I have always wanted to start a book about my first few days of practice as follows: “I should have known I was in trouble. I was surrounded by lawyers.” This seems to go back to the more basic question whether a particular person should choose to become a civil lawyer. It has always struck me how easily people—including me—came to the decision to go to law school and practice law. More thought should go into that lifetime decision than usually does. I, for example, knew only a few lawyers when I made my choice, and I did not know them well. Because of that, I’ve never really been sure I made the right choice to become a lawyer. This post lists some good and bad reasons for choosing the legal profession in hopes of giving more food for thought.
Not a Good Reason: You Have Nothing Better to Do
It’s my impression that a significant number of people go to law school because their college majors did not prepare them for any other job. Law is attractive to these people because it is well-paying and uses skills similar to those they learned as undergraduates. This is a bad mistake.
Before going to law school due diligence is required to see if the career will actually fit your wants and desires. As I have and will make clear in these posts saying “I’ll just be a lawyer” is far too superficial. The profession has demands that go well beyond a normal business job. You have to take the time to learn whether being a lawyer is something you really want to do to yourself.
In addition, people who become lawyers because they perceive themselves as not having anything else to do, do not generally have the professional drive to be lawyers. You have to want to be aggressive and competitive to be a lawyer. If you can’t do that because your not comfortable with the idea, you will fail. Law demands an emotional as well as a professional buy in. The emotional buy in is far beyond what is required for most jobs. You have to be an attorney almost all of your time in order to succeed. If you are not willing to make that commitment you will fail.
Not a Good Reason: You Want to Make a Lot of Money
I suspect that many people believe that lawyers make lots of money. And it is true that many do. It is equally true that in my experience most lawyers make a good upper middle-class income. Those are the lawyers who don’t work at big law firms or highly successful boutique law firms. Lawyers who work for the government are mostly upper middle class. Despite these truths many people decide to pursue a degree in law to make a lot of money. I advise against that approach, especially if you are not admitted into one of the nation’s best law schools. As a general matter only the student graduating high in his or her class (and making a lot of other sacrifices to become a partner) will make the real big money.
As I have already said, law is a demanding profession. If you don’t like it, not all the money in the world is going to make you happy doing things you don’t like. If you really want to get rich, go into the business world with an MBA. You are likely to make more money.
Of course the fact that lawyers make good incomes should be a consideration in deciding whether to go to law school. But that shouldn’t be the only or even the main reasons. Other reasons I discuss in this post are more important and drive the decision to go to law school
Good Reason: You Want to Work Hard and Solve Difficult Problems
Lawyers work hard. To succeed you will need to work much more than 40 hours per week. Weekends are regularly spent working. Why? Lawyers in civil and similar practice regularly face difficult and complex research and other problems. They also tend to take on large caseloads of these problems, which encourages more hours at work. Associates are expected by firms to work hard in exchange for high starting salaries. All this comes down to whether you like and are fascinated by hard questions and are willing to give up a lot of time figuring them out.
A factor that plays a role in whether a lawyer is happy with high hours is competition. Competition inside the firm, and competition outside the firm.
In a large firm, competition among associates for bonuses, raises, and promotions can be quite intense. Competition does not just arise in the litigation department, but across the entire firm. Among partners, competition to originate new clients and matters can also be quite high, especially since compensation is usually partially based on origination. To the extent a person is competitive this all can be quite stimulating and enjoyable. But if you are not motivated to compete, the internal competition at a firm can make life miserable.
The more obvious form of competition is external to the firm, and it usually, but not always, involves litigators. Competition with other lawyers and law firms to win cases is highly stimulating to some people. The world of litigation is, in fact, best served by people who like to be in metaphorical fist fights. But competition does not extend only to litigators. People who like competitive negotiation on particular topics will also find it exciting and rewarding to practice law.
The potential lawyer must ask him or herself whether he or she likes competition, and, if so, what kind of competition. Make sure to pick the right kind.
All of this competition centers around solving hard and contentious problems. The more prestigious the law job, the harder the problems that person must solve. To thrive, a lawyer must want to solve hard problems; indeed, the harder the better. To be happy a lawyer must relish the opportunity to analyze, research, and argue or solve such problems. If that is not your cup of tea, you should stay away from large civil and government practice.
Good Reason: You Like to Help People
At their best, lawyers help and advise people when they are facing difficult times. Lawyers also serve the public in government, NGO, an pro-bono roles. If a big part of your motivation in selecting a career includes public service, then a law degree could be right for you. Just remember that you will have to certain that you can make the commitment to public service in addition to the heavy demands of regular work.
About Foundation In Law
Over a long career as a practicing attorney, Frank Hammond came to realize many prospective legal clients do not know much about lawyering and lawyers – how they work, how fees are set, and how to deal with them. Beginning attorneys also often have little notion of what actual practice involves. This blog is meant to be a guide for both.
Disclaimer: The Foundation in Law blog is not intended to provide legal advice, and no attorney-client relationship will arise as a result of interacting with this blog. You are advised to consult with your own attorney regarding legal questions. The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author alone. The author is licensed only to practice in the State of Oregon.