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There are over three-quarters of a million lawyers, give or take, in this country. More are on the way. The law school mills continue running at full capacity. They produce graduates in numbers incomprehensible a generation ago. Practicing law affects differently those who do it. Many love it and that is great. Everyone should be able to work at what they truly love to do.
Some though, quite frankly, hate it. This chapter is for the disenchanted. Various studies, including some by the American Bar Association, indicate more than one-third of the practicing attorneys fall into this category. They have become disillusioned because they work long hours and they don't get paid enough for their efforts. Every day tests their will to go for one more day. Maybe it will get better, they hope. Unfortunately, it does not.
Are you feeling like a mouse entrapped and now just wanting to escape the stifling confines and not interested in the cheese anymore? If you are one of these attorneys, or think you might be one of them, you are obviously not alone. You are not a failure. There is certainly nothing wrong with you. Practicing law has changed dramatically in the last five years.
The legal profession is in a state of self-destructive competition. An increasing number of attorneys are competing for a shrinking base of customers. Customers are committed to slashing legal expenses. From their perspective, our profession is a source of expense for their business. Attorney and client are working at cross purposes. This forces the legal business to rearrange itself. This process creates misery that manifests itself in a number of ways.
What is it that the unhappy lawyers dislike about their profession? The polls and questionnaires show basically the same thing. Distilled down, the dissatisfaction falls into three main categories: They do not like the work they're doing, they have to work too many hours, and the pay is too low.
I Do Not Like What I Have Become:
Every lawyer, whether as a solo practitioner or a corporate cog, must deal with how practicing law sometimes conflicts with his or her value system. You would like to take the high road all of the time. Pragmatically speaking, it is not always up to you. You have bosses and clients to whom you must answer. You do not do any-thing wrong; but it is not exactly right either. At least not exactly right from the perspective that you grew up with. It is not the big issues. You usually deal with those head on and decide them for yourself.
However, it is the day-to-day stuff that just sort of passes by and mounts up. Like, representing a client who you think has no right to your services. This is, in one way or another, a moral question that you have implicitly decided by your action. Again, pragmatically, it was not really a decision that you sat down and made. It just happens as part of the job. Many attorneys have accepted their powerlessness to decide every issue. They are still good people. Others never really seem to be able to do it and they pay the price.
Many lawyers hate it when they have to represents couple seeking divorce. It breaks their heart to see the children pay the price of their parents’ incompatibility. The price paid is a loss of a sense of decency and professional pride. You must mechanically react to your client's requests. You, first and foremost, represent your client's interests. Then, after you have done that, and only then, may you try to right the wrongs. All too many times, the wrong just continues. Do not underestimate the sacrifice the profession will demand. For some, the clash between practicing law and their value systems disrupts their entire beings. This disruptive effect causes some attorneys to self-destruct. Do not let yourself be one of them.
It's All I Do: Long Unending Hours
Many lawyers complain the profession consumes them. Practicing law exemplifies the trading off between time and money. Time truly is money. You sell time; and your life is your time. Law firms are businesses that sell their employees' time. The law firm must find and keep clients for its product in order to stay in business. Clients want service. You must work longer and cheaper to keep yourself competitive in this shrinking world. Quick turnaround times and twenty-four hour availability are now commonplace. The long hours are unpredictable. You may be out of town for weeks on end reviewing documents, taking depositions, trying a case, or working on a corporate acquisition. International travel may add into your equation. Foreign travel dramatically cuts into family time. Spouse and children feel the distance. Even when you are home, you may be away, mentally and emotionally.
Law firms usually require their attorneys to bill more than eighteen hundred hours per year. Many expect two thousand hours. Work the arithmetic. As a rule, ten hours in the office will yield eight billable hours. So two thousand billable hours means that you must work twenty-five hundred hours each year. Assuming you can fit in a couple of weeks of vacation a year that yields a fifty hour work week: This means you work nights and weekends. How many times has a Friday afternoon call from a client with a Monday deadline ruined a weekend? Too many will ruin a marriage.
Why not just charge more, so you can work less? You know the answer. The global economy has made the world too competitive to support legal fee largess. The competition to keep the firm-hopping clients staying with you discourages increasing the billing rate. The employees must work longer and produce more. This has spawned intense competition, not only among competing firms, but within the firm itself.
The law firm has changed the way it operates. It has gone from operating like a professional organization to operating like a service organization. It used to be that lawyers knew their adversaries on a respectful, professional basis. Many knew each other socially. As the number of lawyers keeps increasing, lawyers barely even know the people in their own firm. The personal side of practicing law has disappeared. Computerization has created the ability to instantly compare billable hours among the attorney-workers. Influence within the firm depends upon hours billed, rather than on competence and integrity. If you want to survive, keep those billable hours rising. To move up, find new business for the firm. Billable hours and rainmaking ability are prerequisites to partnership. Office politics is a byproduct. Camaraderie within the firm and among lawyers is now all but gone. There is no time for it and no reason for it. The reality of practicing law has changed forever.
The Myth of the Big Bucks:
A half generation ago, the attorney made a good living. The lawyer was in the forefront of civic and charity activities, respected as a professional and as an involved citizen. Now, they are just sharks and ambulance chasers. Even though their status may have changed, they still make a good living, right? Not exactly. It depends upon whom you are talking about.
Real incomes, for all but the elite class of lawyers, have dropped over the last three years. The statistical studies generated from questionnaires tell you that. Many law school graduates receive offers of only a fraction of what undergraduates with business, computer science, or engineering degrees are commanding. The law school graduates tell you that. Surveys are showing that graduates report starting salaries lower than their decade-ago counterparts received.
We are only talking about annual salaries here. In order to get the full picture, you must divide that annual salary by the hours worked. Many attorneys refuse to take this cold bath of reality.
The competitive business world views legal costs as an expense to be avoided, or at least minimized. The client base is spending less. Consequently, the law business cannot adequately support its work force. This manifests itself in a myriad of ways. The most evident to all of us is lawsuit abuse-lawyers creating work where no meaningful work exists. Another is contract lawyers-lawyers who work when there is work and sit by the phone when there is none. The number of these types is growing rapidly. So is the number of graduates working for free just to gain experience. All this leads to unstable career paths for today's lawyers. Partnership offers are being delayed and many attorneys have to change firms every few years to stay a little ahead financially. Many lawyers are being relegated to routine functions because it is the only work available in the firm. Sometimes, it is cheaper to use them than paralegal staff.
All These Years of College Just To Do This?
For some attorneys, practicing law is boring, incredibly boring. The law is no longer mind-challenging concepts and theories. It is details and missed details. A lot of attorneys, after over seven years of higher education, spend their time plodding through documents, filling out forms, answering inane interrogatories, and sitting through mind-numbing depositions.
At first, this stuff was pretty exciting. It was new. It was the law. Now it is not new. It is now pointless filler work. It is tedium interspersed with pressure to get it done. Many try to hide their disappointment with what they are doing. Apathy is a by-product that can lead to abuse of the client by the attorney. Stress is the other. This can lead to abuse of the attorney by the attorney himself or herself.
Stress: The Fruit of Your Labors
Time pressure, low pay, and boring work create stressful working conditions. The details, the long hours, the lack of camaraderie, and no personal life take their toll. It's even more devastating when you are only barely making a living. A sour stomach has replaced the enthusiasm of law school. The truth is, and you know it; you are killing yourself a little each day.
Be honest with yourself. If your problem is with your career, face it. Follow your instincts. Practicing law develops them. Understand Your Feelings I do not want to discourage anyone who wants to leave the profession. Just make sure it is the profession that is making you unhappy. If you can characterize yourself with the traits of a person dissatisfied with practicing law, then prepare to depart from practicing law. Prepare for departure after you have convinced yourself, in your heart and in your mind, that leaving is the solution. You are responsible to people other than just yourself. However, the decision is yours alone.
When you decide to quit practicing law, it means deciding to forego, in very large part, those long, hard hours you put in as an associate. This is not an easy choice. Remember, though, you are not foregoing what you learned; but what you earned. You will be leaving familiar, albeit uncomfortable surroundings, for the unknown. Growing always causes discomfort.
There is also another perspective. Consider how your decision will affect your family, friends, and business associates. They should not influence your decision to leave. However, they may affect the manner and timing of your exit. This is a career change for them also. Communicate your reasoning with them. Making the decision on your own does not mean brushing their feelings aside.
Do not write off changing careers because you feel that you cannot afford to change. It is too late now only if you say it is. Sure, if you earn a large income, initially you will have to take a pay cut to start a new career. For many, this one obstacle may be too hard to overcome. All that I can say is that, with the help of financial planning and the commitment of your family, you can overcome this obstacle. In the long run, it is better to grapple with this than stay where you are and be miserable.
Money strongly affects the equation. This is especially true for those earning a good living practicing law. Be ready to adjust your lifestyle accordingly. You may have to budget yourself and your family for the first time. Vacations and new cars may have to wait. However, I have never met a spouse or other family member that would not gladly sacrifice any of these things, and they are just things, in order to assure real happiness for their loved one. Do not underestimate their love and loyalty. That does not mean that you can shortcut communicating with your spouse and family. Far from it; this is where you tap into their strength. Make sure they understand what life will be like for a while. In some respects it will be better, but in others, they will have to adjust. It will not be forever, but it may seem like it at first.
Once you decide you are going to exit the legal sector, give your-self at least six months to practice law. You need to do so in order to accumulate cash to hold yon over as you search for a job in the business sector. Be well aware that you will most probably start at a job that pays less than you are making now. You will-need to have some money accumulated even if you have moderated your lifestyle: The decision to leave the legal profession is yours. Take the responsibility. Do not give it to someone else.
The attorney can make a successful career change into the business sector. Many have used their legal skills to achieve satisfaction in business. The practice of law is an avenue offering multiple career options. It is not a boundary. You need to get into a career that you will enjoy, a career doing what you will be good at, and something that is valued by the business sector. By following the strategy, you will display to others, and more-importantly, to yourself, that you are not-making a second rate choice. What you just left was the second rate choice. It is time to get working.
But, It's All I Know How to Do: You are sure that you need to change careers. Changing bosses, or firms, or the type of law you practice is not enough. This is a water-shed decision. It takes courage and honesty to deal with it. Change careers to what? "How am I going to change careers after all these years?" you ask yourself. Whether you have been practicing law for fifteen days or fifteen years, you may feel that practicing law is all you can do. You may not like doing it, but it is all you can do. That just is not true. Your formal legal education is an asset to landing a career in the business sector and formal training combined with actual experience is an even more valuable asset.
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