Passages: Managing the Three Stages of Your Career

Passages: Managing the Three Stages of Your Career

By Mike Rosen

After several years working at a small San Francisco law firm, Ken LaMance was sick of the grind. Calculating billable hours was emotionally draining. And he didn’t much care for court cases that dragged on for months at a time, hardly ever giving him a sense of closure. He needed a change. So he quit his job, bought a beat-up pickup truck, and took off on a three-month Jack Kerouac-style cross-county road trip-from San Francisco to Nova Scotia and back.

He spent most of his days investigating local monuments and national parks along the way. At night, he pulled over to the side of the road and slept in the driver’s seat. Occasionally, he’d duck into a gymnasium or YMCA for a quick shower. Then, on Sundays, he would treat himself to a room in a hotel. He hiked through Banff National Park in Canada and the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and rode a horse along the steep hillside paths of the Grand Teton Mountains.

“For so long, I always felt like I was on task,” says LaMance, 39. “I went from high school to college to law school to work. For once, I just needed a break.”

Revitalized by his trip, LaMance returned to the Bay Area and after a few months of networking found a position as a corporate counsel at, a South San Francisco Internet startup that matches lawyers with potential clients. It’s a better fit for him than working at a law firm; he doesn’t have to worry about billable hours, and most of his job duties—from filing legal notices to writing PR releases—can be finished in days rather than months. But he wouldn’t be where he is now if he hadn’t spent those three months on the open road.

“It helped me appreciate what I had,” he says. “I realized I missed the mental challenges you get from work. You don’t get that just driving around.”

From the naive recent graduate looking for a first job to the seasoned veteran contemplating retirement, lawyers seeking both fulfillment and challenge wrestle with many of the same basic questions. The answers, however, often change dramatically over time. We asked six lawyers at various points in their careers to share with us their experiences and what they learned along the way.

Getting Started

For a new lawyer, the biggest immediate challenge is, of course, landing that first job. But even at that stage it pays to start thinking about long-term career aspirations. Legal-placement experts and career coaches recommend that young lawyers start making connections early, even while in law school, and both professional organizations and alumni associations are great places to begin.

LaMance didn’t give much thought to his long-term goals while he was in law school at Golden Gate University—he just focused on taking classes. But after passing the bar in 1998, he networked furiously with friends, alumni, and anyone else he could think of in the hope of finding a position. And when attorneys he spoke with had no job leads to offer, he’d ask them whether they would be willing to refer cases to him that they didn’t want. Interestingly, that brought more work than he ever expected.

One of the best ways to keep on track early in your career is to find a mentor. In Palm Desert, Daryl L. Binkley, now 40, knew he wanted to work on estates and trusts even before he went to law school. So, when he started his legal career he sought out local lawyers with well-established estate planning practices, offering to work for free if they would help him learn the ropes. A year later, he was ready to open his own practice.

“Many young attorneys get seduced by litigation,” muses Santa Rosa based Daniel Roberts, who helps young associates make sense of their careers. “It’s sexy, flashy work. But you really need to be aware of yourself in depth and ask: Is this what’s going to give me satisfaction?”

Aparna Rajagopal-Durbin, 35, was on the partner track at Downey Brand in Sacramento when she realized she wanted to go in a completely different direction. An outdoor enthusiast, she chafed at urban life. So ultimately she decided to leave Sacramento for a position in Wyoming handling contracts and branding matters for the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), which teaches leadership and wilderness skills.

“It was the scariest decision I ever made,” she says, noting that she still had both outstanding student loans and a toddler to worry about. “All your life you’re told that you’re on the path for success, you keep making more and more money, and everyone is proud of you. So it’s hard to give that up,” she admits.

But give it up she did. And that meant having to sell her family’s second car, and eating out at restaurants a lot less often than before. Still, Rajagopal-Durbin doesn’t regret her decision for a moment.

Recently, she returned from a 30-day NOLS expedition to India, where she helped lead a group of twelve young American students on a backpacking tour of the Himalayas. “Most people there didn’t have any luxuries except a few sheep,” she notes. “It really puts your own situation in perspective. You realize you don’t really need that much to be happy.”

The Middle Years

Of course, unlike associates who are fresh out of law school, partners and senior partners in a firm have already committed to a career path. But that doesn’t necessarily make life any easier for them.

“This is an exciting time in a lawyer’s career,“ says Stacy Miller, founder of Miller Sabino & Lee Legal Placement Services in San Francisco. “You don’t have the anxiety of learning the ropes anymore. But you also have to start thinking about what direction you want to take. At the junior level the commitments are big, but the rewards are big too—you’re learning a lot and getting trained. At this level you’re really committing to building your base of knowledge and experience, and the more you grow as an attorney, the more you will benefit your firm.” You’re also likely to find yourself under a lot of stress.

Even lawyers who thrive on adversity can sometimes feel like “zebras under constant day-and-night harassment from a pack of lions,“ says Harvey Hyman, a former Piedmont–based medical-injury lawyer who now works as a motivational speaker, blogger, and writer. In fact, of the nearly 1.2 million lawyers in the United States, an estimated 20 percent suffer from major depression, a much higher percentage than in the general population. Hyman works with stressed and depressed lawyers, and he encourages them to find balance in their lives by making time for regular exercise, adequate sleep, and meditation, among other things.

“Emotions are contagious,“ says Hyman. “You can’t be a happy lawyer if you’re surrounded by angry, mean-spirited people, so it’s very important to pick a firm where you enjoy the culture.”

“Sometimes partners will realize that another firm may be a better fit for them or present better opportunities, but they’ll have to take a pay cut,“ says Merle J. Vaughn, West Coast managing partner for the Lucas Group, a legal recruiting company. “That’s the hardest thing for them to accept. But, often, you can’t just focus on money; you have to look at the opportunity.”

Chris Ritter, 55, of Oakland grew up watching TV dramas about lawyers and hoped to feel the same thrill when he became a trial lawyer. He loved the give-and-take of arguing in front of a jury, but after 20 years he realized that he was spending more time in discovery than in court.

“As I got further up the scale at my law firm, I did less of what I really wanted to do,” he says. So in 1998 he parlayed his legal skills to become a trial-strategy consultant with The Focal Point in Oakland. Today he creates charts and graphics that help lawyers break down their arguments into jury-friendly bites.

“I don’t regret a day of my legal practice,” he says, “but I’m a lot happier now that I spend more time in a courtroom instead of answering interrogatories. The important thing, he adds, “is to find your spot, wherever that is, because if you don’t, the 40 years you spend at your career will seem incredibly long.”

Winding Down

The tail end of a lawyer’s career comes with its own special challenges. After all, it’s hard to leave a profession that you’ve devoted so many decades to. And if you’ve made a habit of working long nights and weekends too, you’re likely to find it even more difficult.

Neal S. Millard, 63, a partner with Musick, Peeler & Garrett in Los Angeles, made his career in international finance and real estate law. Through his work he became acquainted with the rich and powerful—people like Donald Trump and the U.S. ambassador to Uruguay—and it took him all over the world.

“Like most young lawyers, I came into this profession wanting to be a top-notch, famous lawyer,” says Millard. But today Millard spends only half his time working on big banking deals; the other half of his legal skills he devotes to helping charter schools that serve disadvantaged youth.

“When I was 25, I couldn’t wait to be a partner,” says Millard. “When I got to be partner and travel around, I loved that. Now I love having the chance to do more personal, meaningful work. I like the fact that there are different stages to your work life, because each stage brings its own challenges and its own rewards.” He adds,

“You can’t regret the stages past, you can only look forward to what’s to come.”

Mike Rosen is a freelance writer based in the Bay Area.


This article originally appeared in California Lawyer on May 1, 2011.

Passages: Managing the Three Stages of Your Career

Appeared in California Lawyer

May 01, 2011