Awhile back, I wrote about what law school is really like. If you can manage to keep your head on straight, deal with the competitiveness, and tune out the insanity, then hopefully you’ll graduate, pass the bar and start doing some real lawyering.
Your experience as a lawyer is largely determined by the path you choose. It’s unlike law school, where people generally have a similar experience — even though you find different internships and take different electives, there’s a basic formula. After that, it’s wide open. I wish more law students would think about this before starting law school, rather than during their last semester. Working as a corporate real estate associate at a big firm is much different than opening your own criminal defense firm.
That said, here are some aspects of being a lawyer that apply to most people I know:
You’ll realize you know nothing
Law school does not prepare you to practice law. Sure, it teaches you how to “think like a lawyer,” but when you get your first job as an attorney, you will find that you’re completely in the dark about a lot of things. Much of it is very specific to your practice area, and a lot of it is boring administrative stuff, like how to bill your hours.
If you don’t get a job at a high level firm, you are really starting at the bottom
Students at highly rated schools like Harvard, Northwestern or Stanford will make $160,000 or more at their first job and will be joining a firm that has a training program with mentoring involved. The rest of us will likely make less than what they paid for a year of school and will get on the fly training and grunt work. My first day at work at a 25 lawyer firm I received an assignment to get lunch for everyone. The day after I was sworn in and officially an attorney, I was in court. Sometimes this is great and I was lucky it worked out. But I have plenty of friends that started at the bottom and became so disillusioned that they just quit.
Your first job is just that
While many attorneys do quit what they are doing, for most if you stick it out you will find your niche at some point and the longer you stick with it, the more money you’ll make. But I would warn any would be lawyer to be really careful that they don’t take a first job that will give them a bad reputation with any possible future employers. My old firm had a policy of not hiring any associates that came from certain scummy firms. It’s really guilt by association. This isn’t easy to figure out, but if your boss gives off bad vibes you should run and it’s probably not a bad idea to discreetly ask around. There are a lot of good small firms, but also plenty that could ruin you.
Forget your passion if you want to make the big bucks
I have yet to meet someone whose childhood dream was to negotiate shopping mall leases or work on mergers and acquisitions. And you’d have to be mentally deranged to get a thrill out of fighting for insurance companies. These are the jobs that pay well and are the most secure. When I started law school, I had a class full of wannabe environmental lawyers. When they realized that they could only get a job that helped big companies pollute the environment, they quickly gave up their passion. Every now and then you’ll meet an attorney that is making a legal career out of something they love, but it’s the exception, not the rule.
If you have your own firm, you better know something about running a business
I have two friends that started their own personal injury law firm in Chicago years ago. They got office space, a secretary and even had some clients the day they hung up their shingle. But they forgot to get workers’ compensation insurance (which is now a felony in Illinois) and their secretary got hurt while working. That caused them to have to pay her tens of thousands out of pocket and almost ended their firm. There are other things you need to know like having a client trust account, registering with the Supreme Court as a business and just general operational stuff. They don’t teach you that in school.
Getting paid is like pulling teeth
A few weeks ago I went to the Bulls game with two very high profile divorce lawyers. These guys have represented many wealthy and famous people. They also represent average Joe’s and both agreed that the number one problem they face is getting clients to pay their bills. It was the same way at my old insurance defense firm as their clients hired consultants whose job was to cut our bills.
Having a law degree is a great way to do something else
Perception vs. reality in many cases, but lots of companies like having a lawyer around and many others will meet a lawyer who is handling their legal work and bring them in at a later time in some other capacity. But if you want to get out of law, do it before it’s too late. The Daley Center is filled with hundreds of grumpy middle aged men who hate what they do, but don’t have the ability to do anything else professionally or can’t risk losing their income. If you are a young lawyer you should have a goal of never becoming one of them.
Your life can become like groundhog day
This is probably the number one reason lawyers quit the law. After a while, even the most exciting situations get mundane because you’ve seen something like it a hundred times already. If you are focused on one area of law, it’s going to eventually be the same thing every day. Family law attorneys deal with custody, child support and divorce. Every day. The names are different, but the legal aspects are the same. You can make the same analogy for almost every area of law.
On a more positive note, being an attorney is way better than being a law student and if you like going to court there are plenty of opportunities. Instead of hypotheticals, you’ll finally be dealing with realities. And you’ll hopefully be getting paid for it. For a lot of people it can be a great career. Just don’t romanticize what it is like or what it will be like for you. Because unless you are really lucky, your experience is going to be just like I described.