Redirect Associates During Downturns – Above the LawAbove the Law

partner concernedI keep reading about the concept that law firms should “redirect” associates during downturns. There are a few thoughts here that are worth considering.

On the not-so-good side – it rarely seems to work despite good intentions. Consider the disadvantages:

First – in most law firms, intellectual fearlessness is bred in partners early in their careers because they are trained to do what they are very well trained to do and to be afraid of new things that don’t do not part of their skills. It’s terrible, and as a plug-in for our business, we really try to do the opposite; namely, training associates not to be afraid of things they haven’t done before. But that’s not true in most businesses.

Second, from everyone’s point of view, the associate’s salary is not commensurate with the skills needed for the job. This either means the associate’s salary has to drop, the law firm has to set aside a lot of time, or the client is exploited with untrained staff who offload their learning curve onto the client.

Third, partners don’t want to invest time in associates who are only with them for a short time.

Fourth, associates have the same mindset. They are just marking time until they can get back to their real work.

With these headwinds, hard to make it work, unless…

So here’s a totally different way of looking at it. Instead of the law firm reorienting the partner, what if the partner reorients himself!

As a quick story, about 30 years ago – yes, that long – I could see the writing on the wall when I worked at Latham & Watkins. They were going to fire me. I knew it. I was a real estate lawyer and there was no real estate work to do. No way! The writing was on the wall. Who could blame them? I was useless.

So I waited and waited for the ax to drop, didn’t I?

Bad!!!! I decided to get myself a bankruptcy attorney. I pulled out two treatises and read them cover to cover. And I spent day and night converting myself into a bankruptcy lawyer. It was hard to do because I really didn’t know anything about it. But after a few weeks, I kind of knew the law of the land.

Did it work?

Well, yes and no. Latham & Watkins fired me anyway. But in my next job at Mayer Brown, I was surprisingly helpful during the real estate downturn because I had a different set of skills. And I spent several years while real estate was on hiatus and I was at least part bankruptcy attorney.

Where am I going with this? It is obvious. Instead of associates sitting there like a fungible billing unit waiting to be reorganized, I urge you, associates, if your work has dried up in your day job, don’t sit still. Instead, reorient yourself.

It’s not easy, I admit, but it’s not impossible either. And it’s totally doable.

In my 40 years, I have been a litigator, transaction lawyer, leasing lawyer, bankruptcy lawyer, securitization lawyer, corporate finance lawyer, entertainment lawyer and many more that I barely remember. Along the way, my primary specialty has been real estate, of course, but I’ve refocused several times, and the extent to which I can be of service as a real estate lawyer has been enhanced by those shares.

So don’t wait for your company to redirect you if your specialty is experiencing a slowdown. Instead, do as the Romans said long ago: Carpe diem.

It’s your career. And you can turn lemons into lemonade every day.

Good luck!


Bruce Stachenfeld is the president of Duval & Stachenfeld LLP, a midtown Manhattan-based firm of approximately 50 attorneys. The firm is known as “The Pure Play in Real Estate Law” because all of its practice areas focus on real estate. With nearly 50 full-time real estate attorneys, the firm is one of the largest real estate law firms in New York. You can contact Bruce by email at bstachenfeld@dsllp.com. Bruce also writes The Real Estate Philosopher™, which contains applications of Bruce’s eclectic, insightful and original thinking to the world of real estate. If you would like to read previous articles or subscribe, please click here.

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