Being somewhat of a jam band aficionado, I inevitably came across the 2003 film “Festival Express.” The film documents the 1970 East to West tour by railroad across Canada featuring the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, The Band, and Mashmakhan. I mention the latter because, in my opinion, the relatively unknown band puts on two of the more electrifying performances in the movie. However, while the headliners went on to rock immortality, Mashmakhan broke up after only two albums. After the tour, the trajectories of a pool of very talented musicians diverged, some due to drugs, some to luck, and others for reasons unknown.
And so it goes with law — some to drugs, some to luck, and others for reasons unknown….
I am confident that you retain memories of very disparate attorneys from your first job, a study group, or even competing firms. I recall many of these folks for very different reasons. I tend to follow up with some of the persons I remember, just to see where they are in life. It’s interesting to see that so and so, who was such a gunner in Torts, is now a vegan hermit. In the outside world, I know personally attorneys who have no business practicing law, who have nice books of solid business and enjoy a lifestyle of which I am envious. On the other hand are people who grind away their days reviewing documents, even several years in to a career. They remind me of the character in “A Civil Action” who eats his lunch each day alone, and is a seeming firm “hermit,” but who is actually a brilliant strategist and respected attorney.
I see all of these traits and more with in-house attorneys. And some of the attorneys who have gone on to fabulous positions in-house got there for reasons too numerous to mention. Unlike the in-houser featured recently in the Anonymous Partner column, I maintain that a key selling point to in-house is the lifestyle. You are given autonomy over your job and life without having to bill. That combination had me at autonomy. However, you must remember, as all lawyers learn sooner or later, you are still in a service position. If you desire fabulous wealth, go into banking. I have told people from day one that the real money is in banking, we just service the bankers. And to a large extent, it is true. You can make a very nice living in law, but there is a chasm between well-off and wealthy. That said, you can still make money in-house, pay cut and all, you just have to know where to look.
In any event, the key to a career that reaches heights only limited by yourself, is to work not only on your lawyering skills, but your business and political skills.
A band that is going to become successful cannot rely on the chops of its lead guitarist; it must act as a unit, know how to market, and utilize all the tools at its disposal. Yes, yes, luck also comes into the equation, but I believe you can make your own luck. If you’re not out gigging weekend after weekend, becoming a known commodity for the right reasons, how will anyone know you exist? It’s all well and good to sit in your cave of an office all day, but if the GC doesn’t know your name for the right reasons, you don’t exist. It goes without saying that a huge percentage of you had not heard of Mashmakhan before today, but I would place a large wager that you all knew of the Grateful Dead — whether or not you’re a fan.
And if you find yourself in a position that is not meeting your desires, go find another position. A job is a job, but there are certain criteria that we all have for the place we spend most of our time. Perhaps it’s the belief in the product, or the type of law required. Maybe you want to be in a small shop with just you standing between the CEO and a compliance issue. Whatever your definition of “good,” just keep swimming. There are indeed jobs out there, damn what I or anyone else tells you. I know that my go-to career site is listing over 700 in-house positions of all stripes. Differing locations, differing experience, and differing demands. And yeah, there are likely a thousand résumés in line for those 700 jobs. But the effort you put in to finding the placement that is the best fit for you is equitable to your chance of actually obtaining that job.
Forget the stats — 40,000 law grads for 20,000 jobs, or whatever. Those grads are not fit to practice law, let alone compete with you for an in-house gig. And yes, I am firmly in the camp that hiring law grads does a disservice to litigants before a judge, be it federal or state. But, I digress. If you are seeking an in-house position, you are far ahead of those law grads. Further, when applying for a position, make sure you have the credentials and qualifications required. If you are a family lawyer, and a good family lawyer, don’t go trying to squeeze your well-rounded résumé into the square hole of an in-house contracts attorney. Desperation may lead to desperate measures, but it most certainly does not lead to interviews.
You must have self awareness — a knowledge of where you might fit, and where you certainly will not. The difference between becoming a legend in your own mind and a three-hit wonder lies first within. Once the strength is found to let go of a swinging trapeze, only then can you attempt to grab the next opportunity.
After two federal clerkships and several years as a litigator in law firms, David Mowry is happily ensconced as an in-house lawyer at a major technology company. He specializes in commercial leasing transactions, only sometimes misses litigation, and never regrets leaving firm life. You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.