Attorney Career Advice needed

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Attorney Career Advice needed

Post by CorradoJr »

Hello, I am asking this wonderful forum for career advice for a close friend. Unfortunately, I am not close to the field and thought I could raise some of the concerns for advice. I am hoping to remove as much of the identifying details as possible for anonymity.

The individual is an attorney and in my opinion is experiencing burn-out. Here is some background that I know of in my conversations:

Individual is late 30s, the bread-winner in the family, and is working for a BigLaw firm in the Mid-Atlantic region for the past 6-8 years. Individual has a young child and a working spouse. This individual graduated from a lower-ranked law school (i.e. not in the top 100) and feels very grateful to be working for a BigLaw firm. The individual is currently in a "non-partner, non-traditional track" role, and is certain will never make partner status (does not want this) let alone rising to the level of "normal track" status usually reserved for those recruited from top-ranked schools. Normal track individuals typically receive regular promotions and career advancement.

As I understand, the individual works in a very specialized role involving the front-end of legal cases and the role and department essentially sound like project management. The individual manages 10-20 contractors and often is the liaison between a data vendor and internal and external counsel. The work involves high-volume review of legal documents and a lot of technical details need to be managed for inclusion/exclusion as evidence. The work involves a very high degree of precision so no "unapproved" documents inadvertently make their way to the "other side" which could be used against the client. The contractors are engaged in the high-volume review and their performance is largely based on accuracy and speed of the review of documents. (As background, the friend was once in this position as a contractor and has about 3-5 years of experience doing this monotonous work.)

The individual is a work-horse and often works 60-70 hours weeks and had about 2,200 billable hours last year, but misses family time and feels the need to keep the same hours as the partners and others in the firm. Essentially, this means being available almost at all hours of the day and night as well as working almost every weekend. There are others similarly situated in the department that resent being treated like "typical" associates even though they all are in this "non-traditional" role.

The individual occasionally receives small "token" bonuses ($1-2k) each year and has not experienced a merit raise in 6-7 years. Salary is very low six-figures and has been essentially flat during this time. By my research, the individual's salary is about 30-40% lower than "typical" associates with similar experience in the firm. The Division also seems to pay the least, and it seems to be the red-headed step-child of the firm that no one acknowledges its existence.

The individual would like to explore other job options, but feels if leaving the role or firm, would be career suicide as no other BigLaw would be interested in hiring again as s/he did not graduate from a Top Tier law school. The individual feels grateful for the "luck" in being hired by the firm, but at the end, does not feel well compensated and values work-life balance more at this point in life. The individual is looking to stay in the current salary range, but just looking to work less. The job and department seems to be a sweatshop where billable hours are king and there seems to be a lot of people coming/going. There is not advancement on the foreseeable horizon and this role seems terminal. The individual has interests in non-profit work and perhaps working for the Government.

I’ve advised the individual could network internally to see if there are any possibilities within the firm for a change of pace – not necessarily advancement but at least it would keep the BigLaw name on the business card. I’ve also advised the individual could look outside the legal field as I’m sure there are other jobs where a legal background would be an advantage.

What advice would you offer?
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Re: Attorney Career Advice needed

Post by dm200 »

Not an attorney - nor do I play one on TV! [Although I have, many times, been accused of being an attorney!]

In recent years, I have dealt with many attorneys who seem to have successful careers in the field of financial institution (credit unions, banks) regulatory compliance. Some have started on this path right out of law school, while others have switched from other areas of law.

From what I can tell, this is a growing area of law - and there seems to be an "oversupply" of attorneys in the job market.
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Re: Attorney Career Advice needed

Post by galawdawg »

One of the reasons I pursued a career as a prosecuting attorney, rather than in Biglaw, was to avoid the work culture that is a normal part of any large megafirm. While quite a few of my law school colleagues were enamored with the idea of a starting salary of $75,000 (this was almost thirty years ago) and becoming a partner and making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, I was just not interested in being a part of that rat race.

If your friend can find a position in government, it will almost certainly not pay nearly what he makes now on an annual basis but his hourly wage will jump significantly! 8-) During most of my career as a felony prosecutor, my hourly pay was about the same as many of my Biglaw friends, I just worked a fraction of the hours they did. But, the benefits are often excellent (I retired at 53 with a full pension and health insurance at the same rates as employees), the work can often be quite rewarding (depending on the area of practice) and while it isn't always a M-F 9-5 job, the hours are much much better.

As far as burning a bridge to return to Big Law, I'm not sure why someone perpetually stuck as a career associate in doc review making less than partnership track associates (but expected to still crank out billable hours like someone on partnership track) would even WANT to return to Biglaw. It doesn't sound to me like they are doing him any favors.
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Re: Attorney Career Advice needed

Post by GetRichQuick »

It sounds like your friend manages discovery for litigation (document review)- that is a highly specialized, middle management type of job without a lot of portability. In contrast, the partners and associates at the firm practice some particular type of law (i.e., real estate, trusts and estates, commercial litigation, bankruptcy, etc.). I hate to sound so negative, but I would tend to agree with your friend's perspective. Other law firms may be interested in your friend to perform a similar type of role, but those jobs are pretty scarce and those firms would likely hire someone they already know from their own pools of contract attorneys. Your friend may be making a market wage - there is a lot of downward cost pressure on legal service providers from automation and offshoring, plus a massive oversupply of lawyers (any of the managed contractors would likely love your friend's job).

Your advice about internally networking within the individual's firm for other positions is sound. If that doesn't pan out, your friend could also try networking with any former partners of the firm (those that have left for other firms) that your friend worked with in the past.

Another alternative could be to go back to school and get an LLM (Master of Laws) in a practice field of interest and with better job opportunities - then start over as a beginning associate. That would set your friend back financially and result in a pay cut, but after a few years, your friend would have a portable skill set. However, if they are entertaining that option, they may want to consider other non-legal careers as well. Adopting Boglehead (frugal) practices will make any of these moves easier to take.

There have been other posts on this forum about non-legal careers for lawyers - I don't think they were very optimistic.

I wish your friend the best of luck.
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Re: Attorney Career Advice needed

Post by GatorFL »

I worked for many years as the head of Information Security for a megacorp. I partnered with in house legal to build an e-discovery process. There is a demand for corporate attorneys that can manage a process like that. The work is very much project management oriented with sourcing of labor to perform reviews occurring on and offshore. I believe a corporation would treat your friend more fairly. My advice would be for the individual to take a look at the corporate side of things and look specifically for megacorps that manage their own internal discovery process. Lastly, any experience that the person has on the technology side with InfoSec would be a huge plus as well. I have seen some corporate attorneys pursue certifications on the Info sec side for that reason.

Best of luck
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Re: Attorney Career Advice needed

Post by alfaspider »

It sounds like your friend is a discovery specialist. Perhaps there are people who like that sort of work, but I'm afraid it's a pretty rough gig. Large law firms tend to hire attorneys who graduated from lower-tier schools for positions like this precisely because they don't want to pay large salaries for what they consider mostly rote and ministerial work. They aren't doing your friend some big important favor by hiring them despite their academic background- someone in their position is precisely who they target.

A bit of background: More and more, those tasks are about managing software and AI. There was a time when large law firms would employ small armies of temps to plow through stacks of paper documents. Later, there was rote review by humans on computers of unorganized dumps of documents. That was still a highly labor intensive process. Over the last 10 years or so, software has increasingly reduced the number of humans that need to be involved in the process by culling the documents that need human review. Additional pressure has come from clients, who increasingly refuse to pay anything close to normal attorney rates for document review. The attorneys on the bottom of the document review food chain- temps who do much of the actual review- can earn shockingly low wages- scarcely better than unskilled retailed or industrial jobs.

Going back to your friend, I think there are 4 basic options:

1) Stay in the current role, or perhaps look for a similar discovery specialist role at another biglaw firm or company (likely no better, but perhaps some possibility of a pay bump or slightly better hours).

2) Embrace the discovery specialist thing but try to get in on the vendor side- perhaps in sales if they have the personality for it. Software sales and development in this area has become pretty big business.

3) Try to parlay the project management experience into a non-legal corporate management role

4) Start over career wise with an entry level job. There are probably some local prosecutor's offices or small firms that would be willing to take your friend on. The salary would be greatly reduced at first, but it would allow the possibility of growing a viable legal specialty.
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Re: Attorney Career Advice needed

Post by GmanJeff »

I see little reason why your friend would want to move to another large law firm to do similar work. He's unlikely to be able to move to another large law firm to do more conventional associate or of counsel-type work, because he lacks the academic credentials and practical experience needed for those roles. He may have painted himself into a corner by embarking out of law school on a track within a narrow niche for which demand and promotional potential are both limited.

As others have suggested, he might benefit from reinventing himself through acquisition of a specialized LLM, ideally from a more prestigious law school with a good placement track record, and thereafter seeking employment with better long-term prospects.

Government legal roles can be good for quality of life and for vesting in a pension, but obtaining one may be challenging with your friend's specialized employment history - opportunities may exist in government offices which handle complex litigation and associated extensive discovery, but it may be difficult to find a role which doesn't require actual litigation, vice exclusively discovery, experience. Can't hurt to look around, though.

A legal background can be useful in law enforcement. While your friend is too old for a entry-level Special Agent role in the federal government, he might find advancement opportunities in state or local agencies where possession of a law degree would help him stand out from his peers in a positive way, something he cannot do in his current employment.
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Re: Attorney Career Advice needed

Post by J295 »

So you can have a filter for my response… I am a former law firm partner in a small mid America firm who retired early, and we have a family member from a top law school who is a Big Law associate. I am aware of many former private practice lawyers who have transitioned to other legal and non-legal roles.

The role your friend is involved with (including the time commitment) does not sound appealing, and apparently it is not appealing to him. So, on the reasonable assumption that is role will not change, he must decide to either stay or leave. Honestly, it’s really no more complicated than this. By default, he has been making the decision to stay. Perhaps the time is right to tee this up and make an intentional choice.

You’re a good friend for trying to help.
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Re: Attorney Career Advice needed

Post by flyfishers83 »

I’m in this field. There’s a huge difference between document review management and a lot of other specialties/consulting. Ive been in the review manager role, and now I get to consult on a lot of newsworthy cases that I never would have been able to touch based on law school and my early work trajectory. The options are as follows:
1. Keep managing reviewers. Not a good option from where I sit.
2. Expand skills and expertise to be able to consult on more phases/strategy-ex. Make yourself a 2nd request or Mdl specialist. Not easy to do
2a. Make yourself an expert in emerging technologies
3. Go to work for a vendor. Different opportunities and limitations. Can pursue technology or substance specialties depending on interests.
4. Go work in house. Also different opportunities and limitations.
5. Do something different in compliance, cyber security, project management. There could be a number of transferable skills
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Re: Attorney Career Advice needed

Post by Jack56 »

I have a lot of experience in the law business. Your friend has a dreary job that likely will not improve but presumably is being paid substantially more than he would receive elsewhere. None of us could possibly know how he looks at that trade off though the fact that he remains at the job indicates he puts more weight on the money than the other issues you mention. It is likely that he knows the issues in his profession and his life better than any of us could possibly so it is unlikely that any of us could offer any useful advice that he has not already thought of. It is kind of you to try to help him with his problems but he will likely figure these things out with time, as all of us do.
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Re: Attorney Career Advice needed

Post by CorradoJr »

Thanks all for the replies so far. At this point, I don’t believe he wants to or has time to return to school (LLM or perhaps an MBA) with his young child at home. So this at least temporarily crosses this off the list.

The idea of looking in project management, compliance, or information security side of things sounds interesting. He is not very sales oriented (introverted) so don’t think he would go this route.

I think trying to find a MegaCorp for him to settle into (non-legal role) is something he would be open to. He has mentioned former classmates have taken roles in compliance after gaining some legal exposure.

What could he do to prepare for a compliance type role? Or, is something like PMP certification helpful for project management work?
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Re: Attorney Career Advice needed

Post by Valuethinker »

CorradoJr wrote: Wed Nov 13, 2019 9:18 am Thanks all for the replies so far. At this point, I don’t believe he wants to or has time to return to school (LLM or perhaps an MBA) with his young child at home. So this at least temporarily crosses this off the list.

The idea of looking in project management, compliance, or information security side of things sounds interesting. He is not very sales oriented (introverted) so don’t think he would go this route.

I think trying to find a MegaCorp for him to settle into (non-legal role) is something he would be open to. He has mentioned former classmates have taken roles in compliance after gaining some legal exposure.

What could he do to prepare for a compliance type role? Or, is something like PMP certification helpful for project management work?
Read What Color is Your Parachute.

Then network like crazy. Try to find people with legal backgrounds doing interesting things in business or government. Try to meet those people for coffee - as long as people don't think you are just fishing for a job they will usually be willing to spend 15 minutes on the phone or over a coffee.

It is very interesting to work with lawyers in a commercial or governmental setting - they bring good perspectives (they also annoy us, because of their mind for detail and the constant refrain "you cannot do that because the law says ..." ;-) -- and if they take a problem-solving constructive approach.

One problem: your friend has to get over "privileged to have this job". Big law firms are businesses, like any other. They are lucky to have someone of the diligence & intelligence of your friend. Law seems to be the worst I have seen "highly ranked law school" etc. In business no one cares what grades you got on your MBA - yes to get that job at McKinsey or Goldman when you leave, but after that? No one will care. Nor after your first job or two do they really care about what B School you went to (again with some exceptions). The number of CEOs I have seen who "went to Harvard" meaning not the MBA but the 6 week Advanced Management Program" or some other B School short course.

(Harvard MBAs can be quite quite dangerous. If they have acquired the arrogance that they really understand business rather than the real purpose of B School, which is to give you a grasp of the jargon and so let you get a chance to be given a role where you can learn about an industry and a company-- that makes your hireable in effect).

Law seems to refer to someone's academic prowess at the LSAT and in law school 20 years ago. Maybe that's useful if you are going to become a legal academic or perhaps even a judge. But for the business of commercial law? A good golf handicap (and an ability to lose gracefully but by a small margin) or tennis game is a greater career asset in my opinion.
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