What’s Ahead for Lawyers after the Recession

A senior reporter for the North Carolina Lawyers Weekly called me recently. She was writing an article titled “Career Progressions and Stages of Lawyer Development.” We spent 45 minutes on the telephone discussing my reflections as a career consultant who has been counseling lawyers for the past 18 years.

For decades prior to the 2007 onset of the recession, lawyers had an understanding that if they achieved their J.D. degree and did satisfactory work or better, there would be employment opportunities for them. Even Tier- 3 law school graduates or those who may have finished in the bottom half of their law school class could find work.

Lock-step associates with big and mid-size law firms from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia were able to move up the legal ladder. For many, “life was beautiful,” a law school dream realized — even if they did not make partner.

Lawyers in their 50s and 60s could take early retirement, with their pensions, firm equity and 40l(k)s, while lawyers in small towns across Pennsylvania could maintain their base of clients and live fairly comfortably in a small or solo practice.

But for many this career progression to one’s ultimate goal has now been shattered by the recession.

Partners in firms of all sizes have been displaced, associates have been pushed out on the streets and firms have recognized that the way they practice law as a business has been altered forever.

Law school graduates who may have entered law school assured of some employment opportunities have been thwarted — too few positions for too many graduates.

Partners at firms of all sizes have had to look at their business practices and make serious and sometimes painful decisions regarding compensation, client demands, billable hours, office staff and ultimately the administration/management of their firms. Efficiencies have been scrutinized with a laser beam, impacting the way law is practiced going forward. The implications for the individual lawyer are significant.

David Maister, author and lawyer, has coined the terms “dynamos” and “cruisers” for how two different kinds of lawyers have developed and maintained their practices. The “dynamos” are lawyers who work to improve their professional futures — be they with firms, corporate counsel, the government or in not-for-profit/public service law. They pursue initiatives, are “ahead of the curve” in their thinking and are willing to take calculated risks, embracing potential growth and opportunities for their employers and their practices. The “cruisers” are lawyers who do good work and work hard but are not really going anywhere. If you were to ask them where they want to be four years from now, they might not have a confident, concise answer. They don’t develop client relationships and they have limited desire to advance out of their current roles within their legal settings.

In better times these lawyers might well have gotten through to retirement, but since the recession started they have been asked to move on or see the new handwriting on the wall at their firms. In terms of full disclosure, I should note that many years ago, after 10 years with an organization, I was pushed out — married with two young children. Looking back, as I tell clients now, it was the best thing that could have happened. I would never have grown personally and professionally had I stayed in my comfort zone and been a “lifer.”

In this new or at least altered legal practice era, the discussion of business development and client relationships becomes even more critical to the practice. As noted above, many “cruisers” are not rainmakers, but most all lawyers can be “mist makers” — learning and growing their client base as part of the business.

Many law students and graduates have a desire to pursue “Big Law” for various reasons: prestige, meaningful work, great compensation, to pay off student loans, challenge and great resources at one’s command. The flip side, not always appreciated, is that it is a highly competitive culture, very business-oriented and can be totally absorbing to the exclusion of other parts of one’s life. Sometimes I think that even with the fine benefits of “Big Law,” one is playing the “lawyer lottery” if set on joining such a firm without recognizing the limited probability of gaining partnership, and even more so since the recession.

To those rethinking their career progression and development in 2011, consider what provides internal gratification and meaning as well as sufficient external gratification (compensation) that matches your special skills, values and interests. Sadly, most lawyers I have counseled over these many years, from recent graduates to partners, have a limited vision of their skills and value in regard to potential future employment settings. This may be the time to refocus your career!

For those older lawyers whose careers have been significantly impacted by the recession, be it due to a lost partnership, dissolved solo practice or eliminated position, consider, if feasible, using your skills and interests in an “encore career.” I ask clients who are in their late 50s and older if there is something they might like to accomplish or do before they formally retire. Many have no clue, while others ruminate and say, “You know, I always wanted to consider ‘X’ if I left this career and now may be the time to explore it further.”

As baby boomers who started turning 65 this January visualize their next 20 years, retirement is not something they may want to visit too early. My parents, a physician and a lead art docent, retired in their late 80s. I view my continuing career as an opportunity to assist highly educated professionals through their career twists and turns, some made more significant by the recession.

As Winston Churchill noted aptly, “A pessimist sees there are difficulties in every opportunity, while the optimist sees opportunity in every difficulty.” You, too, can progress forward with your career as we start this new decade!

This article was published in the Pennsylvania Bar News (February 1, 2011)


  1. Hank Graden says

    I am a Springfield College grad. Rehab. Counselor and you were in my class for the Masters 1962-4.

    Saw in last SC newsletter about your continued working with lawyers, etc.

    919 785-2286 (home)

    Live in Raleigh, NC

  2. Sue T. says

    I am from Singapore. For all the concerns about the “oversupply” of lawyers in Singapore, it is still a land of opportunities. Just look at the ads for lawyers in Singapore. Qualified lawyers or legal counsels should try their hand in Singapore.