Associates, if your work has dried up in your day job, don’t sit around. 
The post Repurposing Associates During Downturns appeared first on Above the Law.

I keep reading about the concept that law firms should “repurpose” associates during downturns. There are a couple of thoughts there that are worthy of consideration.

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

First — at most law firms, the intellectual fearlessness is trained out of associates early in their careers as they are trained to do what they are trained to do very well and to be fearful of new things not in their skill set. This is terrible, and as a plug for our firm, we try really hard to do the opposite; namely, to train associates to have no fear of things they haven’t done before. But that is not true at most firms.

Second — from the point of view of, well, everyone, the associate’s salary is not commensurate with the skill set needed for the work. This means either the associate’s salary needs to drop or the law firm has to write off a lot of time — or the client is taken advantage of with untrained personnel dumping their learning curve on the client.

Third — the partners don’t want to invest time in associates that are only with them for a short time.

Fourth — the associates have the same mindset.  They are just marking time till they can get back to their real jobs.

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

So here is a totally different way to look at things.  Instead of the law firm repurposing the associate, how about if the associate repurposes themselves!

As a quick backstory, about 30 years ago — yes, that long — I could see the writing 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. None at all!  The writing was on the wall. Who could blame them? I was useless.

So I waited and waited for the axe to fall, right?

Wrong!!!! I decided to make myself into a bankruptcy lawyer. I took out two treatises and read them cover to cover. And spent day and night repurposing myself into a bankruptcy lawyer. It was hard to do as I really knew very little 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 still fired me. But in my next job at Mayer Brown I was surprisingly useful during the real estate downturn as I had another skill set. And I spent several years while real estate was on pause and was at least in part a bankruptcy lawyer.

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

It isn’t easy, I admit, but it isn’t impossible either. And it is quite doable.

Over my 40 years, I have been a litigator, a deal lawyer, a leasing lawyer, a bankruptcy lawyer, a securitization lawyer, a corporate finance lawyer, an entertainment lawyer, and a bunch more I can hardly remember. All along the way, my core specialty has been real estate, of course, but I have repurposed myself a bunch of times, and the degree to which I can be useful as a real estate lawyer has been enhanced by these actions.

So, don’t wait for your firm to repurpose you if your specialty hits a downturn.  Instead, do as the Romans said long ago: Carpe diem.

This is your career. And you can turn lemons into lemonade every day.

Good luck!

Bruce Stachenfeld is the chairman of Duval & Stachenfeld LLP, an approximately 50-lawyer law firm based in midtown Manhattan. The firm is known as “The Pure Play in Real Estate Law” because all of its practice areas are focused around real estate. With almost 50 full-time real estate lawyers, the firm is one of the largest real estate law practices in New York City. You can contact Bruce by email at Bruce also writes The Real Estate Philosopher™, which contains applications of Bruce’s eclectic, insightful, and outside-the-box thinking to the real estate world. If you would like to read previous articles or subscribe, please click here.