Thank you for sharing!

Your article was successfully shared with the contacts you provided.
The National Law Journal asked Charles J. Fanning, a partner in the San Francisco office of Major, Hagen & Africa, a national legal recruiting firm, to discuss the promises and pitfalls that await litigators making career changes. Here are the results of our e-mail exchange. NLJ: What’s the most common misconception that young lawyers just starting out have about litigation careers? Fanning: We call it the Perry Mason syndrome. That is, the belief that by becoming a litigator you are going to spend a significant portion of your time in a courtroom. Chances are young litigators are going to spend less than 1 percent of their time in a courtroom setting. With notable exceptions for lawyers working in the public sector or at certain boutique firms, that percentage will likely never rise above 10 percent. It is a poorly kept secret in some of the most prestigious firms in the country that a fair number of the litigation partners in those firms have never tried a case. The flip side of the misconception about courtroom work is that a high percentage of a junior litigator’s time is spent slogging through some pretty mundane stuff, such as discovery requests. In addition, entry-level litigators often don’t realize that litigation is more like a war than a debate among friends. Typically, there is nothing friendly about litigation; it is extremely adversarial and often not in an antiseptic way; it can get very personal. Some folks feed off of the resulting adrenaline rush. For others, the adversarial nature of litigation exacts a heavy psychological toll. NLJ: What’s the most common career misconception or mistake you have seen among seasoned litigators? Fanning: I get a call a day from a seasoned litigator announcing that he or she is ready to move in-house, preferably as a general counsel. I have personally placed more than 100 lawyers in-house. Less than 10 percent of those placements were of candidates with litigation backgrounds. If you look at the number of litigators who want to move in-house — thousands — and compare it to those who actually are successful in making that transition, there is no escaping the conclusion that the odds are stacked against folks wanting to make this move. It’s certainly not impossible, but it is anything but easy. Most litigators don’t know the odds. In fact, some don’t even believe me when I deliver the bad news. NLJ: Transiting into in-house work is very difficult for litigators, yet some do it. What sets apart the litigators who go in-house? Fanning: To answer this question, I need to differentiate [among] three different types of in-house positions that might be available to litigators: The first subset is what I will call a niche in-house position, such as human resources/employment counsel or someone brought in to handle or manage a specific type of litigation (e.g., products liability). The second subset is characterized by broader responsibilities, but where the focus is still on managing (or preventing) litigation — a position often called chief litigation counsel. The third type is one that may entail some litigation management but that also encompasses broader transactional responsibilities — this category includes the general counsel role. Certainly, if someone wanted to maximize [his or her] chances of eventually moving in-house, [he or she] should pick one of several niches within litigation that is in demand in the corporate setting. But there are important consequences of this decision that must be considered. By choosing to develop a relatively narrow specialty, a lawyer almost certainly forfeits the opportunity to become a general counsel some day. As the title implies, these positions tend to go to lawyers with a breadth of experience. Moreover, if a lawyer chooses a niche that he or she later decides is not the right fit, the lawyer is either stuck in a niche he doesn’t enjoy or is left to try the very difficult “re-tool” option. Finally, the biggest complaint I get from “niche” lawyers is that they get bored. Personal style is important. Generally speaking, the bulldog-litigator style does not work well in-house. I look for litigators who can be diplomatic and listen to the business folks without getting combative, but who can also do the hard-ass litigator thing when it’s warranted. The best in-house jobs for litigators tend to be chief litigation counsel roles. These positions require breadth of background across different types of litigation. The competition for these positions is always intense and client references are a very key component. As to positions encompassing more transactional work, including general counsel roles, there are a small number of very narrow routes open to litigators. Probably the most common route is for a litigator to land a position as the first lawyer at a young company. Another relatively common occurrence is for a company to hire its first lawyer to deal with IP issues, and for that lawyer to then grow into more of a traditional general counsel role. What I look for on the rare occasion I am asked to search for an in-house generalist is a proven track record of “problem solving” for clients. NLJ: What was the most savvy or creative career move you have seen a litigator make? Fanning: I have seen lots of really savvy moves: � Litigators parlaying a successful outcome on a litigation matter with a client into an offer to join the company; � Law firm litigators biting the economic bullet and moving into the public sector — a move that is almost never regretted; � A “burned-out” litigator doing a mid-career clerkship, providing an often critical break from the day-to-day stress of a litigation practice and a clearer head to make long-term career decisions; � The 20 or so colleagues of mine at Major Hagen & Africa who left litigation careers to become legal recruiters. NLJ: Is there a characteristic that bodes well for attorneys who want to transit in and out of public- and private-sector practice? Fanning: I think the two characteristics that best predict likelihood of success in that endeavor are the ability to handle — both physically and psychologically — a tremendous amount of responsibility with virtually no safety net. Go watch a high-profile criminal trial in federal court some day and what you’ll likely see is two often youngish-looking lawyers sitting at the prosecutor’s table and a cadre of private-sector lawyers (several gray-haired) sitting at defense counsel’s table. If picturing that scene creates a pit in your stomach, you’re probably not cut out to be an assistant U.S. attorney. Lawyers coming out of big firms aren’t used to having to make practical decisions about how much time to spend on a particular case. Folks in the district attorney’s office don’t have this luxury.

This content has been archived. It is available through our partners, LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law.

To view this content, please continue to their sites.

Not a Lexis Advance® Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Not a Bloomberg Law Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Why am I seeing this?

LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law are third party online distributors of the broad collection of current and archived versions of ALM's legal news publications. LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law customers are able to access and use ALM's content, including content from the National Law Journal, The American Lawyer, Legaltech News, The New York Law Journal, and Corporate Counsel, as well as other sources of legal information.

For questions call 1-877-256-2472 or contact us at [email protected]


ALM Legal Publication Newsletters

Sign Up Today and Never Miss Another Story.

As part of your digital membership, you can sign up for an unlimited number of a wide range of complimentary newsletters. Visit your My Account page to make your selections. Get the timely legal news and critical analysis you cannot afford to miss. Tailored just for you. In your inbox. Every day.

Copyright © 2021 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All Rights Reserved.