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How many times have you heard someone say “Everyone says I should be a lawyer.” Or even better, “I hate my job and I love to argue, maybe I should go to law school” I see the attraction for some people. You get to put on a suit every day and sue people. As much as I love practicing law, I’m here to tell you that it’s not all wingtips and BMWs. I consider the legal profession a calling much like the priesthood. After all, do we not counsel the down-trodden, swear ourselves to secrecy and even take care of the occasional sin.
Being a lawyer is not easy. Depending on your area of practice, it can mean lots of stress. You are basically choosing a profession where your clients are coming to you during the most difficult periods of their lives. You are the one they will lean on when facing the loss of their freedom, the breakup of their marriage, or a host of other life changing legal issues. There is a reason why they refer to us as counselors. They are counting on our advice and expertise to solve their greatest problems.
Don’t go into law because you imagine the life you see in television and movies.
My own law practice includes criminal defense. A decade into the legal profession, I have yet to dramatically bang a courtroom table demanding the truth. I have never seen a witness break down on the stand exclaiming Perry Mason style, “it was me! ” I have never burst into a police interrogation room to berate some hard-nosed detective interviewing my Mafia Don client under hot lights. Wilfred Brimley has never tried to kill me for knowing too much.
Although our firm has its fair share of serious matters (even murder trials), the majority of my clients are drunk driving wedding guests, shoplifting grandmothers and quarrelling married couples. I actually represented a guy who stole a fish. He shoved an entire salmon down his pants. Not a cellophane wrapped fileted salmon. Not salmon in a can. An entire fresh salmon that was laying on some ice for display. I had an 87 year old grandmother as a client. She was arrested for stealing pornographic videos. She told me her 92 year old husband was boring and she needed to spice up her life.
I have battled in the trenches of divorce court over cats and microwaves. I have tried to convince clients not to send money to Nigerian princes or listen to the advice of fortune tellers. I have counseled the dying with their last testaments and kept others from certain jail. I have fought for families to stay in the country and fought insurance companies to get compensation for injured clients. Each new client is a soap opera during sweeps week. You never know what will walk in through your door.
Don’t Go Into Law Just to Make Your Mother Happy
As rewarding as law practice can be, it can be equally as frustrating. It is gut wrenching to see a client squander the second chance you were able to get him in criminal court. It can be difficult to comprehend how a couple seeking a “conscious uncoupling” cannot seem to agree on who gets to keep some ugly couch or the outdated blender Aunt Edna gave them on their ill fated wedding day.
If you do decide to pursue a law career, prepare yourself for a lifetime of questions from family and friends. No matter what legal area you pursue, they will assume you will have the answer to any question remotely related to the law. They know you're the leading expert in securities law and that's the only type of law you practice. It doesn't matter. They will assume you know how to sue their neighbor because his fence is 3 centimeters over their property line. There is a good chance they will ask for pro bono help with speeding tickets, work disputes and frivolous lawsuits. Watching legal dramas will never be the same. You will notice mistakes all the time.
While I jest to some extent, it can be a very rewarding profession both intellectually and financially. Nevertheless, if you do decide to pursue a career in law, do it for the right reasons. Don’t do it because you think it will put a Mercedes in your driveway. Not every law student will get that dream job out of law school. If you go into solo practice, there may be little left for that fancy ride and top hat when you are done paying for your staff, the utilities, marketing, professional dues and supplies.
If you do decide to follow the path of a legal career, might I share a few tips:
1. Don’t start living above your means.
Many recent grads feel the need to portray an image of what a successful lawyer should be. You just finished law school and are up to your res ipsa with debt. Maybe hold off on buying the Rolex because you want to show your friends and family that you are a success.
2. Don’t take your work personally.
Keep in mind that you weren’t the one who committed the crime or caused the divorce. It’s good to worry about your clients, but don’t let the stress of their predicament eat you up. In that regard, clients may take out the stress on you. A divorce client may be angry at her cheating ex. You might be the closest target to take out the frustration. Don’t take it personally.
3. Network as often as you can.
Let people know what you do for a living. The right contacts can lead to job offers and new clients. One of the most lucrative settlements in our firm came from a contact I made at the barbershop. Don’t discount bar association and similar events as a waste of time. They can be very productive.
4. Talk to lawyers in the field you wish to practice.
Most attorneys will be happy to speak with you and give you some insight about their own experiences. Attend workshops and bar events. You'll be surprised at what you can learn. If you come away learning one new thing or met one new contact to help your practice, the seminar you attended was worth it.
5. Assess Your Life Goals.
So you landed that six figure corporate law job. Do you enjoy your work? Are the hours keeping you from your family? Are the hours literally killing you? Or maybe you want to start a solo practice? Is there a rut of attorneys in your area? Do you have any business sense? Is there a need for your law practice? Maybe opening a maritime law shop in the middle of Kansas is not the best thing. Success means different things to different people. Just remember, the grass is not always greener on the other side.
Of course, if you still want to be a lawyer, I wish you God Speed. Just do me a favor. Don't be one of "those" lawyers. Don't be the lawyer who refuses to scooch over when another lawyer wants to sit down next to you in court. Don't be the lawyer who likes to yell at opposing counsel simply to put on a show for his clients. Don't be that cocky lawyer that is rude to court staff. And for heaven's sake, don't be the lawyer who douses him or herself in cologne. You are stinking up the court room. To borrow something I once read on Twitter, if your lawyer smells like Axe Body spray, you're probably going to jail.