Tax attorney in mid-forties feels “stranded” by employment change

Issue January 2007

Q:I wound down my legal career as a tax and estate planning lawyer several years ago to be home most of the time with my then pre-school kids. At first, our family relied on my husband’s income, and when both kids were in school, I met a senior attorney who allowed me to work part time (as an independent contractor) in her suburban practice. Now that she is retiring, and I don’t feel I’m in a position to buy and take over her practice, I’m at a loss as to where I go from here. My kids are still young and I prefer not to work full-time. And frankly, I believe that I will have difficulty finding a job at a firm given that I am in my mid-forties. But I can’t just contact every lawyer in my vicinity looking for someone who wants part-time help. My family and community life are full, but professionally I feel stranded. Ideas?

At LCL, we are not, ourselves, career counselors, though we refer to a wide range of career specialists. But what we’ve heard from others in your shoes tends to confirm your sense that it is much more difficult to get a job at a firm after being "out of the swim" for some years, especially as the years pass. In addition, there is not a lot of formally structured part-time work out there. We often hear of initiatives to make law firms more flexible (partly to hang onto talented women who dial back their work lives while raising a family), but these efforts require a major reconfiguration of the law firm structure and culture, and they have a long way to go.

In all likelihood, the best fit for you will be another arrangement like the one you’ve had, or perhaps a slightly different one in which you rent space in another attorney’s suite and bill clients directly. (The latter relationship provides less incentive for the established lawyer to send cases your way, but your presence at the office is likely to elicit some referrals, and you keep the income that your work generates.)

We don’t know of any match-making service for such arrangements — if any readers do, please let us know. If there are no contenders arising out of your current professional or community connections, or from contacts with others such as former law school classmates, then there is no substitute for "networking." That includes joining and attending meetings of local and specialty bar associations/committees as well as organizations such as Rotary Clubs where you might get to know more colleagues.

In the virtual world, there are also a variety of lawyer-focused e-mail listservers that can provide a kind of electronic network (though probably less likely to pay off than person-to-person connections). Don’t forget, either, that checking in with a wide range of people you know (not only lawyers) may connect you to a larger, broader network (albeit with more "degrees of separation" from yourself).

Despite your eagerness to re-situate yourself, screening of potential colleagues is a step that should not be skipped. Because an initial interview will tend to focus you on making a good impression, it may be a good idea to plan a second interview to ask questions that did not come up in the first. If you are going to rely on the other person to pay you and/or to share work responsibilities, it is probably a good idea to get an overview of the systems, software, office manager, etc., used in this practice, to develop a sense of how well organized it is. The last thing you want is to establish a new professional home and then find out that it takes months to be paid, or that the practice is managed in a sloppy way that could compromise the work product.

If LCL can help by brainstorming with you or referring you to a career coach/counselor, feel free to come in and talk with us.

Questions quoted are either actual letters/e-mails or paraphrased and disguised concerns expressed by individuals seeking assistance from Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers.

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