Should You Become a Lawyer?
Should you go to law school? Should you become a lawyer? These are very important questions and the decisions you make now will affect your career and even the rest of your life. Before you take that big step, make sure that practicing law is really for you. This article discusses the benefits and disadvantages of going to law school and practicing law.
So You Want to be a Lawyer?
So you're thinking of becoming a lawyer? Practicing law can be a rewarding but also frustrating and disappointing experience. Being a lawyer can be a terrific career for some people. For others, it can be a big mistake. Before you write the LSAT or enroll in law school you will want to take the following things into consideration:
- Practicing Law is Not Like on TV - Okay, you knew that. You knew that you will never have a Perry Mason moment when your amazing cross examination skills break down the witness and they confess to the murder, so that your own innocent client will go free. But movie and television court room theatrics aside, the real practice of law is very different in many different ways. Unless you are lucky enough to work for a government agency, or a big firm, you will likely spend most of your time scrounging for clients, many of whom would like nothing better than to stiff you for your bill. If you are a sole practitioner or work in a small firm, you will have to spend a lot of your time on administration: balancing the books, paying suppliers, collecting accounts receivable, and also marketing yourself to clients and colleagues. Before going into law school make sure that you have the skill set needed to manage the many demands of being a lawyer, which have nothing to do with actually being in the court room, but which are essential to your success. If not, you may find yourself being miserable and stuck in a profession that just is not right for you.
- Practicing Law is Hard Work - Every lawyer's experience is different and the amount of work you will have to put in varies based on the type of law you practice, and other circumstances. If you are on your own, you will have to struggle to get clients that can pay you. You may need to hang out at court houses to pick up clients or "networking" with unsavory characters such as bail bondsmen, real estate agents and doctors who can refer clients to you. If you work for a government agency or an established firm you may not need to work as hard to get clients, but you will still have to work to market yourself (more below). And no matter how you get your clients, if you want to succeed and not lose most of your cases you will need to work long hours. Preparing for cases, and being in trial, will cut into your time with your family.
- Your Will Need to Market Yourself (aka Brown Nosing) - If you work at a firm or for government, you will need to impress your superiors if you want to get on the partnership track or just stay on. This means golfing with the boss, laughing at inane jokes, and generally be an obsequious toad while putting in an obscene amount of hours as a junior lawyer. Sometimes you will even have to be the senior partner's gopher. The first job I had out of law school was at a huge law firm with established institutional clients. Unfortunately I didn't practice law so much as running errands for the senior partners. I guess they thought that helping them move their new furniture into their corner office was going to teach me about the law.
- People Hate Lawyers. - Actually, let me qualify that: Most people hate the legal profession because of negative media propaganda that paints lawyers as rich ambulance chasers. But most people like their own lawyer. What I mean by that is that although people have a generally poor impression of the ethics of the legal profession, they sure appreciate having a lawyer in their corner when they need one. No matter how good you are, however, you will still have to deal with a million lawyer jokes.
- Lawyer's Don't Make As Much Money As People Think - People have the misconception that all lawyers make a lot of money. It is true that some lawyers, for example those that work on big mergers and acquisitions, do make huge money. But most lawyers are not so lucky. Many lawyers struggle. Even if you are an excellent scholar of the law, you may not be successful if you lack the people skills to market yourself to get the high profile clients. Not all of us can be as media savvy as Gloria Aldred.
- Law School Costs A Lot of Money - the price of law school tuition varies, but if you want a law degree from a top tier university it is going to cost you a lot of money. You will be paying off the cost of your education for years to come.
- Finding A Law Job is Difficult These Days - Many law school graduates are finding it hard to get a job. There are a number of websites that have been started by students who claim that they were misled by their university about their job prospects and now are saddled with huge debts and no way to pay them.
- The Practice of Law is Changing - Like everything else in Canada and the United States, the legal profession is being challenged by offshore competition. Many law firms are now outsourcing the drafting of legal documents such as contracts to offshore law firms in India who are able to do the work a lot cheaper than you ever can. As this phenomenon spreads, it will make it even harder to earn a good living.
The Good Things About Becoming a Lawyer
Okay, enough of the negatives of practicing law; what are some of the positives? There are a lot of good things about being a lawyer:
- Lawyers are the Guardians of Democracy and Freedom - Countries that do not have a strong and independent legal system that can act as a check and balance to the power of government tend to have dismal human rights records. As a lawyer, you will be joining a profession that has fought for personal liberties ever since medieval England. Unless you choose to work for soulless banks robo-signing foreclosure documents to force little old ladies onto the street because they were a few penny short on their last mortgage payment, being a lawyer will give you the opportunity to be a defender of the weak and downtrodden. It will also give you the opportunity to defend guilty as hell criminals who thanks to you will get out and rape more innocent people. But it's all for the greater good. I mean that seriously: even when you do something as distasteful as defend someone you know is guilty of a horrible crime, you are serving the greater good by forcing the government to prove its case based on evidence and according to law. It keeps us from descending to the law of the vigilante.
- Being a Lawyer is Challenging and Rewarding - Law is a difficult mistress: she will take over a large part of your life and demand more of you than any other job or profession. But if you put in the time and the effort and serve her diligently you will find great rewards. Nothing can compare with the thrill of winning a big case, or knowing that you made a difference in your client's life, that you helped them when no one else could. Getting paid well isn't bad either.
The Practice of Law is an Honorable Profession. Lawyer jokes and a few conspicuous bad apples aside, most lawyers are ethical and effective advocates for their clients. Lawyers are governed by strict codes of conduct; and being part of this profession is a prestigious honor.
So there you have it. Becoming a lawyer can be both an amazing, rewarding experience or it can a huge mistake. Make sure that you know what you are getting into. In addition to some of the considerations listed above, I would suggest that you actually talk to a few lawyers about their experiences. If you don't know any lawyers yourself, you might try phoning some law firms and asking to speak to a lawyer briefly about his or her experiences. Many lawyers would be more than willing to share some of their insights.