Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Life of An Attorney: Myth vs. Reality

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.

23 comments:

  1. You're bringing back nightmare memories of my few years in private practice. Insufferable greedy clients and coworkers. Non stop aggression and tricks and delays and running up bills and putting up roadblocks. An entire system set up to make the law as complicated and lucrative as possible.

    Thank god I no longer desk with that shit every day.

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    1. Oh fuck this autocorrect. 'Deal', not 'desk'.

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    2. I think that either word is appropiate.

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  2. Thank you, MA, for giving us the lowdown on the low life of an attorney. Some of the professors will try to trash you for telling the truth. They've never had to deal with all that, and they find it disgusting. So they will call you a loser, a whiner, not smart or tough enough to be an attorney.

    None of their childish insults are true. You're a very brave person, and plenty tough and smart when it comes to exposing the greed and hypocrisy of the scamprofs. (I think all deans are profs, by the way.) Keep up the good work. You're fighting the good fight.

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  3. Family can be the worst enemy when dealing with law school. They encourage you to go, then encourage you to stay in a depressing profession losing money when you graduate.

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    1. Outsiders are particularly susceptible to the law school mystique. Family can be the worst of enablers.

      Today we're in a similar situation to the Vietnam war with respect to the oldsters' perception of the legal profession. The WW2 vets viewed war throught the prism of WW2--a just and very necessary war against evil. Protesting against American involvement in WW2 was unthinkable --it was tantamount to saying hooray for the Axis.

      Vietnam was far less clear.

      Times had changed. Not everyone got it at the time. Families were torn apart.

      Law school and the promise of being a lawyer is similar.

      It's a different time and far different circumstance. Thank God they're not drafting you into law school. Just say Hell No; I won't go!!

      And let's have peace with honor by Christmas 2014; law school closures well underway.

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    2. A very good comment there.

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  4. The difference between the public's perception of what lawyers do and the reality of what lawyers do (and earn) has to be one if the biggest disconnects ever, but it is a myth promoted by law schools because if Average Joe really knew what it was like, law schools would be empty.

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  5. The myth dies hard. Sadly it's killing a lot of innocent young people in the process.

    Honest reporting of all outcomes and incomes would tell people a lot. And 5 and 10-year snapshots would be most revealing, too. Finally, a showing of the steady downward trajectory of the profession over the past 20 years would be the capper.

    Students must learn that this ain't their grandpappys profession.

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  6. How come virtually every lawyer I know appears to be making at the least a decent living? I also know many who are self employed and year after year knock it out of the ball park.

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    1. Get to know some real lawyers. They're out there.

      I'd love to met the ones you know.

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    2. How nice of Brian Tannenbaum to rejoin the proceedings.

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    3. You mean "appear" to knock it out of the ball park. In actuality, it's an illusion.

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    4. It's called selection bias. You only notice the successful attorneys, and only the successful attorneys stay in the profession. And since we're talking about financial success here, there are lots of scumbags who know how to milk the legal system, and lots of good, smart, hardworking people who refuse to do it.

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  7. Hear the news about the newly licensed illegal immigrant lawyer in california? Their Supreme Court unanimously welcomed him to the elite, high-class profession.

    Soon lawyers will gather like day laborers outside Home Depot, ready to hop into your pickup truck if you need some doc review or hedge trimming.

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  8. I wouldn't be surprised if some of the attorneys you know are making a very good living. However some may be attempting to conceal their financial problems and put up a brave front. Attorneys equal cash flow problems with weakness, so there is a strong incentive to exaggerate the positive. You would only know for sure if you could see their tax returns and credit scores.

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  9. What a complete load of crap. This looks like something a writer made up just to stir up the pot. I am in my last year of law school, am a member of both my state and county bar associations, and can tell you from experience that none of what the writer says is true in my community. My instructors are ALL PRACTICING ATTORNEYS AND JUDGES. One is currently sitting on the Tennessee State Supreme Court. And they all refer to their practices in our classes and what we can expect once we are out in the legal world. The experiences described in law firms may be true in areas like New York and Detroit but the lawyers I know are decent men and women who make a good living and foster a professional relationship with each other in and out of the courtroom.

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    1. JB,

      Currently I am researching law schools in Tennessee; may I ask which one you attend?

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    2. JB, given the date of your post, you must have graduated by now and are living the truly charmed, Tenn. lawyer lifestyle. Please tell us, how is it? For my practice in a large city in Texas, this post rings true in most material respects. It's a toxic, fucked up field and one that will turn you into a paranoid piece of shit from the inside out.

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    3. I would live to hear your thoughts on the profession nite that you have been practicing.

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  10. How many young associates are divorced?

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  11. We all have a few 'strings' of narcissism in us. I have noticed that all schools have the narcissistic teacher who wants to validate themselves. It is not just a Law School. I have attended 4 college level schools and have seen the narcissistic types in all. The politics and various psych dispositions alone, are enough to discredit the validity and accuracy of any grade point average from a college institution.

    Sociopaths are also 1/25 according to Martha Stout's stats in her book about Sociopaths. Sociopaths will be just about anywhere. Competition to a Sociopath is like adding turbo boost to a standard sedan. The effects of Sociopaths would likely increase in condensed environments where winning in competition, is perceived as vital to one's ability to dominate.

    I have been grateful to have had case myself. I got to do the fact gathering, law interpreting, court appearances, evidence gathering and the like. The client often knows the case the best and knows where information and or evidence may be. The client still needs an objective advocate who knows how to appropriate one's legal situation to the legal process. The client can benefit by having an attorney who can litigate the legal matters in court and through relevant documents such as; memorandums and motions.

    I do not think it is necessary to go to law school and to have to have a 4-5 year degree prior to attending Law School. Anyone can apply common sense, logic and reasoning to interpret laws. Police Officers do it every day and they have allot of accountability.

    2 years customer service, 2 year training program, SERIOUS BACKGROUND CHECK and State Exam and Certification, should be all that is required.

    I think the massive amount of moot education required to be an attorney is increasing motives for deception, fraud and corruption. I have no doubts that the massive time taken and money exhausted to get a Law degree, influences the general population of attorneys and their level of honesty, integrity and ethics.

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  12. I'm a certified paralegal who works for a corporation and I report to a corporate attorney. I've been, shall we say, strongly encouraged by my supervisor to attend law school and have successfully declined for years. I'd like to offer my perspective to anyone who thinks this is crazy. I've personally seen a lot of this to be absolutely true, and I'm so glad that I had the opportunity to be awakened early in my career. One of the outside attorneys we use, recently opened up his own practice but was part of a big firm. He is a close personal friend of mine and I know for a fact, attorneys struggle and deal with pressure of getting business more than anything in real life. If you can get a job as a GC for a corporation, THAT is the way to go as an attorney. But as we all know, such positions come very few and far between. However, if you have a love and respect for the law, be a paralegal. I LOVE being a paralegal. It's the best of both worlds. I get to quasi-practice law AND make a decent, respectable wage; and don't have to be a baiter to do so. If you are not an attention-monger, or status-whore, a paralegal is a wonderful alternative to being a lawyer.

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