Ready for some good news? Okay. The practice of law can be really fun. Challenging. Interesting. Even exciting.
First, lawyers often enjoy variety in the issues they deal with at work. Whether a lawyer works in the context of lawsuits, financing agreements, regulatory compliance, or tax counseling, he or she will likely come into contact with a variety of businesses and industries. Lawyers working "in-house" at a particular company often find variety in the types of work they do, from litigation management to tax planning. There is a lot to be said for a job that treats you to variety. It's easier to stay fresh and interested in your work if you are learning and doing something new every day.
Second, lawyers work with and for smart, interesting people. By definition, lawyers are well educated. All received a graduate degree at law school, which means they must have done well in college. What is more remarkable is how talented and diverse lawyers are. Unlike most other graduate fields, law schools accept students who have excelled in almost any discipline. Poets, chemists, linguists, historians, psychology majors, accounting majors, and business majors are all potential lawyers. Medical school has required prerequisite courses (who could forget chemistry and biology?), and graduate programs in, say, engineering or architecture require undergraduate degrees in those fields. But not law. Because every college student is potentially "," lawyers come from a greater variety of backgrounds than do other professionals.
Law is increasingly a second career. As a result, many lawyers bring with them the perspective and expertise developed in a first career. A sizable percentage of my law school class had earned Ph.D.s in their prior lives. Many women go to law school after raising their children. Law often attracts those who work in industries that come in contact with lawyers, such as accountants, journalists, law enforcement officers, health-care professionals, and businesspeople. Many universities even offer a joint law-MBA program. Let's face it, you will spend a lot of time with the people at work. It's a big plus to spend that time around people who have interesting and diverse backgrounds, who can expose you to new ideas and interests.
Third, law is often challenging. Legal advice is expensive, so it is usually called for only when a client is facing a new, demanding situation. Very often, lawyers are asked to offer advice about what will happen in the future, based on the limited information known now. Will a contract be enforceable if it includes particular language? What is the best way to structure a financial transaction and still comply with the tax laws? How will a judge rule in a lawsuit involving a specific set of facts not seen in other court decisions? This type of work is intellectually challenging. In fact, the intellectual challenge is one thing some former lawyers miss after leaving the law. One put it this way: "Business tends to be a lot of hard work and salesmanship, which you also need in the law. But then there's the purely intellectual side of law-solitary thinking about law and facts. In business, I don't find the same intellectual satisfaction, not the same pure intellectual challenge you get practicing law. In law, there's a better chance of being judged on how good you are, plain and simple."
When answers are required quickly (and when aren't they?), this work can also be physically challenging, as lawyers skip meals and lose sleep to get the job done. Anyone who has trained for an athletic competition can appreciate the satisfaction that can come from the sacrifice that meeting such challenges often requires.
Finally, lawyers are often working at the forefront of important societal issues. Health care. Copyright protection of computer software programs. The death penalty. Crime and punishment, generally. NAFTA. Salaries for athletes. How to help the homeless. Corporate mergers. Lawyers are involved in almost every news story in today's newspaper. Lawyers have the opportunity to help shape the responses to these and many other issues. If you're in the right place at the right time, you can have a great deal of impact as a lawyer.
The Devil Is in the Details
Of course, all of these rosy generalizations are still just generalizations. Unless we consider some specifics, we're at risk of simply creating new myths about the law. However, one person's perk is another's punishment. If you have an ethical problem with the death penalty, you will not enjoy prosecuting even the most interesting and challenging murder cases. If you panic at the thought of speaking on your feet, trial work will not be fun. If you have small children at home, "challenging" may not be the word that best describes working all night to close that corporate loan before the end of the fiscal quarter. Spending a week working with a client in Newport Beach or Denver or Miami or Phoenix will hardly be a vacation for the newlywed from Chicago.
To find happiness in the law, you must match your abilities, interests, and circumstances with the right job. You have to be comfortable with the match. If you don't like what you do, it won't help much that others think you'd enjoy it.
There are so many different things you can do with a law degree, there must be a job that will fit you like a glove. The problem, of course, is how to go about identifying that perfect legal position.
The task of finding your legal fit is not as daunting as it may seem. You may have geographic preferences that limit the choices. You may have preferences for working in a corporation, in a private law firm, in government, or in another specific setting.
All Law Is Divided into Three Parts
Let's look at what lawyers really do by grouping them into three broad (sometimes overlapping) categories based upon the lawyer's functions - the broad types of lawyers "advocates," "counselors," and "technicians." As you read these descriptions, think about which category best matches your interests and abilities.
Advocates are lawyers who promote a position or seek to persuade. The trial lawyer is the obvious example, but submitting regulatory proposals to administrative bodies, lobbying legislators, and representing individuals in tax audits would also qualify. All lawyers to a greater or lesser extent advocate the position of their clients in some way-through the negotiation of a contract, the careful drafting of a will, or the communication of thoughtful business advice.
We have all heard criminal lawyers asked, "How can you represent that horrible guy?" A typical response is that everyone deserves a defense. True enough. Our system demands that each side of a controversy advocate its viewpoint strongly, with the hope that justice will emerge from that clash of positions. The advocate must agree with the assumptions underlying this system, for the advocate will be expected to take positions and make arguments that promote the client's interests, not those that represent what the lawyer personally believes is the "right" or "just" outcome.
Advocates must have the ability to communicate well with all types of people. Good storytellers make great advocates because they can express ideas in a way that is interesting and effective. The ability to simplify the complex is also critical to the success of advocates. They must be able to take huge amounts of complicated or conflicting information, analyze it against legal standards, distill it to its essence, and communicate it to a decision maker in a persuasive fashion.
Would you enjoy the work of an advocate? If so, you should consider some of these positions: prosecutor, criminal defense lawyer, plaintiff's personal injury lawyer, insurance defense lawyer, divorce lawyer, and labor lawyer.
Counselors are primarily advisers. Once again, every lawyer is in some sense a counselor. But most of the lawyers that we can call counselors never get into court. Instead, counselors work in private consultation with their clients, guiding their personal and business decisions in a way that is intended to keep the clients out of legal difficulty or to gain some legal advantage.
Counselors range from the very specialized tax adviser to the general business adviser. What distinguishes a counselor is a thorough knowledge of a particular area of the law or a particular industry and the ability to apply that knowledge to solve problems. The "trusts and estates" lawyer who drafts wills is an expert in the laws governing the taxation and distribution of property after death. This type of counselor spends a great deal of time asking questions of and listening to his or her clients in order to understand their wishes. Only after doing so can the lawyer advise or counsel the client how best to achieve those wishes. The ultimate decisions remain the client's, but the counselor helps in the decision-making process by recommending how best to achieve those wishes within the constraints of the law.
Good counselors are good listeners. They seek to stimulate their clients to consider opportunities and problems that might otherwise have been overlooked-usually by asking probing questions. Counselors are also perceptive. They can distinguish between what a client says and what a client really means. Counselors bring their broad knowledge of law, business, and human relations generally to bear on a client's problem. They understand a client's business and can offer an objective evaluation of that business. In short, counselors are valued for their judgment. If your skills and interests match those of a counselor, you should consider some of the following positions: in-house counsel, real estate lawyer, trademark and copyright lawyer, lending counsel, and employment lawyer.
The third category of lawyers - the technicians, are lawyers, who implement legal advice by working, often behind the scenes, with little exposure either to the courtroom or to clients. It is commonly said that there are three types of relationships that lawyers within law firms have with clients: they are either "finders," "minders," or "grinders." Technicians are the grinders. The dedicated technicians don't get the glory that other lawyers may, but no law firm, corporation, or other legal service provider could survive without them.
Don't think that technicians are somehow less important lawyers than advocates or counselors. Technicians are essential to solving any complicated legal problem. Although the advocate may stand up and examine the witness in court, it is often a team of technicians who found the document used to cross-examine that witness.
Sometimes technicians are newer lawyers who have not yet blossomed into advocates or counselors. Other times, technicians are lawyers who have discovered that they are most productive when working on matters that require significant research, document review, and drafting. You would enjoy the role of a worker bee if you show attention to detail, have a good deal of patience, and do not need to see your name in lights.
Swarms of technicians can be found working on such matters as public stock offerings, class-action litigation, products liability (such as breast implant or asbestos exposure) cases, and large-scale pension or securities fraud litigation.
There are many challenging and stimulating legal jobs filled by advocates, counselors, and technicians. But a natural advocate would find working as a counselor or technician stifling. On the other hand, a technician might find being an advocate or counselor frightening. And someone who is not well suited to becoming a lawyer will not find any of these types of positions fulfilling. You've simply got to find the right fit.
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Harrison Barnes is the legal profession's mentor and may be the only person in your legal career who will tell you why you are not reaching your full potential and what you really need to do to grow as an attorney--regardless of how much it hurts. If you prefer truth to stagnation, growth to comfort, and actionable ideas instead of fluffy concepts, you and Harrison will get along just fine. If, however, you want to stay where you are, talk about your past successes, and feel comfortable, Harrison is not for you.
Truly great mentors are like parents, doctors, therapists, spiritual figures, and others because in order to help you they need to expose you to pain and expose your weaknesses. But suppose you act on the advice and pain created by a mentor. In that case, you will become better: a better attorney, better employees, a better boss, know where you are going, and appreciate where you have been--you will hopefully also become a happier and better person. As you learn from Harrison, he hopes he will become your mentor.
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