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

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The answer is probably not, that is just how these firms are. However, from what I hear, that is not true across the board. You have put your year in, now find a good midsize or small firm that does things you like and move on. Life is way too short for that sort of an existence.

Eh Nonymous


You are not a bad person (as far as I can tell). You are not (intrinsically) unfit for the practice of law. You are female, I gather, from the name and from Evan's comments. You are a first year associate... like me.

But unlike me, you are at a Bad Place. You aren't getting enough sleep. You aren't gaining enough confidence. You are at, in a phrase, a Large Law Firm. This is the sort of place which will take you, a recent grad, and pay you more than you are worth to work far harder than the money entitles them to, in an effort to train you enough so that you can be worth what they pay you. In the process, they are burning you to a cinder.

Query whether the Firm loves you. Don't wait for an answer.

Have you gotten calls from headhunters? If not, is it because the firm does not publish your email address, areas of specialization, or which department you work in on a website? If you have, have you considered what they are offering?

I'm not saying go with them. After all, headhunters are paid recruiters for... other big law firms, the kind that can afford to pay people who bring them top-notch prospects who will... work their tails off.

First year associates are not as marketable, They will say. Quality of life is not a consideration for any lawyer, let alone first year associates, They will say. Here is what you do with Them: stop listening to them. They will kill you and eat your bones, and it's not necessary.

Get out. Get out soon. You might be happy as a fourth year associate in your current firm. But why stick around to find out? Leave. Leave as soon as you can.

Total up your debt. Estimate your lifestyle needs. Figure out what it is about law that you love, that will let you sleep at night and make you glad to wake up in the morning. Find a position somewhere that will meet all your needs. Say goodbye, graciously, and don't look back.

You will want to leave in a way that leaves open the possibility of cordial future relations, if not an actual return to work. Don't burn bridges. But please, cross them. For your own good, and for the good of the profession. We don't need more burnouts, more good people lost because of the way Big Firm, Inc. works.

We need more lawyers with a conscience, with brains, and with balance in their lives.

I hope this helps. Yeoman and all the other hard-livin' hard-workin' lawyers are free to disagree. But I like my job, I like my (small) firm, and I like my life. I get enough sleep. I worry about the details, and then I go home at the end of the day. I know what I'm up against, and my colleagues (not enemies, not slave-drivers) are on my side. I'm not concerned about making partner. I'm in this for myself, and for my clients, and even (don't gag, you older lawyers) for the Law, for Justice, etc. etc. I haven't lost my naivety. So don't lose your mind, perlelune. Just lose that job.

Crying from the pressure, once, is not a sign that you're in the wrong place. Crying regularly, because you have no outlet and you're in an emotionally untenable position, says that something is wrong with _them_, not you.

In conclusion: it'll get better, if you make it better. Change tracks, change areas, change firms, but don't just wait and hope. Nothing will come from waiting. Make it happen.


You are a good man, Evan.

I saw her comment also. I hesitated, and still do, to comment. Nearly anyone whose has read my entries on these blawgs, or has read my own, knows that I really dislike being a lawyer. Eh Nonymous even notes that in his comment above.

Nobody can really tell you what to do. None of us know why you wanted to be a lawyer, if you did. You are obviously massively unhappy, and we can suspect why, but none of us can know for sure.

About the best advice that can be given, has been given, by Evan. He stated that it will probably get better, but if it doesn't, get a new job quick. I fully agree with him. If it is your job that is making you miserable, as you feel, after you give it a reasonable test, you probably ought to move on.

I should leave it at that, but I'll throw in a couple of comments.

One is this. Some big law firms make life agony for new associates. The theory is something like that of Marine Corps basic training. By putting you through it, I guess, they think you'll emerge tougher on the other side. Or maybe their are just sadistic and that has become part of their firm culture.

A thing to be aware of is that, for some of those firms, passing through this phase and into partnership puts you into a new type of agony. The life of partners in those types of firms is not necessarily one of collegial well being, but can be pretty rough. But in others, it is not. I'm not in a big firm myself, but just observations over the years leads me to believe that many firms are not pleasant to be in for the partners. Others are. You may wish to assess that, if you can. Keep in mind that right now you are so upset, that you may not be the best judge of things.

Another thing to keep in mind is that you will rapidly be entering the phase of your life where time speeds up so much it isn't funny. I recall people telling me that when I was young and dismissing it. But now the years fly by like months did when I was younger. When I was first practicing I did not like it, although I was never as upset as you are now. I wanted out, and thought I would get out. But I marked time, figuring there was always more.

Now, I'm so far in, that unless I want to throw my family in a financial crisis, destroy my own kids ability to go to college, etc. I have no ability to switch careers. It is impossible. If you are going to get out of law entirely, it is better that you figure it out within the next year or two. So you are better off figuring out what you want to do now, before it gets tougher as you get older. And it does get tougher as you get older.

Finally, I'd note that as a long practicing lawyer, and as a skeptical farmer, I generally think most counselors are loonies. But I think you may need an outsider objective person to give you a hand. Maybe a clergyman, or a counselor of some sort, who does not have a vested interest in what you do. Not somebody who is proud that you are a lawyer, or who helped pay for your college, or anything of the like. There may be a specific aspect of your career that you hate, and addressing that will solve your problem. Or maybe not. But you might need a hand.

I feel for you, and wish you the best of luck.

The Sardonic Lawyer

Sorry that this is a bit tardy. I went to the comment list where you (Perlelune) posted your comment/cry in the wilderness to read what you had written, but then mistakenly posted my input there instead of tracking back to this this comment list.

I'm afraid it's unlikely to get better anytime soon. While there are certainly exceptions, the life of a newly-minted associate at BigFirm Sweatshop, LLP is unlikely to improve during the first few years of practice. The problem is simple from an economic perspective:

(1) BigFirm Sweatshop has lots of overhead, including nice office space, plump salaries and benefits for associates, lots of support staff, etc.;

(2) BigFirm Sweatshop equity partners want to receive a nice distribution from firm profits (after all, that's why they put up with the excruciating hours and sacrificed their idealism and first marriages);

(3) Ultimately, there are far too many associates working for BigFirm Sweatshop for more than a third of them to ever have even a slim chance of making partner. Most associates will ultimately choose or be forced to leave in a few years, so Bigfirm Sweatshop wants to squeeze as much work out of them as it can before they depart. It's nothing personal, just a business decision;

(4) You are easily replaceable. There are hundreds of lawyers who would post nude pictures of their mothers on the internet to have a shot at your job (there are hundreds of lawyers who would post nude pictures of their mothers on the internet for much less, but that's beside the point).

Don't think I'm unsympathetic to your plight. The generous compensation you receive for your work does not begin to make up for being treated inhumanely, which is part of the reason I consider big firms an embarassment to the profession. Also, from your self-description it sounds as though law school and starting to practice has yet to beat all positive qualities out of you, and I recognize a certain kindredness of spirit in anyone who really just wants to "think and analyze and reason and debate and stuff like that." Enjoyment of those same activities is why the Sardonic Lawyer chose to go to law school as well, and the disappointing lack of esteem afforded those activities by the profession as a whole goes a long way toward explaining how this lawyer became sardonic in the first place.

In all seriousness, if this job is truly making you miserable and your post isn't just the product of a transient period of sleep deprivation, then my advice to you is GET OUT NOW. There are other firms, smaller firms, that actually treat associates like human beings, and though they may be few and far between, given the credentials you must have to have been hired by a big firm you should have a relatively easy time of seeking out a decent position with another firm that let's you maintain your sanity, if not actually enjoy practicing law.



When I read your comment, my first reaction was "this is what's wrong with the legal profession." Not you -- the position the firm is putting you in. God, I recognize the overtired, panicked state you describe. And it is so totally unnecessary. It sounds to me alot like you firm threw you straight in to the water and told you to swim without giving you enough real support. Not that I doubt your ability to swim, but it's a big pool with lots of waves and currents and such, and it sure would be nice if you had a life boat or at least someone there reassuring you that you're doing fine and that it's okay if you don't know everything there is to know about the practice of law your first year out of law school. In short, you need a mentor.

Your firm may or may not "assign" a mentor. Even if you have an assigned mentor, though, you may have to search out a different one on your own. Even in evil BigLaw firms there are a handful of genuine human beings and those with souls are often more than happy to help you out with a little guidance and support because they remember how it was when they started. Seek these people out.

In the meantime, some observations i've made over the years that might help put you at ease. Inevitably, a judge will disagree with your position. That just as likely means the judge is stupid or lazy as that you are. Probably more likely. Don't worry too much about the partners thinking you're stupid. The longer you spend in the profession, the more you'll realize that the bar is not insurmountably high. Not everyone in the profession is a genius and there are plenty out there who seemingly haven't read a case in a decade. If you put in an honest day's work -- research the law, think it through, apply it thoughtfully-- you'll shine.

And I know that sounds hard on 4 hour's sleep. But that just means you need more sleep, which means saying no to the partners a little more. It's hard for all of us. But it honestly does not hurt your standing in their eyes. In fact, it can even help. Think about it, when you tell a partner you don't have time for his/herproject, you are implicitly saying "Hey, my talents are so in demand here that I can't possibly fit your project in." And when you get a few more hours of sleep at night, you will be able to think more clearly, shine more, and not burst into tears as often. Don't underestimate the effect of sleep deprivation on your emotional and cognitive state.

You can burn yourself out quickly if you're not careful Which either leads to dropping out of the profession entirely to find your bliss (which can be a good option if need be!) or becoming a billable hours drone, an empty, lifeless shell mindlessly cranking out documents for filing. Take time to take care of you, and I promise it will get better



I have no advice but to say you are not alone. I am a summer associate working at a big law firm and I cry a lot too. Do what you can to find other things to make yourself happy. I hope I can get it together to find another way to practice law. I LOVE law school and am dreading my graduation in nine months.


Perlelune -

I don't want to add to your problems, but I'd suggest getting out as quickly as possible. I've been an attorney for several years, and I keep looking for an escape hatch.

I haven't worked at any big firms, but smaller firms, and I've generally been treated with respect, like a human being, a few temporary lapses aside. But honestly, the only lawyers I've met who are truly happy are the ones who've left private practice.

My problem is that I've found the most intellectually stimulating work -- the stuff that really gets my juices flowing -- doesn't pay very well. And the most personally satisfying work -- helping someone in need -- doesn't pay at all and, with me at least, becomes too personal and consumes too many of my off-work thoughts.

So I find myself in a smaller firm doing pretty much the same thing day after day, drawing a decent, though not huge, paycheck. Bored to tears. But I have a family to support, so I can't just drop out and, say, go manage a Barnes & Noble or something.

I have trouble getting another job because, even though I'm AV-Rated and have really great experience encompassing a wide range of litigation subjects, everything I've done has come under the umbrella of practice areas that are fairly specialized. People apparently think they're going to have to train me, when in truth I have some litigation experience some people would die for. And I'm getting to the point where people think I'm too old and expensive and specialized, when that's really not the case at all. So I'm stuck, and desperate to get out.

You might do as others have suggested and try a smaller firm. And I don't mean downsizing from 200 lawyers to 100. Ten or less. But only if they do work you're interested in.

Plan ahead better than I did. If the small-firm thing doesn't work out, have an escape plan for a lower-paying, but potentially more satisfying career.

Another tip: I considered jumping out of law altogether early in my career, and probably should have. But I could hear my parents in my head saying, "Why did you go to law school only to do THIS? You're capable of doing so much more than this." Don't be concerned with the flak you might catch.


Solkar. I share your pain.


I can't believe that noone has recommended that she become a plaintiff's attorney. You're working for people, not businesses. You help people. You're on the side of the little guy, fighting to get them an even shake. It's very rewarding emotionally.

I started my own practice straight out of law school and had no idea how poorly most associates are treated and how unhappy most lawyers are until I started reading legal blogs.

There's no reason to strap yourself to a desk, or do something you really don't like. Life is too short. Follow your heart. Right now, your heart is telling you that you really don't want to be there. So don't. Find something you love.

There are lots of great areas of the law, other than being a plaintiff's attorney, but what's better than taking on the establishment on behalf of the little guy and winning?


Indeed, she may like being a Plaintiff's attorney.

But, a person should keep in mind that switching to the other side may not be a cure for all her ills. It may be, but it might not be.

In part it is likely because I am in a region where there are not too many big firms, but here there's a lot of defense lawyers, in civil cases, that are still in medium to small firms.

And being a Plaintiff's lawyers has its own drawbacks. Plaintiffs' lawyers like to claim they work for people, but frankly we defense lawyers do too. It is just that we are more likely to get paid. And, if things go badly, at least normally the person we represented doesn't have their hopes and dreams crushed, although you'd be surprised how many defendants, even where they have the protection of insurance, identify with their cases and want to win. We want to win too, but we do know that our clients hopes aren't all riding on a victory.

Often a Plaintiff's hopes do ride on the shoulders of his lawyer. The few times I've done Plaintiffs' cases I found that nearly crushing, as I was aware how much the Plaintiff was counting on the victory.

So, perhaps switching to Plaintiffs' work is the answer. Perhaps not. It depends upon what is making her unhappy. If firm atmosphere alone is doing it, I don't know that this alone will be the fix, but it might be. It depends on her.

And on where you are, I suspect.

I've sometimes wished that I hadn't gotten into litigation. But it wasn't my choice. We often sort of end up in an area because that's where we start off. I suppose that's another reason to make a switch early, albeit a clear headed switch, if doing that will help us be happier.


Whoa! I didn't know working for a large law firm was so bad. I'm a 0L seriously considering law school after working for a few years in (mostly) boring, low-paying jobs, who (serendipitously?) came across Stankowski's posts and the comments here as well. I have to ask: Is it really that bad? I mean, obviously it seems like many, most, or heck all large law firms are indeed "that bad." But how about medium-sized firms? And a few mentioned small firms were decent, lifestyle-wise?

My real question, however -- although perhaps I'm quite wrong, since I've never worked in a law firm -- most of the attorneys commenting here seem to work in litigation: It can't be "that bad" in corporate (transactional, I think it's called?) law, even at a large law firm, right? Or in other fields such as real estate law or tax law? I've heard that certain fields have far better hours and are far more conducive to living a balanced, healthy lifestyle than others such as litigation. Plus litigation definitely seems to be more a belligerent, zero-sum sort of game -- where the more, shall we say, aggressive, hot-blooded personalities have greater cause to bully the reflective, thinking types, and clients too are (understandably) more emotionally involved rather than treating it from a more detached, professional, "this is just a business deal" sort of thing -- whereas I'd imagine something like corporate or tax law would not be, which would relieve a great deal of stress.

Do you think this is a correct assessment, that a lot of the antipathy towards working as a law firm associate comes from working in litigation, and that other fields have a better overall lifestyle? Or am I wrong and it's still just as bad no matter which department you work for (e.g., the whole pyramid scheme thing between partners and associates still comes into play)? Please give me an honest, even blunt answer, I don't mind. I'll admit, though: A lot of these posts have, perhaps rightfully, dampened my desire to go to law school and become a practicing attorney. For me, I figured law school would be the path out of my boring, low-paid job. Or at least out of my low-paid job. I don't mind the boring bit so much, and think I could handle a boring, routine, monotonous type of a job if that's what the legal field turns out to be for me, if I was well compensated. But if it's as bad on the corporate (or tax, etc.) side as it is on the litigation side, as many here seem to say, then I'll be utterly grateful that people here took the time to warn someone like me beforehand of what I'm getting myself into precisely.

Regardless, thanks very much in advance -- the posts have all been insightful and truly opened my eyes, and I do tremendously appreciate everything everyone has written.


[Defense attorneys] want to win too, but we do know that our clients hopes aren't all riding on a victory.

Speak for yourself; I've worked on four "bet-the-company" cases where a loss on the defense side would have bankrupted the company, and the one of those I argued in the Ninth Circuit would've exposed the executives to potential criminal prosecution had we not persuaded the court that their main line of business was legal. Plus a fifth pro bono case featuring an immigrant doctor whose career was at stake where the government theory of the case was that it was irrebuttably presumptively fraud if he had billed Medicaid for more than eight hours of work in a single day.

SoCalDude, it's really impossible to answer your question: a lot depends on the specific firm you join (some firms tolerate screamers, others don't, and still others encourage them). Big-law-firm economics have changed a lot in the last ten years, and the one thing that's certain is that they'll change more in the ten-plus years between when you start law school and when you're up for partnership. The firm you join in 2009 will change its management structure a couple of times between then and 2017.


SoCalDude: It's my sense too that most of the lawyers who comment here (and who read this weblog?) are litigators rather than transactional lawyers. Maybe that's because when I post about the practice of law, it's usually about litigation.

Although I've never worked as a transactional lawyer, there were plenty at the defense firm where I started, and our plights were not too different. That was my sense, anyway. Maybe a real transactional lawyer can comment. On the other hand, there are so many different types of lawyers that's it's really hard to generalize.

Speaking as a litigator, unlike many of the commenters here, I've liked my law career on balance. I graduated from law school in 1990. Although there have been times I wanted to escape, I never did, and now I realize I never will: I've finally come to the conclusion that I'm one of those lawyers who will probably never fully retire.

Sad, huh? By the way, there's much more about the life of a lawyer on this weblog than just these few posts: take a look at the comments to "Why Are Lawyers So Unhappy?" and "Why Are Lawyers So Despised?."


"Defense attorneys] want to win too, but we do know that our clients hopes aren't all riding on a victory.

Speak for yourself; I've worked on four "bet-the-company" cases where a loss on the defense side would have bankrupted the company, and the one of those I argued in the Ninth Circuit would've exposed the executives to potential criminal prosecution had we not persuaded the court that their main line of business was legal. Plus a fifth pro bono case featuring an immigrant doctor whose career was at stake where the government theory of the case was that it was irrebuttably presumptively fraud if he had billed Medicaid for more than eight hours of work in a single day."

Well, I can only speak for myself, of course. And while I do know that will occur, the problem is that these examples can go both ways.

Some carriers are bad about exposing a client to horrific loss, but they are a minority. For more likely is the case in which the carrier wants to settle, but the insured is unhappy about it. I've had that occur quite a few times. The insured doesn't feel they did anything wrong, and often hasn't, and feels that the system is unjust because as settlement was made.

FWIW, that's one of the real differences between conventional liability insurance and some medical malpractice insurance. Medical malpractice insurance often allows the physician to have the last word on settling, which makes it tough to settle.

On the other hand, I'm also familiar with the cases in which the Plaintiff's case will not work out, and they simply refuse to recognize it. You explain to them they'll be responsible for costs, but they refuse to believe it. I just tried a case in which the Plaintiff, while obtaining a judgment, obtained one so low that they will now have no recovery, due to costs. They are not happy.

"Although there have been times I wanted to escape, I never did, and now I realize I never will: I've finally come to the conclusion that I'm one of those lawyers who will probably never fully retire."

Yeah, that's me too. Unfortunately. After a while, there's no getting out. At least in my case, that's where you become numb. Unfortunately, it isn't only numb to the law, but most everything else too.


Interesting on the transactional lawyers. I've often wondered if their lot is better, in terms of stress.

I've wondered the same about lawyers who work for the government.


I've heard that certain fields have far better hours and are far more conducive to living a balanced, healthy lifestyle than others such as litigation.

It depends as much on the firm as the area of law, really.

Any BigLaw firm is going to crush the lives of its associates like grapes in a wine press. That's the nature of BigLaw and its attending BigBilling and BigStatus. Government lawyers aren't working 80-hour weeks or under pressure to make partner.

The type of law doesn't matter quite as much. "Litigation" covers a lot of ground, from med mal to personal injury to patent defense. (And some of the ugliest, low-down-nastiest fights I have seen have been in patent litigation.)

I think it's a great mistake to try and pick a legal specialty based on how hard the work is, rather than how much it interests you. My previous job was contract analysis for a tech firm--great place to work, nice people, forty-hour week--and I was climbing the walls because the work was soooo uninteresting. (I'm sure there are people who love contracts. I'm not one of them.)


Hi, thanks everyone for your responses. Really appreciated. :-)

In particular thanks Ted and mythago for making the distinction that a lot of the lifestyle issues likely depend on the atmosphere of a specific law firm in a specific city, which is subject to constant change. That makes perfect sense.

And thanks Evan for the links to the other two discussions. By the way, if it's possible (and it might not be, as you said it's hard to generalize), could you please explain to me a little more about what you meant when you said "there were plenty [of transactional lawyers] at the defense firm where I started, and our plights were not too different"? Do you mean you were both under the same sorts of pressures and stresses, etc., or perhaps something else?

Before I forget, mythago mentioned: "I think it's a great mistake to try and pick a legal specialty based on how hard the work is, rather than how much it interests you." I just want to be clear: I don't mind hard work, or even hard work that consumes a lot of time, but I do mind work that's dehumanizing. That's what I was trying to get at. And, apologies to those who do enjoy litigation, but from what I've read and heard so far here and elsewhere so many (most?) litigators do seem to be "unhappy, unhealthy, and unethical," to borrow a phrase I read somewhere (but again, maybe it's not like that at the smaller firms). That's why I was hoping transactional, or in fact any other field of the law outside of litigation, might not be. Sorry if I wasn't clear.



I meant that the transactional lawyers were under the same pressures that litigators were--the pressure to bill, the pressure to figure out how to be lawyers though they didn't get much practical training in law school, the pressure to outshine their fellow associates.

I'm not trying to talk you out of it though. Some people like pressure. I liked working at a big firm okay.

As for litigators, I'm around them all the time, and I don't find them to be unhappy.


"As for litigators, I'm around them all the time, and I don't find them to be unhappy."

I'm around them all the time also. They are virtually the only lawyers I know.

I don't know that I quite agree. For those who are willing to discuss it, a fair number are dissatisfied. I don't know that this is really the same as being unhappy. I've also noted that a fair number of them, particularly younger ones, will express regrets about becoming lawyers if they are willing to talk about it. The younger ones seem willing to do that. It's not as common amongst those of us 15 or so years out, as I think there was less an expectation that practicing law was something that we could complain about.


Re: the above questions on government jobs and lower-key (for lack of a better word!) specialties. I worked for a time at a state appellate defender's office. I do, personally, find appeals a littleless stressful than trial litigation. It's a little like transactional work, lots of sitting, thinking, drafting, only you still get to win or lose. The hours working for the state were eminently reasonable. The pay reflected that. And since the agency's budget supported more titles than cash, some folks tended to take their place in the hierarchy a bit too seriously, which can get annoying.

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