How to Feed a Lawyer (and Other Irreverent Observations from the Legal Underground)

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Charlsie: You're right that I'm "happy in my career choices," but it didn't necessarily start that way. Like you, I also went to law school thinking that I could always use my degree to do something else other than practice law. But then I got a job at a defense firm that paid a lot of money, and I took it without even thinking. I really didn't know much about what real lawyers did from day to day until I started that job.

The happiness with my career choices didn't happen for a long time after that. As for your specific question--how to spend your summer--it probably makes sense to work in a law firm so you can learn more about what the practice of law actually entails. But in a more general sense, here are some tips (not guaranteed to work for everyone) that might help you to eventually be happy in your career choices--

Talk to real lawyers. There are lots of ways to use a law degree, and by talking to real lawyers about what they do (and how the business of practicing law really works), you'll come to realize that you had more options that you thought. In addition to talking to lawyers, you should read about them too--in magazines, newspapers, books, etc. You'll find plenty of profiles about both lawyers and law firms that might be of interest.

Understand that you'll need to be trained. Law schools don't do a good job of training law students to work as real lawyers, which I once wrote about here. After you graduate from law school, plan to spend a few years working with someone who will train you. Large defense firms are great for this. There are also lawyers in smaller firms that might agree to take you on.

Learn the business of law. I think people are happier when they are in control of their own destiny, rather than working as pawns for other people. Always pay attention to the way that real lawyers make their money. Learn about finance, accounting, and management, and apply what you learn to figuring out how different kinds of law firms actually operate. At the same time, negotiate good deals for yourself. Don't focus entirely on salary. Find out how you'll be compensated if you generate business yourself, for example, then start generating your own business.

Stay in a position in which it will be possible for you to assume risk. If you're going to be in charge of your own destiny, you'll have to strike out on your own in one form or another along the way. If you become too dependent on the salary that's being paid to you (i.e., the "golden handcuffs" you read about), you'll always be beholden to someone else. You want to be in a "free agent" position in which you can walk away from your current job--first, this will give you a better negotiating position when you're trying to improve your deal; second, it will allow you to do something different if and when you want to.

Form alliances with others. When I left the defense firm where I worked for six years, I joined some others who had already left, which is an "alliance" which continues in a slightly different form to this day. Every individual lawyer has different strengths and weaknesses, and it pays to know your own. Then join with others whose strengths and weaknesses compliment your own. In addition, always be careful about who you trust.

Don't allow yourself to be pigeonholed or typecast by other people, especially those in the media. If I paid too much attention to what was written about plaintiffs' lawyer, I'd be too embarrassed to make a living that way. You have got to have thick skin to be any type of lawyer. Be aware of the big-issue debate about law and lawyers, but don't close yourself off to certain career choices just because of what you've read in a newspaper or magazine (or because of what others, including your law professors, have said).

For more advice about career choices for lawyers, see my earlier post titled Career Opportunities. Finally, I should note that becoming happy as a lawyer is easier for some than for others. For much of my career as a lawyer, I was looking for ways to escape the practice of law. But then I sort of grew into it. I always worked very hard and I always tried to remain open to new opportunities. And I always hoped for some luck. At one point in my career, all of these things came together, and I suddenly found myself in an economic position in which I could retire from being a lawyer and do something else. And you know what? My "retirement" only lasted a few weeks. I returned to the law business right after I'd left it (by forming a partnership with my wife, who already had a firm), and here I am. For better or worse, I realize now that I'm going to be one of those guys that's practicing law in one form or another until I die. Not very dramatic, I suppose, but there you go . . .

Federalist No. 84

I am just a lot more genuinely interested in people than they are.

Charlsie: Take a moment to ask yourself, "What really pisses me off?" Is there a case you read about in law school that you made your blood boil? Are you tired of guilty defendants getting off on technicalities? Are you disgusted with prosecutors, who ruin the lives of innocent people each day? Do you want to sue evil insurance companies, or are you annoyed with greedy plaintiffs and trial lawyers who are ruining our economy?

Find out what pisses you off, and then find an area of law that allows you to address that issue. There is no right answer.

If, on the other hand, you've never read a case that turned you on, then you should not practice law. If you are not emotionally involved with your cases, you will probably live a miserable life. FWIW, the only happy lawyers I know do criminal law (prosecutors and defense), personal injury law for the plaintiff, and civil rights law (adverse against the government). There are other happy lawyers, but as a group, these guys and gals seem to really be passionate about their work.

So take some time to find out what moves you, because without emotion, the brain does not move. Cf. 'Practical Tortoise Raising' http://www.unc.edu/~sblackbu/ACHILLES.html

Butte Fore

Charlie: The legal profession is a criminal cult enterprise. I am an older physician, and an 1L. There will be an explosion of increased lawyer accountability, as their criminally self-dealt immunities are pierced legally or through self-help. Physicians will make lawyers pay to the last button on the last shirt. It will be as unbearable to be a lawyer as these land pirates make it to be anything productive in our besieged Nation. The rage I have seen expressed by the public at the lawyer during jury selection is a preview of the massive accountability for the crimes of the profession headed your way. Run.


Butte Fore: Huh? What? I don't ... confused ... head hurts.


Great question and responses. As a 2L who has never worked in a firm and has no plans to, I just wanted to say that I don't think you have to work in a firm to learn "what the practice of law actually entails." Try a public defender's office -- I guarantee you'll learn volumes about the actual practice of law that way. Also, to add to what Federalist said, one more group of lawyers I've met who really love what they do are worker/union-side labor lawyers. As Federalst suggests, if you use your J.D. to work on something you real care about, you might find a lot to love about the practice of law. If you're just getting a J.D. b/c you'd like to make some money and don't know what else to do w/your life.... why?


ambimb is right, although I found that working for a DA brought better structure and training than the local PD program. The practical courtroom experience on either side is fantastic.

Whatever you do, find someplace with the kind of resources (maybe money, but also staffing and experience) to train you. If you get good/experienced at something, you are more marketable, and you can use that to lever yourself into a different field if you choose. That's why I would recommend a "real" hands-on job in anything -- law or otherwise -- over another summer of fun. You will have a rough time finding any job after graduation if you have no work experience at all.

As far as being interested in people, I've been at my firm for about a month, and have found that working there is *entirely* about people. The law is really pretty secondary to relationships and understanding the business.


Evan - thanks for the input, I appreciate it. I also appreciate everyone elses comments, they really help. Blogs are such a great way for getting a glimpse into the life of those in the legal field. I agree that it is probably a good idea to go ahead and learn the trade that I am studying before I decide that I don't want to practice.
My dad is an attorney in private practice - and he is always trying to teach me about practicing law and how important it is to be in control of your career - even if it can be riskier and harder sometimes it is worth.
I also think that I am being overly analytical about my future right now and that I need to concentrate on the task at hand, law school. I came to law school because I didn't feel like I was finished learning, and I hope whatever I end up doing always entails learning.
I like to believe as long as I am searching for my passion, I will find it eventually. I'll keep you posted, again, thanks for the thoughts.

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