DTCI: Clash or Talking Heads — The hard question of stay or go

“Should I stay or should I go?” sang Mick Jones of The Clash in 1982. (The Clash, “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” “Combat Rock” (Epic Records 1982)). It may not be reading too much into the song to assume Jones was contemplating the larger concept of change. Years and bands later, Jones sang of having no regrets: “If I had my time again / I would do it all the same.” (Big Audio Dynamite II, “Rush,” “The Globe” (Columbia Records 1991)). Regardless, the song highlights something familiar to lawyers: making decisions.

Every lawyer must answer Jones’ question many times, in one context or another. Should I clean up the testimony with one more question? Should I drop a weak argument to save credibility? Should I recommend that my client settle this case? Should I take this case or client to begin with?

Making decisions is a way of life for a lawyer, but decisions about a career change, though less frequent, are among the most difficult to answer. Should I refocus my practice on a trending area of law? Should I look for a new employer? Should I retire? These questions involve real, often very personal, change. At some point you will have to answer this question in some form: should you stay, or should you go?

Change is the only constant, so they say. After doing some digging and remembering those philosophy classes I took in college, I can report that this adage is, if not true, at least very old. Greek philosopher Heraclitus championed the concept of universal flux about 2,500 years ago. (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Heraclitus” (Feb. 8, 2007; rev. June 23, 2015), available at https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/heraclitus/#Flu). Modern truth-seekers support this proposition: Bob Dylan sang 55 years ago that “the times they are a-changin’.” (Bob Dylan, “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” “The Times They Are a-Changin’” (Columbia Records 1964). See also, David Bowie, “Changes,” “Hunky Dory” (RCA Records 1971). But see Pavement, “Flux=Rad,” Wowee Zowee (Matador Records 1995) (“Styles, they come and go / but I don’t wanna let you go”)). So, faced with your decision, you should go?

Many lawyers seem to be making this decision, at least in the context of private practice. There are reports that law firms’ lateral hiring of lawyers has been on the rise for years. (Victor Li, “Law firms use data to judge lateral hires’ potential success,” ABA Journal (April 1, 2017), available at http://www.abajournal.com/magazine/article/law_firm_partner_lateral_hiring_data). Anecdotally, you may have seen this yourself.

Then again, there is this counter-maxim: the more things change, the more they stay the same. (Alphonse Karr, “A Tour Round My Garden,” revised and edited by The Rev. J.G. Wood, at p. 313 (George Routledge & Co. 1855) (“The more frequently things change, the more they continue to be the same things.”)). More recently, in 1980, David Byrne of the band Talking Heads sang about life being the “same as it ever was.” (Talking Heads, “Once in a Lifetime,” “Remain in Light” (Sire Records 1980). See also Spoon, “Stay Don’t Go,” “Kill the Moonlight” (Merge Records 2002). But see Grimes featuring Blood Diamonds, “Go,” “Orphan Black: The DNA Sampler (Music From The Television Series)” (Varese Sarabande Records 2017); M83 (featuring Mai Lan), “Go!”, “Junk” (Mute Records 2016)). The law embraces this concept, too. It’s called stare decisis. So, then: you should stay?

Many in the legal profession seem to be making this decision, too. By one metric, those in the legal profession are changing jobs less often now than 35 years ago. According to U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics reports, the median tenure for those employed in legal occupations rose from 3.2 years in 1983 to 5.1 years in 2018, down from a peak of 5.5 years in 2016. (U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Employee Tenure in 1998,” publication 606-5902, at Table 6 (Sept. 23, 1998), available at https://www.bls.gov/news.release/history/tenure_092498.txt; U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Employee Tenure in 2018,” publication USDL-18-1500, at Table 6 (Sept. 20, 2018), available at https://www.bls.gov/news.release/tenure.htm). Workers in legal occupations trailed only those in management and architecture/engineering occupations in this length of tenure study. (U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Employee Tenure” in 2018, USDL-18-1500, at *1). This suggests that more and more lawyers are staying rather than going, and perhaps staying longer than in other professions.

So where does this leave us? I have no sage advice for those facing this decision — or for those simply wondering if Jones stayed or if he went. The question will one day be very real for all lawyers. The answer is surely, like many in the law, “It depends.”•


• Matthew King is general counsel at IMMI in Westfield and serves on the DTCI board of directors. Opinions expressed are those of the author.

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