Yet another career question - what is so terrible about being a lawyer?
January 11, 2014 11:14 PM   Subscribe

I decided that I want to be a lawyer. It was a childhood goal although for some time, I was quite lost as to what I wanted to be when I complete university. Over the past year or so, I have been leaning more and more towards law but people keep telling me not to do it because being a lawyer sucks. I like reading, researching and analyzing. I like writing. I like reading court cases. This should make me a good fit for being a lawyer... right? What should I ask myself if I want to determine whether or not law school would be a good fit and eventual path for my career?

Things that appeal to me about being a lawyer, off the top of my head:
1. The chance to help people
2. The idea of having a profession
3. Getting paid (I don't need a large salary, but having a salary would be nice)

Are any of these misguided or bad reasons for wanting to be a lawyer?
posted by cyml to Work & Money (38 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
The job market is crap right now. There are too many lawyers. Unless you can go to a top school, or go to school for free, it's a terrible economic proposition.
posted by mr_roboto at 11:26 PM on January 11, 2014 [15 favorites]

The down side to law school is the cost. Some people are paying upwards of $200,000 for their law degree. If you can keep the cost manageable, you should do great.
posted by JujuB at 11:27 PM on January 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

I liked all of those things. I loved researching stories in civil court filings. I loved the idea of working for Legal Aid protecting the less fortunate. Then I got to law school and realized my reasons would have been better during the 1960s when there was so much more opportunity than there is now that the legal jobs sector is experiencing serious turmoil and will never be the same as it was. (Plus the atmosphere of law school, at least in my experience, felt hostile to idealism. I dropped out.)

The world needs honorable lawyers and people need legal help. But the "getting paid" part is the hardest because of the combination of massive non-dischargeable student debt and the collapsing job market for attorneys. Attorneys practice a venerable profession that is strongly rooted in a pre-20th century world, when you couldn't Google. I strongly suggest you check out some of the New York Times's coverage of why LSAT applicants are rapidly dropping, before risking 21st century debt. You might also want to search the Web for the work of Paul Campos, including his book Don't Go To Law School Unless...

I once interviewed a psychologist in New York who specialized in counseling recent law graduates with few prospects. There are some dark stories out there of debt, despair, bitterness, JDs living on their parents' couches, and JDs who are forced to look on the bright side and sell sports headbands to get out from under their student loans after applying for hundreds of jobs...It's a different world out there from when my dad graduated law school with bad grades and there was a job for everyone.
posted by steinsaltz at 11:29 PM on January 11, 2014 [15 favorites]

To put it concisely, being a lawyer doesn't suck (so long as you can handle the hours).

It's the job market. The legal profession has not climbed out of the recession yet, and it may never because of how the industry is changing (large firms are going away, companies are willing to spend a lot less on retainers, more legal work is shifting to cheaper online platforms).

When you combine an awful job market with insane tuition expenses (many universities use their law schools as cash cows to feed other departments), it's rough going.
posted by Old Man McKay at 11:30 PM on January 11, 2014

Where do you live? That might change the answers...
posted by Pomo at 11:31 PM on January 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm Canadian, in Vancouver, so I wouldn't be spending $200 000 on tuition... but still a hefty amount (maybe 40 000?).
posted by cyml at 11:33 PM on January 11, 2014

American job market advice may not apply to you.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 11:35 PM on January 11, 2014 [4 favorites]

Brilliant. You can disregard most of the doom and gloom posts above. Your best bet is to chat with someone doing the work locally that you think you want to do. I'll Memail you some suggestions.
posted by Pomo at 12:42 AM on January 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

I am a lawyer and I am not currently practicing law. Volumes have been written about the downsides of being a lawyer and you can find it on the internet but anecdotally I think what has disillusions many people about law is that they go to law school thinking that being a lawyer will be some kind of continuation of the academic environment that they have been accustomed to after many years in school, only to find out that it's a business just like anything else. As a lawyer the most important things are that you need to find clients, you need to bill hours, you need to work for people you don't like or agree with. There's some notion out there that you go to law school and then automatically land a high paying job where you're paid to do noble, intellectual pursuits. There's so much about being a lawyer that you don't learn in law school and I think the people who do best as lawyers tend to be street smart people, actually, not the top students with the high test scores and grades. If you really want to pursue this, be a paralegal for a year. Seriously.
posted by banishedimmortal at 12:45 AM on January 12, 2014 [14 favorites]

What are your alternatives? You'll hear similar stories about every (every!) other profession. No one's safe, it's risky, etc. But if you're cut out for this, with only 40k debt, you could have a financially comfortable and sometimes fulfilling life in not very long at all. It would probably trump a run-of-the-mill office job in those regards, and even boring office jobs are thin on the ground in many places. This way, you'd have a skill that carries some value, that you could sell on your own if you had to. Yes, it's basically highly paid, difficult, specialized office work, but you could help people in practical, important ways and see the difference you make.
posted by cotton dress sock at 1:35 AM on January 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

I work with lawyers, but am not one myself.

To be a lawyer, you need to be able to emotionally distance yourself. Law in particular lets you see people at some of their very lowest points. Sure, lawyers get clients as preventative measures--people make wills, lay out terms of contracts, et cetera. But just as often they're looking for lawyers after they're already embroiled in a battle and at some of the lowest points of their lives. Someone embroiled in a legal battle with their ex-spouse for custody, or suing their previous employer for back wages, or their doctor for malpractice...they're often pretty difficult customers to deal with, because so much of the case is personal for them. And because you're advocating for your clients' interests, and going as the middleman between the opposing party's legal's hard not to get affected, and hard not to get turned into their verbal punching bag. Particularly when you juggle many legal cases a're getting the concentrated effect of all that negativity at you.

Lawyers have this image as some of the most high-strung people out there, and I bet it's partly because of this. And as stated above, it's a business like any other, so you have the usual pains of running a business on top of that. I agree that you're helping people, but quite a lot of law is going through the minutiae and paperwork. It's not all glamourous and exciting. Hell, in the day-to-day work, there's very little that's exciting, and a lot that's stressful and routine.

Your reasons aren't bad, and the much lower amount of debt helps. But think very hard about what it takes to be a lawyer other than that fancy piece of paper.
posted by Zelos at 1:41 AM on January 12, 2014 [4 favorites]

I'm not a lawyer, I'm a law librarian. Researching, reading court cases, writing (well, writing short things, we're not writing briefs), those are all things law librarians do. It's a fantastic profession, but the job market sucks just about as much as the lawyer job market does (maybe Canada is different for librarians, though?). Depending on the type of law you practice you might not actually find a need to research or read cases after you've been practicing for a few years, plenty of transactional lawyers don't read cases beyond the odd professional development/staying on top of big developments. What I see in a large-ish law firm is that a big portion of being a lawyer is being a business person, you have to sell your services to clients, maintain good relationships with them, work really hard to get your name out there as a expert. It's a very demanding life if you want to make the kind of money that pays back student loans.
posted by banjo_and_the_pork at 4:51 AM on January 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

The questions you should ask yourself are the same for becoming a lawyer as they would be for any other job.

- What kind of a life do I want to build for myself?
- How certain am I that this life will be one that I want for a long time?
- Is this path likely to help me achieve that life?
- AND, most importantly: are there easier/better ways to achieve the kind of life that I want to live?

Work to live. Do not live to work. It is a recipe for disappointment and resentment. For what it's worth, you seem pretty level headed on that front. But be careful not to make "helping people" be the reason you pursue a job. You can help people by doing a lot of things. You don't necessarily have to find that personal fulfillment in your job. (At the other end of that line of inquiry: know your limits. Know what kinds of work you would consider unethical and which would erode your sense of personal honor.)

You need to consider the above questions from a couple different angles and from a couple different time periods in your life. Do you want to have kids? Do you want to travel all the time or often? Do you want to own a home? Do you care about traditional retirement planning or are you going to wing it? Would you like to live abroad someday? Do you have a dog or would you like to own one someday? What do you consider a comfortable salary - and do you understand how that salary will work once you are earning it and paying off student loans? These very practical things will help you understand the reality of practicing law much better than knowing you like reading cases will. Liking what you do is really only ever the icing on the cake. The cake itself is whether or not the job affords you and permits you the type of life you want to live.

It's also important to note that our priorities change through life. Five years ago, I just needed to make more money to cover my student loans. I honestly didn't care what I did so long as I made more money, because I didn't have the luxury of thinking about anything else. Now that I am financially secure and stable, I can begin thinking more broadly about what I want in life. Right now, that is still more money, but with the added desire of flexibility to be a parent and flexibility to travel with my partner. I need to be mindful of all my competing priorities, but so long as I am making professional decisions based on those priorities, I know the result (whatever I choose to do) will be right for me.
posted by jph at 5:13 AM on January 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

median salary is high, but the distribution curve looks like a dromedary camel: a big cluster of salary around 50-60k, a smaller cluster around 150k. given the high cost of tuition, one may be financially fucked unless one makes it into that higher salary hump.
posted by jpe at 5:21 AM on January 12, 2014

ah, just saw the part about Canada. you should still crunch the numbers carefully, but that may be less of a concern.

that said, to the merits. I work in tax (not at a firm, but as an in-house tax guy at an investment shop), and I get to use my brain a decent amount. I'd say about 25% of the time I'm doing research and writing in interesting issues, with the rest being admin and garbage work that I don't really like. and that's a pretty good ratio, I'd say.
posted by jpe at 5:27 AM on January 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

Agreed with the above. The cost and the glut of law school grads make it difficult to be successful and not dirt poor post-graduation. I live in Chicago and have a friend who will be graduating from law school this summer. His graduating class has 300 people. And that's just one law school in a city that has a dozen. Chicago is a big city, but there's no way everyone is going to get a job.

On a personal note, my dad is a lawyer. He's very well-respected and loves his job, but he wasn't around a lot when I was growing up because he was working 70 hour weeks to try to make partner. Even now he takes a lot of calls on his personal time and he's constantly checking email. There are other jobs like this that require a lot of hours, but just keep that in mind.
posted by anotheraccount at 5:30 AM on January 12, 2014

I'm not a lawyer but my sister is and so are a few of my closest friends. I imagine that for the reasons that [banishedimmortal] and [Zelos] describe in posts above, they ALL hate being lawyers. All of them. My sister does well enough for it to be a golden cage for her. She has to put three kids through college otherwise she would change her career in a millisecond. My close friend, who worked as a lawyer on beahlf of the city of new york to prosecute abusive parents and protect children in foster care, hated it so much she quit being a lawyer forever. Out of all the professions practiced by people I meet throughout life, for some reason being an attorney seems to be the one that elicits such strong responses. I will never know exactly what they feel as i've never practiced, but I sure as hell would think twice about entering into a career like that after meeting so many disgruntled professionals.
posted by postergeist at 5:37 AM on January 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

I don't know how different the market in Canada is, what the state of Canadian student loans is, or what kind of truth in lending laws there are there. I am an attorney in the US who went to a first tier school and graduated right after the market crashed. My student debt is over six figures and a number of my classmates have had to leave the field of law entirely because there are so few jobs.

As to your desires -

1. The chance to help people

Many non-law jobs will allow you to do this, and will allow you to select what you're doing a little better and probably have a higher income to student debt ratio. Public interest law jobs can be hard to get and do not necessarily pay all that well. If you like helping people, have you thought about nursing, teaching, or counseling?

If you really want to use the law to help people, you have to be able to leave your work at work, and also to accept that you won't be able to help some of the people you encounter who need it most. You will have the "I am sorry that something terrible happened to you but you have no legal recourse" conversation over and over. People will tell you about doing really awful stuff, they will cry on you, and they will feel very comfortable talking to you about their various biased views of the world.

2. The idea of having a profession

What about having a profession is appealing? If you like the intellectual challenges this is a good reason, but there are many bad reasons.

3. Getting paid (I don't need a large salary, but having a salary would be nice)

Having a salary means I get paid the same whether I work 40 hours in a week or 60, and a lot of weeks it's closer to 60.

I like my career and my prospects before I entered the field were terrible, but I honestly think it is a very bad idea to go into law if you can be happy doing something else.
posted by bile and syntax at 5:38 AM on January 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

cost of entering legal profession >>> potential earnings for most candidates. if you can be happy doing something else where the cost of entry is more in line with how much you can earn, do that instead.

there are a lot of ways to help people and do research and writing, etc. if you need an intellectual challenge, there are a lot of other ways to get that as well.

as for your thoughts on salary - YMMV but i much prefer a union, hourly wage w/ overtime and paid time off to having a salary + benefits with no paid overtime. lawyers work longer hours than most people think. they take work home all the time. if you're making a salary that sounds good at first, it can be pretty demoralizing to watch your effective hourly wage decrease as you spend more and more time at work. (as well as preventing you from having time to de-stress and do other things.) i guess it's different when you're so into your work you want it to be your whole for me, even though i have a law degree, i like having good work life balance too. just a thought.

good luck with whatever path you choose.
posted by zdravo at 6:12 AM on January 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm a lawyer in Canada. I practice civil litigation at a mid-size firm (50 or so lawyers).

Tuition may be $40k ish but you still have to support yourself during school, buy books, etc. My loans ended up being closer to $70k which is very much not inconsequential. Student debt does not go away.

The job market here is still awful. Firms are hiring, but there are too many applicants, even in Canada.

Researching, analyzing and reading are part of what I do, but what no one tells you is that most clients don't want to pay you to do any of those things. I'm fortunate that most of my clients are large companies that can afford it when necessary, but I still have to watch the clock carefully.

Speaking of watching the clock, you know about billable hours, right? You're accountable for every six minutes of your time. You can't bill for everything you do in a day, so a billables goal in the neighbourhood of 2000 hours quickly translates to 60, 70 hour weeks. More if you're less efficient or have to write off any of your time. Missing your goal is a very bad thing and could cost you your job at some firms. One or two 60 or 70 hour weeks most people can handle, but doing that all year for a career cracks a lot of people. In real world terms it means not seeing your family or friends, giving up hobbies, and just generally being kind of flaky in your personal life when something comes up at work. That can take a toll.

Want to escape billables? Some do, but beware: legal aid and public interest jobs are very hard to come by and therefore very competitive. Funding is always being cut, and practitioners in those fields are constantly required to do more with less. Many idealistic students enter law school wanting these jobs only to end up working at a firm because they didn't happen to be one of the handful that got one.

Clients are a mixed bag. They frequently don't want to follow your advice or pay you. Dealing with companies is a little smoother but you often have to navigate convoluted corporate policies that don't always apply to how you think your case needs to be handled. Dealing with individuals you get a lot of people who spend five minutes on google and think they know better than you. They will blame you if and when you fail to achieve their desired result, regardless of how reasonable their expectations are.

There's also a lot of stress from the job itself. The law is perpetually in a state of flux, and every legal opinion you give is essentially an educated guess. There are a ton of procedural pitfalls that require constant vigilance. Nonetheless, your clients have a lot riding on what you do.

Fortunately I can't speak to firm politics, as I've been incredibly lucky to have avoided that in my career, but it's a thing and can make your life miserable.

All this said, I actually like being a lawyer (most days). But it's not for everyone. If I were you I'd at least try to shadow a lawyer or two and get a sense of what practice is like. (You probably won't get a super-accurate sense, though, because no one is going to make you sit there while they dictate a reporting letter for forty-five minutes or take you home with them while they read their file after dinner for tomorrow's discovery.)

Honestly, though, for most people law school is a bad idea; and it has nothing to do with grades or LSAT scores.

Good luck in whatever you do.
posted by AV at 6:38 AM on January 12, 2014 [18 favorites]

I only know one Canadian lawyer and what made me realize that I prefer my boring technical job is that I could never handle the moral grey zones that come up. And they are very, very grey. As mentioned above, it's a business like any other, and everyone is looking to get paid, looking for loopholes, looking for sneaky tactics to use to get an edge for their client. You are helping people, but helping people in a way that erodes at your moral compass.

You say your list of likes seem to jive with being a lawyer. As mentioned above another key characteristic (maybe more important than the others) is the ability to emotionally distance yourself. I can't tell from your writing if you have that quality too.

I suggest trying to get into contact with actual lawyers and see what they have to say about their profession.

The problem with most jobs is that we don't know they exist. We only know what we see on tv and in life - I'm a doctor, lawyer, engineer, psychologist; I work in retail, I work construction... With such a small pool to draw from, of course you'd say lawyer. Maybe try taking a second look at your interests and the consider more nuanced positions that would fit it, and ask around.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:01 AM on January 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

You've demonstrated an interest and skill at the basics --- research, writing, helping people.

What sucks about being a lawyer is litigating. Litigating sucks.

Needy, demanding clients who won't take your advice and then call crying because they did exactly what you told them not to . . . judges who are from a mysterious planet in the outer solar system and scream at you for . . . for . . . well, you're never sure exactly what they're screaming about. You can research and write all day and night; you can be 100% positive that your position is correct and have all the law on your side, just to watch the judge disagree (mind, and not agree with the other side, but just disagree with everyone) and screw up your entire case with the stroke of a pen.

And in this market, "helping people" turns in to starving yourself and working for free unless you either have a very strong stomach to shake people down or you're lucky enough to be hired by a firm with a billing department. People just don't have money for lawyers -- but they NEED lawyers because either they're about to be screwed, or they didn't get one at first and now they're really screwed. And when a judge does something stupid, you're going to have to sit the client down and tell them they can stay screwed or cough up the money for more legal work. It's tough. It's so heartbreaking to tell someone hurting that you can't help them unless they pay you a lot of money -- but if they don't, then YOU don't pay your rent and YOU don't eat.

I know I sound all jaded; I certainly did NOT like civil litigation. What I did like was pro bono criminal defense work and estate work. What I'm doing now is, miraculously, finally, magically, 100% research and writing in-house. Those jobs do exist, but it took four or five years of private practice to finagle my way out. As people have said above, the job market is extremely tough.

If you can read and digest what sucks about being a lawyer and still be OK with it, then by all means, go for it. (Also bear in mind that my experience will be different from yours because of Canada's apprenticeship requirements, which sound awesome. Why not talk to some people still in that stage? They're likely to be experiencing the worst of early practice and could tell you what it's like.)
posted by mibo at 7:02 AM on January 12, 2014 [4 favorites]

Vancouver has a very strange job market. It's a small town masquerading as a world class city.

There are few top law firms, they pick from the best of the class at UBC, and the work - life balance is horrendous.

So if you're not at the top of the class, your next best option is in house at the government. If it's federal, I hope you speak French. Surprisingly government and the firms supplying government are one of the biggest shows in town. Most Vancouver based companies are too small to require in house counsel.

If you decide to hang out your own shingle, your target audience may be limited. Many people use lawyers of the same ethnicity, unless you have a reputation for being the absolute best.

Certainly there are exceptions to this. If you are well connected in Vancouver, especially if you know a partner in a firm already, please disregard my message. It is easiest to get a job here if you already know someone.
posted by crazycanuck at 7:19 AM on January 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm a paralegal in the U.S. The goal of an attorney is not to write and research. It's to stop writing and researching. Writing and researching is what the law clerks and first/second year associates do. It's not the career, although you do need to be able to write and research and that's a good skill combo to have. The career is building your book of business/bringing in new clients (money!) to the firm. That means networking, attending events, volunteering for mock trial clubs, going to long lunches with people you don't know well, maintaining client relationships (depending on the subset of law you're in), etc.

That being said, your goals of 1-3 are not reasons to be a lawyer. You can help people, have a profession, and get paid doing almost every other job out there. Law is hard: it's 60-70 hour weeks, constant fires, do-or-die deadlines, stress stress stress, no vacations (at most firms, if you take one, you gotta make up the billable time), no time for friends/family, and extreme work environments (that stress gets to people). Based on what I've seen, there's only a very small percentage of people who are internally wired to respond well to those demands. I'm a person who said "eh, that sounds fine," and then I did it--as a paralegal, even--and just went "nope." I am so glad I didn't jump right to law school, like I wanted, because it would have been a colossal mistake (for me). Test the waters before you dive into them--do an internship, be a paralegal, shadow an attorney (but be aware that a lot of law firms will go into Honeymoon Mode and you won't see the true extremes of the culture).
posted by coast99 at 7:33 AM on January 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

I just left the legal profession. I practiced for ten years ... A short period in civil litigation and then bout eight years in criminal defense.

I realize now that I was never suited to law practice because I hate conflict. And at the time I went to law school I didn't really understand that about myself. Only after practicing did I realize that. It was easier in criminal defense because I felt criminal defense was "nobler," you could go to extremes on behalf of your client and not feel bad about it ... But still, having constant conflict, deadlines, clients' expectations, and the demands of judges looming over me at all times just beat me up psychologically 24/7.

When you are pondering whether to go to law school, don't focus so much on the broad-brush things like "I like research," "I like the idea of a profession." Think on a more fine grained level about what it's like to go to work every day as a lawyer. For example, can you deal with have a few dozen people seriously pissed off at you at any given time? Can you deal with having to make and receive uncomfortable phone calls every single day, from demanding clients and whip smart opposing counsel who are constantly undermining you and are basically pricks even when they are pretending to be nice? You'll have hearings/trials a month away that you dread so much that, if you're anything like me, you can't fully enjoy anything in the month leading up because you're so stressed out and full of dread. There will be minor mistakes you know you made that you're waiting for your opponent to realize and try to capitalize on. You have to consider what the daily life of a lawyer is like, before you go to law school.
posted by jayder at 7:54 AM on January 12, 2014 [6 favorites]

You may love being a lawyer. The bottom line is that in the US the ratio of law school debt to employment options is way off. In Canada, the debt may be lower (but again don't forget the cost of supporting self if required to do so) but the associated salaries are often lower too. The bottom line, as it often is, seems to be-if you can afford it and/or handle the financial risk involved then pursue your dreams...if not, think twice. If you could volunteer or work in a law firm or as a paralegal first that might be helpful as well.
posted by bquarters at 8:05 AM on January 12, 2014

So I'm one of the few people I know who likes being a lawyer and am glad I went to law school. However, I wouldn't do it today unless the following were true:

1) I got a FULL ride to a good school.
2) I got into a TOP school. I don't know Canadian law schools but the equivalent of an Ivy in the US.


3) I had LOTS of savings or wealthy parents that were willing to support me through a long period of unemployment and underemployment.

This last one cannot be understated. I graduated in 2008 when things were getting bad, but were nothing compared to the years that followed. I was unemployed for 7 months after I took the bar. I eventually got a job through a friend in an area of the law I had never had any interest. It was a very unglamorous job, but I worked hard, won cases, eventually got promoted and was able to leverage that into another much better job. Still I'm not practicing in the area of law I would like to be and probably never will. My job pays a comfortable salary, but hardly the big bucks.

Of course my story rarely happens anymore. I see kids who went to much higher ranked schools than mine with better grades who have passed the bar and are fighting to get law clerk jobs I had as a 2L. Seriously $15 an hour if they are lucky. A lot of them can't even get that and are happy to get an unpaid internship so they at least have something on their resume.

So yeah if you get into a really, really, really good school or get a full ride so that you graduate with ZERO debt and your parents don't mind paying your rent and your student loans for a few years (and I do mean at least 1-2 years) then I would go.
posted by whoaali at 8:25 AM on January 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

Government legal work could be more up your alley. I know people in the US who work for the federal government drawing up policy interpretations/implications of legal matters, and legal analysis of policy. Lots of research and writing, lots of analyzing. And you are helping people, albeit indirectly.

Try to contact people in the field for face to face chats. And try things out. Being a paralegal is a great way to see how the law world works.

Do you want to stay in Canada? If you are confident about your scholastic abilities and are interested in living elsewhere, one option would be to go to the UK, and look into doing a conversion course, which is usually only a one year affair. Getting the degree is relatively easy, but getting a pupillage afterwards can be very tough. Going this route may limit your ability to go back to North America, however.
posted by troytroy at 8:40 AM on January 12, 2014

If everyone who liked reading, writing, researching, and helping people while building a career were to apply to law school, there would be a terrible, terrible glut of un- and under-employed lawyers out there. Oh, wait...

The thing is, there are many ways to meet those ends without going to law school--and to start tomorrow, not after three years of expensive schooling (and lost opportunity). In addition, I have found in my years of practice that I have spent significantly more time arguing what "and" means, or how to apply a poorly drafted regulation (with the author of said regulation, now in private practice, on the phone conceding that he never really gave any thought to how the regulation should or would be applied), than anything that ever looked like "law" from the outside.

When I was a kid, one of the guidance counselors at school asked me and a bunch of other seventh graders what we wanted to do when we grew up. There were about 8 of us, and 3 or 4 of us confidently said we wanted to be marine biologists. I, who hate the beach, and water, and sailing, and boats, and who is actually not really jazzed about animals, was among them. None of us became marine biologists.

I think "being a lawyer" is the "becoming a marine biologist" of one's early- to mid-twenties. Few know what it means, and those who actually are passionate and informed about it don't need internet strangers to validate their dream. They just make it happen because it's their real and true passion.

If what you want to do is help people, help people. Only--really and truly, only--become a lawyer if being a lawyer is what you want to do (not helping people by being a lawyer, but being a lawyer itself), and no other grueling, thankless, shit-shoveling undertaking can provide the same rewards.

Written from my desk, at work, staring down the barrel of a 70-point diligence project totaling $60+ million in exposure that needs to be completed by Friday.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 9:07 AM on January 12, 2014 [4 favorites]

Just chiming in again with some Canada-specific comments.

The apprenticeship (called articles or articling) is a good experience if you can land one, but the scarcity factor means that it actually functions as a barrier to a lot of people. Law students need to complete articles to get called to the bar, but students have to find their own placements in the job market. There's no one overseeing the ratio of law grads to firms hiring articling students. This means that if firms aren't hiring, students can't get licenced. Here in Ontario, it's been enough of an issue that they've created a committee at the Law Society to look at the problem. So far what they've come up with is an extra course that could function as an equivalent for licencing purposes, but people are skeptical about it creating a two-tier system and requiring an additional financial outlay from students who are already financially strapped.

I would think hard about obtaining a law degree abroad, unless your law degree is from a widely-recognized school (Harvard, Yale, Oxford, etc.) that constitutes an opportunity in and of itself that warrants going abroad. There are only about 20 or so law schools in Canada; they're all good and all quite competitive. There are a lot of people who go abroad when they don't get into law school here and then try to get accredited and work here when they graduate. It can be done, but it's another hurdle in an already-tough market. Additionally, if there were any effort to align the number of law grads with the number of articling jobs, it would be further confounded by the glut of foreign-trained candidates.
posted by AV at 9:31 AM on January 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

1. The chance to help people
2. The idea of having a profession
3. Getting paid (I don't need a large salary, but having a salary would be nice)

Wanting to be a lawyer because you want a paying job is a pretty major leap (also it may actually result in negative pay, so is an especially poor choice). Almost everyone who works has a profession; everyone who works gets paid (human rights abuses aside, obviously). Almost all those jobs help someone do something.

Most lawyers aren't TV show lawyers. Actually, no lawyers are TV show lawyers. Of the few lawyers I know who haven't left the field, most spend their days tweaking contracts and filling out patent applications. They mostly just help assholes be assholes to other assholes.

If you want to meet your criteria in a real-world way, consider IT. (If you are actually interested in legal stuff, look into IT forensics or the field of litigation support, both of which are super-cool and growing.)
posted by Lyn Never at 10:04 AM on January 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm a lawyer in Vancouver. I graduated in 2009 when the market was just starting to get bad in Canada. Here's the thing about becoming a lawyer in Canada... you don't just pass the bar exam and then poof, you're a fully licensed lawyer. You need to land an articling position with a firm and finish a year of work first. You start competing for a summer job in your second year of law school, so those first year grades do matter. In third year you compete for articling positions and firms often give preference to their previous year's summer students. If you don't land an articling position by the time you graduate, you are pretty darn screwed... by the next year's round of offers, you'll be competing with the new graduating class, and it will be painfully obvious on your applications that you were passed over the last time around. You're damaged goods.

If you're fortunate enough to land an articling position, you're in for possibly the worst time of your life. Articling students are pretty much slave labour. You get paid peanuts and you're loaded down with all the worst, most tedious tasks that none of the associates want to do. And still, you're competing, because your firm might have 20 articling students and only 3 jobs available at the bitter end. So politics between the students can get ugly. The decision of who the firm hires will largely come down to who billed the most, because the ultimate goal of any law firm is money. So you will need to wave goodbye to any semblance of a personal life if you want your articling year to count for anything. It's also a bit of a popularity contest. Did you schmooze the right people? If you just put your nose down and work really hard, but never make an impression on those who matter, hello unemployment.

I know people who graduated law school in the previous few years who are still looking for articles two, three years later. It's pretty much hopeless for them at this point, so they're stuck with expensive degrees they can't use because they're still ineligible to take the bar. And of those who "made it," all of my classmates hate their jobs with a fiery passion. Most are looking to move in-house to eliminate the miserable torment of billing, but as pointed out by crazycanuck, Vancouver lacks the big corporate headquarters to support much of a job market for in-house counsel. You need several years of experience in the right areas of law to even be considered for these positions, and your goal of helping people need not apply unless "helping" a huge corporation gives you the warm fuzzies. I work in-house and while it's much better than before, I still work a lot of weekends. I still lay in bed awake at night thinking about work and get cold sweats when fires erupt. I don't make great money.

Until you've worked in a law firm, you really have no idea what it's like to be a lawyer. If you're serious about it, try being a paralegal or assistant at a firm first and see if that's an environment you'll enjoy.
posted by keep it under cover at 10:24 AM on January 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

basically, the problem is this graph. Tuition is high, because everyone thinks they will be in the right hand spike, but unless you are top of your class from an elite school (ex: an Ivy), it's far more likely you will be in the left hand hill with a lot of debt.
posted by yeolcoatl at 11:41 AM on January 12, 2014

Yikes! What keep it under cover said is a very very good reason to be scared. I'm married to a lawyer who has not been able to find a job at a firm. He's smart, talented, had a great internship while in law school, got good grades, but wasn't at the very top of his class. However, he's been able to basically freelance, and build up a solid practice. We have a lot of debt to deal with, but at this point, the tradeoff of time for income seems less desirable as we're getting ready to have kids. We can get by with each of us working about 35 hours a week (ok, sometimes I work less), and while we live a much simpler life than lawyers at the top, we get to spend lots of time together.

Anyway, if him working as a lawyer depended on him being able to get in at a firm for a year, our lives would suck so much. We'd have all this debt and literally nothing to show for it. We are not rich by any measure, and have very real fears about the debt burden, but we're really happy because we were able to find an alternative to the firm life.
posted by ohisee at 12:12 PM on January 12, 2014

I'm a lawyer who likes reading court cases, researching, analyzing, and so on. I agree with the other answers that those are not the primary day-to-day things that most lawyers do, and it would be helpful to consider what the actual day-to-day tasks of actual lawyers are like. I've worked in a small law firm and a big one, and neither has been anything like I'd imagined beforehand. I agree that you should talk to lawyers in your area or work at a law firm to get a feel for what it is like.

In addition, here are some questions I wish I'd asked myself before going to law school:

1. Are you ok with dealing with problems that no amount of research, analysis, and argument can solve? Sometimes clients will make very bad decisions, and will not come to you for advice until it's far to late for any lawyerly action to make much of a difference in the outcome. And the client will be upset that you can't fix their problem, and will probably not want to pay you. Are you ok with that?

2. Are you ok with your hard work and thoughtful professional advice being ignored by your client, often for completely irrational reasons?

3. Are you ok with most of your discussions being about mundane matters, rather than the finer points of law? Like, "Your decision to throw a rock through your husband's girlfriend's window is going to have some negative legal consequences for you. No, I am not going to try to help you get back at her in other ways, even though you think she really deserves it. Yes, I'm sure she really is a bitch and your husband's a jerk, and I'm happy to listen to you vent your anger at them over and over and over again while I try to get the information I need to help you."

4. Are you ok with your clients frequently lying to you, making it much harder for you to help them?

5. Are you ok with having a great deal of your life involve dealing with other lawyers, many of whom are willing to do anything they can to beat you? Are you ok dealing with ridiculously childish retaliation games played by even top partners at world-class firms? Does this square well with your abstract notion of "being a professional"?

6. Are you ok with being called at 3am to bail someone out of jail? Or being woken up at 3am because a partner in a different time zone needs an answer to a question NOW?

7. Are you ok with investing a large part of your non-work time in schmoozing for clients? Are you ok with spending a lot of time on self-promotion?

8. Are you ok with working 30 days in a row, 10+ hours a day, if that's what's needed for the case? Are you ok with having to drop everything (including long-planned vacations) whenever an emergency arises?

I've managed to survive my not-particularly-well-thought-out decision to go to law school. I don't have any crippling debt, but only because I was lucky. I can't tell from your question if you're one of the people that would actually like all of the things I listed. But if not, please consider that there are lots of professions that involve writing, analysis, and helping people, and some of them may be a better fit for you than being a lawyer.
posted by SockISalmon at 12:30 PM on January 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

>If you're serious about it, try being a paralegal or assistant at a firm first

I was going to post earlier to say this. A couple of benefits to being a paralegal are (1) the cost of entry - tuition and time - are probably 1/10 that of a lawyer and (2) you can do the work you enjoy doing and let the lawyer deal with the client and most of the issues that create grief.
posted by yclipse at 2:41 PM on January 12, 2014

In the Vancouver area, you're not going to get a paralegal job without getting a paralegal diploma. Capilano's program is the most well-known, and is a full-time, two-year intensive program. VCC also offers one, as do a handful of other places. The approximate cost of Capilano's program is around $10K, and I believe that number doesn't include textbooks. Sure, it's cheaper than law school, but it's no cakewalk either. And all the caveats above about billable hours and work stress will probably apply, especially if you go to a bigger firm.

I do know of legal assistants in Vancouver that have gotten their jobs without a legal assistant certificate (which is usually a part-time program, and is far less intensive). The certificate program lasts about a year, and those who've gotten their jobs without the certificate usually worked their way up from a filing clerk or an admin assistant or some such.

If you want a taste of law without plunking down too much cash, I'd say get a legal assistant job to test the waters...if you can find one. The competition is fierce there too.

Alternatively, talk to a bunch of lawyers/paralegals/legal assistants. You won't get as full of a picture compared to if you actually work in a firm, but it's a lot better than just relying on hearsay and brochures from schools.
posted by Zelos at 6:15 PM on January 12, 2014

Jumping off from Zelos' point, the VCC program allows students to work part- (or full-) time while attending and I believe it actually requires you to have a job already. Some employers will put you through the course, in exchange for your commitment to work there for a set period of time after graduation.

Starting out as a filing clerk or even reception is not a bad idea; we have had people within a year, provided they were motivated and capable, work from entry level up to positions with much more variety and decision-making opportunities. People who want to get paralegal or other certification are encouraged. It's all a question of "fit", but I assume many firms are also happy to accommodate the right candidate. We prefer people who want to learn and have the right attitude, over those with credentials who won't roll up their sleeves to help the team.
posted by Pomo at 12:15 AM on January 13, 2014

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