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Dear Above the Law,I’m a third-year litigation associate in New York City. Lately, I have been thinking about *trying* to make a lateral move. But a nagging thought keeps holding me back: When you’re a lawyer and you reach your late 30s/ early 40s, what do you do? Where do you go?So, here’s my question: If you (1) are lucky enough to have a job at a mid-law firm; (2) are doing well; (3) like your partners; (4) like the work; and (5) realistically think that you have a decent shot at making partner, should you stay even if you feel (really) underpaid? (i.e., you make about half as much as your Biglaw counterparts, but work comparable hours). And not just underpaid right now – but probably underpaid for the duration of your career.I’m just nervous about transitioning because I have security with my current firm. The last thing I want is an extra $30,000 today, and unemployment tomorrow.
If you’ve ever been to Iceland, you probably noticed that there are no old people there. My personal theory is that they throw old people into tar pits like on The Dinosaurs. But if you ask any Icelanders where there hell everybody over 40 is, they’ll usually shrug or laugh or give some non-committal answer like “they‘re around,” mainly because they don’t actually know. Similarly, nobody knows for sure what happens seven years down the road to all the first years that started. Because even if you tally up all the farewell emails, a few of your co-workers will remain unaccounted for, in the tomb of the unknown lawyer…
A lot of your missing brethren will of course have been pushed out or stealthily laid off; but probably an equal amount will have to do other, more rewarding things, like abscond with partners from foreign offices, quit to start baked goods businesses, become legal bloggers, go back to school, hang out a shingle, hang out a shingle because they work as roofers, marry rich, find God, get pregnant, have mental breakdowns, etc. Only the spectacularly lazy can go six or seven years at a firm and not find a single more rewarding, somewhat remunerative job somewhere out there, because they’re everywhere. For instance, The Container Store is now hiring.
What is truly ridiculous about your question is that you seem to think that lateraling out of your firm is a now-or-never bet. As if you stay one day beyond being a third year, no firm will ever take you. As if you’re a 30-year-old blogger with a $4,000 credit limit who goes to pet lifestyle events. Luckily, you haven’t sunk that low yet. If you grow tired in a year or two – or ten – of making a crap income for slave labor at your cheap firm, you can always lateral if you’re good at your job and/or a rainmaker. There’s no point in lateraling now when you have three skills; wait until you know how to do something other than send around the dial-in. Or at least until you’ve got a higher credit limit.
HOMER: Wow, Mr. Burns, you’re the richest man in the world! You own everything!
MR. BURNS: Ah, yes, but I’d give it all away to have just a little bit more.
Look brother, I understand that it can be tough living in this city unless you have money pouring out of your ears. Trust me, I get it. But come on man, you’re talking about throwing away a good, secure job and a pleasant lifestyle for a couple of extra dollars. During a recession? Why would you do that?
I’m not going to tell you that money can’t buy happiness. That’s clearly false; I don’t care how badly Cliff Lee embarrasses me on national television, I’d still trade places with Derek Jeter or Alex Rodriguez (or their agents) in a second.
So sure, more money might make you happier. Bur chasing money to the exclusion of all else could make you significantly more sad. I’m saying that you might easily find that you are now using your money induced happiness to replace the happiness you used to derive from: coming home at a reasonable hour, working with nice people, feeling like you are something more than a faceless cog in the machine, and having your colleagues treat you with respect. Could banging Minka Kelly make up for that? Almost certainly! But it’s not like trading up for an extra $30K a pop is going to suddenly make you (ahem) rich enough to pull those kinds of perks.
At the end of the day, you’re just going to be the same lawyer who has a little more money in your pocket.
I don’t think it’s worth it dude, but I’m also the guy who left a lot of cash on the table to start down this path. Maybe you should ask somebody who has fully sold out whether or not the extra cash fills the gaping hole where their soul used to be? I’m not exactly friends with him, but I can give you LeBron James’s phone number if you want to talk about this a little more.
– Jane Jacobs
Ed. note: Have a question for next week? Send it in to [email protected].