Attorney “Career Path” Myth

Upon examination, a career path for attorneys is a square peg in a round hole. An attorney is an attorney. That is the “career” and that is the job. Does a compensation system or an “ownership expectation” equal a career path? I have to come down on the side of no.

A secretary can become a paralegal, which is a new job description, but may or may not be an increase in pay. A secretary may join law firm management and that would be a new job description but yet again may or may not be an increase in pay. I have seen many times that “staff” will make career path changes, even when there is a step back in pay, because it was where their interest lay. They follow their bliss. What can an attorney do? Do they have the same options?

A summer clerk has a career path to Associate. These are very different jobs and job descriptions. An Associate can become a tier 1 Partner, and we have all seen the “job descriptions” to make a tier partner. Tiers two through six, also, but are they really “career paths” or “business expectations” to earn a bigger payday?

If you are steadfast in your belief that there is a career path for attorneys, beyond an academic argument, how is it working out?

Every year the same two dramas play out in firms across the country, retention and compensation. This on the stage of the “law firm pyramid”, and when the music stops, good men and women are left without a place at the top. It is ridiculous. It’s a “hall of mirrors”. We all lose.

The flawed partnership structure perpetuates an “ownership imperative” which in turns creates a mindset that wrongly focuses on a “gold ring” that is not in fact possible for the vast majority. The “Career Path” myth for attorneys represents the cruelest harm done to future attorneys and current associates.

How much healthier things would be if young men and woman were educated to understand that the career path of an attorney is to be the best advocate they can be for their clients? Educate them that separate to this career they may “choose a path” which will also have “business opportunities” to challenge their capitalist spirits. Is this possible in the current world of law firm structure? Can young attorney’s expectations be reconciled?

Yes they can, but it means that myths like a “career path” be re-examined. The expectations on both sides have to be moderated in order to find the balance between what is real, possible and desirable for each individual and culture. The “language of success” must be reexamined. Only then can the annual drama be ended to the benefit of attorneys, legal service organizations and society.