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Is Being an Average Attorney Bad? The Difference Between Exceptional vs. Average Lawyers

published July 29, 2021

By Author - LawCrossing
Published By
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When used in this manner, the definition of the word "average" means the typical amount of intelligence. Most attorneys are average. This is also nothing to be ashamed of. Being an average attorney is normal, and it is okay. The chances are that if you are reading this, you are an average lawyer.

From my years of experience as a lawyer and as a legal recruiter, I have found that average attorneys are often happier in their lives, have longer careers, and experience fewer personal and professional problems than exceptional lawyers. In this article, I want to explain why you might be better off being an average attorney than chasing extraordinary achievement.


Is Being Average the Key to Happiness in Life and at a Law Firm?

Just as I mentioned initially, most attorneys are average, and there is nothing wrong with that. As a legal recruiter, I have met hundreds of attorneys, and the ones that were average often led more balanced lives, were happier, had long careers, had big families they loved, and were healthier. Of course, they were the ones who came to accept being average, not those striving to be exceptional but who cannot get to the level.

On the other hand, exceptional attorneys, or those who spend their careers trying to become exceptional, that I have met were usually very stressed people with health problems, substance abuse problems, and often family problems. Many of them ended up divorced. That was the price they paid for being exceptional.

Some attorneys start as average and never rise above it. Other attorneys start as exceptional and with a lot of promise but later slip down to being average. Very few attorneys become and stay exceptional throughout their careers. People deal with being average often makes the difference in how content they are with their legal career and life.

The Type of Market a Lawyer's Law Firm Is in Gives Hints

I have found that the type of market an attorney is in indicates whether they are okay with the fact that they are average or whether they belong to the ones who are chasing exceptionality regardless of whether they will be able to achieve it or not.

Attorneys who practice law in big law markets in major cities, such as New York or Washington, D.C., usually do not want to be just an average lawyer. These markets are filled with competition and constant reminders of those who have "made it," so it is just natural that those who feel like they should be a part of the exceptional highest-paid lawyers concentrate here.

But when you get out of these big cities into smaller markets, you suddenly find many outstanding attorneys with being average and lead a happy, healthy, and long life as an average lawyer. In these markets, extraordinary attorneys and role models are not constantly pushed down their throats; attorneys are not stressing out about whether their salary is higher than the salary of someone in their position in the other major law firm. They are not constantly comparing themselves and their achievements with others. They also do not get burned out after months of working 80 hours a week. They have more time for their families, so they do not end up getting divorced as much as those in big markets who spend all of their time working.

The Need To Feel Important

One of the problems with being average is that people do not want to be average. They are constantly hearing about other successful attorneys, which can be a huge hit to their ego. With a constant reminder about attorneys who earn more than you, work in better law firms, come from a better law school, it can be tough to accept that you do not belong in the same category. It is even worse for attorneys with a very competitive nature, as they have this need to be better than everyone, and it hurts them if they are not.

Of course, this competitiveness and drive for significance push us to be better and grow. We try to impress people close to us by achieving many goals in our lives. We try to make our lives and the lives of our families better by doing well in the legal profession. But everything has its limits, and once the chase becomes more important than everything else, it can pose problems.

This need to feel important and strive for significance does not have to be fulfilled only by a career. Especially in today's world, many people feel important if they have enough followers on social media. Others feel significant when they fight for a social cause, take care of their family, or belong to a religion they believe in. We want to look valuable in the eyes of others in society, whether by materialistic possessions, social status, or other related measures.

Whatever the measure is, if you blindly focus on achieving more and being the best, you can easily lose sight of enjoying your life as it is. And it is all for nothing in the grand scheme of things. No one will care about whether you achieved that yearly salary or that position 50 or 100 years after you die. You become one of the millions of forgotten people that lived on our planet at one point in life.

How To Be Exceptional and Become One of the Highest-Paid Lawyers?

If you want to be an exceptional attorney despite all of the above-mentioned, you have to be hyper-aware of your skills and characteristics and work on anything that is not your asset. In essence, the road to exceptionally is not that difficult. But it isn't easy to do. Not impossible, almost anyone could really do it, really, but difficult.

To become an outstanding attorney, you need to follow three main steps:

Getting Into the Best Law Firm You Can

To become an exceptional attorney, it is crucial to get into the best law firm there is. If you cannot get into the best firm now because you did not go to the highest-rank law school, did not do that well in law school, or did not come from a prestigious law firm. The goal is to get into the best firm you can and work on yourself tirelessly to get hired there eventually. Find out what the requirements to get there are, and work on fulfilling them.

Billing All the Hours You Can

When you are in a good firm, you need to bill as many hours as possible to become exceptional. Billed hours are usually what evaluation and advancement are based on, so it is vital to bill many of them.

Getting a Lot of Business From Big Clients

Another thing that is very important for success in large firms is having a lot of business and, more importantly, having business from major clients. Big clients usually mean a steady stream of work and a lot of money for the firm, so if you can get a few of those on board, it will help your career tremendously.

These are not the only important factors that become a spectacular attorney in a big firm; however, they are the main ones that hold the most weight. The most successful attorneys have all mastered these three steps, and it catapulted their careers.

You will have to sacrifice your personal life, family, your health because of stress, lack of sleep, and often even regular drinking with partners (or to numb your pain and disappointment that you are not as successful as you wanted to be at this point in your life). But as you can guess from the description of the tasks, you will have to dedicate your life to fulfill all these requirements. The more you are willing to sacrifice outside of your legal career, the higher you can go.

Having Something To Live For as an Attorney

While reading this article, you might be thinking, Why would so many attorneys sacrifice their families and happiness just for the possibility of being significant?

The truth is, many of them find purpose in this chase. The hard work and this kind of mission give them happiness and meaning in life, and it also serves as a great motivating factor that will force them to get up in the morning and try their best.

People who do not have such a purpose in life often try to find problems everywhere around them and badly. Many of the people I know that are not working end up with problems in various aspects of their lives - they are unhappy, get divorced, chase one spiritual guru after another to find "the meaning of life," start engaging in risky behavior to numb the absence of meaning in their life, etc. If you do not have a job or something you are trying to achieve, it can be very harmful, and chances are you will be unhappy.

Attorneys who are aiming to be exceptional have a strong purpose in life. They wake up every day wanting to achieve their goals, solving problems, meeting clients, arguing cases in court. However, it comes at a high price. Your goal should be to find a balance between having a purpose in life and your career but not chasing exceptionality at the expense of your happiness and health. The purpose can be found in a small firm. It can be in a market that is not major. It can be with small individual clients.

The Harsh Truth About Exceptional Lawyers

Becoming one of the exceptional lawyers is not easy. The vast majority of people with a law degree will never be able to get to that level. Most of these exceptional people have gained legal education from the top law school, achieving better results than most of their class and getting a job in top law firms. But that is not enough. You also have to advance in the firm and become an equity partner, which many attorneys in large law firms achieve.

And that is okay. Most people are not one of these "elite" lawyers. It is not true just in the legal profession. In every profession, whether it is the business industry, sport, entertainment, finance, healthcare, or anything else, most people are ordinary. But that is not a reason to not feel accomplished or happy in their lives. In my opinion, average professionals are much more likely to be happy in their lives and often have a longer and more stable career than those who want to be exceptional by any means.

To Each Attorney Their Own

In the end, everyone decides what success and happiness mean for them. If you think that going into an Ivy League school and getting a job in a major firm in New York is the only way to be successful, you will not be happy as a lawyer in a small family law firm in the middle of the country. If you want to be perfect and more successful than everyone around you, you will probably spend your life comparing yourself to everyone around you and chasing something that is not attainable. But it is your choice, and no one can take that away from you. It can be a great motivator.

There could be many reasons you are not as successful as an attorney as you wanted to be. You might not be cut out to be a highly successful attorney. Or you might note have worked hard enough or known the right people. Or you might be comparing yourself to the top attorneys instead of those who are like you.


It is imperative to understand that most attorneys ARE average. Comparing yourself to the top 1% will probably not bring anything positive into your life. Many attorneys quit practicing law or have unnecessary health or family problems because they feel like they are not good enough if they are not at the top. The key to having a long career you are content and satisfied with is admitting that you might not be the best attorney there is. You might not even belong to the top group. But that does not mean you are bad at what you do. Being the best you can be is enough.

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