Posted on | July 12, 2011 | 21 Comments

Being a lawyer is a funny sort of job. Not funny “ha ha” just… funny.  I don’t talk a lot about being a lawyer on here because I like having a steady income and I don’t particularly want any employer to read and think “Damn, we should fire her.”  But today, I’m gonna lay it all on the line because I get a lot of emails about “should I go to law school” and “what is it like being a lawyer?”

Being a lawyer… quite often sucks.

There. I said it.  It’s no different than 90% of the jobs that anyone else does. You get up, you leave the warmth and comfort of your home, you drop your child off at the place he spends over 40 hours each week, and you firmly plant your ever-expanding arse on a large leather chair in front of a not-so-large computer screen.  I went to law school thinking I was going to make a splash in the legal world… maybe politics, maybe in-depth research on some new and exciting legal question… it didn’t matter. I was going to be big and important. 

And maybe I’m not a senator or a judge or even anywhere near partner at any law firm. But you know what? I am important.  I’m drop dead serious important to the 200 or so injured individuals who signed on to have me and my firm represent them in their workers’ compensation case… or so I tell myself.  Mostly, I spend my days pushing paper.  I file. I read emails.  I sort through mail.  I review rules or treatises to refresh my memory on the outcome of a case or the exact wording of a statute.  I watch the clock tick ever so slowly closer to 5:15 when I can Fred Flinstone it out of here and pick up my child.

Being a lawyer, at least for the first four years, is little more than a lot of nodding, smiling, and going along with whatever your boss tells you to do.  There’s a lot of back pedaling.  There’s a lot of pulling your foot out of your mouth when you find out that you told a client one thing and your boss told them something else.  There’s a lot of clenched fists and bitten tongues as you smile and nod to this or that partner and their ideas about how you should or should not be conducting your practice or spending your days.  There is very little autonomy.  Okay, scratch that… there is no autonomy.

I’ve been an attorney for almost four years… not a lifetime.  To date, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been allowed to make my own decisions on a case.  I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve felt confident and sure of myself as I approached a problem or a client.  I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve thought “I LOVE MY JOB!”  

What I can not count are the number of times I’ve wanted to cash in all my chips and go do something else with my life.  What I can not count are the number of times I’ve thought “I have no idea what I’m doing here.”  I can not count how many times I’ve wanted to throw up my hands and scream “WHAT DID I GO TO SCHOOL FOR?!” or “WHY DO I HAVE ALL THIS DEBT?!”

But what it comes down to is this: being a lawyer means learning the law every day.  Every day, I get out of bed and trudge my way through the crap and nonsense of being at a job I don’t quite understand.  I’ve been a lawyer for not-quite four years… not a lifetime.  I am still learning every day.  Did I graduate law school and immediately know what the hell I’m doing? No, of course not.  No more than a person who practices basketball for three years becomes Michael Jordan.   If you truly want to be a lawyer, you have to understand that you will never EVER be a lawyer.  You will always be a lawyer in training.  You will always have more to learn.  You will always find yourself in situations where you don’t know what the right answer is, but everyone around you is still watching you with bated breath, waiting for you to spout some amazing Learned Hand quote or some fantastic advice.  You will always wonder what the hell you’re doing at least twice a day. 

At least for the first four years.

After that, I couldn’t say.  But to all of you who are thinking about a career in the law, think about this… do you want to spend the rest of your life learning?  Do you want to spend the rest of your life in a career you can not master, in a game you can not win? If you think you can handle that, if you think you can be confused and confuddled 50% of your day and still talk and act like you are 100% sure of yourself, well then… maybe this is the career for you.  It’s a hard road.  It’s a lonely and difficult path if you’re afraid to fail and equally afraid to ask for assistance.  It’s a road that can NOT be taken alone.

Being a lawyer is hard.  It is not prestigious or glorious or rainbows and sunshine.  It is a day in and day out struggle to figure out the best way to help your client succeed at something you may or may not agree they ought to succeed at.  It’s a daily struggle to bite your tongue and follow the rules of your firm in the interest of a paycheck. 

But is it worth it?

Well… I don’t know.  I like to think so.   I certainly can’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing.  Do I hate my job? Yes, somedays.  Do I love my job? Absolutely, somedays.  Ultimately, it’s a job… just like any other… only with this job comes the responsibility of centuries of legal minds who came before you and who, I like to believe, struggled with this just as much as I do.  It’s a struggle. It’s a battle.  It’s the law.

And for as much as I hate it, I love it, too. 

Someone once gave me marvelous advice… it was an older lawyer who was benching a moot court practice.  I told him how nervous I get when I do an oral argument and how I get all splotchy and red.  He nodded slowly and then looked me dead in the eye and delivered this gem:

“When you stop getting nervous, when you stop feeling scared that you’re doing it all wrong… that is when you need to find a new career.  The law is too important to not be scared when you’re practicing it.”

I am scared every day. 

I am a lawyer.


21 Responses to “Lawyering”

  1. Jana A
    July 12th, 2011 @ 9:04 am

    This is perfect.

  2. Mom on a Line
    July 12th, 2011 @ 10:07 am

    Glad you put it all out there. Lawyering is so glamorized in the media and made to look easy, yet nothing is ever shown about the hours and hours worth of drudgery that goes into every minute in front of an audience/courtroom.

    I’m sorry you haven’t been given the opportunity to take charge or do something on your own. That is unfortunate. Then again, I was thrown in head first right away, responsible. Yikes! I felt that was overwhelming too, but have been grateful everyday for the experience.

  3. pinkflipflops
    July 12th, 2011 @ 10:08 am

    Excellent post. It reminds me of how I feel as a teacher as well. Nice to know that if I had gone to law school like I had orginally planned, I’d still feel inadequate!

  4. Dre
    July 12th, 2011 @ 10:13 am

    Hit it right on the nose. I have been a lawyer for 9 years now (eek, that makes me sound really, really old), and I am still sitting at a desk all day wondering what I am doing. People need to understand that they don’t teach you how to practice law at law school. Graduating from law school just means you are a trainable monkey with some basic understanding of the major theories of law. It is not how it looks on tv, people! Although I am lucky to practice a very quirky type of law that never ceases to amuse me, so at least I have that going for me to make up for my lousy salary and ginormous debt.

  5. Merrill
    July 12th, 2011 @ 10:57 am

    Oh wow…change “lawyer” to “teacher” and I could say all the same things. There’s always more to learn, every case (student) is different and needs to be handled differently, it’s hard and exhausting, it’s not all apples and alphabets!

  6. shorescribbles
    July 12th, 2011 @ 11:11 am

    Your job description is also mine (technical writer)! I never understand what I’m doing, I’m forced to say what management wants me to say, I sit at a desk all day, I am my customer’s biggest advocate, and I’m always learning. However, tech writers are never glamorized on TV, and the tech writing job requires fewer years of school (ergo less debt).

  7. Maggie
    July 12th, 2011 @ 11:32 am

    Delurking to say I’ve been a lawyer for 16 years and although I have a job that suits me well, there are times when it sucks. I’ve been at this long enough to note that of all of my friends from law school, only 2 maybe 3 of them still enjoy the practice of law. It can be an unrewarding grind to deal with opposing counsel and the court telling you that you’re wrong every day because that’s their job. Most of my friends are partners now and, frankly, it doesn’t seem to be much more rewarding (emotionally – financially it’s a different story). Then there is the ridiculous amount of money it costs to go to law school. The loan payments were appalling for years. I know this is a downer of a comment, but I urge everyone who asks me not to go into law, it’s not glamorous, most people don’t change the world, it’s expensive, and the hours and the toll they take on a family can be hell. Maybe I need a vacation soon 😉

  8. Andrea Sharp
    August 2nd, 2012 @ 2:40 pm

    I am a paralegal and my significant other is an attorney, so I sometimes get a double dose of not escaping There are days when inevitably work comes home with you or you do the 2:00 am wake up thinking “oh god, did I forget to do this”, or is it going to be a day where the client screams at me. Being a solo attorney, you are never off the clock- calls come in anytime from 7:00 am to 2:00 am the next morning. There are years where you wonder if you are going to make enough to cover living expenses, vacations rarely come and your days are often accompanied by long hours. Family life doesn’t always exist.

    I have reached the startling conclusion that this is the most underpaid, over glamorized, stressful field known.

  9. Carol
    July 12th, 2011 @ 11:47 am

    Well said, Karen. Your post touched on so many points I feel everyday in the practice of law. Can I ask who gave you the quote? I thought it was great.

  10. Law Momma
    July 12th, 2011 @ 11:50 am

    Carol: Sadly, the advice has stuck with me… the person who gave it has not. I’d love to say it was Mr. Higdon because it sounds like something he would have said… but I just don’t remember who it was.

  11. Lola
    July 12th, 2011 @ 11:56 am

    Wow! I want to say wow most days when you write, but today especially. I have been working in the legal field since 1990. I have been a legal secretary, legal assistant, paralegal. And while I have played with the idea of being a lawyer, I’ve discovered that I don’t really want to handle the burden of always skating slightly on the edge and having so much responsibility. I absolutely enjoy supporting lawyers, though. I’ve watched good and bad lawyers and the best ones were always those who didn’t assume they knew everything about a case; they were the ones who absolutely loved learning about something they had no clue about. Lawyers are the fastest learners I have ever seen. But I have also noticed that lawyers who work in corporate law are the happiest at what they do. Maybe it’s because everyone is agreeing? In-house counsel are also very happy with their job. Maybe one day I’ll get the bug to go to law school, but if so, it will be because I’ve had long enough in the legal field to know exactly what I want to do. On another note, you definitely state here what most women lawyers feel – the difficulty with reconciling wanting to be a present mother and having to be a present lawyer. Being true to yourself is sometimes difficult, but I admire how you go from day to day just doing your best no matter what shape you are in … and noticing the little moments that make each day bearable.

  12. Latrice
    July 12th, 2011 @ 12:51 pm

    Thank you for describing my life to a T. As always you rock!

  13. Celeste
    July 12th, 2011 @ 1:20 pm

    Amen, sister! You hit the nail on the head!

  14. Heather
    July 12th, 2011 @ 2:32 pm

    Nine years ago, I graduated from law school & there are still days I don’t know what I am doing. There are many cases where I get quesy right before I walk into the courtroom. I think about the adverse effect I could have on my client’s life & I start to sweat. I agree that the day you know it all is the day you no longer care about the outcome.

    Almost nine years in nonprofit has allowed me to improve many lives, but I don’t drive a nice car. I have a normal size home and an abnormal amount of student loans. I have two children and a month long vacation I am currently on. Life is finding what is important to you and making it a priority.

    Lastly, prospective law students don’t listen to anyone when we tell them to not go, loans, no jobs, etc. Society has glamourized too much. I know I didn’t listen.

  15. Jennifer
    July 12th, 2011 @ 3:22 pm

    My friend is an attorney. I don’t know for how long now, but he finally got his first jury trial the other day. And won. He was ecstatic, of course.

    I am an auditor. One time I had an intern that was actually going to LSU for the Internal Audit program. We were working at a small location in PA or somewhere and I was explaining things to him when he asked, “so when do we get to meet with the CEO?” You know, because that’s what they teach in school. I almost fell out of my chair laughing. Then I quickly explained that I wasn’t going to let him talk to a local controller that was seated just down the hall. There was no way he was going to get to talk to the CEO.

    Sometimes I think school is for getting a degree, not for learning what you really need to know once you get on the job.

  16. Lisa
    July 12th, 2011 @ 8:21 pm

    I knew halfway through law school that I was going to HATE being a lawyer, but with that much money in loans, I was going to finish the degree. And I was right, I hated being a lawyer. I love the esoteric learning process, but absolutely hate the “ack, if I’m wrong I will totally eff up someone’s life” aspect of practice. I enjoyed teaching legal writing MUCH more than actually practicing. (And my first teaching job was a semester at Mercer. Great school.)

  17. Courtney
    July 13th, 2011 @ 12:53 am

    I believe this is called a truth bomb. Well said Counselor.

  18. Doeshell
    July 13th, 2011 @ 9:08 am

    Absolutely correct- and it starts in law school and never stops…. unless of course you’re in the wrong profession. 🙂

  19. Kelly
    July 14th, 2011 @ 9:55 pm

    I’m sad that you and so many of the commenters here are so dissatisfied with their job. The effort to balance work and motherhood is so much harder when you don’t enjoy your job. When I was a junior associate at a law firm,a male partner told me a story about how he had been so unhappy at a previous firm and came home every day and complained about his job. One day his son asked him what the son had done wrong that the dad would rather be in an office he hated than be home with him. He soon changed jobs to find a firm that better suited him. I took that story to heart, and as a person that has to work outside the home for financial reasons, I made sure that when my kids came along, I was in a job that I really enjoyed. Yes, being a lawyer is stressful and as you become more senior you only have more responsibility which means more stress. But if you have great colleagues, appreciative clients and work in a subject area that is intellectually stimulating and/or rewarding for more than financial reasons (i.e., you help people who really need your help), those days where you think, “I really like my job” will outnumber the days where you hate it. Don’t be afraid to change jobs. I know in this economy it can be challenging. But if you are unhappy more days than you are happy, you should be looking for new opportunities.

  20. Justice Jonesie
    July 14th, 2011 @ 11:11 pm

    LOL, love this! Next time I get the “what’s it like” or “should I go to law school” type of question I’m going to send them this link. Thanks for spelling it out so perfectly for all of us lawyers out there!

  21. Manic Monday | Unintentionally Brilliant
    January 6th, 2012 @ 2:08 pm

    […] then I read Lawyering by Law-Momma. And I know that I will never be able to make an absolute-final decision. I love […]

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