THERE ARE A LOT of disappointed lawyers right now. They might include some of the following: a senior lawyer with many years of successful practice now suffering a slowdown in his or her practice area; a mid-level partner due to become a department chairperson at the firm, still waiting for the current chair to retire; or perhaps a junior lawyer stagnating in a dull document review position, with no belief in being assigned to a challenging opportunity any time soon. If you find yourself in any of these categories, it may be time to rethink your options, evaluate what can be changed and accept what can’t be altered. This may also be a time to look back and see that the path you are on might not be the one you had originally intended or is one that no longer suits you.
However you got here, what matters now is to take a critical look at your current career path and the possible changes that you may need to implement five years after the start of what continues to be a difficult recession. For example, if you are a commercial real estate lawyer anticipating three to five more years of practice before retirement, it may not be reasonable to expect your workload to return to pre-2008 levels. The situation might be the same if you are a medical malpractice attorney in a state where there have been substantive legislative changes to laws that affect your practice.
BE REALISTIC ABOUT YOUR SITUATION
If your practice has struggled significantly over the past five years and you don’t envision a turnaround in the near future, continuing to stagnate while hoping that things will improve isn’t a winning strategy. It’s also important to remember that because law services the needs of business, an upturn in the business climate will positively affect clients before cycling into the legal profession. There may be fundamental flaws in the economics that govern your specialty. If so, are there alternative ways to deliver legal services efficiently to keep costs down and demand up? Or is it time for a significant shift in how you have been practicing? If you choose the latter, rethink everything—where you practice, with whom you practice, how you develop business, how you work and generate revenue, and how you charge and bill. Now is not the time to eliminate alternatives or narrow your options too quickly and overlook an important opportunity. Putting your practice under this kind of scrutiny isn’t easy, because it often involves a willingness to critique previous practices that were once successful. But if you refuse to look at the broad range of elements that impact your business, you may be doing nothing more than driving your business further aground.
TAKE CONTROL OVER WHAT YOU CAN
Often when you are disappointed in your career circumstances, there is a tendency to look at mitigating factors outside of your control. While it is important to recognize what is going on in the external market, it is equally important to identify the elements of the situation over which you have greater direct control. An honest reflection on past experience can help you take stock of your situation and make a shift in your focus that may be a course correction or an overall change of direction. Perhaps you should interview some of your best clients from the recent and distant past. Would they be in the market to hire you again for work that you provided for them in the past, or have their legal needs changed? Do they have emerging needs of which you have not been aware but can help them address? If you have been through other lean times, take stock of the elements that signaled a positive shift in the market and talk to other trusted attorney friends and advisors about what they are experiencing. Are they envisioning a positive shift in the marketplace? If so, what data is leading them to this conclusion, and if they don’t see this coming, why not? Have your previous successes caused you to stagnate in terms of technical or practice knowledge? If you find that to be the case, be willing to invest time and resources in updating your skills. Have you investigated all of the available opportunities to partner with your colleagues if you are in a firm or to form external alliances if you are a solo? And, lastly, if you have investigated all of the avenues over which you have control and haven’t found what you believe to be a growth opportunity, are you willing to look closely at your skill set and see how it translates to areas outside of the traditional practice of law? While this may seem like a radical decision, many lawyers have made this kind of change and found new and invigorating careers that utilized many of their previously demonstrated legal skills.
If you are the mid-level partner waiting to take on a leadership role because the person above you hasn’t retired on schedule, look inside your firm for other options to express your leadership skills and talent. Take a more active role in developing and mentoring more-junior attorneys, get involved in recruitment or develop a greater expertise in marketing and share your insights with your peers. When that leadership opportunity finally arrives, you will bring greater resources to the table.
If you are a junior lawyer, do not remain in a decently paying dead-end job too long, waiting for the market to change. Keep in contact with your attorney friends, and don’t hide out at your office or at home. Ideas for new opportunities are more likely to come from a dialog than from mulling over your situation by yourself. If you have ideas about what you really want to be doing, look for volunteer opportunities that might afford you the opportunity to gain expertise that will translate later into a paid position. If your peer group is also experiencing career frustration, consider forming a meet-up group or something less formal, where you can kick around options and alternatives with others who are having a similar experience.
People reinvent themselves all of the time. The average American will have three to five careers over a lifetime, and it may be time to reconsider yours. No matter at what level you are working, if you need to make a change because things aren’t going well, be willing to explore areas outside of your comfort zone. Realize that, just as when you were entering law school, you are making another investment in your career and your future. Disappointment can be a real catalyst for the change that you need.