Thursday, May 17, 2007

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

After a somewhat convoluted set of circumstances flowing from last year's election loss, I was offered a successful private practice - doing domestic law. The departing attorney pays him/herself a little over 20% more than I make, plus a car, cell phone and insurance. There's also the matter of 8:30 to 3:30 work days, which is an easy 20% less than I work now.

I was very strongly considering leaving (Janet says she could tell I'd been thinking about leaving for almost a year - I still don't [want to] believe her) The reason is that I literally cannot afford to work here. For example, we have $13 to last the rest of the month. (Utilities and rent are paid already, and we raise/grow most of our own food.)

Then, another opportunity presented itself - one of my staff moms heard I was thinking of leaving, and had another attorney reveal a secret to me and to the boss: He/she was leaving in about half a year, and recommend to the boss that I take his/her spot - doing appellate work. He/she makes 75% more than I do, though I didn't expect to make that same salary. I did appellate work before coming here. I am/will be a very good trial attorney, but I'll never be a great one - but on the appellate side, I think I can be. Sounds good - work I love, with people that I love, doing stuff that I've been called to do, and that I'm good at.

I talked to the boss, who had some constructive criticism about my affinity for clutter, and said that I was at the top of the list for the job. Of a list consisting of me. Boss asked me to work up some salary numbers and come back. I did. The results?
1. No raise now.
2. If somebody better comes along, they get the job.
3. Even if you do get the job, maybe you'll get a raise, maybe not, and if you do, don't count on getting anything like you asked for.
All very politely and diplomatically said, but I'm still pissed off.

I'm pissed off for a few reasons - for all of the mid-level trial attorneys in the office and for me.
One of the many good things about the boss and the office is that there is no deadwood. If the attorneys aren't good, they're gone. What's left is a proficient, dedicated cadre of people who believe in indigent defense - they wouldn't stand for the low pay otherwise. Unfortunately, the boss knows this, and once you're in, the pay raises will be few, small and far between. When a more senior attorney leaves, the boss hires an outsider with the same experience as his mid-levels, but pays the person coming in from outside more. The boss has to, in order to get that person to leave the private sector. Welcome to the Roach Motel - once you're in, you're stuck. So what happens is that people's frustration at not being paid commensurate with their ability eventually overpowers their idealism in doing this job that they believe in, and they leave. All of the mid-level attorneys (5-15 years experience) who've been here for a while are in the same bind.
As for me, because I came in with relatively little trial experience, I started at a new attorneys pay, even though I'd been licensed for 8 years. I've shown I can try cases well, and I've kept my hand in the appellate pot, too. Appellate work is more specialized, and there are fewer good appellate attorneys than there are good trial attorneys. It makes sense that the appellate guys get paid more, and in fact they do, getting paid 50% to 75% more than I do. Moreover, to get the chance at the appellate spot, I have to forego the offer of an established practice, in an area of law I need to explore and can easily expand to include criminal, that is closer to home, with more pay and less hours, in a jurisdiction I want to become more familiar with, in order to learn the local ropes and to get more name recognition for my next run at Judge, as well being able to continue to help a broader group of people who otherwise don't have access to Justice.

I think Terri's already convinced me that domestic is not what I want to do, but there are former interns who've been lawyers for 2 years who are making a good bit more than we are - maybe it's time to go. Perhaps the fear of the unknown in hanging out my own shingle is being neutralized by being pissed off about being unappreciated and taken for granted if I stay.




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