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Making Partner

It's Up or Out No More as Alternatives Shake up the Traditional Partnership Model


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Is There Life After Law Firms?
Getting Off the Partnership Path

By Marcia Pennington Shannon


Law firm life is not for everyone. Here's advice for lawyers who want to pursue a new passion-from how to find yours (it's behind the cheese), to methods for making sure the next path you walk leads to a happier place.

Law firm life is not for everyone. Every year, in fact, many lawyers jump off the partnership track and leave the law firm life to pursue different paths, sometimes because they dislike the firm environment, sometimes because they're dissatisfied with the practice itself, and often because they want to do something else that's a better fit.

Fortunately, there are many choices for those who don't want to pursue the traditional path of becoming a partner in a firm—so many choices, actually, it can be tough to know where to start. Then start here: Get ideas about what's out there. Be really open to new options. Ask people what they do—be curious. You'll find out about things you didn't even know existed.

To get things going, let's look at some of the non-firm options that have brought lawyers greater satisfaction and then explore steps you can take if you believe you would like to transition to something new in your career, too.

An Overview of Options

You name it and someone with a law degree is probably doing it—whether it means practicing law in a non-firm setting, working in a different type of law-related position, or engaging in an entirely new kind of career.

Many lawyers have moved into attorney positions within government, public interest organizations, associations, academic institutions and the business and finance world, just to name a few non-firm settings. For those who want to continue practicing law, these settings can offer benefits and professional or personal satisfaction that law firm life may not, depending on individual interests and desires. For example, someone driven by a particular passion for environmental concerns may find that passion best met in a public interest organization. Someone who thrives on interaction with businesspeople may relish the everyday life of an in-house counsel position. (Read Ernie Schaal's advice about moving in-house in this issue.)

Law-related options, or those options where a law degree serves as an added benefit but is not a requirement, also abound these days. For example, those lawyers working in legislative positions find the law degree adds value and credibility, as do those in compliance officer and risk manager roles. Legal publishing, law school teaching and administration, and lobbying fall in this category as well. Wherever law intersects with the work of an organization, those with law degrees add a special set of knowledge and problem-solving skills that aid in the ability to do their job at the highest levels.

Many are finding satisfaction in pursuing coaching and consulting specific to the legal profession as well, in various areas relating to marketing, management, finance, technology and beyond. As just one example, Deborah Katz Solomon, a former antitrust lawyer, uses her knowledge of law firm life to help attorneys be successful in their positions through the coaching process. ( See her story in this issue.)

Then there are those who do something completely different from the practice of law and yet find their legal training adds to their list of qualifications. One former practicing attorney who switched to a career in secondary school teaching notes that practicing law helped him become a better communicator and persuader, skills he has found very useful in the classroom. (As it so happens, the teacher, Mike Shannon, is the author's husband. See his story also in this issue.) Others, such as an attorney who started her own catering business, found that her legal training and experience not only helped her in negotiating contracts with clients and vendors, but also in being able to handle multiple demands under great time constraints. She says, "While I can't say that I miss practicing law, I can certainly say that it gave me a lot of skills that I find useful in my work since leaving the practice. I have never regretted my time practicing law." Jennifer Brooke Davidson is now preparing for her next career as an Episcopal priest, hoping to finish her theological studies within the next couple of years.

Identifying What's a Better Fit: The Self-Assessment Process

If you're feeling that the law firm life isn't for you but you are unsure what a better path might be, your first step should be to undertake a self-assessment process. Hindi Greenberg, author of The Lawyer's Career Change Handbook and a career consultant who's worked with lawyers for more than 20 years, says, "If you picked law and it's not working for you, you may not have done in-depth thinking about your career path at the time. If you do not do thorough self-assessment now, you can end up going down the wrongpath again."

Self-assessment consists of gathering data about your interests, skills you enjoy using, your values, substantive experiences, career and lifestyle preferences and your vision of your future. You can accomplish this type of assessment in a number ways, including completing career assessment inventories and answering a series of corresponding questions, looking for themes and highlights in the results. A professional career consultant can also be helpful.

According to Greenberg, "It can be useful to work with a professional because the individual is an objective outsider and does not have a vested interest in which path you choose. Friends and family do not tend to be objective in these matters. A professional also has information about fields, ideas of what is out there, suggestions on how to approach different positions, and perhaps even contacts that the individual may find useful."

The following are examples of questions that you can use to explore what your next move may be.

  • Consider a great day at work and ask yourself, what made it great? Was it the people you worked with, the outcome of your work, the skills you used, the pressures you overcame, or some combination of those factors?
  • What skills do you possess and enjoy using most? Would you categorize those skills as related to people, ideas or things?
  • What kinds of topics, issues or other things interest you? For example, do you have a compelling interest in the environment, do you lean toward business issues, or do you like to manage others? When you read newspapers or magazines, what types of articles do you like to read?
  • What dreams do you have about things you would like to do in the future? Have you thought about writing a novel, traveling around the world, inventing new software, or representing your community in a legislative body? When you allow yourself to think about options with no barriers, what leaps to mind?
  • Are there individuals you know of who are doing things you would like to do, or at least things about which you would like to learn more?
  • In what type of setting do you work best? Do you like working in an office building, or the flexibility of working from home? Would you prefer to be outside or moving around during the day? Do you like to travel in your work?
  • What do you like about practicing law? What do you wish you could change about practicing law?
  • Are you looking for a way to achieve a better balance between your daily work and your responsibilities outside of work?
  • What motivates you to get up in the morning and go to work? How would you rank the following six work values: (1) interesting work, (2) meaningful work, (3) work-life balance, (4) financial reward, (5) opportunity for promotion, and (6) job security?
  • What are you missing in your current work that you would like to have in the next position?
  • When you imagine your life two years from now, how is it different from the way your life is now?

Exploring the Field: Market Research and Information Interviews

If you've been thorough and honest in answering the questions in your self-assessment inventory, you will find that you've collected a range of valuable information about yourself. You can then analyze the information to identify themes and preferences that stand out. Compiling those will give you clues about what kind of work and work settings would best suit you, enabling you to home in on options you may want to pursue. Then you will want to gather information about those options by doing some market research.

Begin with written resources about the options that would be a good match to your talents, values, preferences and goals. There are many books written about different careers available at your local bookstore. And, of course, you have the Internet, where you can search for information on a range of levels, from overviews about various careers to blogs where people dish the dirt about the ups and downs of their fields. In addition, many associations offer resources relating to the careers represented by their groups.

Once you have explored options in this way, you are ready to conduct information interviews, which are excellent tools for career exploration. Information interviewing gives you a reality-check: Is this particular field really what you imagine it to be? Kate Neville, a former practicing attorney and now a career consultant in Washington, D.C, is a strong believer in the benefits of the process. "I'm a huge fan of information interviewing," Neville says. "It is hard to understand what a field is really like until you've had a conversation with someone who is in the field on a day-to-day basis." As she points out, "It is best if you can go in with some questions prepared ahead of time about what you want to learn about a particular field. People really do like to talk about what they do—as long as this is an information interview and not an attempt to get a job."

With that in mind, toward the close of an information interview, you can ask the interviewee if she could suggest other people for you to talk with—every person you talk to in a field can not only help build your knowledge, but will help build your network, too.

Generally, it's a good idea to cast as broad a net as possible when it comes to information interviewing opportunities. The people in your social network can be very beneficial in this regard, so be sure to let them know you're considering making a transition. You never know where the link to a new position or career may come from.

Setting Goals

You've sifted through your options, narrowed down your preferences, and now envision yourself on your future path. How do you move forward in the process from here? Writing down your specific goal, describing the action steps you will take to get there, building corresponding timelines, and examining solutions to potential obstacles are all imperative in making a career change. Yes, you could fall into a position, but will it be your path or someone else's? To quote Thomas Alva Edison, "Good fortune is what happens when opportunity meets with planning."

Your next steps may include going back to school, or getting training in certain skills, or moving to a position that is not exactly your "dream job" but gives you experience needed to make the bigger transition. Just remember that sometimes career transitions need intermediate steps. Be creative in your career path planning. But be patient, too. Impatience often leads to the wrong path because you may be jumping from one choice that doesn't fit to another. Do the work necessary to make the best match for you.

There are many, many options outside of law firm practice, but not all of them are going to be a good fit for you. Taking the time to thoroughly analyze information about yourself and matching it to available options will much more likely lead to satisfaction and success in your next position or career.

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