I was talking recently to a surgeon friend of mine who finished his training a few years back when he was in his early 30s. This friend related that depending on the specialty, surgeons might only have a few decades during which they are in their prime and able to do their best work. This is because surgeons generally require a lot of training, and physical limitations might impact surgeons later in their careers. This got me thinking about the fact that some lawyers may also operate in their prime for a set time in their careers. This is highly dependent on the individual lawyer, the practice area, and what the lawyer did previously in their career.
Lawyers rarely enter their prime right out of law school. Like other professionals, lawyers need to gain experience and practice in order to perfect the art of being a lawyer. Also, law school does little to teach people how to be practicing lawyers. Some individuals can go to certain educational programs and expect that they will be trained practitioners upon graduation. However, lawyers usually need to spend months after graduating from law school studying for the bar exam and practice for years before they are seasoned enough to be trusted to work on matters by themselves.
Moreover, lawyers rarely enter their prime after graduating from law school since people might not trust them to handle work, and their contemporaries are not advanced enough in their careers to refer business to them. I once had a partner say to me that he did not mind more gray hair since he could generate more business with his gray hair because people knew that he was older and more experienced with practicing law. Individuals who recently graduated from law school may not inspire the same type of confidence as practitioners who have been in the profession for decades.
Sometime around the middle of the careers of many lawyers, attorneys enter their prime. It is hard to quantify when this occurs, and this likely varies for different lawyers, but this seems to usually be between 10 to 15 years after graduating from law school. At this point, lawyers have enough experience under their belt that they can give prospective clients examples of past situations when they handled matters similar to a client’s and the results they were able to obtain. In addition, lawyers have a broader breadth of experiences a little later in their careers which gives they a solid background to help clients facing a variety of issues.
At some point in the middle of a lawyer’s career, their contemporaries in-house and people they know from all facets of their lives start to progress in their own careers and might be in positions to give the lawyer work. This could be because a friend who works in-house is now senior enough that they might have some say over who gets assigned projects, and this might include a colleague at a similar phase of their career who works at a firm. Moreover, individuals outside of the law might have businesses that developed to a point that they need legal counsel, or they are promoted within a business to a position that has some say over who to assign legal work.
There is also a point later in the careers of many lawyers when they are outside of their prime. Let me first say that I adore and have much respect for senior lawyers. Lawyers who have been practicing for decades are often extremely generous with their time and are usually more willing to explain things to attorneys who are just beginning in the profession than others. Moreover, senior lawyers often have a wealth of experiences that can enrich their own practice and the practices of those with whom these attorneys interact. As explained in a prior article, lawyers who have been practicing for decades are often bolder with how they approach legal matters, which is usually a delight to see in practice.
However, as attorneys progress in their careers, their in-house contemporaries might retire, and the people who replace these individuals may want to work with people with whom they have experience. Moreover, the contacts of senior lawyers who are not lawyers may also retire and these referral sources may disappear. Many firms also have succession policies that explicitly off-track partners after they reach a certain age to make room for the next generation of lawyers. A partner I worked with had perhaps one-fifth the book of business he had at 70 than he did at 58 likely because of this phenomenon. Of course, I also know lawyers that have amazing books of business in their 70s, so this is by no means a hard and fast rule, but lawyers can be out of their prime as they advance later in their careers.
In sum, there is assuredly a period in each lawyer’s career when they are in their prime and reach their best practice and earning potential. Lawyers should recognize that this might be a limited time so that they make the best of the years they have in their prime.
Jordan Rothman is a partner of The Rothman Law Firm, a full-service New York and New Jersey law firm. He is also the founder of Student Debt Diaries, a website discussing how he paid off his student loans. You can reach Jordan through email at firstname.lastname@example.org.