Should I Stay or Should I Go? When to Bug Out From Your Firm.

Yesterday Keith R. Lee of Associate’s Mind made a good blog post about how to leave your law firm.  I have to say, reading it put me in the mind that my current plan of hiring a marching band and skywriter to announce my exit, if it ever comes, was likely not Kosher.  My other option, as suggested by a member of the super-secret lawyer’s chat room Keith runs, was to pull an Andy Dufresne from The Shawshank Redemption and have a partner discover my absence only when they notice the bankers boxes piled against the outside wall are moving slightly in the breeze.  The partner could slowly have realization dawn on his face as he opened box after box, finding them devoid of files, and then, as he moved the last one, discovering the small hole in the wall, just big enough for an associate in a suit to squeeze out of and into freedom.

On an unrelated note, a guy I once worked with in another job who was a little off had a dog that chewed a hole entirely through the wall of his house.  We used to joke about how bad the house must be if the dog was that anxious to get out.

Anyhow, that’s unrelated but a decent segue into my topic for today.

Keith is telling you how you should leave, so maybe someone should tell you when you should leave.  Now, let’s keep in mind, I’m pretty damn happy where I am at the moment, and I don’t currently have any intention of leaving.  Still, I have a bug out bag sitting under my desk, and I keep my office furnishings sparse and ready to move at a moment’s notice.  Maybe it’s my unrelenting pessimism, or maybe it’s my Jewish heritage speaking through the layers of whitewashing we’ve applied to it reminding me not to stay in one place for too damn long.  In either case, happy or not I’m always on the cusp of doing an action movie dive out the window and walking away from the office, without so much as a glance backwards as it explodes into flames.  For added cool points, I’ll light a cigarette as I walk away from the explosion.

So when is it time to get the hell out of Dodge?  That, my friends, is a question only you can answer.  However, here are some things you should take into consideration and keep an eye out for:

1. Your Work is Drying Up.

This isn’t uncommon for a month here or there, the office having no real new work and billables slipping.  There are slow times of the year for lawyers just like any other business.  It happens.  As my boss has said, when you have the case that lets you bill a ton of hours, you make hay while the sun shines.  Those seasonal droughts aren’t what I’m talking about, though.  I’m talking about when you see your work stopping.

First is the “I don’t get any hours” phenom.  You go from being amazingly busy to having the cases that you’re assigned to slow to a trickle.  You look around and everyone else is busier than a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest, but all of the sudden you find yourself with more time to spend on Reddit every day.  Nobody is handing you cases, and if you ask about getting some, you’re told that things are “covered.”  This is the firm weaning you out of the rotation.  They have decided that they don’t want you heavily involved in cases or with clients outside of the ones you already have on your desk.  Why, you may ask, are you suddenly without work to do?

Keith touched on that.  If you’re involved heavily in a case, and clients have contact with you, and you leave, the firm will need to notify the clients of this.  However, if you aren’t on any cases…well, you can put two and two together.  In short, being kept idle while others are busy is a warning sign.  It means they’re working on phasing you out completely.

2.  The Firm’s Work Is Drying Up.

This is like the first, except it’s for the firm as a whole.  This is mainly for small to mid-size firm associates.  You notice that the firm is consulting with or taking cases that it would never have taken before.  Suddenly collecting on every outstanding bill is immensely important.  People are asking questions like “Are you certain that’s all the hours you billed to this client?”  Finally, one day you notice a filing fee being put on a partner’s personal credit card, or someone forgets to call in payroll once or twice, or you’re fielding a lot of phone calls from the bank where the operating account is at, and the managing partner never seems to be “in the office” when you tell them who is calling.

This is a firm on the brink of failure, and it won’t go quietly.  The partners are struggling desperately, waiting for the “one case that turns it all around.”  That case isn’t coming.  That case never comes.  One day you’re going to show up and get a sudden announcement that the firm is ceasing operations, or its been sold, or some other euphemism for “we can’t keep you on anymore.”  Then you’ll be an associate with a resume that shows years of dedication at a failing firm trying to land a job in a rough legal market.  Good luck.

3. You’re the Bitch.

Let’s face it, 9/10 of being a successful lawyer is developing both the skills they don’t teach in law school and the reputation to be considered a successful lawyer.  Still, there are firms out there that consider associates to be the grunts and don’t give them room to grow.  While for large firms this isn’t uncommon for first-year associates, and is in fact just the norm, some small firms, especially those with only one principal, are particularly guilty of letting the principal be the “face of the firm” while the actual work is done by an associate that never gets face time with the clients or the judge.  Not only does this suck, it doesn’t advance your career.  A year in the background is enough to learn the nuts and bolts of practicing law, after that a good firm should hand an associate that they plan on keeping the opportunity to build a reputation with the clients, courts, and other counsel.

Staying in this type of a job once it’s clear you will never argue a motion or handle a negotiation is flat-out detrimental.  You need to be able to grow professionally, and you can’t do that if your entire career is going to be hiding in the shadows.

4.  You Just Don’t Fit In.

Firm culture is weird, and small-to-mid-size firms are like tiny dictatorships.  A clash of personalities can sink you quickly.  I’ve written before about how my Big Boss and I are about as different politically and personality wise as two people could be.  We respect each other professionally and like each other as people, but we are not friends.  It works for us.

Other firms, and other bosses though, will expect you to become their mini-mes.  They expect you to fit exactly into the firm culture.  If the Boss works until midnight, he doesn’t care if you have kids, he expects you to do it, too.  If the Boss does things one way, he’ll want you to do it, too.  If the Boss wants it, you have to match it.  If you don’t the personality clash will force you out the door.

It sounds juvenile as fuck, but it’s the truth.  Law firms can be like high school cliques.  Don’t believe me?  Remember law school?  Yeah.  Tell me again how we can’t be petty little folks simply because we’re lawyers.

5.  You’re Unhappy and You Don’t Need The Money.

This is the big one.  If you’re financially stable and don’t need the money, why the hell are you going to be miserable?  More money?  Fuck that.  Get out of there, start your own practice, go work for the government, go in-house, become a legal aid attorney, etc.  Let’s face it, very few of us are in firm culture because we enjoy it.  If we could make the same money with the same level of personal risk working in our own offices, we’d do it in a heartbeat.  So if you’re miserable in the firm, and you don’t need the cash, go do those things you talked about doing when you went to law school.  Be your own boss, fight for the underprivileged, whatever the fuck it is.

There you go, five quick tips on how to know when it’s time to jump ship and dash out the door.  I’d go more into detail, but some idiot paralegal left a plastic spoon within my reach and I need to get back to digging an escape tunnel myself.