By Leslie A. Gordon
So many legal careers are "like runaway trains," says Ellen Ostrow, a Silver Spring, MD-based lawyer coach who also has an office in Washington, D.C. Attorneys…who take time off are “wise enough to decide if the train is one they want to be on before too many years [go by.] They are usually smart enough to know they need to take a step back and really regroup and think about the track they want to be on.”
In her experience, Ostrow has never known a lawyer to take time off who was not already financially secure. “It doesn’t mean they’re wealthy,” she explains. "But they know they can go six to 12 months without earning a lot of money."
Often, attorneys who’ve been mulling over a career break decide to actually do it because of some unexpected opportunity, such as the end of huge litigation or a firm folding. “It’s usually not a sudden thing,” Ostrow says. “Every once in a while, something big happens that triggers it such as somebody their age dying and the lawyer being hit with mortality. Either way, the wish is to rest and explore opportunities.”
There are, in fact, distinct risks to leaving a law practice. And the longer you’re out, the harder it is to get back in, if that’s what you decide, career counselor Ostrow cautions.
But, she says, it’s hard to quantify how long is too long. “The amount of time is probably less crucial than what the attorney has been doing.”
In general, Ostrow adds, the longer a lawyer is out, the harder it is to demonstrate up-to-date skills and knowledge of the current market plus a commitment to the profession. “It’s also harder to sustain contacts over a long time unless you continue to actively travel in those cirlces. Sometimes someone who has been out for a long time can go back for formal training like an L.L.M., and this makes returning easier.”
“If you are a lawyer with a well-developed practice and you have a lot of clients, it’s probably difficult” to take time off, Ostrow says. “You can leave your clients for six months if you leave them in good hands and you’re in phone contact. A year is hard. Traditional law practice has its own definition of commitment, and people in the industry are suspicious of people who don’t commit.”
If there’s even a chance you will want to return to a traditional practice, Ostrow advises not burning any bridges and also keeping one toe in the water.
“Unless you’re absolutely certain you never want to practice again, maintain your networks and keep your license current,” she says. “Stay involved in whatever way makes sense to you: Take CLE in a different area of practice or take on a pro bono case. That way, if you do want to return, you can say, ‘I never really left. I just took a step back and now I’m committed.’”