Since I decided to leave the legal field behind, my father and other relatives have given me a hard time. "How could you leave such an interesting and challenging field?", they ask. Like almost all non-lawyers in society, my family members are convinced that I left a genteel, upper class line of work for a rough and tumble existence in the corporate world. To help others in my position who are getting unnecessary guff for making the right choice, I present myths vs. realities of the legal profession.
Myth: Law school is a hotbed of ideas. Students study with professors who are as brilliant as Plato. The Socratic Method teaches students the law while also raising their consciousness. Everyone in law school is devoted only to the furtherance of everyone's learning and knowledge of the law. It is three years in an intellectual idyll, after which law students are totally prepared with the knowledge of all areas of law.
Reality: Law school is like high school if there were no parents and tons of alcohol. Professors are insecure bullies who enjoy making students squirm and relish in hiding the ball as much as possible. They have no real experience in practicing law, so they will push the limits of legal abstraction in trying to prove their brilliance to their law student sycophants. Professors have little time to help students outside of class, making it clear that they have more important things to do. The students are mostly comprised of the overcompetitive and socially stunted people you hated in high school and your undergraduate studies. In the hyper competitve atmosphere fostered and encouraged in law school, these peoples' most sociopathic tendencies come to the surface. Law school prides itself on "teaching students how to think like lawyers". The only thing the school does is teach students how to be law professors. The dirty business of actually training student the ins and outs of daily practice is left to law firms. Never mind that firms fighting for their financial survival have little to no interest in showing a new lawyer the ropes. They need someone who can hit the ground running, which is not how most new law grads can be characterized.
Myth: Law firm life is like "The Good Wife". You work in a skyscraper, but are able to take cases that the "little guy" who is innocent but being accused of terrible crimes by a system gone mad. The firm is able to use tons of resources hunting down clues to spring these innocent clients. After you win the case, you all sit in a plush library, drinking brandy from snifters while the partners break down what went right and what went wrong, taking pains to help the junior lawyers understand.
Reality: Law firm life is toxic and pressure packed. If you work at a big firm, you have sociopathic partners trying to parcel out small pieces of their cases so that junior associates can't steal their business. Clients will be fighting the firm on the bill tooth and nail, while the partners put ever more pressure on the associate whose time they must write off. If you're at a small firm, you have the same environment but with more anxiety around bringing in business. Partners will hold meetings telling all the junior associates what they're doing wrong. In both cases, senior attorneys have no interest or incentive to mentor young attorneys. So, the training that law schools expect firms to provide is non-existent. The young attorney is left in a limbo where she cannot make mistakes, but doesn't know enough to know whether she is handling the case correctly. The clients are either cheap or unethical, often both. If the firm is able to get paid on a matter within 30 days, it's a cause for celebration. Most of these clients, who feel like they can do what the attorney just accomplished, will be very slow to pay or will simply threaten to file a bar complaint because of the fees. The firm will discount the fee and find the next unsavory character to represent. The sociopathic people from law school are now opposing counsel, and more vicious because there is now money on the line. There is a myth that the law is a collegial field full of fellowship and camraderie. This supposed collegiality is a thin veneer that hides the horrible and unethical things attorneys do to each other on a daily basis because they are "zealously advocating" for their clients.
Myth: Attorneys live in spacious suburban houses. They drive late model cars and wear stylish business attire. Money is no worry, because the legal field provides plenty of it to all attorneys. They dine at the finest restaurants, serve on local civic boards, and use your legal wiles to help out a non profit or two. Since money is no object, attorneys have enough money saved for retirement and their kids' college educations.
Reality: The above may be the case for BigLaw, but it comes with a steep price. The attorney is expected to work at least 80 hours per week, and must be at the beckon call of clients day and night. This type of work schedule is naturally not conducive to a relationship, so the attorney may have a divorce or two under his belt. If the attorney is a solo or works for a small firm, the financial picture becomes much more dire. The small firm associate will be driving a 10 year old car with various mechanical issues, trying to squeeze just a little more life out of the vehicle before it's time to add yet one more debt payment to the pile. Retirement saving is a pipe dream for the attorney who might be able to get IBR, but who still makes too little to live a truly comfortable life. The kids college fund probably only has fifty cents in it, if anything. If the kids want to go to college, then they will have to get loans too. And the cycle continues.