Change of direction: Attorney keeping positive outlook on next phase of career

By Jo Mathis

Legal News

If Brian Figot were asked to give advice to law students today, he would suggest that they learn the necessary business skills of practicing law, and how to swiftly move to Plan B.

"It is an intellectual pursuit, particularly when one focuses upon research and writing, but you cannot rely upon the caseloads of strangers, to paraphrase Blanch DuBois," says Figot, 57, of Huntington Woods. "If you don't market yourself and develop a portable book of business, your career is in jeopardy."

The Class of 2010 law school graduates face the worst job market since the mid-1990s, the National Association for Law Placement found last month.

"The tail of the 'Great Recession' is long and there are few bright spots in the employment profile for the Class of 2010," NALP Executive Director James Leipold noted in a statement earlier last month. "There is likely more bad news to come ... We can expect that the overall employment rate for new law school graduates will continue to be stagnant or decline further for the Class of 2011, with the curve probably not trending upward before the employment statistics become available for the Class of 2012."

Figot, the executive director of the Federal Bar Association, Eastern District of Michigan, has learned that things don't always turn out as planned. He loves his part-time job with the bar, but is eager to find work to fill the rest of his hours. And job-hunting, he has found, is one tough job itself.

"I'm trying my best to focus on the positive, which is the way to navigate through the rough times in a career," he says. "The practice today is not the same as it was 30 years ago or 20 years ago when you started out in a firm and stayed there the rest of your career, and had a good retirement. There's a lot more uncertainty, and that's particularly true in solo and small practice."

Figot (rhymes with dig-it) grew up in northwest Detroit, and graduated first from Oak Park High School, and then Oakland University while he worked fulltime as administrative assistant to the president of a cutting tool manufacturer distributor. When he got the smallest of raises after he earned his degree, he figured that maybe law school was the way to go.

So he enrolled in Wayne State Law School, where he was editor in chief of the Wayne Law Review. Always more fond of the written word than the spoken, he recalls winning more points in debate class with his expertly written note cards than his oratorical skills.

"I prefer writing to speaking because it has a backspace key," he says. "And in all the words I've written, I've never written the word 'um.'"

He says the worst career move he made was to turn down a job as assistant U.S. attorney in the early 90s. He'd just taken a position at a law firm and felt he owed them some loyalty. Three years later, the firm failed to show him that same loyalty when he needed to reduce his hours to care for aging parents.

"Too soon old; too late smart," he says.

One thing he doesn't regret is choosing to keep flexible hours so he could be a hands-on-dad to his only child, Justin, 23. Justin has no interest in law.

"I would tell him what my parents always told me: Do what makes you happy,'" says Figot, who has been married to attorney Annette Aisner for 28 years.

For the last 10 years, Figot worked as the right hand of a solo practitioner who announced -- in December -- his decision to close Figot's side of the practice at the end of the year.

With very little time to get FBA and personal practice transferred to the house, Figot didn't have the head start many are able to use to their advantage.

Since February, he's been looking for a position doing legal research and writing for a firm or other employer -- or contract work as a legal writer, researcher, etc -- while maintaining his position with the FBA. "My dance card," he says, "still has more blank slots than I'd like."

He's loved working for the bar because of the people.

"The people in the federal bar, the people who practice mostly in the federal courts, and the judges who are in the federal courts are a special kind of lawyer.

"These are people who look upon law as more than just a career or vocation. They're willing to make personal and professional sacrifices to do the right thing."

If he had to do it all over again, he would still get that law degree.

"I think a legal education is one of the finest things you can do for your mind," he said. "If you don't think you are absolutely sure you want to spend your career in law, that's probably the best attitude you can come out of law school with right now. Look at it as good training for your mind, and a good start for nearly anything you'd want to do in life."

He realizes that his name and reputation are fairly well known, and ultimately will start to build up a practice as he continues to develop his own links to the legal services community instead of relying on "rainmakers" and employers.

"I waited too long to get that process started, but still have many years of productive practice in front of me," says Figot.

The third generation Detroiter, who enjoys collecting old Detroit postcards and other Motor City memorabilia, wouldn't dream of moving.

"I don't want to start over in another city," he says. "All the people I love are right here.

"Life never quite takes you where you're expecting. Which is half the fun. And almost all the misery."

Published: Tue, Sep 6, 2011