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SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA JOB MARKET : CHALLENGES OF THE WORKING LIFE : COMMITMENT : BREAKING RANKS : Lawyers and Bankers Once Spent Their Entire Careers at One Firm; Now, Switching Jobs Is a Common Practice

September 18, 1988|DOUGLAS FRANTZ | Times Staff Writer

When A. W. Clausen, chairman and chief executive of BankAmerica, stepped onto the stage to address the annual shareholders meeting on May 26, arrayed behind the veteran of four decades at the bank were the company's other three top officers--all alumni of rival Wells Fargo.

It was a sign of the times, both for BankAmerica and the banking industry.

For the proud parent of Bank of America, swapping its old management team for a new one schooled a couple of blocks away in San Francisco's financial district was a conscious if humbling effort to rejuvenate an ailing institution.

For the industry, the team on the dais that day represented a break with tradition that has changed the face of banking and other professions in recent years.

Bankers used to sign on at one institution and remain until they got their gold watch. Executives rarely left before retirement, and jumping ship to go to work for an archrival was unthinkable treason.

It was much the same at another staid profession, the law. Lawyers joined a firm as associates right out of law school, worked for seven years to become partners and spent the remainder of their careers in the same office, unless the firm switched buildings.

Today, lawyers and bankers are quitting to take jobs elsewhere in unprecedented numbers as a result of economics, competition and consolidations. Those same forces are increasingly compelling banks and law firms to lay off professionals who once thought they had lifetime tenure.

Bank of America's private international banking staff in San Diego recently defected to American Express Bank International. When Security Pacific hired a Wells Fargo banker as head of its branch system earlier this year, it was the first time the Los Angeles bank had gone outside its ranks to fill such a high post.

Thirteen lawyers at the prominent Los Angeles firm of Wyman, Bautzer, Christensen, Kuchel, Silbert & Rothman quit to form their own firm last spring. At nearly the same time, 10 of the more than 35 members of another high-powered local firm, Bushkin, Gaims, Gaines & Jonas, did the same--resulting in the dissolution of the partnership.

"There is absolutely an increased willingness to move," said Michael B. Levine, who left a big Los Angeles law office in 1987 to join his wife as owner of a recruiting business in Century City. "It used to be that leaving a firm made you a black sheep. But that's no longer true."

Reasons for leaving are almost as varied as the lawyers themselves.

Levine, for instance, said he went to work as a lawyer to hone his skills before entering the business world. When he left law for the recruitment business, Career Group, one thing he did was create a division to place job-hunting lawyers.

Some lawyers join a big-name firm so they can learn their craft from experts and develop a name for themselves before forming their own practice. Some are motivated by offers of more money. Others get bored looking at the same old faces.

"Money is not so much an issue with the associates who leave," said Levine. "With a couple of exceptions, the better law firms are all paying about the same salary for associates. They don't move for dollars or bonuses. They get tired of the personalities or the environment. Practicing law these days, because of the hours they have to bill, is a real grind for associates."

Law firm partners, who have been there longer and earn considerably more, are more likely to leave for money. Or they may feel unappreciated at their old firm and welcome the opportunity to start fresh in new surroundings.

But starting fresh can be a tough assignment for an established professional.

"People have attachments where they have worked and pride in their accomplishments there," said Leonard H. Rushfield, who left a career of 12 years with Bankers Trust of New York to join a rival bank and then departed again to head American Express Bank International's western regional headquarters in Beverly Hills.

"There are memories of what you have contributed, connections within the organization that you have built over the years. The other side, what's right around the corner, is absolute uncertainty. You cannot know that the next organization is going to be an easy place to be. It is very traumatic and it has all the complications of a divorce, a personal break in one's own life."

Personal relationships are often essential to effective performance and can take years to develop. Professionals who make mid-career moves find rebuilding relationships can be tough, particularly for the new kid on the block.

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