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Career Advice for Young Energy Lawyers [Gaille Energy Blog Issue 73]

Lawyers in the energy industry bear a particularly steep learning curve. It is not enough to just be an expert in legal disciplines such as transactions or litigation. Industry expertise is required, as well. Energy law is a many-layered cake of politics, regulations, joint ventures, and industry practice—iced and sprinkled with technical complexity. Practitioners must also understand energy economics, engineering, and geoscience, among other disciplines.  Energy Law Journal.

The first five years after law school is a critical period.  That’s when energy lawyers must master a whole industry and its many specialized contracts.  It’s also when career trajectories are established—good or bad.  As both a practitioner and an academic, I’ve watched hundreds of my former students navigate their early careers.  It’s more challenging now that it was in the early 1990s, but many of the same rules still apply:

  1. Mentorship Is Essential.  Mastering the maze of energy law requires a guide.  At Vinson & Elkins, senior partner Bert Tabor was my first mentor.  I spent many hours in his office as he patiently taught me what I needed to know.  When I moved to Oxy, the General Counsel there, Antonio D’Amico, brought me up the learning curve of international contracts.  The most important question for a young energy lawyer is:  “Who will my mentor be?”
  2. Build a Book of Business.  Large law firms are like giant revolving doors, into which many enter—but only a few will be asked to stay.  The vast majority of associates will leave after a few years.  What distinguishes associates who become partner from those who don’t?  Some become partner by inheriting a retiring mentor’s clients; others by being in the right place at the right time—the firm is growing its energy practice and needs another partner.  But if associates want to control their own destiny, they need to develop their own book of business.
  3. When Should an Associate Switch Firms?   Associates should leave their law firm only when they have no mentor, are unable to develop (or inherit) a book of business, or otherwise have political/personal conflicts with the firm’s culture.  In these cases,  their days are numbered.  They are merely doing someone else’s business until they eventually get replaced with a new crop of first-year associates.
  4. Switch Jobs Only When Offered Materially Better Compensation and/or More Responsibility.  Too many young energy lawyers hop between law firms, seeking the greener pasture of a small pay raise.  The risks are usually not worth it.  These associates have to start over, developing new relationships and proving themselves all over again.  They may not find mentors.  They may not get along with their new partners.  Lateral moves also are harder to explain (than clear promotions).
  5. In-House Opportunities for Young Energy Lawyers.  You can’t have your cake and eat it too.  Less time typically equates to less pay and responsibility, and the best in-house positions require just as many hours as law firms.  At large companies, the best in-house positions for young energy lawyers are in business development or international units.  Younger energy lawyers also may get offers to become the General Counsel for a private equity-backed or small public company.  The equity compensation from such growth-oriented companies can easily surpass average partner profits at law firms.  Don’t jump too early.  Wait for the right opportunity.
  6. Law Firm and Corporate Politics Is Chain-Driven. Each person has a team of people under them. If the person at the top rises, so does the team.  Hitch yourself to success, and you will be pulled along.  If the person you are hitched to is in trouble, your days also are numbered.
  7. Experience Equals Fulfillment.  Many things in life are hard to enjoy if you’re not good at them.  Starting the practice of energy law is like the first time you picked up a golf club or tennis racket.  The early years can be overwhelming, confusing, and stressful.  Don’t be discouraged.  A career in energy law is a marathon.  The more you learn, the more you’ll enjoy it.  Whether you are a college professor or a big law partner, happiness correlates with realizing your potential.  If you could have done more, you’ll know it—and it will erode your happiness. As you become a better lawyer, the happier you’ll be.
  8. Don’t Compare Yourself to Others. My first year out of law school, I clerked for Judge Wilkinson on the U.S. Court of Appeals.  I had two co-clerks, Liz and Sri.  Liz is now the Dean of Stanford Law School, and Sri is a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.  One of my friends from Law School became the first General Counsel for a small technology start-up—called Facebook.  The world is a big place, and there’s plenty of room for everyone to be happy.  Comparison is a recipe for unhappiness.  As Voltaire wisely advised in the concluding words of Candide, “we must cultivate our garden.”

Over the last three years, I’ve been building my own energy law firm, GAILLE PLLC.  Our business model is founded on the type of mentorship I received from Bert Tabor and Antonio D’Amico, and the year I spent clerking for Judge Wilkinson.  I have a system for teaching my associates the major contracts used in the energy industry.  My goal is to bring them up the learning curve more quickly than big law can, so that my associates are better energy lawyers than their equivalents elsewhere.  Teaching also is its own reward.  As Winston Churchill once said:

“We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give.”

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About the Gaille Energy Blog.  The Gaille Energy Blog (view counter = 76,491) discusses issues in the field of energy law, with periodic posts at www.gaillelaw.com. Scott Gaille is a Lecturer in Law at the University of Chicago Law School, an Adjunct Professor in Management at Rice University’s Graduate School of Business, and the author of three books on energy law (Construction Energy Development, Shale Energy Development,and International Energy Development).

Images available on the Internet and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.

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