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Keep making progress in a shrinking field, or switch gears?
February 24, 2013 7:14 PM   Subscribe

Lawyer getting great experience in a shrinking subspecialty. Work environment has flaws. Have the opportunity to move. Worried about grass being greener, frying pan/fire, etc. Special details inside.

I work for a large firm on the west coast. When I began practicing, my workload was split about 50/50 between one partner who is a nationally recognized expert in a subspecialty, and the other partners in my group, who have a more generalized practice. That ratio has become more lopsided due to several recent departures, a few of which were the result of the subspecialized partner's difficult working style. As a result, I have gotten an unusual amount of experience. Within this subspecialty, I am probably one of the 10 most knowledgeable attorneys under 40 in my state. This isn't necessarily a huge accomplishment--there just aren't that many of us.

So what's not to like? First, I am worried that I am developing skills in one small area at the cost of a broader skill set. A good analogy would be a corporate lawyer who can handle a few rarified transactions very well but can't draw up a general partnership agreement. This worry is compounded by the fact that fewer than 5% of companies in our state, and 7% nationally, will ever need this kind of work. This number has been on a downward slide from a high of about 35% 30 years ago. This area is unlikely to grow, and could conceivably shrink to the point that it only supports a relative handful of lawyers.

Second, I am not the best I can be working for this person. He is inefficient, and interrupts me at least hourly to talk at length about matters that are already resolved. I typically rush to get as much done as I can before he arrives, because I know that my day will be at least 60% devoted to unproductive time when he arrives. That leaves late nights and weekends to avoid missing deadlines. As a result, my work is not as good as it could be, and others have become reluctant to staff me on matters where I would get broader experience, which makes me less equipped to handle broader work, and the cycle continues. I know that in a lot of situations the answer is to ask to be moved to other matters, which I have done. But this partner resents this other work, and does not accommodate it. Also, no one else is willing to take on any of his work, so there is no one available to help out if I work on other things.

I am young enough to change trajectories. I have the opportunity to jump to another firm that is nationally recognized as a leader in our area, and to work with a partner who is widely regarded as a rising star. I would also be working on matters that would develop a broader skill set. Pay is probably the same, maybe a slight increase.

What's the catch? First, I would be leaving my current firm's HQ, and the relationships and capital I've built there, to become literally one of thousands in another organization's branch offices. My chances for partnership would be significantly reduced (although it's far from a sure thing now). Second, the new firm has a reputation for being pretty demanding, and my quality of life outside the office, such as it is, is unlikely to improve and could become significantly worse (think going from staying to 10 a few nights a week to staying to midnight-2 am on a regular basis). I would rather stay late because the work demands it rather than because I spent 3-4 hours on unnecessary meetings, however. Third, I would stop developing my subspecialized knowledge, which is kind of a double edged sword.

I'm inclined to make the jump, but I'm worried that my desire to get out of a bad situation could put me in a worse one. I'd appreciate any thoughts on what I might be overlooking or overemphasizing, or any advice from people who have faced a similar choice.

Thanks.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (4 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
I am worried that I am developing skills in one small area at the cost of a broader skill set. A good analogy would be a corporate lawyer who can handle a few rarified transactions very well but can't draw up a general partnership agreement. This worry is compounded by the fact that fewer than 5% of companies in our state, and 7% nationally, will ever need this kind of work. This number has been on a downward slide from a high of about 35% 30 years ago. This area is unlikely to grow, and could conceivably shrink to the point that it only supports a relative handful of lawyers.
This is your major concern I believe. If your expertise is to you an endangered species and you are realistic in your foresight that it will be a very rare specialty, then making a move or at least planning to make a move is to your advantage. That is just career planning and a good valid motivator to move on.
posted by Bodrik at 7:32 PM on February 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


First, keep in mind that those are not the only two possibilities open to you. Even if you make the jump to another firm, there's no saying you have to go to a huge Skadden or Proskauer.

Second, I think part of the question lies on whether you want to make partner. That's always a difficult question, but it strikes me as being a bit dicey at either of the two firms--at your current firm, it's risky to have so much of your practice built around one partner. If he dings you along the way, you're done. At the other firm, it can be hard to lateral in to partner track. You might be able to go broaden your skillset and then come in as partner at firm three, though.

Third, you don't want to end up a seventh year and find your practice has imploded. I knew a bunch of folks in structured finance when the markets crashed. Top of their game, but the game ended. It takes a lot to land on your feet when you're that deep in a specialty. Me, I could not even tell you the first thing about any area of law but my own. Pleading? What's that?

I was in private practice in a niche group--in demand, but largely arcane and really only of use in biglaw. I went in house and have much greater breadth (and it's much more interesting as a result).

Also, IMO, don't underestimate how bad the grind can wear on you. After nearly a decade in biglaw, my nerves were shot for a while. Work/life balance is critical. Though if you're already there till ten on a regular basis, you probably know this first hand.

Feel free to MeMail me.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 7:41 PM on February 24, 2013 [3 favorites]


The other partners in your firm are probably aware of this problem. Reading between the lines, the specialised partner sounds as if he's ageing - he comes in late, he likes chatting, he recaps things that have already been resolved. You feel that they're reluctant to give you work because the quality of your generalised work has suffered; it's also possible that they recognise that the specialised partner needs support and that they're happy to let you concentrate on that, even if it isn't good for your general development. From what you've said you feel that your position in the firm has suffered because of your over-commitment to this partner. If so, a simple reduction in the level of your commitment probably wouldn't restore your status: you'd be the person whose work wasn't great and who declined to help shoulder the burden of this specialised partner.

It might help you to talk this over informally with one of the other partners. Even if the area of work is small it's probably significant to your partnership, and they may see you as a more significant asset than you realise - particularly if the specialised partner would have difficulty mentoring a new associate. There are a number of inducements that your firm might be able to offer, instead of or in addition to scaling back your commitment to this one partner. It's also possible that your path to partnership lies in taking a more senior role in this specialised area. I know you said that the area is shrinking, but that doesn't mean your firm's share of the business couldn't increase.
posted by Joe in Australia at 7:50 PM on February 24, 2013 [5 favorites]


Consider also whether this specialized work is an entre to other, more broadly applicable work. Why is this work on the decline? Are the firms that need it going out of business? If so, why? If not, do they make an active effort to choose an alternative that doesn't require the type of work in question?
posted by Good Brain at 4:08 PM on February 25, 2013


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