Similarly, in a law school application, when asked "Why do you want to become a lawyer?", you probably shouldn't say, "Because I want to help people." It's cliche and the truth is, it's not entirely true. Certainly, you may want to help people. But fast-food workers help people. Sanitation workers help people. Do they do these jobs because they want to help people? I don't know, but I imagine there is a financial motivation in there somewhere.
If you do anything solely for the money, you likely won't be happy. Make no mistake about it; money is important. We need it to live. It pays for shelter, food and other stuff. If we choose a career path solely for the money, we may initially be happy. But eventually we will become dissatisfied. Abraham Maslow predicted it. He called the phenomenon "self-actualization." Once we meet our basic needs in life, we seek to self-actualize.
And that brings me to the point. A legal career can certainly be lucrative. At the same time, the cost of entry can be quite steep. Law school tuition has become notoriously costly. The opportunity cost of foregoing employment for three years is expensive. And the sheer investment of time, reading countless cases, preparing outlines, class time, study groups and the like are a huge investment. And today, with the state of the "legal economy" and high lawyer unemployment, the return on investment may be quite low. But there are still plenty of high paying legal jobs out there. New graduates are earning well into the six figures and after practicing for a few years, can make more money than they ever thought possible.
But practicing law for the money is an exercise in futility. The work is so demanding that doing it for money alone will quickly lead to career disatisfaction.
Instead, career satisfaction will result from becoming the best lawyer you can be. You will derive great satisfaction from developing expertise in your practice area. You will learn to rely upon a unique combination of research, collaboration, investigation, reasoning, anticipating future developments and the synthesis of all it into excellent legal advice. And there is nothing more satisfying than providing the best possible legal advice that, yes, helps people.
The irony of it is, that lawyers help people every day. But law students who go into it wanting "to help people" (in the idealistic sense) and end up in corporate law jobs will quickly become disaffected. Sadly, in many cases, with student debt they don't really have a choice. They have to take the high-paying big firm jobs. I would argue however, that even in these jobs, they can help people. They can help businesspeople solve problems. They can help them resolve disputes. Sure, it's not defending indigent clients, but it's still helping people. In fact, I have yet to run into a legal position that did not require the lawyer to help someone.
So, if you want to be a lawyer, one way or the other, you are going to end up helping people. It may not be exactly the kind of help you envisioned as an idealistic law student. But it's still helping. At its core, the practice of law is a service. And if you do not have the heart of a servant, you will be unhappy in law practice.
I had a doctors appointment yesterday. The doctor helped me in a way that no one else could. He helped to solve my medical problem. It was a pretty serious condition and I had been worried about. As I left the office, I felt a sense of relief and gratitude. And then it struck me.
On the way to doctor's office, just before my appointment, I had returned the call of a businesperson. She needed advice regarding business negotiations she was having that had stalled. She was obviously frustrated and concerned that the project might not make it. I asked her questions about the transaction. She described the project. I asked more questions. She explained some of the points of contention between the parties. In particular was the issue of the assumption of risk of certain elements of the transaction. I suggested several different mechanisms by which the parties could assign that risk. I could hear the "click" of the mental light bulb going off as she realized that these suggestions could effectively solve the impasse. I could sense her relief that there was hope that the parties could find a middle ground. Coming into the call, she was like I was going into the doctor's office. She was concerned and perhaps had worried about the issue. Going out of the call, she was like me leaving the doctor's office. She was relieved and optimistic about a resolution.
Simply, and like my doctor, I had helped her in a way that no one else could. And I took a great sense of satisfaction in that fact. I hadn't saved an innocent defendant from the death penalty. But I had helped someone. And as I thought about I realized that that is the point of the practice of law. We're here to help people. We do it every day. It is not only unavoidable, it's the point of it all. And if helping people ceases to be our reason for practicing law, that is when we lose our way as lawyers.
Best wishes in your legal career.