How can this be? First of all, starting any new job, much less a new career is difficult and stressful. The majority of new law graduates end up working in law firms. And with the consolidation of firms that began in the ‘90s, these neophyte lawyers often find themselves working in firms with hundreds, if not thousands of other lawyers. The first thing most new lawyers learn to their dismay is that in a firm, they largely lose all control over their schedules. For the first time in their lives, their needs are subordinate to senior associates, partners and clients. In school, most students set their own schedules- when to study and when to play. In a law firm, schedules are set by someone else and there is very little, if any, time to play.
The billable hour requirement is your new time management master. Worse, much of the work new lawyers do isn’t even billable. As a result, new lawyers have to work a great deal of hours, frequently giving up evenings, weekends and holidays due to last minute demands of others. Even worse yet, the billable hour dragon is also the metric by which new lawyers are compared to other lawyers in the firm. The comparisons that occur throughout law school- the grading curve, class honors, Law Review, etc. only get worse when billable hours are used to determine compensation and partner potential.
And unfortunately, in some cases, this leads to unhealthy competition among new associates. In a law firm, you will likely be surrounded by a lot of arguably brilliant people. Even if you’re very smart, you may feel pretty stupid when faced with the typical law firm talent pool. Further, because most law firm lawyers engage in practice specialties, you are guaranteed to encounter lawyers on a daily basis who are much better than you at almost anything as it relates to those specialties.
New lawyers, who received little feedback (other than grades) in law school, suddenly find their work, pleadings, briefs, memos and the like bathed in red ink by a senior associate or partner. And the red ink may not even be the result of bad work by the lawyer, it’s simply that the grader has different preferences or practices.
And then there are politics. And law firms are frequently partnerships, where every partner gets a vote. Politics are a part of corporate America and the American Way, for that matter. But politics taken to an unhealthy level can lead to unhappiness and frustration, especially in the eyes of a younger and idealistic lawyer. These new lawyers can easily become disillusioned and jaded when they begin to realize that decisions are not always made on their merits, but rather on the basis of political expediency.
Finally, many new lawyers began the study of law with the aim of helping people, fighting injustice and defending the oppressed. Unfortunately, law student debt can quickly divert those students into the more “practical” law firm career track. Simply, the money is too enticing to resist. So, these students believe, deep down inside, that they have “sold out” for money. They see their peers working as public defenders and prosecutors and end up hating firm life because they mistakenly believe that after all, the practice of law is really all about money.
Which brings me to the point.
In spite of all of the above, I believe that most new lawyers should work, at least for a while, in a law firm. The reason is actually pretty simple. In a law firm, you are surrounded by lawyers. And the practice of law is, in reality, a trade of sorts. You learn the practice of law by doing. Certainly, law school and the bar exam provide you with a great deal of the skills and knowledge required to practice law- legal reasoning, effective writing, black letter law and procedural matters. But with the practice of law, you learn by doing. There is simply no way around it.
Until you have actually drafted your first motion for summary judgment, you really cannot fully understand the elements of a claim, defenses, and the use of precedent to effectively support your position. Until you have conducted due diligence, you cannot understand the critical components of an asset purchase agreement. The practice of law is at its core, the essence of a trade (at the risk of offending anyone, this is also the same process by which plumbers learn to plumb and electricians learn to electrify).
If you doubt me, do a little Internet research. In the old days, you could become a lawyer without a Juris Doctorate, or even a college degree for that matter. Lawyers like Abraham Lincoln became lawyers by reading books, pleadings and perhaps working as a clerk for an established lawyer.
Certainly, today’s lawyers are infinitely better educated when they sit for the bar exam. But at its core the practice of law is a trade. And trades have “tradesmen” (in law firm vernacular, we call them ”senior associates” or “partners”), as well as “apprentices” (called, “first-years” or “second- years” and so on).
So here’s the point. As much as you may hate law firm life, you are in reality, perfecting your craft. And you are doing it because you are surrounded by a number of lawyers who are better at it than you are. These lawyers will not only teach you, if you let them, but they will also keep you out of a great deal of trouble. Law firms not only are populated with great teachers with practical “real world” experience, but generally have incredible resources such as unlimited Lexis and/or Westlaw subscriptions, vast libraries and interesting continuing legal educations programs.
Law firms typically also engage in pro bono programs. This means that you may be able to practice in one of those areas you dreamed about in law school and actually get paid for it.
Which brings me to my other point. One of the best places to learn the practice of law is, curiously enough, at a law firm. You paid to go to law school and learned a great deal. In a law firm, you will quickly learn a great deal more, and they will pay you to do it. The practice of law is the perfect intersection between commerce and academia. You are paid to actually increase your own intellectual capital. You are paid to increase the value of your most important asset- your capability as a lawyer.
So, if you are still in law school and struggling with what you perceive as “selling out”, take heart. You can work in a law firm for a while and maybe still accomplish your objectives. And you may even find, as many new lawyers do, that law firm life can be collegial, interesting and rewarding.
And if you are in a law firm and struggling with those new lawyer blues, take heart. More importantly, take an assessment of where you are. For people of faith, we call it “counting your blessings.” You have graduated from law school. You have earned your law license. You are practicing law. And, you are likely making more money than you ever have in your life. Most importantly, you are developing your craft as a lawyer.
Is law firm life tough? It can be. But it doesn’t have to be. If you keep it in perspective and remember the foregoing, it may actually become one of the high points of your legal career.
Best wishes in your legal career. And if you want to maximize your law school experience, be sure and read my book, Law School Labyrinth- A Guide to Making the Most of Your Legal Education (Kaplan Publishing, March 31, 2009).