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Tasks to Accomplish for a Satisfying Law Career

I continue to be quite concerned about how we got to this point (my 50th year in the legal profession and my 30th year providing career advice to lawyers and law students) where an extraordinary high percentage of lawyers are dissatisfied; for example, a recent survey found that the unhappiest job in America is BigLaw associate.

What is the cause of this dissatisfaction?

A distinguished ABA committee composed of judges, lawyers and law professors in 1992 issued a scathing indictment of legal education (the “MacCrate Report”) finding that law schools failed to teach eight of the ten fundamental skills needed to practice law competently and taught the other two poorly.

“If professional competence is the goal, the fact is troubling that so many young lawyers are seen as lacking the required skills and values at the time the lawyer assumes full responsibility for handling a client’s legal affairs. Much remains to be done to improve the preparation of new lawyers for practice.” (Pg. 266.)

Law schools were also criticized for not instilling in students the four fundamental values of the legal profession, including the obligations to become competent, to promote justice, to improve the profession and, significantly, the obligation to take positions consistent with their personal values and professional goals.

“How do we prepare young people for the future world of work? ... We should prepare them to be able to distinguish between good work and bad work and encourage them not to accept the latter. That is to say, they should be encouraged to reject meaningless, boring, stultifying, or nerve –wracking work in which a (person) is made the servant of a machine or a system. They should be taught that work is the joy of life and is needed for our development, but that meaningless work is an abomination.” (The Reinvention of Work, Pg. 30, Matthew Fox {no relation}, 1995.)

I often refer to the role that Noah Wyle played on the long –running TV show, ER – Dr. John Carter. When he began, he was an insecure medical student. At the end of his medical training, in his residency, he is a capable, competent, confident physician.

The opposite occurs in the case of lawyers as they work their way through law school and the practice of law. Capable men and women who did well in college, wrote creatively, were active socially, started businesses and traveled, entered law school feeling good about themselves. The law schools then failed to teach them what they need to know to practice law and failed to make them aware of their options, especially the reality of the demographics of the legal profession – that more than two –thirds of all lawyers practiced in firms of five or less lawyers and that half of all practice practitioners were solos.

Law schools also failed to teach students the principles of career planning, instead allocating staff time and resources to the BigLaw owned on –campus placement system which funneled law students, not surprisingly, to BigLaw. Most of those who ended up in these jobs never wanted them and worked on matters 24/7 that were anxiety producing and meaningless.

“The problem is that our civilization has settled for such a narrow and restrictive definition of work that we are trying to pour human energy into a skinny little funnel that in turn pours into a puny little machine called "industry" or jobs available......those who have jobs are so squeezed in the process of getting them that when they do finally arrive at the workplace they have lost their sense of wonder and amazement and their capacity for grief. Their inner life has been squeezed out of them; their work is too small. They have no energy to create good work and thereby help others join the work world and thus participate in the Great Work.” (The Reinvention of Work, Pg. 301, Matthew Fox, 1995.)

These lawyers felt trapped because they were often deep in debt from loans taken to pay the exorbitant unjustifiable cost to attend law school. They did not know their options and, therefore, did not know how to make a transition. Some stayed. Others made rash moves to other jobs which proved to be equally unsatisfactory. For those laid off, the search was often nothing less than chaotic.

Those considered to be unfortunate because they were not (mis)placed by the placement office were not prepared to represent clients and often felt they were wandering aimlessly in the legal community.

No wonder so many are unemployed, underemployed, unhappy, dissatisfied, frustrated and depressed.

The key to overcoming barriers and negative experiences is career planning.

The goals of career planning are: first, to help lawyers decide what they want to do with their legal training, who they want to represent on what issues and who they want to work with in what setting; and second, to help them find positions where they can do it – the path to career satisfaction. Underlying the entire effort is one critical component – the need to help rebuild a sense of self –confidence, self –respect and self –worth that most have lost due to the failings of legal education.

There are two phases of career planning – the Career Search followed by the Search for a Satisfying Position.

During the Career Search, lawyers:

  • Review their history;
  • Become aware of their professional goals and personal values;
  • Evaluate their present situations;
  • Consider the negative effects of their law school and law firm experiences;
  • Learn about and consider the wide range of options within the practice of law; and
  • After research, choose a setting and area of law practice consistent with their goals & values.

During the Search for a Satisfying Position, with confidence and a renewed sense of self –worth, they:

  • Prepare promotional material;
  • Build databases of those who practice in that area;
  • Begin to contact lawyers for promotional interviews;
  • Continue to DO something to market and promote themselves;
  • Prepare for discussions about openings, consider and choose an option; or
  • Take steps to open their own office as a sole practitioner.

Once dissatisfied lawyers learn that they have options, they adopt a positive outlook, recognize that they are competent and needed and begin to engage fully in the career planning process. They begin to believe that those who attend law school should expect the benefits that accompany becoming a professional such as independence, intellectual stimulation, knowledge of a craft, reasonable income, and a feeling that they are doing something that matters. They soon become aware of the vast number of openings and potentially satisfying positions that exist within the legal community.

“Your professional life holds the possibility of autonomy, satisfaction, integrity, self –respect and most meaningful of all, the prospect of sleeping well after a long day on the job and waking up looking forward to going to work. And all you have to do is take control.” (Lawful Pursuit, Pg. 1, Ronald W. Fox, 1995.)


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.

Ron's full bio can be read here.

Comments for Tasks to Accomplish for a Satisfying Law Career

Name: Sean Hanover, Esq.
Time: Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Baaah! This is a well written piece, but I could not disagree more. I am an active practitioner in the DC/MD/VA area. I've only been at this since 2011, so I have a very good understanding of debt, and crushing pressure of trying to make things happen at the start of one's career in law. I agree that law school education does not really focus on the nuts/bolts of managing a practice -- or heck -- even managing a case in court! But it does get you to think like a lawyer. It does develop analytical tools that are critical to the process of law. I'm not sure any legal education could encompass the vast, multi-universe of various legal practices. More importantly, though, I tire of hearing the "poor legal education system" and the "overwhelming cost of legal education" as an excuse. I am not a scholar in this area, but the stress of law, and the challenges of being a truly lawyer have always been stressful. Nothing new there! And the cost of law school has been high for as long as I can remember. Arguing for your clients in court, and bearing the weight of their (clients) burdens is a heavy yoke, regardless of schooling. To borrow a quote from Eliza Wilcox: "Laugh and the world laughs with you, cry and you cry alone, for old mother earth has need of your mirth but troubles enough of her own." Stop belly-aching. Truly, this is a profession of troubles, and those who enter it ought to have the moral and physical fortitude to buckle down and "get it done." enough excuses. So unhappy? Then get out and clear the space for others that intend to aggressively, competently, and effectively represent their clients with integrity and zeal. Not everyone is unhappy, and not everyone has false expectations. In my own case, I built my firm from the ground up -- we had nothing. Now we are vibrant (and very much still learning!). It can be done -- but don't expect a handout. Earn your stripes. There is a reason we charge $250-$450 per hour. Don't go into surgery if the sight of blood makes you squeamish. Don't go into law if the burden of managing client loads and troubles drives you to drink. Zip the lips, pull yourself together, and get it done. Use your head to do it smarter, faster, and "cleverer". Make your own break and never forget that you are serving the public and your clients. Keep a tight calendar, and expect to make mistakes. Learn from them. Be a role model for others in the profession and help your fellow lawyers when they need a break or a hand. Establish a reputation for doing what is right FIRST and then what makes money. The strength of character that pulls you through the crazy depositions and brutal, unfair trials is developed not in law school, but in genuine concern for the people you represent, or (when in our case they can be "snakes") a solid understanding that all people deserve the dignity of representation.

Name: Robert W. Minto, Jr.
Time: Thursday, June 13, 2013

I love being involved with ALPS Blogosphere as it provides and invites such a great dialogue. If you read Mr. Foxes Post "Tasks to Accomplish For a Satisfying Law Career" and Mr. Hanover's comment one might find them at odds, but I didn't. Mr. Hanover presented a great perspective of the highly motivated law graduate who had a plan (perhaps not formal) and made it work. HIs head a and heart put him exactly where Mr. Fox thinks they need to be. The unfortunate truth - many law graduates don't have Mr. Hanover's sense of direction or well developed moral compass and get pushed by the system into unhappy practice situations or take jobs that they really don't want because of student debt situations or other factors.

My practice life was good to me, I still get great satisfaction from the good I have done and the people I've been able to help over the past forty years. That said I made a career change mid way based on a lot of the points Mr. Fox raised and for me, it was a good decision. Truly the law practice offers something for everyone if they have the drive and the desire to look for it. Clearly Mr. Hanover did and has succeeded on a very satisfying career path. I believe the jury is still out on the question of a law schools obligation to engineer a perfect (even good) placement for it graduates, but clearly the ABA (McCabe Report) as cited by Mr. Fox seems to believe that they have not met the standard in skill training or career counseling. It may be right, but at some point the student bears a responsibility for their own destiny. If their school isn't doing it for them they have choices, transfer to one that does, or seek out people like Mr. Fox to get some help finding out their options and what they need to do to get on their personal "Yellow Brick Road".

Mr. Fox posted a great blog, with wonder potential for dialogue and discussion.I want to thank Mr. Hanover for his comment and creating perhaps one of the greatest opportunities in ALPS 411 blog history to ignite a discussion that can really make a difference in the future of the practice of law. This discussion might well lead to the exploration of ideas that could change legal education and more importantly alter the expectations of future students of the law.

Name: Irma S. Russell
Time: Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Satisfying Careers and the Responsibilities of Legal Educators
Irma S. Russell

Debates about responsibility for educating the next generation seem unlikely to generate a clear winner or reach a simple resolution. Similarly, our attitudes about our own job satisfaction and helping others achieve satisfaction in what they do fall along a continuum represented well by the posts from Mr. Fox and Mr. Hanover. Much like the more general debate of nature vs. nurture, these debates present ideas worth exploring to help us articulate our goals and recommit to those goals.
From one perspective, the responsibility of law schools is to provide the “basics.” From this point of view, the highly-motivated graduates will rise to the top as a natural matter, because the responsibility rests with each individual. From another vantage point, law graduates seem justified in expecting more direction and guidance from law schools. Ultimately, each individual will encounter struggles in finding a satisfying career. Some will thrive from the beginning. Others will re-route careers—in the law or outside of traditional practice. Still others will make multiple career corrections or jump when new opportunities present themselves. Experiential learning during law school can assist students in understanding their options and developing their career goals.
At the University of Montana School of Law, we want to be a resource for students and lawyers who are encountering challenges, making difficult choices, and seeking their paths. We believe that skills training and career counseling should be an integral part of what we offer to students. Of course, teachers and career counselors cannot make the choices for students or graduates, but we can offer guidance and examples to those who are starting down the path, and we can give the help of sharing our personal stories and examples of people we admire. We each bear responsibility for our choices, and no one can guarantee your "Yellow Brick Road," but we each can offer real help to others.
As the blog posts note, the traditional approach of the legal academy has a large theory base. This focus on theory has been criticized widely on a variety of bases. For example, in 1992, the ABA Task Force on Law Schools and the Profession criticized legal education in this country as failing to teach in a practice-oriented way. The report, now widely known as the “MacCrate Report,” after the chair of the task force Robert MacCrate, concluded that the theory-oriented approach to legal education as largely failing to instill skills and values needed by future lawyers and society, the MacCrate Report encouraged schools to focus on skills and values and to extend learning by the use of externships with government agencies, judges, and pro bono legal assistance clinics. Similarly, Best Practices for Legal Education, a book by Professor Roy Stuckey and others advocated the use of experiential learning in the law. At the University of Montana School of Law, offering help and genuine dialogue is part of our goal. The mission statement of University of Montana School of Law states this commitment by announcing the goal of the school of preparing students for "the people-oriented practice of law" and embracing the values articulated by the MacCrate Report.
Mr. Fox provides the great example of Noah Wyle from the television series, ER as a success story of the medical approach in the U.S. today. Noah becomes Dr. Wyle; a capable, competent, and confident professional. I would add another "c" word to the list of professional values we should strive to instill and embrace: "committed." Dr. Noah Wyle is a great example of this professional virtue as well. He is committed to his role as a doctor and to each patient. As Mr. Fox notes, legal education can achieve the same success as presented in Dr. Wyle.
Mr. Hanover’s note that stress is predictable in the law is inescapably true. Seeing the full quote of "Laugh and the world laughs with you" is marvelous (I am memorizing it now). We should all embrace the slogan of “Very much still learning!" And, best of all, the advice to "be a role model for others in the profession," should be the motto for lawyers of all ages.
While career planning is an important strategy to overcoming barriers and achieving a positive work experience, making a career is not synonymous with achieving fulfillment or a worthwhile life. The goals of career planning Mr. Fox advocates provide a viable path for building a satisfying career. While, as with most joint endeavors, there are no guarantees, law schools should seek to help students on this path. The first steps should reasonably include both understanding yourself and understanding the options available in the law. And the river rolls on. Both market and tasks of the professional are in flux. Moreover, each person is in flux, evolving, changing, and growing. As Mr. Hanover notes, confidence and self-worth are essential attributes for lawyers and professionals. Inspiring students to have confidence and self-worth is part of the goal of the teacher. Basing this confidence and self-worth on true preparedness and accomplishments rather than self-congratulatory illusions grows naturally from mastery of knowledge and skills and reflective self-evaluation.
Though we are not likely to resolve this debate with finality, we should be able to agree on some foundational points. First, legal education must include both skills and knowledge in “the basics” that law schools teach. Second, and equally important, while assigning responsibility for career success simplifies the reality of learning, this does not obviate the need for law schools to teach the whole person and to help students develop successful careers and lives as professionals committed to serving their clients and society. Lawyers are the glue that holds society together. They not only help solve problems of individual clients. They serve society by settling disputes by peaceful means and by producing societal benefits in the form of economic transactions. Moreover, lawyers are society’s “glue” in a myriad of ways outside of the strictly legal sphere. They serve ably on school boards and hospital boards. They oversee elections and organize PTA fund drives. They serve in soup kitchens and councils on the citizen’s right to know. They have satisfying careers because they are committed to helping others, serving as role models “Very much still learning.”

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