09/01/2007

Working with Lawyers as Clients: Tips for Career Development Professionals

By Nancy Gibson

Have you ever worked with a client who is a lawyer? As an independent career development practitioner, chances are good that, if you haven't, you soon will. Over the last 20 years there have been numerous studies which document lawyers' career dissatisfaction and explore causes and possible remedies. Several of these surveys and reports may be viewed by visiting the resource section of the American Bar Association's Market Research Department website http://www.abanet.org/marketresearch

Ask your clients why they went to law school and many times the answer will be "To help people." The reality is the long hours doing research, the drudgery, and the conflict with other attorneys is wearing. Despite the plethora of lawyer jokes, not all lawyers thrive in a contentious atmosphere. Just as it's true with any other occupation, there are a range of experiences, perceptions, and skills that lawyers as clients bring to your office. This article will shed some light on common misconceptions career counselors may have about lawyers, as well as provide some tips on developing a successful working relationship when your client is a lawyer.

Lawyers as Clients of Career Development Professionals

  1. Take the time to learn your client's past work experience. A lawyer practicing family law or personal injury law deals with a different clientele, issues, and in a distinct arena than does a securities lawyer. The size of a law firm may be a key to the type of career expectations and pressures your client faces. A lawyer in a government setting, public interest organization, or corporation confronts issues different from those experienced by lawyers in private practice.
  1. Don't assume that your client makes a hefty salary or that she will not be satisfied with a lesser salary. An attorney's salary or draw from a law firm partnership can vary greatly depending upon the size of the market, (i.e. geographic region and city size), rather than firm size. Junior partners in some law firms actually make less than they did as an associate. Don't assume that it's impossible to consider a career move if your client insists on remaining at least at his current salary level. It's important to know how to research salaries in order to explore the options available to your client. You both may be pleasantly surprised by the results. It may also be wise to explore whether your client could accept a lesser salary in exchange for greater career satisfaction.
  1. Not all lawyers have well-developed persuasive skills, nor do they all need them to successfully do their jobs. While it is true that many lawyers do make their living by convincing others to accept their point of view, not all lawyers are involved in advocacy. Some lawyers work in fields that call for objective analysis rather than partisan promotion. This is important to understand in order to help your client clarify why practicing law was not a good fit and to ensure that her next career does not require her to use a skill she may not have nor wish to develop.

Factors to be aware of in order to make your sessions most productive:

  • Like many other professionals, lawyers' identities may be all about their work life. When one hears the word "lawyer", many people imagine someone who is smart, capable, competent, successful, and probably rich. The title carries with it a connotation of prestige and an assumption that one is capable of successfully completing many different tasks. Faced with the prospect of having to justify to old classmates their career transition or lose that unearned but automatic prestige their occupation confers, no wonder many lawyers may have a difficult time committing to career transition.
  • Often, the path to becoming an attorney involved sacrifice on the part of close friends and family members. These may be the people who helped pay for law school tuition and endured the absence of their loved one during the long hours spent studying for the bar exam and working. For clients to admit to these same people doubts about a choice is difficult, as is facing their reactions to a possible career change.
  • Lawyers are used to jumping through hoops, but often they are the hoops others set out for them. Take a prescribed course of study your first year, they are told. Depending upon the type of law you want to practice, take these courses. Want to pass the bar exam upon graduation? Then make sure you take these classes so you learn the subject. Career counselors may find that lawyers are knowledgeable, but may lack self-knowledge and may not be used to examining their lives or reflecting upon them. Unfortunately, this skill is not one that is usually taught in law school, except in some clinical courses.
  • Lawyers, trained to question and not merely accept what they are told, may be less receptive than the general public to some of the methods available to us. If they can be shown why something is effective, then they are more likely to give it a try and become invested in following through. For example, a client may not complete a values sort exercise because he's never spent much time thinking about what values are important to him in his work life. All he knows is that he has a crushing amount of student-loan debt and needs to find a job. However, once he focuses on the exercise, speaking about his values and their importance to him, he begins to clarify what he can and can't live without in a work environment. Lawyers are used to producing results for people. If they can't see the results right away, then they need to understand the process, how it will work, and why it will work. The idea of thinking creatively or getting in touch with their intuition may be a new concept to some lawyers.

Working with clients who are lawyers may present some challenges and unique circumstances to explore. By knowing a little bit about a client's work experience and the sources of career dissatisfaction common to the legal profession, you'll be prepared for a productive working relationship.

The following books and website may be useful if career development professionals wish to learn more about career dissatisfaction among lawyers:

Keeva, Steven (1999) Transforming Practices: Finding Joy and Satisfaction in the Legal Life (Chicago, IL: Contemporary Books).

Moll, Richard (1990) TheLure of the Law: Why People Become Lawyers and What the Profession Does to Them (New York: Viking).

American Bar Association's Market Research Department website http://www.abanet.org/marketresearch Click on the listing of resources and follow the link to Legal Career Surveys and Quality of Life. Retrieved May 9, 2007 from the World Wide Web.


Nancy Gibson is an independent career consultant and owner of Career Consulting for Lawyers, based in Portland, Maine. She works with lawyers, students, and legal organizations on career planning, transition and professional development issues. She is a GCDF and a lawyer with over 20 years experience. She received her J.D. from Northwestern University School of Law and her B.S. from TuftsUniversity. Please contact her with questions or comments at ngibson@careerconsultingforlawyers.com


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