In the olden days, it was not uncommon for lawyers to work at one or a few law firms for the entirety of their careers. It was much more common for lawyers to make partner at their firms and build a practice at one law firm over several decades of legal practice. In recent years, it is much more common for lawyers to move from job to job over the course of their careers. This is because it is less common to be offered partnership, and lawyers may need to jump ship because of the finances of a firm or a variety of other reasons. In order to make themselves as marketable as possible, lawyers need to be deliberate with career choices and not spend too much time in dead-end practice areas. By being more cognizant of career choices, lawyers can ensure that they are most marketable when looking for future employment opportunities.
Throughout legal history, there have been practice areas for which numerous lawyers focused and which are not really practiced a ton right now. For instance, railroad law used to be an important practice area for over a century, and numerous lawyers specialized in this area of the law. Nowadays, not too many people practice railroad law (although I know a few who do actually specialize in such matters), and when this work dried up, many lawyers were likely left in the cold with little tasks to do.
There are certain practice areas that essentially have a built-in shelf life, and lawyers in such fields routinely face employment issues. For instance, large mass torts matters can go on for years, even decades. Over the course of such mass torts matters, such cases can develop their own processes and procedures as the courts implement case management orders and other specialized rules in order to cater to these specific types of cases. Moreover, discovery demands, interrogatories, and depositions in such mass torts matters can all be specialized and extremely different from how such processes are handled in other cases.
Staying too long in such mass torts cases or any other similar practice areas can pose a number of problems. Perhaps primarily, there will come a time when these types of cases will run out or at least decrease dramatically. This can impact a lawyer’s job security as firms without work to handle in a given practice area may need to terminate attorneys and staff who work in that practice area.
Working in a dead-end practice area can also impact your marketability when you look for the exits and try to find work either before or after the music runs out and work dries up in the practice area. Hiring managers may think that experience with the specialized cases of a given mass torts matter or other specialized practice area are not transferable to other types of cases. The years of experience that an attorney has handled such matters may not be deemed an asset by hiring managers who are looking for attorneys who can handle more traditional types of cases that do not have specialized procedures. Of course, law firms looking to hire attorneys for other mass torts cases may like an attorney who previously worked in other mass torts matters before, but to keep yourself marketable, it is best to be open to other types of jobs.
There are a few things that attorneys should keep in mind when determining if they are in a dead-end practice area in which they should not stay long. For one, if the evolution of technology would make a practice area extinct (and this includes if artificial intelligence or other innovations can replace an attorney’s work) then it might be a good idea to look for the exits as soon as possible. Moreover, if it looks like a settlement will occur in the not-to-distant future, and the music may soon end in a mass torts matter, attorneys may be well-advised to begin looking for other work to avoid the possibility of being laid off once a mass torts or other matter concludes.
In addition, if an attorney sees that they may have a hard time explaining how their current work is an asset in their desired future job, that attorney should look for the exits. It can be easy in a legal career to just look at short-term goals, and attorneys may only care about a job’s salary and other benefits before deciding whether they wish to take one job or the other. However, attorneys need to look at the long game and see how a job can position them well for the decades they intend to practice law.
Of course, it usually does not hurt to stay a year or two in a job just to get your bearings, and in certain job markets, attorneys just need to take any job which they are offered. However, lawyers should try to avoid dead-end practice areas at all costs so that they can remain marketable throughout the course of their careers.
Jordan Rothman is a partner of The Rothman Law Firm, a full-service New York and New Jersey law firm. He is also the founder of Student Debt Diaries, a website discussing how he paid off his student loans. You can reach Jordan through email at [email protected]