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Earnings of a Practicing Attorney – A Point to Consider

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My classmates and I did not seriously doubt that we were smarter than almost anyone else anywhere. Sure, some of the people in graduate schools may have been brilliant in their subject areas, but it seemed to us that they couldn't see beyond their tiny little area of interest to realize how much they were missing for lack of money.

If you had any doubts about your importance, you'd lose them quickly after looking at what the firm does to make you as productive as possible. Paralegals, mailroom people, and a host of others wait at your beck and call. You can make a secretary spend 45 minutes trying to get a limo for you. You can keep a messenger waiting for an hour while you put together a document that needs to be rushed to another office.


Once you understand how important you are - and I don't necessarily mean to sound sarcastic, because some of the things you work on make a difference of millions of dollars, and can matter to hundreds, if not thousands, of people - you develop the habit of spending money whenever it seems necessary to make things happen. You order photocopies of everything for everyone, because it's faster and safer than trying to guess which copies will actually be read by whom. You don't hesitate to use Federal Express, at 10 or 20 bucks a pop, rather than ordinary mail, because you want to be sure it gets there - and immediately.

Your sense of self-importance carries over into other activities. The law firm demands top-flight performance of you. So when you get involved in your local town's politics, for example, you're appalled at the sloppy thought and low-quality work you find in the people who run the place. It's not hard to point out specific ways in which you could do a better job, and that helps you get elected or chosen for a position of power, if you want.

If you happen to test the waters in the job market, you'll be gratified to see how many people are interested in you. Normally, they can't match the salary you'd get at your top-notch firm, especially if you're looking at opportunities outside of law and finance. But that only adds to the smug feeling of being in such high demand.

There's more to the good side of law than money. Law also tends to give its practitioners an unmatchable social ego boost. Suddenly, a place like New York City is your oyster.

When my wife and I split up, it was child's play to find women who would go out with me. Male or female, your Wall Street job proves that you're smart, motivated, and sensible. You're likely to be able to handle the duties and financial needs of a comfortable life and a family. As an added plus, working with words makes you witty, so that, all other things being equal, you'll be better rainy-day company than if you were a troll.

Beyond the money you make and the ego boosts, law can be exciting, even if the excitement is only temporary. There is, for example, a ritual known as "going to the printer."

It works like this. There are very tight rules on what the lawyers must put into certain kinds of documents, such as the papers that are required before a company can sell stock. These documents get prepared at specialized printing companies that charge huge amounts of money and produce work of extremely high quality.

To prepare the necessary documents, you wait until the stock market closes on the appointed day. At that point, you have the day's closing price for the stock. You then meet in a conference room at the printing company with a dozen other attorneys, accountants, and investment bankers, and you stay there, all night if necessary, until you've all agreed on every last detail in those documents and have reviewed a few samples of the final print. The printing people must get their educations at the feet of the saints, because you can sit there and be an absolute pig and insist that they bring you a filet mignon, an obscure kind of bottled water, an indelible green pen - anything you want - and they'll do it, even if it's 3 a.m. and they're dog tired.

Now, nobody else at the printer's thinks this is exciting. And neither will you, after the first time. But on that first evening, you feel that you're at the very heart of the world's highest finance, and everything about it is so impressive. At dawn, you fly to Washington, D.C., where you file copies of the printed documents with the SEC as soon as they open their doors. Once those papers are filed, it's legal to sell the stock that those documents describe. You get to a phone and call New York to tell them it's done, and you know that, moments later, $100 million worth of securities will cascade onto the selling floors of Wall Street.

I found my job exciting in other ways. I'd work on things one day and see them in the newspaper the next. The Wall Street Journal, far from describing distant transactions that meant nothing to me, was something that I read every day to see what was going on in my neighborhood. There were big deals afoot, and I was a part of some of them.

It was exciting just to be there: to work across the street from the New York Stock Exchange; to be at the office at 2 a.m. and know that, nearby, gold traders were doing war with midday competitors in Hong Kong; to watch the tickertape parades from high above Broadway at Trinity Church, where the confetti rains down by the ton when they celebrate a major national event; to walk out and stare at Federal Hall, where George Washington was sworn in as the first President; to stroll into the grand lobbies of Morgan and the other major banks; and simply to stand still and feel the financial power of the entire world throbbing through the pavement.

I think you get the picture. If you've got enough patience and money for law school, and your goal is to live a life that has as many different kinds of experiences as possible, you should try to include this one.


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