This 'Being a Lawyer' Thing
January 30, 2012 6:57 PM   Subscribe

Are you counsel at a legal aid office? Or maybe you're an assistant district attorney? Practicing lawyers in general, but especially those outside of biglaw practice, I'd like for you to tell me about your career, or your day-to-day, etc.

The reason I ask: I am a 1L (up in Canada, but it's not so different. Main difference is that there is a stronger job market up here for lawyers compared to the US.) I am arriving at law school with a few years of a "high-powered workplace" under my belt, and I'm trying to get a better handle on my career direction. For me, the more I think about it, and think back to what I liked and didn't like about that experience, the less and less I want to work in biglaw. Yep, I'm talking to my career office, doing informational interviews, and the like, but I'm hoping to hear from MeFiers.
posted by demagogue to Work & Money (11 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I work in public interest, as do many of my friends. I'd rather not disclose my exact field, but I will tell you some things I learned working in the nonprofit world and from the friends.

The pay, hours, and working conditions vary hugely. Pick wisely.

Don't be a martyr to the cause. It's a job. You do wha you can. You are not obligated to sacrifice your life just because your clients are worse off that you.

Do not expect your clients to be grateful or nice people. Some are for sure, but just as many assholes are down and out as angels. And they'll blame you for their circumstances, no matter how few options they have legally and how utterly out of your hands the situation is.

That being said your coworkers and boss are unlikely to be assholes, at least in the big firm sense.

You will have no support staff or very little. Even if it would make sense fiscally not to have a lawyer making copies. You'll be making copies.

You will probably have a life unlike your big firm copatriots who are almost universally miserable.

It will be emotionally draining and you will have to play therapist on occasion. It will also be frustrating to watch clients make bad life decisions. You will likely be exposed to people you didn't even know existed. This will be both wonderful and terrifying. You will question the wisdom of democracy and then be horrified with yourself and wonder if this how people become republicans?

The job may be less challenging intellectually than a firm job. It can be very cookie cutter. Sometimes really awesome novel issues present themselves, and this can vary a lot by the nonprofit, but it is probably not as challenging as what you'd find at a large firm.

You will probably find you care more about having a life than understanding all the nuances of evading financial regulations.

But in all seriousness I fell into the nonprofit world and am very glad I did. I can't imagine my life working for a big firm. The nonprofit world has its very unique challenges, but I don't know anyone that would trade it for a big firm. And I know lots of big firm people who have left for a nonprofit or the government.
posted by whoaali at 7:19 PM on January 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

I work for a mid-size firm in a third-tier city in a Midwestern state. I do civil litigation defense. My firm is about fifty lawyers across four offices; my office has about fifteen attorneys, though we're hiring to replace some recent attrition due to people moving on.

I work about fifty hours a week, mostly on weekdays, but occasionally a Saturday morning. I'm in the office between seven and eight AM and leave between five and six PM most of the time, but I'm occasionally there earlier or later than that. The problem with getting work isn't that there's not enough of it but that the partners are sometimes so busy that they don't have time to hand out assignments. I don't usually bring work home, but that's probably coming.

I don't have vacation time or sick time. I can take off as much time as I like. Of course, that runs the risk of pissing off the partners, who watch associate billables on a monthly basis. But if I'm hitting my targets, turning in projects on time, and generally perceived to be responsive and looking for work, no one really cares whether I'm in the office at any given moment. So things like dentist's appointments, logistical errands, oil changes, etc. can be made to happen without anyone other than my secretary--and sometimes not even her--knowing I'm gone. I've got a three-day weekend planned for next month and I'm not even going to tell anyone, because no one actually wants to know.

I volunteer at a local legal aid clinic doing client intake and take on pro bono cases with the local bar association's volunteer program. I have two or three pro bono cases going right now, but they're basically just filing an appearance and getting the court to hold off until my clients can file for bankruptcy.

My firm does mostly insurance defense. From a financial perspective, the upside is that our clients always pay, and that we get paid regardless of whether we win or lose. The downside is that we bill at a fraction of what even local small firms bill but even so we get nickel-and-dimed by the [unprintable, multi-page diatribe] audit companies that insurers hire to go over our bills. The partners are all doing quite well, but junior associates in biglaw offices down the block make 50-100% more than I do. I have benefits, which are adequate but nothing special.

From a practice area standpoint, I do probably 80% BI/PD defense. The rest is a combination of insurance coverage disputes (representing carriers), copyright/trademark (infringement is actually covered by insurance in some cases) and products liability (which is kind of like BI/PD but is its own thing too). I'd like to do more medical malpractice stuff, but the carrier is being a bitch about authorizing me to work on their files.

I probably spend about half my time on discovery (mostly written), a quarter on dispositive motions (mostly MSJs), and a quarter on other stuff, including pleadings, court mandated conferences, memos and reports, etc. I probably write between fifty and a hundred pages a week, minimum. I spend very, very little time in court, and even the busiest partners only try a case or two a year, usually. There are plenty of cases that get settled without a single hearing and only one or two status conferences.

All of this leaves me enough time to have co-authored a book in the last nine months, carry on a long-distance relationship, and stay more-or-less sane. But I am living alone and don't have any family in the area, so local demands on my time are pretty minimal outside work.

I'd be happy to delve into more specifics via MeMail or email.
posted by valkyryn at 7:32 PM on January 30, 2012

I don't know much about the day-to-day specifics, but you might consider working as a college or university counsel. In our legal office (major university), we have maybe 10 attorneys and a few paralegals, doing everything from intellectual property to employment, NDAs, contract law, major real estate transactions, you name it. A friend of mine worked at a larger law firm in town for maybe five years before coming over here. The environment is really interesting -- close contact with administration, long and short-term issues, and an amazing variety of people coming in and out of the office every day.
posted by Madamina at 7:43 PM on January 30, 2012

No answer will be very helpful without one or two from you:

What do you want to do with your degree? with your life?
What motivates you? What inspires you?

Never mind the bland and generic crap such as "I want to help people". What will stoke your ego?

Then, based on your talents and your experience in the vaguely described "high-powered workplace": What are you good at? What can you offer that ten thousand other newly minted lawyers cannot?
posted by yclipse at 7:46 PM on January 30, 2012

Well, the first and most important thing to know is that it isn't enough to want to do public interest law. You may want it. Nobody may want to pay you to do it. That was the experience I had. It was really deflating to be the President of the Association for Public Interest Law, have two paid summer public interest fellowships at two different public interest firms on my resume (one of which took me on as a paid clerk through my last two years in law school), as well as a stint as a clerk at a Legal Aid office while I was an undergrad, and have absolutely nobody want to hire me to be a public interest lawyer.

And so, I advise you to hope for the best but prepare for the worst. You HAVE to be able to do something else.

I took a circuitous route to get where I am today, but I am now happily working in a largely non-legal position in medical research at the top cancer research center in the US. It is warm and fuzzy to go to work and remember that in my own little way, I'm helping to cure cancer. My job is, at its heart, regulatory compliance. (I ensure that our faculty and researchers comply with federal regulations concerning financial conflicts of interest. I also serve on the institutional panel that investigates all allegations of research misconduct - plagiarism, fabrication and/or falsification are my minor fiefdom.)
posted by jph at 7:46 PM on January 30, 2012

Seconding jph- you will be competing for very, very few open positions with not only your law school peers but also many experienced lawyers who have been working and volunteering and committed to public interest work for years. Just because the pay is relatively low, do not think that legal aid will be easier to break into than BigLaw. Have a solid Plan B.
I worked at a legal aid office during law school and full time as a lawyer at a different legal aid office in Chicago from 2007-2009. My coworkers were, for the most part, brilliant and nice. The work was often routine, and keeping up with the volume was a challenge. There were a couple of interesting legal issues but most of the time it was very fact driven. I had to keep track of a lot of client data for grant reporting, but I did not have to keep track of my billable hours like most lawyers do. I got to be in court a lot. I had a lot of independence. Nobody wore suits unless they were going to court- it was very casual. Some people worked from home. A lot of people worked more or less 9-5. I came in late and left late, and that was OK. I spent many hours making copies, filing my own motions, delivering documents, and such. The emotional challenges are no joke.
posted by steinwald at 8:35 PM on January 30, 2012

I'm working in-house in Korea for the exporting arm of an (extremely) large manufacturer. There's a good deal of variety in the legal issues I come across due to the variety of products our parent company makes (and the other exports we handle as well). My work occasionally requires me to delve pretty deeply into a given matter, but for the most part, I'm doing rather routine stuff like writing demand letters, advising on contract negotiations, reviewing contracts, putting out smaller fires, etc. Schedule is 8-6:30, sometimes later-- not due to workload, but company culture. Koreans spend crazy amounts of time at the office. Over the course of three years, I think I've come in on the weekend maybe twice.

We recently added two more attorneys to our group, so my workload lessened a bit leaving me time to study for my customs broker license (passed the exam in October!), and to bone up on trade, customs, sanctions and my other favorites in international commerce. I began shortly after taking the bar exam, and I think this has been a great gig for someone just starting out in international trade work.

If any of my story interests you, feel free to memail me as well.
posted by holterbarbour at 9:21 PM on January 30, 2012

I work as an assistant district attorney in a suburban county outside of Houston, Texas. As an entry level 0-3 year prosecutor, I work misdemeanor criminal cases.

The pay is adequate by itself, assuming you will defer or attempt to receive some sort of forgiveness for student loans. However, it will not allow you to afford a house or have children without a second income, be it from a spouse or a second job.

I'm assigned to a court and that assignment rotates once or twice a year. The district attorney's office files a lot of cases, I would guess anywhere from 500 to 1000 cases a month is typical for an office in a large city. About a dozen cases end up in my court's docket every week. However, due to various factors, the docket is bigger than that. Each week I'm responsible for reviewing 100 cases, and preparing about 25 cases for trial.

Preparing 25 cases for trial a week is impossible without compromise. Ideally you would dismiss or bargain down the weak cases and go to trial on your strong cases. However, in reality, the defense usually knows what a good or bad case is because they used to do your job. So you end trying a lot of less than ideal cases. If you try cases that are slam dunks, you irritate the judge because you are using the court's time and jurors time to contest a case that could have easily been resolved.

I work from about 8:15am to 5:30pm. I go to court twice a week. Every morning in court, we meet defense attorneys to discuss cases and convey offers. Usually a plea gets negotiated, or a trial is set. We try cases every other week, and at a minimum, I'm in a trial twice a month.

Aside from trial, which I enjoy, I also must do lots of other administrative tasks. I'm on the phone calling witnesses, or viewing videos, or responding to boilerplate motions filed by the defense. This part of the job requires no real lawyer skills because calling witnesses is really just scheduling appointments and taking notes of conversations. Reviewing cases and videos is summarizing facts and you generally can respond to boilerplate with your own templates shared in the office.

Once in a while there is an interesting legal issue that you need to research and brief. However, the other tasks limit your ability to do that properly.

We get a lunch break but I often shorten it or skip it to keep on top of my cases.

It is rat race of a different sort, and I think it's meant to be, because those who can't handle the modest salary and the relentless workload leave, allowing newer lawyers the opportunity to gain trial experience. You usually get promoted after 3-5 years only because it takes that long for a felony position to open up or get created by a budget increase.
That said, the poor legal market nationwide has meant that few attorneys leave the DA's office and there are several unpaid licensed attorneys working for free as interns for a shot at the job.
posted by abdulf at 10:00 PM on January 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

I am a Crown prosecutor in B.C. I've never worked at a biglaw firm, but many of my colleagues have. Most of them say the work is a lot more interesting with the Crown, though, obviously, the pay is less (though I have no complaints about salary - and especially not about benefits - having just taken 9 months parental leave).

I joined the Crown right after articles, and I love my job. I get into court often. I have no billing targets because I have no paying clients, which means I don't have to keep time-sheets. I have the opportunity to work on appeals from time to time, and do some charge assessment (in B.C., the police don't lay charges, they forward the information for the Crown to make decisions upon). If I wanted, there are administrative tasks that I could get into (which I DON'T, thank you very much). I have tremendous discretion in my work, and support from my superiors for any decision that is principled (I would hope all of them :-) ).

My colleagues are varied and interesting, for the most part, and all of us are happy to have lives outside the law, which we have more time for than our biglaw counterparts.

Feel free to memail me if you have more questions.
posted by birdsquared at 10:36 PM on January 30, 2012

My husband just left litigation (first at Big Law; then at a smaller, regional firm where he had more interesting work and more control even as an associate) to work for the state as a general counsel for one of its agencies. It's a dramatic shift in lifestyle and work, and he loves it. He works 7.5 hour days now (yay!) and on a typical day he talks to other government lawyers at other agencies or who manage the whole lawyer superstructure, manages outside lawyers who are litigating matters for his agency, does non-legal management tasks within the agency (where he is #2, after the director) including HR and budgeting and site management, visits sites all over the state, manages ethics complaint hearings, writes and reviews contracts, takes legal questions from people in the agency on a huge variety of issues, deals with the board of directors, deals with the state legislature, deals with the federal government -- it's very varied. The downsides are that there is never enough time or enough staff to do everything that needs doing, but the upside is that he has very little "legal busywork" now and a lot more management and high level work. He also no longer has to bill hours, has only one client whose work he believes in, and the work-life balance and benefits are a lot better at the state.

In private litigation the work was really interesting, but the hours were brutal and there was a lot of busywork. With the recent economic downturn there was a big push to both work more hours AND bring in new business, which, when you're working endless hours, is hard to do, because you don't meet anyone but existing clients. They also made it very difficult to take vacation time or sick days or anything like that.

I guess the thing is, taking the Big Law job where he was a document monkey enabled him to move to a regional lawfirm and manage his own cases (before other associates were managing cases), and 10 years in litigation enabled him to move into a senior position with the state. So there may be a certain amount of seniority that has to be acquired before moving into positions you'll love. (I hate the phrase "paying your dues" because law firms will screw you without a second thought no matter how many dues you've paid, but there's something to be said for experience and seniority.) Your high-powered job may mitigate some of that for you.

I was a self-employed attorney before I had kids, but I had a love-hate relationship with it. When I go back to work full-time, I'll probably work for someone else.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:22 AM on January 31, 2012

I worked as a lawyer for a government agency (state, not federal). It was just about the best possible job I could imagine, and I loved it. The hours were much more reasonable than in any sort of private practice, and it was actually possible to have a life outside the office. My days were varied and interesting: a bit of legal research and writing; meetings with engineers, scientists, and angry citizens; negotiations; representing the agency at hearings; doing my own clerical work because there was no one else to do it. There was always way too much work and not enough time, and there were some stressful situations, but that's true nearly everywhere -- at least I could leave it in the office evenings and weekends, and I never had to hustle for clients.
posted by Corvid at 1:07 PM on January 31, 2012

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