Advice to Struggling Lawyers

Question: What is your advice to a deferred law firm associate?

David Lat: In terms of associates who've been deferred from their law firm jobs, well, I guess I would say a couple of things. First, to be patient – you will start eventually, hopefully. There have been a couple of cases of law firms that told associates who thought they had jobs, "Well, actually you no longer have a job." But most firms seem to be honoring that commitment. The second thing I would say is focus on developing your professional skills. So if you are working in a public interest organization for that time, really take the ball and run with it. See what kind of responsibilities you can get. You might be able to get more responsibilities during the public interest year that you are waiting out, waiting to start for the law firm, than you will as a junior associate at a law firm. So the second thing I would say is really try to make the most of your time.

And the third thing I would say is enjoy your time. You will have a lifetime to work. And if you want to work at a firm, then you could work for decades if you make partner or if you move to another if you don't make partner. You could work at a law firm – one thing that's nice about lawyers is it is a mental discipline. Granted, there are physical demands as well, but it's not like we're baseball players. We can work into our 60s, into our 70s. So you'll have your whole life to work. And if you are deferred right now and you are either at your leisure or if you're working at a job say at a public interest organization with reasonable hours, enjoy it. Have dinner with your wife or husband or boyfriend or girlfriend. Go on vacation. Do the things that you might not be able to do once the economy turns around and you're at a firm and you're billing 2500 hours a year. So I guess that would be my advice.

Question: What about a lawyer completely out of a job?

David Lat: We actually have a series on the blog called Career Alternatives, where we focus on interesting things that people who have law degrees are doing that don't involve working at a law firm. So one thing that's nice about – one silver lining, I guess, to the recession generally is people are coming up with business ideas. Partly, because perhaps they lost their lucrative, stable job at a big company and now they have to come up with something else. So we've talked to lawyers who have started tutoring and admissions consulting businesses, a lawyer who has started a cupcake business. He drives around Manhattan in a truck selling cupcakes. We have talked to lawyers who have done all kinds of things. There's a lawyer who owns a chain of Subway sandwich stores. And a lot of them, even though they're not necessarily using their legal training, will talk about how valuable it is to have that kind of education – the critical thinking skills, the communication, the ability to look over a contract when they are trying to launch their businesses. These are all things that help.

So granted, a law degree is expensive. And so if you're thinking about going to law school, I would urge you to think very carefully about it. But once you have that degree, it is quite versatile. We've looked at lawyers who've gone into public relations, who've gone into journalism, who've gone into finance. There are a lot of things you can do with a law degree. I think it's a great credential to have. I think it's a great education. There is just a question of bang for your buck because there are a lot of other things that are good to have, but do you want to spend $200,000 for them?

Recorded on November 6, 2009

Former U.S. attorney and founder of Above the Law, David Lat offers tips on where lawyers should look for work in the economic downturn.

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