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Private Practice and the Many, Varied Opportunities that Await

Previously on Ruth (our hypothetical client):

She remembered that she used to dance, sing, play basketball, and write poetry, and now she has neither the time nor, worse, the inclination. A huge wave of sadness and determination passed through her, and she thought “I ... am ... a ...mockingbird ... they ... are ... not ... going ... to ...kill ... me” and realized that she had decided to leave the firm. With a long sigh, she rolled over and sank into a deep sleep.

What now?

Ruth wanted to emulate her father and her fictional hero, Atticus Finch, both of them dedicated lawyers representing individuals and small businesses. In this article you will be encouraged to look at the wide range of options in private practice.

Stop for a moment and become aware of the distribution of lawyers by type of practice. There are over 1,000,000 lawyers in the country (as predicted by Tom Paxton in “One Million Lawyers and Other Natural Disasters”) and 70% work in private law firms. Although BigLaw captures the attention of lawyers, the media and ordinary citizens, it composes, in reality, a 10% minority of those in private practice. Approximately two-thirds (66%) of all lawyers in private practice are in firms of five or less lawyers. What contributes to that high percentage, and something virtually unknown to most law students, their professors and many practicing lawyers, is that one-half (50%) of all lawyers in private practice are sole practitioners. The lawyer who defines a small firm as one with 15 lawyers has eliminated more than two thirds of that market from consideration in his or her search.

We know that for many law students, the day they enter law school is the last time they take seriously the oft-repeated reason to go to law school: “There are so many things you can do with a law degree.” Students with diverse interests often feel as if they are being pressured to plummet down a funnel into large law firms. At the law schools often referred to as the “top”, “the highest ranked”, “the first tier” or “national” law schools, the funnel is even narrower.

The pressure comes from a variety of sources. Legal education emphasizes thinking like a lawyer over training students to practice law. With the exception of clinical programs, students will not consistently hear a teacher talking about his or her experiences representing a woman in a divorce case, incorporating a business, or advising a juvenile in a care and protection hearing. Also, students without the fundamental legal skills will not have the confidence to consider positions in small firms, especially solo practice or other settings where there is unlikely to be close supervision or training. In addition, with large firms having exclusive access to students through on-campus interviewing, there is a distorted perception that positions in such firms are the ONLY credible, desirable ones in the profession. Placement office devotion to OCI through staff and budget takes the place of genuine career planning guidance resulting in students’ lack of awareness of the wide range and variety in private practice. Students also fail to learn that nearly all openings in the legal profession are NOT advertised and become available only when there is a need, NOT a year in advance. All of this without even taking into account the outrageous amount law schools charge for the inadequate services they provide and the resulting high student debt.

At the same time, law school faculty give little thought to the MacCrate Report’s assertion that law schools should show students how to find employment consistent with their professional goals and personal values. After a law school education which places little emphasis on what graduates want to do with their law degrees, thousands of law school graduates with positions are dissatisfied and others “not so fortunate” to find such jobs are confused, frustrated, and deeply in debt.

Ruth, having recognized the incompatibility of her beliefs with her work, decided to leave her law firm. That is simply the first step of her journey. She must now learn about her options and to expand her horizons.

“In order to find employment that is consistent with his or her professional goals and personal values, a lawyer must be familiar with the range of traditional and non-traditional employment opportunities for lawyers.” The MacCrate Report (ABA 1992).

Disclosure: I mentioned that thirty percent of lawyers are NOT in private practice. That includes lawyers in public interest non-profits, legal services programs, district attorneys, government agencies, corporations, bar associations and academia. Over the last two decades, I have come to the conclusion that the vast majority of positions which my clients seek are in small firm private practice (including going solo). Their reasons include: few openings in other non-private practice entities; the recognition that it is too overwhelming and impractical to make a meaningful transition outside of private practice; and a realization that their initial desire to leave the law is due to extreme dislike of the firm where they are working and that there are options that might be meaningful and satisfying in private practice.

Career Options/Area of Practices Exercise

If you are a lawyer who is dissatisfied, underemployed or unemployed, or a law student looking to the future, you may want to consider your options in a wide range of areas in which lawyers practice and then explore some of them in more depth.

Take the following exercise. Circle or highlight every topic which appeals to you. NOTE: I did not say ones in which you have experience or took CLE or law school courses. I just want you to indicate your interest in representing clients with issues or claims in specific areas of the law.

LEANING TOWARD REPRESENTING BUSINESSES

  • Business Law; Business Litigation; Corporate Formation 
  • Debtor and Creditor; Bankruptcy
  • Employment; Labor
  • Transactional Matters; Contracts
  • Taxation
  • Insurance
  • Real Estate; Residential Real Estate; Foreclosures; Construction Law
  • Entertainment Law
  • Intellectual Property; Patents

LEANING TOWARD REPRESENTING INDIVIDUALS

  • Family Law; Divorce; Domestic Violence
  • Guardianship and Conservatorship
  • Adoptions; Child Custody; Child Support
  • Mediation; Collaborative Law
  • Wills, Trusts, Estates and Probate; Elder Law; Social Security; Social Security Disability Medicare and Medicaid; Nursing Home Litigation
  • Rights of Women; Sexual Harassment; Gays and Lesbians; Veterans; Children
  • Environmental law; Toxic Torts
  • Health and Mental Health
  • Immigration; International Human Rights
  • Employment; Labor; Workers Compensation; Wrongful Termination
  • Personal Injury; Head and Spinal Injuries; Products Liability; Automobile Accidents; Wrongful Death; Legal and Medical Malpractice
  • Criminal Law; Drug Crimes; DUI/DWI; White Collar Crime; Police Misconduct; Sex Crimes
  • Civil Rights; Discrimination
  • Consumer Law; Food and Hunger
  • Education Law
  • Landlord and Tenant Law; Housing Development; Homelessness 

Circling or highlighting these settings and fields should have given you an inkling of the directions in which your interests need to expand. How many have you checked or circled? Five? Ten? Fifteen? Every one represents a realistic option for a lawyer — a setting in which many lawyers can be found. The pattern of areas of practice you have checked (business or individual) should suggest the areas you should explore.

Now that you have completed the exercise, go to www.justia.com and follow up on the legal practice links for the areas that interest you. These are not necessarily the only or the best links for each option, but if you follow them all, you should feel more acquainted with what a lawyer in that practice area does and what many of the issues are.

Do not try to narrow your focus or establish priorities, YET. The time and the reason to do that will be explained in my next article. For now, be expansive. Enjoy the research.

Read all of Ron Fox’s contributions to ALPS 411 on lawyer careers here.

Related Posts:

Changing Perspectives: What Lawyers Expect from Life and the Practice

Satisfying Careers and the Responsibilities of Legal Educators

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Ron Fox is the principal of Career Planning for Lawyers. He has, for the last thirty years, worked with dissatisfied lawyers, lawyers in transition and law students providing them with advice and guidance on how to find positions consistent with their professional goals and personal values. Much of his practice involves helping dissatisfied corporate litigators learn they are not trapped, have options and can overcome the lack of self-worth and self-confidence caused by the failings of legal education. His goal is to help lawyers take control over their careers and their lives and to gain autonomy, a sense of meaning, integrity, satisfaction and self-respect.

In addition to the entries here in his ALPS 411 blog, other posts can be found on his Lawyer Satisfaction Blog, Twitter (@ronfox), and at Solo Practice University.

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