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Where Have All the Lawyers Gone?

by Carolyn Elefant on April 12, 2011 · 9 comments

in Questions & Advice, Quitting Solo

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Perhaps the most surprising piece news from last night’s Ignite Law was Jay Shepherd’s announcement that he’s shutting down his firm to focus full time on his business, Prefix LLC which teaches lawyers how to price knowledge. The next day, another colleague revealed that he too will leave his practice to focus on another venture – and of course, Matt Homann, who organized Ignite is a recovered lawyer as well as is Kevin O’Keefe who runs LexBlog.

This isn’t a post about whether those who leave the law are better or worse than those who remain. Instead, more generally, I wonder about the implications of the loss of energy and talent and teachers from our profession. Knowledge once imparted through the ages as mentorship has now been product-ized and commoditized. Yet at the same time, informal mentorship can’t keep pace with rapid changes in the profession, or offer the same level of advice – nor can mentors develop products and new technologies that help solo and small firms advance. Perhaps in fact, the whole concept of mentorship doesn’t even make sense in an age of new ideas where lawyers may be better off buying the advice that they need instead of relying on tips from colleagues. Selling mentorship makes our profession a far less collegial and generous place – but perhaps it’s more effective and efficient.

This post, of course, is somewhat self-indulgent. Though there may be broader implications to lawyers leaving the law, the trend affects me personally. Seeing others doing similar things to what I do at my blog and then moving on to do more of it makes me feel a little bit left behind. Moreover, I wonder if these folks know something that I don’t about the importance of focusing on one thing at a time. After all, I’m not sure how I can continue to lead a divided life between practicing law and writing and speaking about it. And yet, it’s too hard to choose.

What do you think? Would you leave the practice of law for a law-related business? What would it take to make you go?

  • Adam Kielich

    Sometimes people get into a field where they are passionate about the substantive work they do. Then they get into a management position and find they love coaching/managing people more than doing the substantive work. I find it extremely natural that some people would find more profit/better enjoy helping other lawyers become successful than doing the work themselves.

    That you chose to continue to practice and provide invaluable resources to the rest of us means you are a great multitasker and you enjoy both sides (I hope.)

  • http://www.koncision.com Ken Adams

    Carolyn: I made the leap a few years ago. In my case, it was simply a matter of my aptitudes being far better suited to studying contract language with a bit of critical distance rather than engaging in frenetic, expediency-driven dealmaking. So maybe this kind of switch is as much about individual preferences as it is about broader implications.

    And as regards broader implications, maybe the principal factor is that information technologies are creating the sort of disruption that affords opportunity to those with a broader perspective.

    Ken

  • http://twitter.com/matthomann Matt Homann

    Carolyn, what a great and thoughtful post!

    I don’t think this is an either-or proposition. Instead of abandoning their peers and the profession, it seems that many you mention continue to offer advice (much of it still for free), but now have a platform to deliver that advice to a larger and more receptive audience.

    You’ve had such a profound impact on thousands of lawyers, I often wonder how the profession could change if you devoted yourself full time to solo-vangelism. I know that once I stopped practicing (a long and hard decision), I’ve not looked back with regret, only fondness. Like Ken, I happened upon something to which my odd collection of talents are uniquely suited.

    Good luck with your struggles. You deserve to find success upon whatever path you ultimately choose to take.

  • http://twitter.com/AndyArnold Andy Arnold

    I think there may even be a middle path, one less taken. I have had my own litigation practice for 16 years (practiced for a total of 18 years). In some ways, I am a natural born litigator, although it can be stressful and draining. About 6 years ago, I took a “sabbatical,” meaning I shut my law practice down for a year. I was not doing my best work and I was not enjoying the practice–too much bullshit.

    So, I shut it down. And for 12 months, I spent time with kids, I read, I wrote, and I lived life mostly on my terms. An attempt at fiction occupied most mornings from month 3 to month 10. There are things I would do differently, but the time away from the role, the schedule, the habits, the people, and all the other things in a local lawyers orbit. It was as if I was standing outside myself and could look at examine from a different place. I highly recommend it, if even for several months.

    I wondered going in if I would return. I begin to doubt it about half-way into my sabbatical. And as money dwindled like sand in a hour glass, I considered all my options over a two month period. And, then an old business client called, he had a new LLC, which was manufacturing caskets in China. Dispute required immediate action, and he said, “I thought you would be perfect for this case, but I didn’t know if you were back.” And I said, “I am now.” It was a rush.

    I am a lawyer, a litigator. But, damn, it can be a tough way to make a living, although last year was one of my best. (This year will be different.) I will walk away one day, on my own terms and before I hit the inevitable decline. And I look forward to that phase of life, but right now, I am where I am supposed to be. Ironically, I had to step away from it to have that insight.

  • Carolyn elefant

    Thank you all so much for such thoughtful responses. I very rarely share my personal struggles at tutus blog anymore but it was worth it for this feedback

  • http://www.oklahoma-bankruptcy-lawyers.com Josh

    I know as a recent graduate, I had to think about abandoning the law before I ever got into it. Trying to find a job was extremely difficult, and I had to do a little bit of contract work here and there while job searching. Finally I took the plunge and opened a firm with a fellow law school graduate. So far I love it, and I’m glad I have the opportunity to practice. That being said, I can completely understand why some lawyers would decide they would rather do something else.

  • http://www.ethicsmaven.com Eric Cooperstein

    The Commoditization of Mentoring. If you don’t use that for next year’s Ignite Law talk, then I want dibs.

    What do you mean when you refer to “mentoring?” I wonder if it’s the model of senior lawyers imparting their wisdom to junior lawyers, and whether we would be over-romanticizing it to say that it went on very often outside of large firms (where, in some part, the mentoring has the self-interested aspect of training new lawyers to be successful earners for the firm).

    I don’t think the problem is that mentoring does not make sense but that the center of gravity has changed. New lawyers need practice management and technology advice. Substantive law they can get from a combination of legal research and listservs but its the advice on running a practice that they crave. Perhaps the traditional mentoring model (if there was one) has stopped working.

    I don’t have a problem with professional mentors as long as they really have experience and aren’t just selling fear and promises. And isn’t one of the joys of being solo doing as much or as little of something as it suits you?

  • http://profiles.google.com/mirriam.seddiq Mirriam Seddiq

    And herein lies the problem with the current slew of lawyers – you CANNOT learn substantive law from listservs and legal research. Continuing to say that young lawyers need to learn how to make money and run their firm as a business only is the issue we have. It’s why there is so much bad lawyering going on. This is a profession. We perform a service to human beings who have problems that they need us to help solve. It’s not just about the ipad or the latest cloud computing system or practice management software. Anyone can run a business. Not everyone is cut out to practice law and do it well.

  • http://www.simmonsandfletcher.com Paul

    For a personal injury lawyer in Texas, it wouldn’t take much. The legislature is doing all it can to force us out of business and leave the little guys to take whatever pittance tortfeasors offer. In the next year, I suspect there will be hundreds of personal injury attorneys in Texas looking for new career paths. You spend years helping people and the thanks you get for it is a negative media image and a government that creates malpractice hazards around every conrner to try to drive you out. Makes switching professions all together very attractive.

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