Sunday, January 27, 2013

What I Miss & Don't Miss About Being a Law Firm Lawyer

I passed this brasserie in Paris and had to take a picture.  The joke is that the drawing for their sign - above left - shows a decapitated, old-style English lawyer.  In other words, an honest lawyer is a dead lawyer.  I'm impervious to lawyer jokes by now, in fact, I have quite a repertoire of them myself and think they're hilarious.  
It's been a little over 6 months since I left my job as a big-law litigator.  I am happy and confident in my decision, but as with everything in life, there are pros and cons.

I made this list to help me decide where I go next in my career.  All the great articles and books about finding a job that reflects your passion and your best self suggest writing down what you love and hate - including what you do well  - about your current profession and then going from there to determine what will fit you better.  So here goes.

What I Miss:

1.  The intellectual challenge.

Being a lawyer, particular an associate doing a lot of research and grunt-work from the ground up, is almost all cerebral.  Yes, there are some showmanship parts to it and you have to be politically and socially adept to navigate the waters of being upwardly mobile in a ultra-competitive corporate environment.   But at the end of the day, the beginning and the end to being a lawyer is all in the head - I spent about 80% of my job at my desk, sitting down, doing research and writing briefs/motions.  Don't get me wrong, there are a lot of dumdums (that's a technical word) in this profession.  With more than 225,000 licensed lawyers in California alone, statistically not all of them can be smart.  But, for me, every day in litigation was an intellectual exercise, a constant workout of complex legal issues requiring an analysis of numerous convoluted factors, a re-strategizing of battles and being enmeshed in the minutiae of facts while keeping an eye on the battleground.  It was exhausting but consistently challenged and exercised the gray matter.  The brain is a muscle and after having left my job, I miss that constant (over?)-stimulation.  There's been plenty of times over the past several months where I absentmindedly do or say something silly and I'm just like, brain...donde esta??!!

2.  [Surprise] I actually miss motion practice.

Contrary to television show/movie portrayals of law firm life, civil litigation is 50% motion practice, 40% discovery and 10% court appearances.  Corporate cases hardly ever go to trial, they go to trial about 10% of the time which percentage drastically drops the higher the amount at stake (too much risk).  It is telling that I was a corporate attorney for about 6 years and never went to trial.  The partners I worked for who have been attorneys for 20+ years have been to trial maybe once or twice, a few, never.  Many excellent litigation partners at the top international firms have never been to trial.  Usually, the end-game in high-stakes corporate litigation is to gain as much leverage as possible to influence settlement negotiations.

So the battle takes place on paper, through motions.  The first important motions are technical attacks on the pleadings such as jurisdictional challenges, or motions to dismiss for failure to state a cause of action (quaintly termed a "demurrer" under California law).  Each of these motions and defenses against these motions ("oppositions") are a battlefield and they are written and strategized as one.  These peremptory challenges are followed by discovery motions [YUCK!  HATE HATE!] then *the* most outcome-determinative motion in the entire case:  motions for summary judgment.  They come after the discovery phase is over [i.e., all evidence is gathered] and is essentially a trial on paper.

I was used to writing as an English Literature major (from college days) which was quickly reformed by my partners into motion writing, a completely different technique, style and format (front load everything! slash and burn!).  I remember in my early days I would bring in a draft of a motion to this particular partner who I greatly admired...he wouldn't even look up and instead say to me, "Okay, now go cut it in half and come back."

After spending years honing my research and writing skills as a litigator and writing numerous motions that won dispositive arguments (I've lost some too, trust me), I've come to enjoy writing motions and miss it.

3.  Finding creative solutions to client's problems.

American litigation is based on common-law, or what's called precedent.  It's one of the few systems in the world that is based on case-law.  The remainder of this world has a legal framework based on codes:  rules and regulations.  There's less work for lawyers in that system, for better or worse.

For us, it means that resolving litigation problems requires creative thinking even when it seems the odds are stacked against you or you think wow, we can't win this motion.  Find an esoteric case, massage the facts to fit yours, write/argue persuasively and there, you have a potentially winning argument.  Thinking outside the box to find creative arguments and counter-arguments is fun.

Also, to really be good at solving your client's problems, you have to first learn about their business.  Being a law firm litigator, at any one time I had numerous clients from vastly differing business niches such as a national defense company, an ecologically-sourcing power company, a medical device company, an on-line music startup.  I learned the business intricacies of all these companies and worked with their management to find creative solutions to their litigation problems.  That's pretty darn fun.

4.  The comaraderie of teamwork.

Ask any one of my friends/prior boyfriends/family members, I am pretty independent, maybe too much so.  But I love teamwork at the office.  There is something exhilarating about peer-bonding through the immense highs and lows of litigation.  The litigation team consists of the top partner, maybe ancillary partners who specialize in a niche relevant to the overall lawsuit, senior associates, the work mules underling associates (c'est moi) and support staff such as paralegals and office assistants, every one of whom is crucial to the team.  We'll crunch out all-nighters, share dinners and Starbucks runs, catnaps at our desk...feel the panic of almost missing the plethora of  discovery deadlines, the euphoria of finding ONE document amongst millions that supports our case, feeling like we can't make 48 hours working straight on complex issues, hitting that wall and then surmounting said wall (ever worked two back-to-back all-nighters?  There's a whole new level of affection you start feeling for your colleagues when you see them at 3 a.m., glassy-eyed with panic and exhaustion, wandering through the halls with drool-stains...okay, that may or may not have actually been me.).  The team supports each other, encourages each other, and consoles each other. I feel it's akin to what a sports team must feel.  It's cool.

5.  The corporate environment.

It gets me going.  As much as I hate the attendant avariciousness, the political navigation and the unbelievably huge egos [in some individuals acceptable, in most of the others, completely misplaced], big corporate environments and the super smart and ambitious people I get to work with excite me and stimulate me to produce the best work product I can give. I like it.  While roaming on my walkabout, I kind of feel like a hippy sometimes (which most genuine hippies would vehemently disagree with while looking at my huge suitcases overflowing with heels, dresses and hair products).  But the free-flowing, unstructured life I enjoy these days definitely feels hippy-ish to me and would to most of my former colleagues. Now that I've distanced myself from it, I see how much I thrive in it and miss it.

What I unequivocally do not miss:

1.  "The law is a jealous mistress."

This is a common refrain in the legal world and it's true.  Court deadlines and partner and client demands wait for nothing and nobody.  One of my colleagues dictated a legal memo on his phone while in a cab on the way to the hospital when his wife was giving birth; the day before he had barked into the phone at her that he would leave for the hospital once her water broke.  Another associate I know performed legal research and participated in board calls while literally in traction at the hospital.  I know this because he Skyped into the board call.  All the associates worked through every single holiday including Christmas and New Year's Eve.

And the partners work just as hard.  It's not their fault that we had to work like that.  It's just the nature of the business.  We're a service industry beholden to the courts and our clients, and due to the high prices we charge, we're obligated to suck it and produce work product at a moment's notice, vacations and birthdays and anniversaries be damned.  And there is no end in sight at the end of the tunnel.  The partners work just as hard as the associates do and their stress is compounded by the fact that not only do they have to bill hours, they're also responsible for leverage (or bringing in new clients and work for the associates).  It's a neverending stressball job that demands first priority in all the players' lives.  If I had children, I would never want my kidlets to have this kind of life.

2.  Hierarchy and ego.

There's a distinct hierarchy in law firms with associates kow-towing to the partners and the junior partners kow-towing to the senior/management partners.  The partners feed the associates with work, that's their job.  That means we are beholden to them and must treat them as our benefactors.  Seriously.  And some of the partners are dumb.  And others are pigs.  Still others are a**holes and bigots (you would not believe how racist/bigoted some of the older partners are...even despite their higher education and would blow your mind).  And you can't let them know you think that about them, otherwise they will stop giving you work, your hours will plummet and you're out of a job.  By nature, I'm rather honest and straightforward.  If I don't like you or respect you, it's hard for me to conceal that when I interact with you on a daily basis and through stressful situations.  But to succeed in that environment, you have to and if you're someone who detests artificiality like I do, that can be difficult.

3.  The billable hour is king = incredible inefficiency.

Law firm attorneys charge by the hour and that business model results in inefficiency.  While there's been some attempts to reform that model, by and large, all the law firms remain true to this structure and will for a long time.  And it sucks for both the associate and the client, the only winner is the firm/partners (who split the profits; associates are paid a straight salary).  There's a lot of articles out there about why this model is inept so I won't repeat them here but a symptom that I hated the most was the paper churning.  Because more work creates more money under a billable system, you always run into opposing attorneys (or sometimes even the partners you work for!  Uck!) who like to create frivolous work under the guise of unnecessary discovery motions or petty ex parte motions.  These take up a lot of last-minute time and effort (read:  missed social events like birthdays and anniversaries not to mention hot dates *cry*) which is particularly exasperating considering how nonsensical they are even while extremely expensive for our clients.

4.  Clients who won't listen to you and mess up your hard work.  

I get that litigation is very emotional for a lot of my clients, especially entrepreneurs who built their company from scratch.  They take lawsuits and the situations that created the lawsuits very personally.  But sometimes, making the best economic decision for your company means letting go of your hurt feelings or your desire for vengeance or being proven right.  I don't know how many times I've received an offer to settle and it's overall the best decision for the company for my client to accept and end the lawsuit so that everyone can move on, but the decision-maker refuses, only to lead to years of further expensive litigation with its accompanying stress and huge expenditure of time and energy, while also exposing the company to risk.  

Or, I've had clients who become (understandably) frustrated with the pace and expense of the lawsuit and try to take matters into their own hands resulting in devastating consequences to the lawsuit.

5.  I'm not creating anything or making this world a better place somehow.  

This one is big:  there is no thing that's being created in my life as a litigator.  Unlike a transactional or a patent attorney, I'm not helping create anything, like a company or an invention.  All I'm doing is solving a nasty problem.  That means your clients only call you when they have a problem they want you to take care of.  It also means my entire job consists of being adversarial all the time.  Over time, that's a pretty sucky place to be in.  It means everyone kind of hates you because you reflect a stressful situation.  And after all that endless work, what do I have to show for it? Just the billable hours.  Sad face.

At the end of the my life, I would like to reflect on my career and my hard work and know that some thing was created, and that my body of work somehow contributed to making this world a better place. There is none of that with being a law firm litigator.  It's pretty soulless. 


There, I could only really think of these 5 reasons why I didn't like the law firm life, but they're significant reasons that go to the very heart of being a law firm lawyer.  Now I just have to figure out what career path makes use of my likes and strengths while not incorporating my dislikes.  It's a journey, people!

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