Monday, December 7, 2009

History's Lessons In a Tough Economy - Seth Hopkins

Justice Sandra Day O'Conner once noted that there are more lawyers than people in Washington, DC. For new attorneys in the Great Recession, these words certainly feel true. In many parts of the country, the rare job post results in an instant mob of applicants, leading those without jobs to feel helpless and those with jobs to feel relief, fear, and sometimes even guilt.

Two generations ago, the gold standard for most Americans was a high school degree followed immediately by a salaried job with a stable company. Today, the idea of spending 40 years at the mill sounds like a self-imposed workplace prison. But before you chastise our grandparents for lacking ambition, bear in mind that we're talking about an era when Johnny Carson was cutting edge and a computer was something big sitting in a NASA vault.

Fifty years ago, job satisfaction was a different concept, with most people happy to have a paycheck and a 40-hour work week. But our grandparents gained something from work that you don't see often anymore. They expected their bosses (or their unions) to take care of them with health insurance, a gold watch and a cake on their retirement day, and a defined benefit retirement plan to take them through their golden years of fishing trips and prostate exams. In other words, an American worker was hired into a family.

Whatever happened to loyalty? In the downturn of the 1970s, the modern American workplace family became as dysfunctional as Archie Bunker at a Gay Pride parade. Millions of manufacturing jobs were lost as America's industrial sector was forced to become leaner and meaner in a global marketplace.

There were still places where employees could find nurturing bosses, a mentor system, benefits, and job security. But these places weren't your traditional blue-collar factories. Since the 1970s, if you've wanted the good life, you needed a profession--you needed to be a doctor, an accountant, or, you guessed it, a lawyer.

Only a few years ago, a law degree still guaranteed a way of life. You could leave law school, find a firm of supportive older lawyers, and work your way through the ranks until your golden years when you would be able to shuffle into the office twice a week to check on the troops and dispense worldly advice to eager young associates. In many places, this model still exists. But things are changing.

What happened to the American manufacturing sector in the 1970s is happening to the legal sector now. Blame it on a more competitive workplace. Blame it on the fact that kids live with their parents well into their 30s, thus enabling them to get their law degrees without having to support their own families. Blame it on the Internet, which makes it easier than ever to job search and implants in lawyers the often false promise that they would be happier working somewhere else. Whatever the reason, loyalty, both to and from legal employers, is a dying virtue.

So how does this short history lesson help new lawyers on their career paths? If history really is our greatest teacher, we can compile some lessons from how our parents and grandparents survived the manufacturing downturn in the 1970s.

1. Be loyal but smart. When you have a job, appreciate it. You might be able to find a job with lower billable requirements, a higher salary, more responsibility, less responsibility, more flexible hours, less travel, more travel, or whatever it is that you seek. But give the job you have your full attention and ignore unrealistic temptations from headhunters, even when the economy gets better. How would you feel if your firm hired you, "for a few years until a better associate comes along"? Yet, every day, lawyers take jobs with the intention of leaving as soon as something better comes along. This only contributes to the perception that loyalty is an antiquated notion. There's nothing wrong with leaving one job for a better job, but your new job should be several steps up the ladder, not just a lateral slide.

2. Diversify your skills. After graduating from law school, I spent a few years working in a general practice with my dad. This didn't pay much money, but it did give me the opportunity to learn about things that no big-firm lawyer would ever understand. Not many associates have worried about malpractice insurance, advertising regulations, salesmen, visiting clients in the hospital, and even dealing with a leaky office roof. Having gone through this experience helped me to understand how hiring partners think, what they worry about (on a larger scale) and what they need to accomplish to keep the lights on. If you have a break in your employment, spend that time developing a new skill set and a new perspective on the practice of law. Volunteer, accept contract work, or even hang a shingle for a while.

3. Network. We've all heard the saying that it's not what you know, but who you know. The more difficult times are, the more important personal relationships are. Treat your friends well in good times, and they'll be there for you in bad times.

4. Always have a Plan "B". Just because you're loyal doesn't mean that you'll be treated with the respect that you deserve. What would you do if you got laid off tomorrow? Do you have a contingency plan to pay your bills for a few months? Who will you call trying to find work? How will you spend your first days at home? If you can't answer these questions, it's time to write down a plan. No one thinks clearly after a layoff, and having a rational plan check list helps to restore normalcy. Make sure that plan includes options outside the law. Would you be willing to teach, write, or even sell cars for a living?

5. Don't put your eggs in one basket. I've never believed in having just one job, and you shouldn't either. There's always money to be made teaching adjunct classes, operating a website (I once had an online speech writing service), owning rental property, or even taking a few cases on the side if you're lucky enough to have an employer who permits it. There's nothing disloyal about having a second income if you're willing to put in the hours to keep up with all of your work, and it's a good defensive strategy in tough times.

A few decades ago, our law degrees were tickets on the train of opportunity. Today, that train chugs much more slowly than it once did. Things may never get as bad for lawyers in 2010 as they did for factory workers in the mid-1970s, because the number of lawyers are still controlled by state bar associations, much of our work (such as litigation) can't be outsourced, and our skill sets can be transferred to other industries (lawyers make great claims adjusters and professors, for instance). Nevertheless, our profession is changing, and we should be prepared to change with it.

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