With the economy tanking and the number of legal jobs declining, now may seem like a good time to leave the law. Whether you graduated from law school last May and still haven’t found a job or whether you’re one of the growing number of biglaw casualties or a victim of a law firm’s forced retirement policy, you may feel angry and frustrated that you haven’t been able to make a go of a career in the law and ready to cut your losses by moving on. To you, I say one thing: don’t leave, just yet. Of course, if you hated working at your firm or you’re certain that you weren’t cut out to be a lawyer, then now’s as a good a time as any to re-evalute your options. But if you’re still committed to being the lawyer you dreamed you’d be back in law school, you couldn’t pick a worse time to leave the law. Perhaps in the short run, you’ll find a decent position — maybe if you had a career before law school, you’ll return to that position or maybe you’ll happen upon a long term document review job. But if you take that approach, realize that you are giving up enormous opportunity and long term earning potential.
Why’s that? Because in two years, the economy will turn around. It always does. I’ve been practicing law for twenty years and went through Black Monday in 1987 that left many of my classmates scrambling for summer positions, the downturn of 1993 or 1994, when I started my firm because I couldn’t find a job, the dotcom bust and on and on. Every time the economy has cycled down, it’s come back around with each rebound accompanied by better opportunities.
Now, I realize that some of you have no interest in starting a law firm and just want a steady job with steady pay. Nothing wrong with that. But whether starting a firm is your first choice or last on your list, the point is that if you leave the legal profession now, by the time the law biz picks up, you’ll find yourself in the worse possible position. When the economy improves, and firms and government agencies start hiring, they’re going to want experienced people who can hit the ground running. If you’ve been teaching elementary school or working as a nurse or reviewing documents, you won’t have the skills to compete with your peers. Essentially, you don’t bring much more to the table than a new grad, except that what you learned in law school may already be out of date. In short, by leaving the law, you severely limit your ability to capitalize on opportunities down the line.
So what if instead, you thought about starting a firm. Sure, you might find yourself scrimping over the next two years, bunking with roomates instead of getting your own place or biking around town instead of buying a car. But, you’d also get real experience practicing law, dealing with clients, marketing your service and running a business. In two years, you might find that you have a nice little portfolio of clients to bring along to a future employer, or that the experience you gained doing court appointed criminal work got you noticed by the DA’s office and yielded a job offer. You might find that you made yourself a national expert in a field like emerging renewables or the law of social networking or employment discrimination in the age of a post-Obama Supreme Court. With a new president and a new Congress, we’re going to see all kinds of changes in our laws – and the creation of new practice areas where you can be as much of an expert as someone with two decades of experience because it’s a new playing field. Those skills might get you hired as an inhouse counsel or put you on a corporate advisory board.
Of course, there’s another scenario. In two years, you just might discover that to your surprise, starting and running your own law firm suits you like no other job ever has. That you’ve got the talent and the temperament for greatness or a knack for marketing, skills you never realized you had because you never had an opportunity to use them. And in two years, you just might decide that even though you never thought you’d have your own law firm, that you never want to work for anyone else ever again.
If you’re still thinking about starting a practice, you can download my ebooks or sign up for Six Weeks ’til Solo Practice (starting November 18- and the class is filling up) at MyShingle on Steroids. Also, if you are a new grad or are currently unemployed, please inquire about special discounts by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org or calling me at 202-297-6100.