solicitor for a small city or town, municipal government, and what skills, and know how, do you bring to that position? That is what career consultants and counsellors help you achieve.

My suggestion is that you inquire into three or four towns, or small cities, in the region in which you may wish to work. Find out (Google) the name(s) of solicitors, and what firms they worked at prior to their present position. Many times the solicitor has been with a local firm, and had worked on municipal/school board issues, and decides or is asked to move into the solicitors role. I have a client now who worked with a firm in Florida, and after dealing with municipal issues, left to become city solicitor. It is not any easy position either, as he has told me, because you are on call more than one may think, although generally there is a certain structure to the position. Ultimately, it may be less taxing than the long, arduous grind as a litigator. The well rounded background you bring to that position including; excellent presentation and communication skills; proven capability to research, investigate and analyze, and negotiate settlements avoiding a costly trial, could be of value. One would be paid, as most lawyers are, for their keen judgment!

Since you do not wish to continue as a litigator, per say, my recommendation would be to see if there are appropriate positions that might interest you in those small cities/town you mentioned. Ideally, a firm may wish you to do some municipal work, but also take on some other cases. Remember it is a ‘win-win’ situation; think about the employer as much as yourself, being able to grow in a new role, have a life outside the practice of law and its 2,000 plus billable hours a year. Hopefully, your new position doesn’t have to be the sole basis of your identity, and you can ‘smell the roses’ once again!

About the author

David E. Behrend

Director of Career Planning Service, I have been a consultant working with attorneys and other professionals for over 25 years. My focus is on career development, concentrating on meaningful or necessary job change or career transitions. I have authored many articles on the subject, and have appeared on numerous radio and television shows. My practice offers both office and telephone career consultations.

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