When They Make It & Hate It.

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The Plan? Security, for Those Who Make It.

The Reality? Nausea, When They Make It & Hate It.

Most lawyers do not go to the huge firms. It makes sense, then, to back up and look at a different kind of attrition. What happens to the 361 people, out of every 1,000 LSAT-takers, who become full-time lawyers of any type?

There are two ways to answer that question. One is to give you some more statistics, which to do first, and the other is then to tell you some stories. In talking about the statistics, remember this: I do not have 361 actual names, but these statistics are built on real lives, and for that reason I will talk about them in actual terms - that is, not about what might happen to such people, but about what actually is happening.

1. The Numbers Tell the Story

I'm not here just to hand out bad news. Please remember, as I fork over the negative statistics, that there are a large number of people to whom the dark side does not apply.

Having said that, about one-third of our 361 lawyers (32 percent, or 116) would think twice before deciding to become lawyers, if they had it to do over again, and another 5 percent (18) absolutely would not choose law again. A full 42 percent (152) have seriously considered leaving law.

It is less certain how many actually do leave the law, or when they do so. On the question of "when," the studies all show young lawyers to be the least happy, so I assume that most of those who quit do so sooner rather than later. And on the question of "how many," estimates (excluding those who've died) range from 6 percent379 to 15 percent380 and up. For matter, it is difficult even to know what is meant by "leaving the law." Do lawyers continue to count as lawyers, for these purposes, if they become paralegals? How about if they do part-time legal work while supporting them in some other way.

I have not found good statistics on this. If you'll pardon me for taking the middle ground, though, I will proceed on the assumption mat, by this point, of the 361 people who became attorneys, 10 percent (36) have turned to something other than the full-time practice of law, leaving us with 325 fall-timers.

Of those 325, 25 percent (81) plan to change jobs in the next two years; 41 percent (133) have changed jobs within two years of graduation; and 51 percent (166) answer "undecided" or "no" when asked whether they plan to stay in their current jobs for long.383

About 26 percent (85) of our 325 lawyers have tried cocaine. Five percent (16) are problem drinkers who also suffer from "statistically significant elevated levels of depression," a combination that is "highly predictive of suicide attempts and relapses," and another 27 percent (88) are divided, nearly evenly, into either problem drinking or depression, but not both. Under the applicable definition, most of the "depressed" ones are having suicidal thoughts. There is no data on attorney suicides, but experts have observed that attorneys' typical isolation could be expected to encourage them to act on those ideas. I remind you, these are people who started law school with approximately the same level of depression as the average American.

If our 325 lawyers stay in the law for full 25-year careers, about 24 of them will be disbarred or suspended or will resign from the bar. About 96 malpractice suits will be brought against them. Some of those troubles will result from substance abuse: At least 27 percent - maybe far more - of all cases of attorney discipline involve alcohol abuse, and perhaps 60 percent (36) of lawyers who suffer from substance abuse will be sued for malpractice.388 In one survey of managing partners at Denver law firms, the large majority said that they had worked with at least one partner whose personal problems (especially involving alcohol and marriage) had impaired his/her performance, and that, in more than a third of those cases, the lawyer eventually left the firm.

Figure it out, folks. A good percentage of the people who become lawyers find that it eats them up inside. If you're not sure you'll still be standing when this party ends, you'd be smart to consider a low-commitment preliminary visit as a secretary, maybe, or a paralegal at a law firm.

2. Being There

In the end, no matter where you go, there you are - and you're still a lawyer. The law is not something you step in on the sidewalk and then scrape off your shoe. As you'll see, the law sort of sticks to you, like chewing gum on your bus seat.

I have experience on this point. The first job I took after leaving the practice of law was a position with a major New York legal head hunting - i.e., executive recruiting - firm.

As a headhunter, I found myself trying to fill some interesting positions. For one of them, I got on the phone with important partners from major law firms. At first, they'd treat me like dirt. I'd tell them that, actually, I was looking to fill a spot for an investment banking firm. They'd warm up a bit. Then I'd mention the huge salary and bonus, and, what do you know, they'd suddenly be a lot more eager to meet me. Next thing, they'd be sitting across the table, and I'd be asking them all lands of questions that I had been just dying to ask when I was a lowly associate.

For the most part, head hunting was a sad business. Every day, I'd talk, in person and on the phone, with literally dozens of attorneys at all stages of their careers. Some were young people who'd been in the law for only a year or two. Some were senior associates who were pretty obviously not going to be made partners at their firms and who were facing the fright of the "up-or-out" tradition.

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