Q You can say that I’ve made it in the law, but perhaps not. I graduated from a good law school in the top 10 percent of my class and shortly thereafter joined a 15+ size law firm near Los Angeles. Within a year I was knee-deep in mostly administrative and regulatory work, which I actually love, and doing fairly well, at least for a new grad. I would also take a few small criminal defense matters through a cooperative program with a local nonprofit and did well with those, each ending with dismissals for the client. Maybe it was because of this, or maybe because I do good work, or maybe I just found myself in the right or wrong place at the right or wrong time.
During one of our recent weekly department/staff meetings, one of the firm’s co-founders said we needed a litigation department to handle spillover work from our trust and municipal law areas. Out of the blue, he announced that I would be the head of that department and that “[my last name] will get working on it right away.” He assigned two other attorneys to the department: a fifty-some male partner in trusts and a 40+ female lateral associate who practices in health care matters. Both seemed displeased with the decision— though it was a bit hard to read them, given my own shock.
The thing is, I’m 24, a new female associate with just under a year of experience, most of that doing regulatory work. I feel like I have no idea what I’m doing, yet here I am the head of the firm’s litigation department. I tried talking to the partner and he didn’t back down and said he’d give it two years “tops” to see how well I do and how the work develops. Litigation cases are starting to come in, one of them a federal ERISA case, and I’m reading the Rules of Civil Procedure seriously for the first time since my law school Civ Pro class. I also find it awkward to be in charge of people nearly twice my age, neither of whom are thrilled about this new direction in their careers.
I feel like quitting because, honestly, do I want to work for a firm that assigns someone like me to head up a department in an area I don’t generally practice. More importantly, on a very basic level, I’m terrified. Is this nuts?
A Yes. And I feel like ending my advice there with that simple answer: yes, it is nuts. And you say this law firm is successful? Actually, you didn’t say that but I have to question the wisdom of a couple of things: 1) starting a litigation “department” without much discussion among any of the other lawyers, especially if it is built on “spillover” work; and 2) assigning a 24-year-old to head it up. Maybe you’ve got beaucoup talent and leadership (and you should actually feel flattered), but that does not mean you have any litigation wisdom and savvy. As in the rules say one thing but how a case works and how to make it work your way is quite different. I’m not sure any kids less than two years out of law school would have that wisdom. And that’s probably why they aren’t heading up litigation departments.
I’d start looking around. Seriously. This can generally end only one of two ways: 1) you and the so-called codger lawyers screw up cases and lose your “spillover” clients; and 2) you get frustrated, burned out, and end up in a lawyer’s support group at a bar.
Or you could stick it out, get burned a bunch of times in cases, admonished by the court perhaps, and learn from it, building a practice and rising like a Phoenix from the ashes of a partner’s idiocy. I don’t know you, but I’m placing 10 to 1 odds that a fresh associate can take this direction and make it work. After all, youngsters like you are hanging their own shingles and reading the rules of civil procedure seriously for the first time since law school—which, I guess, wasn’t that long ago for them. Your gamble. Theirs too.
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