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Moving Upward in Your Legal Career

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The money that you get from practicing law can propel you from the poverty you experienced during school into a new life aimed toward long-term financial stability. You quickly acquired a taste for trips to Europe, jewelry, furniture, a computer, a new car, nice restaurants, and better clothes. You appreciate the freedom to spend $50 to $75 on dinner without really thinking much about it.

On the relative extremes, at least, money buys happiness. In one survey, family financial decision-makers who were asked, "Overall, how happy are you?" were 50 percent more likely to call themselves "happy" if their household incomes exceeded $50,000 than if they were below $15,000.

Money makes time. With money, you can - indeed, with our work hours, you sometimes had to - hire a maid. You can pay laundry services and restaurants to handle chores on which you'd otherwise have to spend your own time.

Money makes confidence. You can go out drinking and be obnoxious, secure in the thought that you are the cream of the crop and that the only people who have what it takes to appreciate you are those fortunate few who can operate at your high level of intelligence and energy. When you and your drinking buddies slow down at the end of the evening, you can talk seriously about buying a piece of real estate or about how you might "get something going on the side" by way of a small business of your own.

As the artiste says, money makes taste. You can buy excellent wines and sit in the first row on Broadway. When you fool with expensive things for long enough, you eventually realize why they're expensive. They really are better than the cheap versions.

After a while, money makes necessities. You can't put up, anymore, with sending your kids to a public school, driving a cheap little car, wearing a watch or suits that are less impressive than those worn by your peers at the firm, and living in a neighborhood that makes your upper-class acquaintances cringe when they come to visit. If you get to this stage of refinement, you realize that you must do better.

Which is just what you do. Maybe you switch out of law into finance, and if things go well for you, you make dollars by the bushel. Or you might try to get into management. Even if you stay in law, you can do extremely well in the right firm or specialty. Many partners make over a million every year. Other lawyers volunteer, or are forced, to accept payment from start-up clients in the form of stock, and are quite pleased to watch as some of that stock skyrockets.

At a good firm, even a new associates perks can be nice. You may get a bonus for signing up, a year-end bonus, and a mid-year profitability bonus, plus an incentive bonus if you bring in a client. They might pay for parking, personal phone calls and photocopying, moving expenses, your bar review course, and your state bar application fee. Your secretary may type, copy, and send your outgoing personal and professional mail for you, as well as handle your American Express bill and other incoming personal mail if you'd rather not have it sent to your home. You can get lots of free lunches. Their retirement plan can add thousands to your net worth. They may buy you a computer, a speaker phone, a dictating machine, and other electronic toys. They may pay for your maternity or paternity leave. You'll have excellent medical, dental, life, and malpractice coverage. Over a period of years, all of these benefits can be worth many thousands of dollars to you.

There are other dollars that don't go into your pocket, but nevertheless improve your life and inflate your ego. Within two years after law school, classmates had already flown to Tokyo, Hong Kong, the Mideast, Paris, and London; some were long-term assignments. The clients paid for the flights, of course, and sometimes saved money by putting my classmates on the high-speed Concorde instead of having to pay their hourly rate for regular flights. Whether you're in the U.S. or abroad, the client pays for your meals while you're working, as well as for your limo ride home when you work late, on his/her case, regardless of what it costs to get you to your residence way out in the suburbs. If you have to work overnight and have the nerve and the need to get out of the office for a couple of hours, you can bill the client for a hotel room nearby instead of making that expensive commute, and can add breakfast and a fresh new shirt to the tab.

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 - 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.

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.

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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