Creating your law career niche

Growth spurt in the legal profession over the past 20 years has created intense competition for the number of jobs open


The legions of lawyers are large and growing. There are more than 850,000 licensed attorneys in the U.S.; that number is projected to reach one million before the turn of the century.

In California alone, there are nearly 150,000 lawyers, more than 120,000 whose licenses are active.

This growth spurt in the legal profession, particularly in the last 20 years, has created extreme competition for the insufficient number of jobs that open each year for both new law graduates and experienced practitioners.

That is one reason more and more lawyers are looking at alternatives to traditional law practice. That is also a reason why the options offered to associates by law firms themselves are changing.

Some firms are inventing new categories, such as permanent associate, of counsel, or special counsel, all of which qualify for a salary but not a piece of the partnership pie.

For some associates, these are promising developments, alleviating the stress caused by partnership track competition and rainmaking requirements. But for others, it is an insult to both their efforts and the countless hours billed for the firm at the expense of their private lives.

If you are offered a position you don't want, keep in mind that there are other firms, other areas of legal employment and other work styles. Those individuals who have worked only at one or two law offices are often amazed at the varied dynamics of other offices and other specialties.

It isn't surprising that in many situations it is the interoffice relations that make work enjoyable or contribute to its aggravations.

If you are dissatisfied with your work environment, talk to attorneys in other firms about their office culture and relationships to discover if perhaps you do need to move because you are experiencing "lemon law office." You may find that your discomfort isn't really with the law, but with your colleagues.

If collegiality isn't the problem, perhaps a move to a different type of practice, one that removes some of the stress factors, would be enough.

Ask these other lawyers about the daily routine, the stresses, the benefits and the growth and income potential in their areas of practice.

Various practice specialties often require different work styles and personality types. The lawyer who enjoys and is successful in plaintiff's personal injury, handling intense negotiations and conducting trials, would probably be bored with the detail and documentation of an estate planning practice.

Conversely, a quiet, methodical, contemplative thinker would be constantly traumatized working as a public defender or district attorney.

If discomfort is caused by the confrontation necessary in litigation practice, switching to a more traditional practice or doing business or corporate work may be the answer.

Or as one client I previously counseled discovered, all that was necessary for him to avoid the anxiety of "personal combat" was to develop an appellate practice at the firm where he worked.

There are also many opportunities to work as a lawyer outside the narrow confines of traditional law firms.

Those attorneys who love the law in its theoretical rather than its practical application may be content working in research and writing positions - with the courts, legal book publishers, research services or even in the appellate department of a law firm.

Lawyers who want to work as part of a team, to further the business of an employer, often seek in-house positions.

Lawyers also work within non-profit organizations, bar associations, universities and colleges and of course the government.

In a future article, I will discuss some of these alternative work arenas in more detail, as well as the numerous practice styles and specialties.

Hindi Greenberg was a business litigator for 10 years before founding Lawyers in Transition in San Francisco in 1985.