Happy Law Career
March 17, 2009 12:32 PM   Subscribe

Lawyer-filter: Path to becoming a happy, fulfilled, (potentially) well-compensated lawyer? Thoughts and/or to keep in mind for an incoming 1L?

Hi folks. Starting law school this May at a T10 school. Very excited. I've read a fair number of horror stories about the legal profession and its toll on people's physical and mental health. I do not want this to be me. I've already read the Schlitz article, and these Axme threads.

Suggestions from other lawyers so far have included: Avoid BIGLAW, avoid litigation, consider tax &/or trust and estate, stay away from the coasts, consider boutique shops.

I know I'm a little early with this, but I don't want to end up like the bored associate in the Axme thread in 5 years.
posted by leotrotsky to Work & Money (14 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Take it easy on making any decisions right now. Just go to class and work hard. Feel free to send me mefi mail with any questions. Right now is not the time to be worrying about major decisions in your legal career.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:40 PM on March 17, 2009 [2 favorites]

Hey leotrotsky, congratulations on law school and best of luck with your studies and your career.

My advice is don't avoid BIGLAW, or litigation, or the coasts. On the other hand, do consider tax, and trust, and company law, and international posts, and in-house work, and pro bono stuff, and pretty much everything that's out there.

In other words, be open to the many, many fields of opportunity that you will come across over the next few years.

The great thing about studying law is that you get a certain level of insight into a lot of different aspects of life in general. Granted, you're looking at everything with a legal bias but you get to spy on criminals, governments, entrepreneurs, private citizens, small businesses, mega-corporations, charities, banks... okay, you get the picture. By studying all of these various elements of society you come out with a certain perspective, one that will allow you to apply yourself to any discipline you choose. You may be limited, at first, to being in a strictly legal position but, if you want, you can branch out to executive roles, entrepreneurial endeavours and pretty much anything you want.

In a way I find the study of law to be similar to a business degree in terms of the breadth of exposure you get to the world. And of course there are a lot of philosophical elements to it as well, just to make sure you can hold your own at cocktail parties.

So, keep an open mind, not just as far as your first job is concerned but throughout your career. I'm sure you'll do great.

posted by gwpcasey at 12:45 PM on March 17, 2009

I think the best thing to do is to try to maintain some sort of perspective about what you really want from life and what is important.

I have friends who do the Big Law thing and, while they make 3-4 times what I do, they also work 80+ hours a week and never get to see their families. They are slowly beginning to realize that it will not get better as they climb the associate ladder and will not get better when (if) they make partner.

Also, don't be afraid to jump ship from a job that doesn't fit who you are. I started working for a medium sized litigation firm. I am now a federal law clerk. Two polar opposites on the work/life balance continuum but changing between them helped give me some perspective on what type of work is possible with a law degree and what I want for the future of my career.

My final bit of advice is to also remember that a law license allows you to open your own firm. The majority of lawyers are solo practitioners. It is easier and cheaper than you probably think and will give you the freedom and control that you may miss at a firm, especially Big Law. This is the path I will take in the next year or two.

Enjoy law school (as hard as that might be at times) and keep perspective. Try hard but don't be obsessive about your grades and don't fall into the trap of thinking that if you are not in the top 5% of the class that you will end up fighting hobos for rat carcasses. Believe me, as a law clerk I see a lot of lawyers' work product both in written form and in court. A healthy number of them are complete and total idiots and yet they are still drawing good paychecks. If they can do it, anyone can! Good luck!
posted by delosic at 1:00 PM on March 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

As someone who is fortunate enough to be doing something in the law that I love and be reasonably well compensated, here is what I'd recommend. Once you've finished your required coursework and have the chance to pick your courses, take something off the beaten path, something you are curious about. Take something with a professor who is a student favorite, even if you don't think you'll like the subject matter. Do internships, do pro bono work, be on a journal. Think about doing a federal clerkship after school and get your ducks in a row so you'll have that option. Don't be so dead set on what you think you want to do that you miss what you actually will wind up wanting to do. I'd ignore people who say avoid this, avoid that. You don't figure out what makes your heart sing by avoiding.

Try it all.
posted by *s at 1:00 PM on March 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

Figure out what your interests and what your capabilities are. If you really want to help real estate developers build shopping malls, that will help guide you. If you find that you excel in tax law, that will help guide you as well.

The most important point: look for summer or even part-time jobs (next year) with local law firms, to get a sense of what they do and to find out whether it holds any interest for you.

(Why the suggestion to avoid litigation? It has a lot of interesting features.)
posted by megatherium at 1:45 PM on March 17, 2009

I feel like I say this all the time on here. I went to a T25. I work at a firm with 350+ attorneys. We're mid-market. I work in labor and employment.

I love what I do. This is because 1) I truly enjoy the people I work with; 2) those people take training good lawyers very seriously; 3) this means they give young lawyers good work and client contact; 4) my firm treats lawyers like family, which means they've got my back when I can't work 80 hours a week; 5) the firm hires associates that they think can make partner, but there are paths to success here that don't involve making partner, including reduced hours scheduling.

In other words, it's about the quality of life. It's hard to explain how to get a good feel for which firms these are. Mefimail me if you want.
posted by dpx.mfx at 1:49 PM on March 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

I agree with *s.

Avoid groupthink. Be able to evaluate your own interests and pursue them without getting caught up in priorities adopted and insisted upon by others as a matter of tradition or stature. Be honest with yourself about what you really want out of your career and what will make you happy.

I'm assuming you have solid reasons for pursuing law in the first place. Don't lose sight of them.
posted by ihavepromisestokeep at 1:51 PM on March 17, 2009

Get really good grades your first year. Even at a T10 school, this can be huge. And spending the most time studying/briefing will not get you the best grades. The material is not as complex as the casebook makes it out to be- there are a limited number of real "rules" and the cases are either illustrating the rules or showing how little variations can affect them. Try learning the material that way. What is the rule? Is this case illustrating the rule or showing what happens at the edge of the rules/an ambiguity in the rule? What is my one sentence take-away from this case?

If there are actual rules (like civ pro) or statutes involved, READ THEM. Carefully. And the notes/comments. For Contracts, the White & Summers UCC treatise will teach you everything you need to know about Article 2 of the UCC. Just don't read the footnotes.

Don't forget about government- all that complex exciting work that people at big law firms do? The government is often on the other side, which means that government lawyers get almost as much exciting complex work as the private lawyers. They are not as well paid, but they get to go home at 6!

Keep your eyes and your mind open! I know someone who came from a top 10 school and is doing litigation at BigLaw on the coast and loving it- it depends on your personality.

Take classes outside the lawschool, especially if you already have a language interest or another focused academic interest. Doesn't hurt, you get (usually) easy credits, and you have something to talk about in interviews. Along those lines, make sure you are an interesting person who does interesting things. This is good general advice, but will also set you apart when the person you are interviewing with is seeing 30 other students just like you that day.

This one is huge and you might not think about it until its too late: develop relationships with professors. This can be hugely valuable both personally and professionally. Don't bother them every day after class, but do ask questions/send emails when you really have something to say. Ask if you can do some research (maybe 2L year). If you did something interesting over your 1L summer find a prof that specializes in that thing and ask if they will help you create/advise an independent project.

Don't try to learn anything before you get there, it's just a waste of time. Enjoy your summer!
posted by ohio at 2:11 PM on March 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

Advice is very generic. You, however, are very specific. "Avoid litigation" may be great advice for someone who doesn't want to do the long hours at the big firms and that's fine, but it is not great advice for people who are closet wanna-be rockstars. Nobody is an estate planning rockstar.

My dad is a rockstar litigator and does first amendment and intellectual property litigation as a partner at his east coast BigLaw firm. Although we truly did not see him for about eight years between law school and long associate hours, we appreciate what he did and he'd tell you it was worth it. And he loves what he does. While we think it's hilarious that he's been on the cover of a magazine called Super Lawyers, I'm pretty sure my mom would have framed it, and if she did, I can tell you without looking that it's hanging on a wall in his basement shop.

My basic point is that these are pretty individual decisions and should be based on your passions, your interests, your skills and yes, your ability to repay your loans. My sister is currently 3L, and will probably end up in a very different kind of practice because she is a very different kind of person. She'd die doing what my dad does but will make an outstanding tax attorney in a boutique firm somewhere, and that's groovy, too.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:12 PM on March 17, 2009

Wow, lots of law school questions lately.

Avoid groupthink. Be able to evaluate your own interests and pursue them without getting caught up in priorities adopted and insisted upon by others as a matter of tradition or stature. Be honest with yourself about what you really want out of your career and what will make you happy.

This is great advice. My personal theory is that there are several aspects of the teaching and practice of law in the US which attract and encourage unhappy people. Lawyers let their profession have a toll on their mental and physical health, by and large, but most don't have to. I've got a lot of sympathy for the public defender who is wrestling with bona fide moral questions, but the plight of the well-compensated corporate lawyer has been more than a bit built up. People work hard and deal with unreasonable bosses or colleagues in many professions. Sure, it's hard to find a job right now, but the market for students from Top 10 schools will probably look pretty good in a couple of years. And the last 20 years of US legal practice have been very lucrative to those involved.

To follow up on what a few posters said, if you find it interesting, or choose to deal with the long hours and sometimes boring work for the high pay, there is no reason to avoid working at a large law firm. You should know what you are getting into, but I don't think what you are getting into if you do is all that bad. Sure, there are sometimes some long hours, and you won't have that much control over your destiny in the first five years or so. After that, you should be able to find a situation that works well for you.

I went to a "Top 20" public law school and work at a large law firm in Chicago. I have a lot of autonomy and a lot of flexibility in my schedule. Many specialists do. I continue to find the variety of work I do quite interesting. If I chose to do something else, I could, because I paid off all my loans long ago, saved up a bunch of money and still live pretty well. Don't tell my bosses, but I would probably do it for half the pay (ok, maybe 2/3). So consider me another vote for not necessarily vetoing large law firms if you are looking to be happy and fulfilled. They only grind that out of you if you let them.
posted by iknowizbirfmark at 2:17 PM on March 17, 2009

Believe me, as a law clerk I see a lot of lawyers' work product both in written form and in court. A healthy number of them are complete and total idiots and yet they are still drawing good paychecks.

Heartily seconded. I clerked for an appellate judge, and it blew my mind how bad some of the briefs were. God I wish I had made copies of some of that shit.

The worst brief --- the one that just blew the others away in terms of sheer incomprehensibility --- was from a VERY successful attorney.
posted by jayder at 3:15 PM on March 17, 2009

Aggressively try different things in law school in an attempt to find out what areas within the law fit your talents and interests. That means take classes that cover your interests, talk to alumni doing unusual but compelling things, and, MOST importantly, do plenty of clinicals and/or externships. Once you've honed in on what fields of law you'd like to practice in, and weighed other values like quality of life considerations to arrive some kind of rough goal, figure out what it takes to get there successfully and do it.

The key is to proactively direct your career and use law school to explore potential passions rather than to let it channel you into a default career that may or may not fit.
posted by shivohum at 6:26 PM on March 17, 2009

First, don't let older lawyers tell you what will make you happy. Some litigators are happy, some are not. Some biglaw lawyers are happy, some are not. There's no one size fits all approach. Talk to as many lawyers as you can (not for advice necessarily, but just to find out what their typical day is like). Use this summer to pursue something that seems interesting. If your law school has a clinic make sure you go through the clinic program. It's invaluable experience for learning what it's really like to be a lawyer.
posted by bananafish at 10:22 PM on March 18, 2009

« Older Too many balls, what to do?   |   What's the name of this 1980-something animated... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.