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Big Money - Collaborating with a Big Law Firm

published March 04, 2013

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We find a lot of lawyers working in partnership and networking. All the big firms are partnership and offer partnership by expression “You make partner” - that is, they make you a partner. Even at this point, all kinds of strange things can happen. They may require you to invest a portion of your income back in the firm. You may not get a very big piece of the pie for years. You’ll work long hours. You can be sued now, and you'll worry about that, despite your expensive malpractice insurance - not only because of the malpractice claims, but also because of the possibility of spectacular lawsuits by former partners who decide they hate you.

And this is what can happen to those who make partner at top firms! How about the many attorneys who start at salaries of less than $30,000 How about those who make more, but whose working hours are so long that they'd have earned more, on an hourly basis, as word processing operators?

Even on Wall Street, an income of $90,000 a year, with federal, state, and local taxes of, say, 25 percent, and with 2,700 working (not billable) hours, comes out to $25 an hour, which is probably less than the income of your average New York electrician. And your net hourly income figure drops way off if you don't like to think that you went through all that hard work in law school for free, and start counting those school hours and costs against your first five or 10 years' worth of income.
As a general rule, your expenses keep pace with your income, even for lawyers who earn very good money. You can hope to save a lot. But reality has a way of fouling that up. You might get married or, even more expensive, divorced. As they say, two can live as cheaply as one, for half as long. You might feel entitled to indulge yourself in expensive restaurants and vacations. You'll have high expectations from three years among your money-oriented law school classmates. You may have substantial student loans to pay back. The fact is many other young attorneys before you have found themselves in deep debt despite nice incomes.

So here's a theory: If you're smart enough to get into law school, and if money is what motivates you, maybe you could have found a way of making money without law school. And if you're more motivated by your interests than by making money, you'll probably go back to fun and interesting things eventually anyway, even with your law degree, and find yourself somewhere near the level of financial security or poverty you'd have reached without law school.
Of course, you don't have a non-law-school alter ego, so there is no way of testing this theory. That's what makes it one of my favorites.

In case you don't believe it, though, here's a contrary theory. According to this one, your decision to go into law really does have an impact on your chances of becoming wealthy; unfortunately, it can go either way. And I know proud attorneys, trained to evade risks, who've watched, rotting and festering in envy, while motivated youngsters without law degrees go out and start their own legitimate, successful businesses.

It's easier for those upstarts. They have nothing to lose. They haven't been taught that they must do nothing because doing almost anything means risking a lawsuit. They haven't piled up student loans that need to be paid off, and their egos have not been stroked by a prestigious law school to the point that they could never imagine themselves doing something as down-and-dirty as running a hardware store. Instead, these kids just go out and do it, and some of them make a lot of money from their little businesses, and maybe some of my law school classmates could have had the same kind of fortune, if only they hadn't gone into the stultifying practice of law.

There is indeed money in law. Some lawyers become very wealthy. But, generally, a lawyer is someone who works for a living. Maybe becoming wealthy from law is just like becoming wealthy from business - it takes hard work, ability, and luck.
Let's step back, now, and review. I've suggested that there are two sides to (a) the thought that the law is an extremely diverse profession and (b) the claim that you can make a lot of money at it. I don't altogether deny the claims to either diversity or money

Unfortunately, that's not what happens. As far as I recall, no law school ever gave me the kind of detailed look at money that I just gave you. Maybe this is what happens when the law school invites prelaw students to listen only to those alumni who have distinguished records of service to the law. They get a bunch of cheerleaders. I don't rue those alumni's successes. But I do regret the perpetuation of beliefs that will work only for a portion of the students who hear them.

I applied to law school because I wanted to make money and have diverse options. But once I was satisfied that those two elements were there, I began to think about other things. I especially liked the claim that law is exciting.
Some attorneys spend a lot of time dealing with clients, victims, judges, and opposing counsel. Examples include public defenders, assistant district attorneys, and Legal Aid lawyers. If your definition of excitement features lots of standing on your feet and thinking, these jobs may be for you.

For others, excitement means being intellectually en-grossed. Personally, I enjoy legal research. Many lawyers sneer at it, but I find it fascinating to try to trace back through the history of an idea's expression in the law, so as to understand how the law came to its present form. It's especially exciting when I drink too much coffee, get wired, and find myself utterly absorbed in some trivial point that otherwise would have bored me silly.

But there are real limits on all these kinds of excitement. The assistant district attorneys of public defenders and others who spend long hours on their feet or on the phone do not often handle issue of the greatest importance. People at the sophisticated law firms tend to look down their noses at these attorneys and wouldn't willingly trade places with them.
Legal research may be interesting when you get to choose the topic, but it goes downhill rapidly when you've been spending weeks at it, trying to learn how to handle the paperwork in a trivial (but big-money) case. It can be exciting to get involved with a case on the cutting edge of the law, but you can't expect to fill your day with that kind of work unless you're someone like Melvin Belli.

As a junior associate at a large firm, you might be assigned to handle some of the grunt work on a few important cases. And you'll find that exciting, for a while. But you can be tempted to consider it more important than it really is. I remember running a copy machine at a printing store during college and feeling personally involved with some of the important papers I was photocopying. When that thrill wears off, though, you eventually realize mat great cases, like great people, look very different from the bottom.

Even the thrill of combat isn't what it used to be. The Vast majority of cases settle out of court, after a period of pushing paper back and forth more and more cases are handled by arbitration rather than trial. You may get to argue some relatively narrow, technical points in court, such as whether the other guy is required to give you certain documents that you seek. It's OK, and you can get engrossed in it. But glamorous it isn’t.

Even if you work in a legal specialty that particularly interests you, you can be surprised to see yourself getting sick of the run-of-the-mill cases that fall within that area. As our college professors taught us, overkill can turn the scintillating into the surpassingly tedious.

Finally, how about the thought that law is intellectually exciting because it's so creative? Calling something "creative'' makes it sounds intelligent. Lawyers pride themselves on their intelligence, so of course they want to think law is creative. Unfortunately, in explaining what's creative about it, they describe not only the ability to come up with genuine solutions, but also the skill to manipulate, to deceive, and to confuse.

When you get away from such perverse kinds of creativity, you may find that lawyers - including you, if you hang in there long enough are neither really nor very creative. And this is not surprising. The law is a conservative enterprise. Traditions and precedents are important. Too much experimentation can get you into hot water.

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