Is the Happy Lawyer a mythical species?
March 21, 2010 5:23 PM   Subscribe

Everywhere I look, I see blog posts, AskMeFi comments, etc., about how you shouldn't go to law school, about the crushing debt that it imposes, stories about how people hate their lives as lawyers, about the masses of layoffs in the industry, or about how the work isn't what, or as interesting as, they expected. Now, my question is -- are there any notable positive blogs / perspectives out there, written by a lawyer? Comments from MeFi lawyers are definitely welcome.

Bonus points for Canadians, but comments from US lawyers be fantastic too.

* This only tangentially relates to my question, but just in case --I'm a year out of undergrad, with a decent office job -- I am not an investment banker, but I managed to luck my way into a job above the average of my graduating class. And yep, I have wanted to be a lawyer since I was a little one, and yep, it's always been to do do-gooder stuff, not corporate law. And yes, I am not sure what to do next.
posted by demagogue to Law & Government (26 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
People who have a reason to complain are more likely to do so than those who are satisfied.

Given the number of people complaining about being a lawyer, and its apparent universality, perhaps there is something to their laments.

I mean, this question could just as easily be asked about investment bankers or management consultants or doctors. Any field, really, which attracts highly intelligent, high-achieving people has its (large) share of people upset that the job for which they trained has turned out not to be the halcyon existence they hoped for.
posted by dfriedman at 5:34 PM on March 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Well, I'm only a 2L, so take anything I have to say with a grain of salt, as I haven't yet had any of my student loans come due. I'm fortunate enough to have landed a nice internship for the coming summer, but a lot of my classmates do not have jobs lined up and are getting a bit antsy. Still, I only know of maybe one person who regrets coming to law school, since for the area of practice she's interested in (domestic violence/child welfare) she could have more easily and cheaply gotten a masters in social work.

As for the lawyers I know, they are all happy with their careers for the most part. Last summer I interned at an elder law non-profit with two attorneys who absolutely loved their jobs. One of them went to a pricy law school and is still paying off the debt 13 years after graduation but she said she doesn't regret it, and even though she doesn't make a ton of money, the loan payments don't have that big an impact on her life. I really enjoyed working at their organization, especially the hands-on work with clients. There were some depressing cases, especially involving guardianships for incapacitated adults, but on the whole, it really was nice to be helping people who really appreciated it. I had multiple clients compliment me on my work, and tell me that they would love to hire me once I became a real lawyer.

So if you really are interested in the "do-gooder stuff," and are willing to put up with an extended debt repayment plan, it seems like it is possible to have a rewarding career.
posted by mesha steele at 5:36 PM on March 21, 2010

Law school isn't bad in itself. My annoyance is with people who are fresh out of high school and blinded by the 'glamour of college', want to attend a pricey, private university for a good "college experience", then have their sights set of law school or medical school so they can "make bank" when they graduate. The problem is that they want to do all eight to ten years of college by using student loans to pay for nearly a decade of tuition, books, fees, room, board, spending money, etc. Which means that when they graduate they will be like $300k in debt and they (wrongly) think they will immediatly get a $150k salary so can easily pay off the debt in a year or two. It NEVER works out this way and people end up buried in depression and debt for literally decades after college.
Now to your school is great. If you are debt free and can get a massive amount of scholarships or can go part time or can find a really inexpensive yet good school get the idea. Try to graduate from college with a minimum of debt because you will then have many options--like instead of being a lawyer, you may want to be a "do gooder" at a NGO overseas. Or you may decide to go corporate law. Whatever you choose to do with your degree, you go to work with a whole different attitude if you aren't stressing under the weight of massive debt!
posted by MsKim at 5:38 PM on March 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Keep in mind that getting a law degree does not mean you
have to be a lawyer. Me son has a law degree and works for the CIA and loves it!
posted by HuronBob at 5:46 PM on March 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm about six months into being a lawyer (management-side employment law at a Biglaw firm) and generally really enjoy it. I work really long hours (I just got back from the office) and sometimes have to work with asshole partners but the work is interesting and different every day. If you have any more specific questions, feel free to me-mail me. It should be noted that I think that my experience is pretty rare though - most of my new lawyer friends are not enjoying their work as much as I am, and if I were to lose my biglaw job I would be utterly screwed by the amount of debt I have.
posted by wuzandfuzz at 5:56 PM on March 21, 2010

Try this. There are definitely many lawyers who enjoy what they do and don't regret going to law school at all. The problem is that many go for the wrong reasons and/or don't know what they're getting into.
posted by shivohum at 6:01 PM on March 21, 2010

3L here, about to graduate in just under two months. With regard to the legal work, I've worked the last two summers at a state attorney general's office. In that capacity, I worked with general litigation related to the state, as well as other areas, such as public safety, criminal appeals, financial, environmental law, and governmental administration. In addition, this semester I'm working in a legal clinic with two real clients in bankruptcy law. I've found interesting, if not fascinating, work in all those areas. Sometimes it can be simple administrative law, which boiled down to filling out a form complaint or what not, and other times, it can be research for a legal question. I've found the law simply interesting in itself, and something that I believe I will look forward to working with on a daily basis once I get hired (Please, Lord, make that a fact and not a hope!).

Thus, I hope to be a lawyer with a positive attitude about the job this time next year. I will state I have met some lawyers who appear to just grind their way through it, and some who are in it expressly for the money and not out of any love of the material.
posted by Atreides at 6:29 PM on March 21, 2010

I think it's worth noting that most of the answers, at least so far, are from law school students and new lawyers. I suspect that a lot of people try desperately to stay positive about this career choice for as long as possible before admitting that it's not what they expected it to be.
posted by amro at 6:49 PM on March 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

I can't speak to the debt factor, but my brother did law in Australia and works in international corporate tax law. He loves it, and all his work friends seem to like their jobs as well. Other people glaze over when any of them mention what they do, and I can imagine a ton of law school graduates who'd rather die than do that, but it's worked out for him.
posted by jacalata at 6:50 PM on March 21, 2010

1) hated law school
2) Being a lawyer is great
3) It's way more stressful than being an -insertmostotherjobs-
4) If you are conscientious and committed to doing your job well it will take up vast amounts of brain cycles every day whether you are at work or not
5) many (I'd say most) lawyers are assholes and many are unhappy. These are not the traits you want in a boss but you'll have to suck it up if you want to join a firm as a career path.
6) Getting a degree from a NAME law school is hugely important to getting the prestige jobs with the big bucks and crap like signing bonuses and "office concierge" services. These jobs also demand even more time than lawyering in general (which is most definitely not a 9 to 5 gig).

for most medium to big firm entry associates 65 - 80 hours a week is routine.
In my personal career arc I've had YEARS where I billed more than 2200 hours per year and not ever minute in the office is or can be spend billing a client. Do the math. That's a LOT of time spent not with your spouse / not watering your plants / not surfing / not doing whatever you like. If you like law and lawyering it's a tolerable trade-off. If you don't - it's hell.

7) Being a good lawyer is, as far as I can tell, utterly unrelated to LSAT scores or performance in law school.
8) The primary question I'd suggest you look at is -do I want to do what lawyers do on a day-in day-out basis. That requires having close-ish relationships with lawyers NOW to poll them and extract their experiences. In some ways it's like asking people if they are happy having children. They'll invariably say 'yes, my little snowflake has changed my life for the better in so many ways' but if you ask at 3:00 am or on that day they can't go out with the gang for the usual trip to the game, etc. you'll get a very different answer. Thus, cultivate real relationships with lawyer types to gain real data from them.

I know many many many lawyers who put on the happy face but who, honestly, hate nearly every minute of every day lawyering.

You CAN, regardless of location, make a living as a lawyer. The question is - given the kind of work you can get - is it worth going to law school?

I could fill up my docket with child custody divorce fights (I used to do that work) and could probably make more money doing it now than what I do do now. But I don't want to. If that was all the work out there I'd do it to pay the mortgage but wouldn't be happy. Given what work there is to do -could you be happy doing it?

When I asked i've described law school as "three years of unmedicated dental work performed by interns" and that's still accurate.

In all honest - knowing how awful law school was [this is only one person's experience but you get that it was a powerful one] and how happy I am practicing law - I'm still not sure I would have done the law school thing. Plenty of other ways to earn a living.

Bottom line - consider carefully. This choice has consequences no matter which way you go.
posted by BrooksCooper at 7:09 PM on March 21, 2010 [5 favorites]

Umm, pardon the typos - didn't proof read.
posted by BrooksCooper at 7:12 PM on March 21, 2010

Response by poster: Thank you for all your responses thus far! Apologies that I don't have the time at this moment to respond individually.
posted by demagogue at 7:24 PM on March 21, 2010

I've been practicing for almost six years now, and I love it. I practice criminal defense for a small, high-quality boutique firm. It's an extremely interesting area of practice, quite intellectually challenging, and there's always something new and exciting to learn. I wouldn't trade it for anything, especially not for civil litigation at a big firm.

Most of my friends who went to big firms hated it, and left within a couple years.
posted by mikeand1 at 7:30 PM on March 21, 2010

I work at a big law firm. Let me just outline a success story of one of our associates I work with:

She is very bright has a passion for Environmental NR law. She summered at big law firms as a 1L and 2L and thus her debt coming out was largely mitigated by those earnings. She clerked which she thought was an excellent experience, gave her a 30,000 bonus when she signed with us and now practices law in a field extremely important. She clearly makes bank, does work on substantial matters and thrives at it.

There must be at least 35-50 associates who are in the same boat, but I also know a good handful or so who are pretty miserable with the grind.

Regardless, if you're bright enough to get it done, you don't have to do biglaw your whole life; you can do it long enough to pair down your debt ratio then move on. It can open doors, just make sure you're doing it for the right reasons. I know I will.
posted by Hurst at 7:30 PM on March 21, 2010

Best answer: Hated, loathed law school. They don't teach you how to be a lawyer ... just how to "think like a lawyer," and I grew up around lawyers who litigated me at the dinner table, so once I knew what to expect on the tests, it was a lot of sitting around bored out of my gourd feeling my soul slowly sucked out. Some good discussion sections, a few interesting lecturers, but mostly an unremitting waste of time.

I liked practicing law. (I am home with my kid right now, not practicing.) However, I found that big-firm law came with the big-firm problems (including rewarding inefficient workers, which makes me CRAZY) -- big-firm hours, jerk partners, little control of what kinds of cases you do, first couple years are scut work -- but that working as a solo, where I picked my clients and only did work I enjoyed, involved a LOT of practice management stuff that was dull, hard, stuff I wasn't trained for, etc., and didn't pay nearly as well (of course). I miss practicing somewhat now that I'm home with the spawn, though I'm thinking very hard about what set of trade-offs I want when I go back to work.

I would identify two key things to do before going to law school. First, literally write down WHY you are going and what you hope to accomplish and put it somewhere you won't lose it. It is very easy to get wrapped up in the mindless competitiveness of highly-driven people and find yourself pursuing a Big Law job when you're pretty sure you started in law to help people but it's hard to remember .... any time you have to make a law school decision, look at that mission statement before you decide. ("Will taking on a lot of debt allow me to do public interest law after graduation? I feel obligated to do law review even though I don't want to -- does that serve my goal?") You may get to law school and discover you have a secret inner calling to be a tax attorney (happened to a friend of mine who was dead sure she was criminal defense bound!), and that's fine, but having it written down will help you make better decisions, even if your goal changes. Second, have realistic expectations, and don't let the law schools set those expectations. I don't know how you pay for law school in Canada, but a lot of US students take on a ton of debt only to discover most lawyers DON'T make six figures, but by then you're screwed.

PS -- if your job is good, can you go to law school at night, one class at a time, at least to start? In big cities in the US you can often do that. Give you a taste of it while letting you keep getting work experience and income.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:22 PM on March 21, 2010

I've written many times before here on AskMeFi about loving my job. I've been a prosecutor for 11 years+ and I still find it interesting and worthwhile. Being a government employee has a lot of positives, including a very satisfying life/work balance, and a complete lack of looking for clients & worrying about getting paid for my work.

If you can, I would suggest moving to Quebec to establish residency there, to take advantage of the ridiculously low tuition rates there. By the way, I'm totally in agreement with BrooksCooper about hating law school, but loving being a lawyer.
posted by birdsquared at 9:01 PM on March 21, 2010

Best answer: I don't know of any blogs, but I can offer you my perspective as a Canadian articling student.

As with any profession where there are big fat salaries and prestige to be had, people get into law for all the wrong reasons. Even when people get into it for the right reasons, it's hard. It's really, really hard. The high-stress, high-pressure, high-responsibility nature of the work, the competitive atmosphere, and the long hours will get to everyone at some point, sooner or later. One of my friends used to upchuck her guts every morning, because the thought of going in to work literally turned her stomach. Another friend summered with a girl who used to hide in her office at least once a day and sob. God knows I've spent some days dabbing my eyes in the washroom.

Many will crash and burn. I don't remember the exact statistics, but lawyers are at far greater risk than any other professionals for depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. It is especially tough in this economy. Some of my classmates had to accept articles in small towns for minimum wage salaries, while others are among the twenty articling students at a big firm clawing for just two or three associate positions. I know you are looking for a positive perspective, but all those negative blogs and articles you've seen were written for good reason. People aren't just being whiny, and I want to make sure you're good with that.

Now on a more positive note:

Everyone's different and so is every firm. A huge part of your enjoyment will depend on how well you fit in with the firm's culture. Big firm life and small firm life tend to be very different. The friend who used to puke? She switched firms and loves her job now. Talk to as many people as you can at different types of firms and give some honest thought to where you'd be best suited. Know thyself. If you know you don't want the big firm life, don't let the paycheque and prestige suck you in. There will be people at law school who talk as though you're nobody if you're not big law. Don't listen to these pompous blowhards.

You say you already know what area you'd like to specialize in, and it's a "do-gooder" area. I am making the assumption that this means you're not in it for the money. This is good. The firms hurting the most are the big corporate firms, while my firm, a small boutique specialized in an area of law I consider "do-gooding," didn't even notice the economic downturn. In fact, we've been hiring new staff. A LOT of students will refuse to take the jobs that you'll be interested in, because they want to make more money and have big important clients. I know that some of these people are now going to be competing for articles with the 2010 grad classes - like I said, it's ugly out there.

I'm also assuming you'd like to stay in Canada for law school and to practice, so getting into huge debt is not the looming issue that it is for Americans. The tuition for most Canadian law schools is about $10K/year, which is perfectly doable. Law schools in Canada aren't "tiered" the way they are in the US (though people still try), so don't worry so much about which school you get into. Honestly, names do NOT matter. Go to school in the province where you intend to practice and do well there to maximize your chances of getting hired after graduation.

Personally, I'm still trying to decide for myself whether this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. I've had some pretty good days and some really awful, terrible days. I believe most articling students and young lawyers have doubts, because it's the toughest at the start. Every day you feel like an utter moron who knows nothing, and yet you still have to try to prove yourself to people who seem infinitely more brilliant and knowledgeable than you. But the partners at my firm seem very happy, and I have lawyer friends who seem very happy. They've offered me endless encouragement, so I try to take it day by day, learn from my mistakes and celebrate my small victories. I think that's all you can really do.
posted by keep it under cover at 9:13 PM on March 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Seconding birdsquared - even the rest-of-Canada tuition at McGill is ridiculously cheap. McGill in particular is good for people heading towards not-for-profit, international, or non-legal careers. From what I've heard of some other Canadian law schools, the atmosphere combined with the tuition rates end up pushing most students to corporate law. McGill has high standards, but so far (I'm 1L) the atmosphere is pretty collegial and people are interested in a wide range of subjects (which lessens the competition).

Do you have any friends at law school? Why don't you borrow their notes/coursepacks? You can also me-mail me and I'll send you some reading lists so you can get an idea of what the work will be like.

If you can see a future for yourself in your current line of work, law school won't change your life. To get through law school though, you'll need to have a very firm idea of why you're doing it. And once you find an area of law that interests you, you're going to be able to find a job.
posted by Anali at 9:20 PM on March 21, 2010

I am one of the AskMeFi commenters who would tell you not to go to law school, but that wouldn't answer your question. If you're looking for stories from people who like being lawyers, check out the career services pages and student newspapers of law schools to see if they have stories from alums or students writing about their summer jobs. They will be glowing. I know, because as a condition for receiving scholarship and LRAP funding, I had to write an article for our school paper, and I think I'm on call to talk to potential students. If there's an area of law you're thinking about, see which schools have clubs for that area of law, and see which clubs have blogs by students and grads. My alma mater had a relatively active chapter of the American Constitution Society, for instance, and I'd expect that any political law, family law, or Innocence Project-type group would have pretty passionate stories on their blogs. I've never checked, but I would guess that firms' recruiting pages might have some stories of what it's like being a lawyer at that firm, and how totally awesome it is.

Also, don't go to law school.
posted by jalexc at 10:28 PM on March 21, 2010

If you're looking for stories from people who like being lawyers, check out the career services pages and student newspapers of law schools to see if they have stories from alums or students writing about their summer jobs. They will be glowing.

Yes, or you could go to law schools' websites. If it's a decent site they'll have some testimonials. I don't trust that kind of thing because it's advertising, but hey, you asked for specifically positive perspectives. For instance, my law school's site always features a "success story" on the homepage.
posted by Jaltcoh at 7:07 AM on March 22, 2010

Yeah, plenty of success stories published by law schools. I'm currently working as a judicial clerk, and a lot of people around here like their jobs, or at least don't dislike them. It's one of the few positions in the US legal system that requires a J.D. and allows you to work from 9-5. The paycheck is obviously pretty small, but livable. A lot of us (like me) are just here for a term, either one or two years, but there are quite a few career clerks. My co-clerk has been working as a judicial clerk for 6-7 years, and for this judge for 5 or so years. She telecommutes, and comes into the office once or twice a month, and loves it. Just had her second kid.

That said, I know plenty of classmates who don't like their jobs. As you know, the market is tough right now, which doesn't help. My clerkship is up in August, and I'm already worrying about what comes next. It's a big field though, and I think a lot of people are unhappy in it because they're working a job that they think they "should" want, or because they've settled and have stopped looking.
posted by craven_morhead at 9:01 AM on March 22, 2010

Another vote for "don't do it". I'm sure there are newly minted attorneys out there that just love their new careers, but I don't know any. The people that I graduated with a year ago are either (a) unemployed with devastating debt (b) semi-employed at a nonprofit or PD's office with devastating debt or c) one of the lucky ones pulling down 150k but hating life anyway. Luckily I have a job, but I wouldn't really call it "practicing". Take the dire warnings very seriously. The job market is beyond abysmal (do you really want to review documents for 12hrs a day at 18$ an hour?) in the US (can't speak for Canada) and at least 85% of lawyers hate what they do anyway. Don't go, there are other ways to make a living, it sounds like you already have one. If you do go, for the love of god don't take out an insane amount of debt to do it. Get a scholarship or if Canada has free tuition, do that. The only thing worse than hating your job is knowing that you can never leave it or the Sallie Mae gestapo will hunt you and your family to the ends of the earth.
posted by T.D. Strange at 11:40 AM on March 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I've been practicing for 5 1/2 years and mostly like being a lawyer. (I also really liked law school, but that was mostly because school, even law school, is not the real world. I had a blast.)

I'm in a do-gooder field (representing people with mental illness in eviction and benefits cases--your basic, bread and butter legal services for the poor). I don't regret going to law school, but I would discourage most people from doing it because I think most people do it out of a herd mentality, unrealistic expectations, or simple confusion. Most of my classmates were fresh out of college (maybe a year out, at most) and went to law school because they wanted to make money, wanted to avoid the real world for a little longer, or because they didn't know what else to do. I differed from most of my classmates in two ways that I think are really important. First, I was older (27), so I had been out of school and actually worked. Second, I had a very specific goal.

Eyebrows McGee's mission statement suggestion is brilliant. I knew exactly why I was in law school, but sometimes found myself wondering if I should do x, where x was completely about corporate or biglaw jobs and everyone else was doing x. I resisted, but it can be surprisingly easy to get caught up in the panic going on around you during, for example, early interview week.

I think the majority of lawyers hate their jobs because the majority of law jobs suck. If you told me that I would have to go to work at a big firm tomorrow, I think I would cry and then start drinking. If you can, get an idea of what it would be like to do whatever kind of work you're thinking about. Volunteer somewhere or talk to some lawyers. If you think you'd like it after you have a good idea of what it actually is, go for it.

Lastly, do not go to law school intending to do good work unless you can go for cheap or get some sort of assistance paying back your loans.
posted by Mavri at 1:20 PM on March 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Echoing that the people who are miserable probably went to law school for the wrong reasons (money, prestige, couldn't think of anything else to do; usually straight from college), at least that was what I observed in my cohort.

My do-gooder and semi-do-gooder (government) lawyer friends are all happy. My Biglaw friends are mixed (see above re: wrong reasons), and several have done the Biglaw/do-gooder shuffle (taking a 2/3 paycut).

I loved law school and have loved my legal jobs (I was a lobbyist for a few years and despised most every moment).
posted by Pax at 11:05 AM on March 25, 2010

A number of colleagues are Canadian lawyers. I can pass some questions along if you'll memail.
posted by grobstein at 9:58 AM on May 7, 2010

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