Surprising Truths About Practicing Law

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Lawyers are often portrayed by Hollywood as enjoying a lucrative and exciting career. We are obviously enthralled by the idea of law as a society; in fact, Law & Order was such a beloved television program, it aired for 20 years. But how accurate are television portrayals of lawyers and their careers?

Why We’re Asking:

We know that many bright, young college students are interested in pursuing their Juris Doctor–a graduate degree in law–but they may not know what they’re getting into. We are interested in learning a little bit more about the profession from seasoned lawyers. We suspect that there are many surprises to a career in law, which never get shown on television. We want to know both the glamorous and the less thrilling, more monotonous aspects of practicing law.

We look to our Legal Resources to learn more from their experiences:

Which parts of practicing law would surprise the public?

What should college students consider before pursuing their Doctor of Jurisprudence?

Why did you decide to practice law?

What is the most rewarding part of being a lawyer?

We look forward to our lawyers reflecting on the interesting careers they have built for themselves.

Legal network members, please post your answers in the comment field below!

17 COMMENTS

  1. I would say that it may surprise the public to know that practicing law, especially family law, can be similar to being a counselor. Going through a divorce or custody case can be a very emotional process. This requires the attorney to be a good listener and to give the client realistic expectations for their case. Having a real understanding of what the client is going through is key in working to achieve their goals.

  2. I’m a bankruptcy
    attorney in San Francisco and I work
    primarily with individuals and small business
    owners. In college, I imagined law practice to be all about a tall building,
    corner office, fancy cars, wardrobe to match, and high salary. I also grew
    up watching Law & Order, so I imagined my practice to be
    making brilliant closing arguments to the jury.

    What I’ve learned in actual practice is this:

    Lawyers use the legal system to solve people’s problems. In my case, I fix
    debt problems using bankruptcy law. Clients don’t come to me and say, “I
    need to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy.” They come to me and say, “I can’t
    sleep at night because I worry about being able to repay my debt,” or “I am
    constantly fighting with my spouse because of money issues.”

    What I think would surprise the public is that what’s portrayed on TV
    (appearing in court) makes up a very tiny fraction of actual practice. What
    I do on a day-to-day practice is listen to people’s problems and find
    ways to use the legal system to fix it.

    I love practicing law because I make a difference in the lives of everyday
    people. I help parents not struggle so hard trying to repay their credit
    card debt. I help elderly from constant collection harassment. I help
    people stay in their home and avoid foreclosure. I help people sleep at
    night knowing they don’t have a mountain of debt to worry about. I love being
    able to say I am doing good.

  3. Which parts of practicing law would surprise the public? Most people don’t work in an environment where it’s common to be yelled at, insulted by the judge in front of a large room full of people, or to have your clients regularly break down into tears. By the time you specialize in an area of the law, it’s very difficult to change if you later decide you hate it. Lawyers don’t have an easy time applying their skills to other types of work because our skills are so specific to what we do. What should college students consider before pursuing their Doctor of Jurisprudence? Do they like to study and research? In nearly every area of the law, research and writing is a big part of your work day. If you don’t enjoy studying, writing papers and listening to lectures now – you probably won’t like legal research, writing pleadings and listening to long-winded clients later. I think the people that like being lawyers the most, like school in general. Why did you decide to practice law? I wanted work that would give me problems to solve and I wanted an intellectual challenge. What is the most rewarding part of being a lawyer? I enjoy helping people to find creative resolutions to difficult situations. I am a divorce mediator and that allows me to really take my legal skills outside the confines of the courtroom to find settlement options that are very unique and specialized to the clients I am working with. Helping a family to get through a divorce with dignity, gives all those years of education and expertise a true sense of purpose.

  4. What practice of law would surprise the public? – there are a number of
    lawyers, myself included, who have never seen the inside of a courtroom
    except on the day they were sworn in as a member of the state bar.
    Litigation (what you see on TV) is only one aspect of law.

    What should college students consider before getting a JD? – the cost.
    Unlike other professional degrees (MD, MBA) the current cost of
    obtaining a law degree outstrips the average starting salary of most law
    school students. Compared to 10 years ago, the desire of being a lawyer
    is facing the reality of paying back law school loans.

    Why did I decide to practice law? – to help small companies achieve
    their dreams. I had worked at a large law firm before law school doing
    only civil litigation and watch criminal litigation on TV on shows like
    Law and Order, Boston Legal, etc. But I kept saying I know that there
    are other areas of law. Who does the mom and pop shop go to when they
    need legal services? So I went to law school to find out and here I am
    representing those companies.

    Most rewarding part of being a lawyer has been hearing from clients
    saying they valued the advice I gave them or when they tell me an
    antidote about someone who didn’t get a lawyer and they’re glad they did.

  5. TV portrayals of attorneys tend to focus on either large law firms with attorneys making tons of money, or prosecutors or public defenders making no money. You don’t see much about the the daily lives of attorneys like us, in small private practice.

    My husband and I comprise a two person law firm with a fairly general practice; family law, bankruptcy, landlord/tenant, traffic tickets, wills & trusts, probate, real estate, etc. You get the idea. My husband always wanted to be a lawyer, not so much myself, but he convinced me to go to law school with him.

    The real life of a lawyer in private practice is doing mostly mundane stuff on a day in, day out basis, and trying to find clients to come in and pay your enough to make a decent living. I field phone calls all day long from people looking to get a divorce or handle a real estate transaction for a couple of hundred dollars. There are so many attorneys out there desperate for work, that they will work for this kind of money. I have even heard of attorneys in my state who will do a bankruptcy for $300.00. Doing all the work necessary to file and complete a bankruptcy takes a good 10 hours, at least. I did not spend 4 years (I went to night school) in law school to work for $30/hour.

    So, we are lucky that we have a son who is in web design and search engine optimization, and he has built us an amazing web site and has optimized so that we are now getting a lot of business from people looking on line. Thankfully, we are finding enough good clients to stay in business.

    Unless you go to one of the top schools (Harvard, Yale, Michigan, etc.) or graduate at the top of your class, life practicing law is not as it appears on TV. In Michigan, we have at least 5 law schools just churning out graduates with no job prospects.

    I would not recommend that anyone get a law degree unless they have a specific reason to get one, e.g. They want to work as a prosecutor or public defender, or in Washington, D.C. in Public Policy or some other agency or think tank, etc. There are way too many lawyers, and not nearly enough jobs to go around.

    Now, good things about the law: Being self-employed, we were able to spend a lot of time with our children when they were growing up; you do get an enormous sense of satisfaction by doing a good job for someone, i.e. doing a trust for someone with a lot of problems to solve, handling a particularly difficult probate case, helping someone going through a difficult divorce.

    So, it’s not all bad; I have enjoyed my work.

  6. Which parts of practicing law would surprise the public?

    It can be quite mundane. You spend hours and hours reading very thick
    opinions and treatises, and that part of the practice never ends. The good
    thing is you are constantly challenged, but the bad part is it can be
    tedious.

    What should college students consider before pursuing their
    Doctor of Jurisprudence?

    A: The debt is a huge factor. If you have to take on financial aid, I
    would try to do whatever you can to keep that down. Students are graduating
    with $150,000-200,000 in debt, and that’s a major limiting factor in what
    kind of work you can do after you graduate. Having a part time job, getting
    money from relatives, or going to a cheaper law school can help a lot.

    They should also try being in the working world for a few years. It will
    help you figure out what you want to do and if law school is even
    necessary.

    Why did you decide to practice law?

    A: I worked in politics for a number of years, including in the Clinton
    White House. I have the great privilege of working with many smart and
    talented individuals, many of whom were lawyers or at least had JDs. These
    were the people who I generally lost arguments to in meetings. So I figured
    I should go get my law degree. I also knew it was a great way to understand
    our great system and to be able to figure out things in the future.

    What is the most rewarding part of being a lawyer?

    By far it’s helping people make sense of a complicated world, helping to
    resolve disputes, and helping people to start businesses. I love helping
    business owners and entrepreneurs to remove legal barriers so that they can
    do more of what they do best, which is growing their business. I also enjoy
    the satisfaction of knowing that I’ve given them a good contract or a
    tightly-worded lease that will help to reduce the chance of there being a
    dispute in the future which may get their business sidetracked.

  7. Times are tough for aspiring lawyers. In the early 2000’s, law was the emerging profession. Middle class students who didn’t know what to do with themselves simply went to law school. Law school was the “middle class babysitter,” and the market could absorb those directionless souls because there were enough jobs out there. That is no longer the case.

    As a law student, I have begun to face the realities of the job market, and it scares me. Even a law school as highly ranked as W&L Law has faced it’s share of hiring difficulties. The problem is that there are nearly 200 law schools in the United States, and new legal jobs to accommodate about half of those graduates.

  8. Which parts of practicing law would surprise the public?

    There’s plenty of work that doesn’t involving actually practicing law. As a
    solo practitioner, I’m responsible for running my office, managing my
    assistants, answering the phone, faxing and mailing, talking to potential
    new clients, and following up with former clients. I run a small business,
    and for the most part, running the business takes up almost as much time,
    if not more time, than actually practicing law.

    What should college students consider before pursuing their Doctor of
    Jurisprudence?

    Law school is expensive, and good jobs are hard to come by these days. I
    recommend that college students spend at least two years in the real world
    before going to law school. First, it hopefully gives the college student a
    better sense of how much law school actually costs. Second, if you do go to
    law school, you’ll be a in better position than classmates who decided to
    attend right of college. Ideally, an older person would be a bit more
    mature, and have more experience. Third, it helps you decide which areas of
    laws you want to practice.

    I highly recommend that people who want to go to law school go because they
    have experience in a particular field, and want to advance in that field
    with a law degree. Those that go to law school just to go to law school
    have a much harder time finding a job they enjoy.

    Why did you decide to practice law?

    My father and two uncles are attorneys, so that was an inspiration. Second,
    I’m born and raised in New Orleans, and knew that I wanted to live here and
    own my own business. Practicing law allows me to do those things.

    I also enjoy, believe it or not, reading laws and contracts and giving my
    opinion on how they apply to different factual situations. I guess I’m just
    one of those logical, analytical thinkers.

    What is the most rewarding part of being a lawyer?

    The most rewarding part is helping the client achieve their goal. It
    doesn’t matter what I want, or what I think the client should want, it’s
    all about listening to the client and helping them get to where they’re
    going. Providing clients with that satisfaction and piece of mind is highly
    rewarding.

  9. I think the first thing people think about when they think of attorneys is
    Perry Mason: a sharp and incisive litigator who spends half his time (based
    on the program format) in the courtroom matching wits with the DA. In fact,
    more lawyers than not are researchers and administrators and spend most of
    their hours in offices and conferences dealing with paperwork. Criminal
    defenders are the next category–see Law and Order. The social cause
    crusader is a third category, combining group leadership with ethical
    belief.

  10. How accurate are television portrayals of lawyers and their careers?- Some things that TV shows portray is accurate but the majority of it is not. TV Shows would make one think that every lawyer argues in court and every lawyer is extremely wealthy. The truth is there is a huge variety of the types of lawyer one can become, which include transactional lawyers (who work primarily in their offices and never go to court) and litigation attorneys (who go to court all the time but are the minority). In addition one’s specialty largely determines their salary range; therefore all lawyers are not wealthy.
    Which parts of practicing law would surprise the public?- Some people may think that lawyers are cunning or sneaky; the truth is lawyers are strictly regulated by their local bar associations and the State Bar which has strict professional responsibility guidelines. Lawyers work very hard to use the name “attorney” which includes undergraduate education, graduate education, a bar exam and rigorous bar exam; lawyers have too much to lose to be unethical, so most lawyers are very honest.
    – Some people in the public are buying in to the idea that new lawyers are having a hard time obtaining positions; this is simply not true. While the job market for every profession is suffering in this economy. Those candidates who step out of the box to put themselves in front of law firms and are committed to the job search will have great results. For example, I recently relocated and I am very active in my pursuit for a great position.. Days after receiving passing bar results, I have several opportunities in the works because I have become active in my new community, I am networking in person, online and with the Partners of law firms and Judges. In this economy sitting back and waiting for someone to call isn’t enough. But an active pursuit for employment will certainly yield fruitful results.

    What should college students consider before pursuing their Doctor of Jurisprudence?- College Students that are passionate about the law should pursue their J.D. with a vengeance and be very active in organizations, keep their grades up, and do everything they can to be in the “top of the class”.. The more involved they are, the easier it will be for them to land a great job. In addition, students should be aware of the cost of law school and the debt they will likely obtain after attending. Law school is not a “get rich quick” scheme, but rather only for those passionate about becoming an advocate for those who are unable to advocate for themselves.

    Why did you decide to practice law?- I know that my character is one that thrives on helping others and I believe that practicing law will give me a better platform to be of assistance to others.

    What is the most rewarding part of being a lawyer? – For those who thrive on helping others it is very rewarding. A law degree still opens doors and is one of the most respected careers in the world. Recently, I read an article on the best graduate degree to obtain and a J.D. is still at the top of the list!

  11. Which parts of practicing law would surprise the public?
    The stress. There’s an unbelievable amount of stress that goes into
    lawyering. As a lawyer, clients come to you in their time of need.
    Rarely, if ever, does a client approach you with a happy situation that
    they need assistance with. Your ability to be an effective advocate for
    that client could be the difference between them putting food on the table
    for their family or paying the bills. On defense cases, you are the only
    thing stopping a multi-million dollar judgment from being slapped your
    client.

    What should college students consider before pursuing their
    Doctor of Jurisprudence?
    The disproportionate cost of a legal education as compared to income once
    they are practicing. It’s simply not a profession that means you’re
    financially comfortable anymore. I often say to those considering law
    school – do it under three conditions: (1) you’re independently wealthy or
    someone will pay for your education, (2) you’ve been given a full
    scholarship (for ALL three years), or (3) you know, without a doubt you
    will be in the top 5% of your class AND you have no intention to practice
    in any environment other than a large top 10 law firm.

    Why did you decide to practice law?
    Ironically, because of how I viewed lawyers and the profession from what I
    saw on TV and in movies. I didn’t know any lawyers growing up – so I had
    no real life experience or mentoring to understand the realities of the
    profession. Lawyers on TV – big money (yes please), helping people (yes
    please), in trials all the time (yes please).

    What is the most rewarding part of being a lawyer?
    You have the power to change someones life.

  12. Which parts of practicing law would surprise the public?

    Most lawyers are miserable. There are so many reasons why, but one reason is that, when you’re a lawyer, there’s always at least one person who’s paid to disagree with you.

    When I do stand-up, I get heckled maybe 1 out of every 50 shows. When I practice law, it’s like I get heckled every time I do my job.

    What should college students consider before pursuing their
    Doctor of Jurisprudence?

    So many students go to law school because there’s a horrible myth out there that you can do anything with a law degree. If you go to law school, chances are you’ll end up working as a lawyer. If you want to do something else like get into business, politics, sports management, whatever, just go do those things!

    Why did you decide to practice law?

    In college, I majored in political science, which meant I had two choices. I could (1) go to law school, or (2) be homeless. I chose law school.

    What is the most rewarding part of being a lawyer?

    The most rewarding part of being a lawyer is getting to help people in need on a daily basis. That’s what I learned from To Kill a Mockingbird. Once in a while, lawyers actually make that happen in their own practices, but it’s rare.

  13. I graduated law school in 1996 and decided I did not enjoy practicing in a large firm, so left to become a Marine Corps Judge Advocate (or “JAG”) officer. I have enjoyed the wide range of issues we get to address–I worked to re-establish governance in Iraq and was a planner for an anti-corruption task force in Afghanistan. I have also served with the Marine Corps Embassy Security Group and Marine Corps Special Operations Command–so there is no shortage of interesting work. What I enjoy most, however, is trial work, which, while generally less dramatic than the JAG t.v. show or the movie “A Few Good Men” is no less thrilling. There is a lot of stress knowing that a defendant’s future, or justice for a victim depends completely on how well you present your case, and presenting case well has become a focus of my on and off duty time (it prompted me to leverage the work I did in military planning into presenting decisive cases–this became the topic of my book, Strategy, Planning & Litigating to Win).

  14. Having started my law firm directly after graduating law school and practicing for ten years, every day is not an episode of Law and Order.

    For starters, while I genuinely enjoy being on stage in a trial, 99% of all of my criminal cases resolve in a plea, before any type of litigation occurs. Conducting a jury trial might look glamorous on TV, but it takes a great deal of time preparing for and actually doing. If you run your own law firm, this is time that is taken away from retaining new clients.

    The business side of law is not glamorous, is not shown on TV, but I would argue it is probably the one thing I would stress most to aspiring attorneys. You can be the best attorney in the world, but if nobody knows about you, it does not matter. Marketing and advertising yourself is critical to a young lawyer’s success, whether they start their own firm, or are working for someone else. There are many rewarding aspects to being a lawyer. The most rewarding aspect in my practice is knowing that I have a direct impact on people’s liberty, careers and lives on a daily basis. However, it is also an incredible responsibility and incredibly stressful. There is nothing glamorous about the stress.

    The best advice I could give to college students thinking about becoming a lawyer is first and foremost to seek out advice from family friends who are attorneys or other local attorneys. Try to shadow one as an undergrad. I did, and it confirmed that I wanted to pursue it as a career. Also, while the legal field is currently not great when it comes to hiring, if you see the glamorous and the not so glamorous side of practice and still want to pursue it; Go for it! When I was doing my legal internship in college, the majority of attorneys working in the building discourage me from going to law school. I disregarded their advice and pursued my dream, and I couldn’t envision myself doing anything else.

  15. Which parts of practicing law would surprise the public?
    It is a lot of reading, writing and thinking – showing that on TV would be
    really boring. Also, people think there are black and white answers to
    things and often there are not. On top of that, we change our minds a lot
    as we get more information or dig deeper into the law.

    What should college students consider before pursuing their
    Doctor of Jurisprudence?
    Most fields of law have a lot of conflict and so you need to be okay with
    that. Also, to be an effective attorney you need to develop skills and
    abilities in many facets of you personally, including some where you are
    not very good and/or not comfortable. I saw a list once of the areas of
    personal development that are directly related to an attorney’s
    effectiveness and there were 26 areas on the list. That is pretty daunting.

    Why did you decide to practice law?
    Being a patent attorney appeals to my need to see new things and work with
    creative people, while applying my intellect.

    What is the most rewarding part of being a lawyer?
    Working with creative and positive people while solving difficult problems
    with new ideas.

  16. Television portrayals are inaccurate. What would be surprising to the public is the length of time it takes to achieve a certain level of success portrayed on television and the vast number of professions a law degree could help to prepare students to explore. Before pursuing a law degree, students should talk with lawyers and those non-lawyer JD holders and have a candid conversation concerning the pros and cons of their career decisions. When I decided to take the law school plunge, I’d spoken with several attorneys, government officials, etc., and was intrigued at how people looked up to lawyers. I wanted to be the female Johnny Cochran (my only recent famous reference at the time). Although there are some negatives images of lawyers, no one hesitates to call when they need us. The most rewarding part of being a lawyer is having learned the art or listening, learning, and advocating for your clients position. You are forced to see things from all perspectives before making a decision.

  17. The practice of law has changed greatly over the past few decades. But one thing is consistent which I do think would surprise most young aspiring lawyers: law is a business and, like all other businesses, depends on finding clients who will hire you. We tend to think of a law degree as the equivalent of job and income security and that people will just come to you. But the practice of law is half expertise and half business development, or “rainmaking” as it is referred to in the legal profession. In most businesses this would be obvious but not so in the eyes of the general public.
    With the increase in legal fees, legal services are sadly out of reach for the mainstream of America. And even more disappointing is the fact that many law school graduates are unable to work in the pro bono field or provide legal services at much reduced rates because they have hefty law school loans that they have to repay. A large number of law school graduates are simply unable to repay those loans because the repayment requires making a significant income on a consistent basis. That is simply not a reality for most lawyers.
    Another surprising aspect is that there are certain requirements for particular types of practices. For instance, if you want to be a patent lawyer, you would have had to take a certain number of science/math hours in your undergraduate years to be licensed in this area. Oftentimes one does not know they are going to law school so it’s primarily luck that enables one to qualify. And if one does know the type of practice, most often they do not understand that any requirements exist other than a law school degree and passing a state bar exam. Another interesting footnote is that all young law school students are focused on writing for the law review, graduating at the top of their class and landing a job at a top paying corporate law firm when they graduate. What they don’t know is that there are alternative career paths that may actually be more lucrative or more rewarding. For instance, contingency fee practitioners (who take a percentage of the recovery, if there is a recovery) were often viewed by lawyers in prestigious law firms as having to take contingency fees because they weren’t good enough to get paid upfront hourly fees. This perception has changed dramatically over the years as plaintiffs’ lawyers recoveries often equate to on an hourly basis to much higher than practitioners who charge some of the highest up front hourly fees. In fact, many traditional law firms are now getting in to the business of contingency fee practices though in limited capacities. True contingency fee practitioners require entrepreneurial thinking and oftentimes larger risk taking than what would make most lawyers comfortable.
    I decided to pursue a law degree for several reasons: regardless of what I did with my career, I always knew I would be able to understand and negotiate my own deals. Interestingly enough, another unexpected result is it gives you credibility. People think you know things in spite of the fact that you may not. This has advantages but also disadvantages. I’ve seen many lawyers take on cases they were ill equipped to handle to their detriment. A law degree does NOT mean you can handle any legal matter. It means you have a generalized level of knowledge about how to operate in the legal system. The next several years are generally spent getting the equivalent of a ‘graduate’ degree by practicing with a firm or under the mentorship of a more senior lawyer learning the ropes of a particular type of law.
    So, despite the fact that the State says you’re competent to practice law when you graduate and pass the bar exam, the reality is that most lawyers require years of experience before they can handle a case on their own, and many more years before they can develop an expertise in a particular area of law in which they will specialize.
    The most rewarding part of being a lawyer is that you can help people who don’t know where to go or how to get assistance. That is a wonderful feeling, bar none.

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