Once upon a time, in 2007 to be exact, the American Bar Association began tracking the careers of almost 5,000 law graduates for a project called “After the J.D.” The ABA Journal reported that a whopping 76% of those surveyed were either ‘extremely of moderately satisfied with their decision to become an attorney”.
Two years later, the ABA terminated the project immediately because 50% of the lawyers interviewed originally were still practicing law and those who still had jobs was either disinterested or downright abusive to interviewers.
“It has been awful, just unbelievable,” said one interviewer. The lawyers I spoke to treated me as if I were a headhunter.”
I am the President of Baum Stevens Bargman, one of New York’s oldest legal recruiting firms. I have been a litigator at a New York firm, General Counsel of a company that went public and four years later went bankrupt, and a solo practitioner. As a recruiter I hear stories of lawyers’ varying levels of satisfaction; some welcome my help, some are downright hostile. When I was deciding between law and graduate school, a relative told me that law school is a great education even I you don’t practice. My second career owes very little to my legal education except, perhaps, credibility with clients and candidates. I ask myself what these responses and what surveys like Post J.D. say about the state of our profession and lawyer satisfaction overall especially the role of recruiters.
To start, I reached out to several partners, active and retired, and one General Counsel, asking why they became lawyers and why they made their careers in the law.
BigLaw Partner specializing in International Litigation
He majored in Sociology in college and was active in the peace movement. As a result of his academic and political interests, he became interested in peaceful resolution of disputes. He went to Law school because it seemed like a way to pursue his interest in conflict resolution. Toward that end, he took a joint degree in public policy. He was a Federal Circuit Court Law Clerk after Law School, but was not convinced that law was his calling. He did need a job and a friend told him about the International practice at his firm. The friend put his resume in front of a partner in that group. He received an offer and has been at the firm for 17 years, the last three as a partner. He met woman who became his wife and stayed in New York. . He asked his friend to get his resume in front of her and accepted an offer from the firm. He has been at the firm for 15 years. He became a partner this year after his group promoted him the firm for several years.
His practice is primarily international commercial litigation and arbitration; he feels that representing companies in peaceful resolution of disputes without jurisdictional and choice of law issues prevents cross border hostilities and trade wars, consonant with his original interest in the peaceful resolution of disputes. (And the money’s not bad).
He has thoughts from time to time about policy work, but he is satisfied, for the most part, very happy with his decision. He still enjoys the practice and writes and lectures in his field. Occasionally, he considers the roads not taken but is happy he chose the law.
The Tax Lawyer
He set out to be a surgeon like his Dad. He abandoned that goal after he observed an operation. Lacking not only the stomach but the manual dexterity for a surgeon, he rejected Architecture his second choice at the time. He was an excellent student, attending an Ivy where he mentioned in European Literature. What else was a good Jewish boy to do but go to Law School, also Ivy, in order to make a good living?
Glad he decided to be a tax lawyer, suits his intellectual bent and attention to detail. Also wanted to be valued for his skills as a lawyer and avoid the pressure. rainmaking He would make the same decision except for the debt he might have to accrue. Can’t think of anything he would have done having ruled out Medicine and architecture (always wanted to be a professional).
Worked a at first class Manhattan firm for several years before going in house for major financial institution where he remained for many years until a merger left him back on the street. He found himself in precisely the situation he had always tried to avoid. He became a partner in a small firm which dissolved; he worked at a Big 4 Accounting firm, but returned to private practice. He recently retired from his potion there as Senior Tax Counsel.
He made the right decision because being a tax lawyer proved to be well suited to my temperament and skills. He would make the same decision if I had it to do all over again.
One reservation he would have would be, since law school is so much more expensive than I went, I would probably incur considerable debt.
He chose to work at a fist class Manhattan firm in midtown for the prestige and as a reward for the hard work I had put in at Harvard College and Law School. At one point, he decided to move my practice in-house. At another point, after small where he was a partner dissolved, he decided to join a major accounting firm rather than express myself to the risks of another law firm from which I had an offer.
He decided to become when he received assignment to prepare “a schedule of documents for a corporate transaction. He had no idea what the transaction was and nobody told him. The next transaction was to prepare a memorandum of law related to a litigation. The work was interesting, but he knew that he lacked the aggressive temperament to be a litigator. The third assignment was to prepare a memorandum regarding whether a “profits interest” was deductible interest or a non-deductible dividend. He found the work intriguing and intellectually challenging. A tax lawyer was born.
The high point of his career was preparing a protest to the appellate division of the Internal Service. The protest was successful and the client saved millions of dollars.
The low point was being laid off near the end of his career. Although it was due to a large reduction in force, it still stung and left me wondering how I would continue my career.
He would become a tax attorney were he faced with the same decision (unless his personality were different.)
The most significant change to the practice during his care has been the decline of tax planning lawyers and the increase of tax compliance lawyers. He believes that this is due in part to there being a smaller number of clients willing to pay high fees for sophisticated tax planning. Instead, major accounting firms employ significantly more tax lawyers. Also, the availability of online tax research has permitted lawyers in smaller (and less expensive) to keep clients up to date as readily as their counterparts at large firms. When he started practicing, the Internet was a dream in Al Gore’s mind.
Do you recommend a career law? This is a difficult question. The practice in large firms has in his view become more “hard-nosed” and competitive than he started. And the required number of billable hours is as staggering as it always was. Life/work balance is desirable goal but I don’t know how associates can achieve it. It has been my experience that small firms and corporations have been less draconian. Because I have never worked in academe or government, He has no feeling for those venues. Lawyer can be stimulating intellectually and can provide a good living. It also provides opportunities for social service for persons with such a bent.
The General Counsel
He decided to become a lawyer in college because he was attracted to the intellectual and analytical aspects of lawyering and that the practice of law is not just bout money (although the financial aspect worked out very well for him.)
With hindsight, did he make the right decision? The jury is still out. He sometimes wishes he had chosen something less stressful. He also tires sometimes of having to the enforcer of the rules. So even after a partnership in a major firm and being GC of a multi-billion public company, he still muses on paths not taken, e.g., teaching or engineering.
He chose his first firm after a second summer because he liked the people and the practice. He became a partner so he obviously made right decision.) He decided against returning to his first summer firm. He thought that their motto ought to be “We are fucking going to kill you.”
As successful as he was as a litigator, he wanted to blend law and business. He was successful in landing a General Counsel position for the North American division of an Asian Company and is now General Counsel of a $3Billion Company based in New York.
His moves have been based on being able to do more interesting work, to take on more responsibility, and to support his family.
His specialties have evolved unintentionally. His first firm needed a litigator, so he litigated. A recruiter called with an in-house corporate law position after he made partner and he grabbed it.
The high point of his career was crafting the winning strategy for an Entertainment client in a hotly contested breach of contract case. The low point came when a jury returned a large verdict against his client which fortunately war reversed on appeal.
Technology has totally changed the practice of law from electronic discovery to the ability to quickly create documents and turn multiple drafts to being available to clients 24/7. If there was ever any down time in the, it is gone. Ironically, he believes that technology while increasing efficiency in the practice, has made the practice 24/7, which was not the norm at the start of his career.
He would recommend law to someone who enjoys intellectual stimulation and wants to earn a nice living but cares about things other than money. There are, however, a lot of dues to pay for professional and financial success, so he is not sure it is right for everyone.
The Retired Litigation Partner
He decided to become a litigator because it suited his pugnacious and outgoing character. As Law Review at a top ten school, he had his pick of firms for his second summer; he chose his firm because he liked the offices and accepted an offer permanent employment. He has no regrets about his choice, especially because his career ranged being a federal prosecutor, a commercial litigator, and one of the top insurance coverage specialists in the country. Of course, he would have d0ne certain things differently (e.g. choosing a specialty earlier) if he knew then what he knows now.
His best memory is wining the conviction and life sentence of a major drug lord who had scoffed at attempts to bring him to justice. His low point was realizing he was not going to make partner at his first firm. It took him almost 24 hours to recover.
These four lawyers were fortunate. Each chose the law and had no major regrets. Each found work that suit them and they could commit to. They also were immunized from the need to make, except for the Insurance litigator, who welcomed challenge.
Four professional portraits do not a survey make. They do offer anecdotal insight into professional lives in the law. They may help in evaluating your experience and your goals. They may help answer questions posed by a recruiter
such as: Why did you go to law school? Are you glad you did? What do you want for the future of your career?
Grab the reins before they grab you.