Frequently Asked Questions - Things I wish I knew before I became a Lawyer
For many people, becoming a doctor or lawyer is considered the pinnacle of careers. While this is certainly more true for doctors than lawyers, there are many factors once should consider before becoming a lawyer or even going to law school.
For starters, becoming a lawyer can be very expensive. With the rising cost of tuition and books at most law schools, plus living expenses, most law students incur debt into the six figures before they even start their careers. And, with the exception of the top 5-10% of your law class, the starting income of most new lawyers will probably be much lower than one would expect. While income is only one of many factors to consider before becoming a lawyer, the bottom line is that if you plan to become a lawyer largely because you think it will be lucrative, you may be disappointed with your income, particularly when first entering the labor market.
In order to get your first job, prospective employers will largely focus on the law school attended, your grade point average and your extracurricular legal activities. It is also helpful to work for a law firm during breaks as a paid or unpaid intern, particularly in an area of the law that the prospective firm specializes in. In fact, many firms offer their interns a permanent job upon graduating law school. If you aren’t sure what type of law you want to practice when you graduate, don’t stress. Most people change their minds about the the area of law they want to focus in while in aw school. For this reason, you may want to work for multiple law firms that practice different areas of the law (or a large firm that has a wide range of practice areas) to help you figure out what you may enjoy.
Plus, the reality is that law school actually does little to prepare you for actually being a lawyer. For many, you may learn more about the realities of being a lawyer in one 3 month summer internship than in 3 years of law school. Also, while many law students are involved in extracurricular legal activities simply to “pad their resume”, you should consider how such activities may benefit you in other ways. For example, if you plan to seek employment as a trial lawyer, you should strongly consider trying out for the Trial Team or Moot Court to gain valuable experience and feedback from real lawyers and judges. Again, law school itself does not necessarily prepare you for the demands of being a lawyer in the real world.
Another thing many lawyers wish they knew before they became a lawyer is the stress and anxiety that it can cause. Working long hours and handling complex matters can be overwhelming to some, especially when also raising a family or enjoying an active personal life. Drug use and alcoholism are common escapes for many lawyers and the suicide rate is higher than many other careers. These factors are not intended to dissuade someone from pursuing a law career, but at the same time these considerations cannot be ignored.
In this same regard, there are many considerations in deciding where to work after graduating law school. Because of their huge student loans, many young lawyers simply “chase the money” and take the highest paying job that is offered. As indicated above, many lawyers are ultimately dissatisfied with their job, salary notwithstanding. Find a firm that fits your personality. If you don’t like your co-workers or don’t feel comfortable at a particular firm, take that into consideration. During the interview process, make sure that you find about benefits like health insurance, 401(k) and vacation/personal time. While it may not be that important to you initially when looking for a job, these are also important factors. Find out how long it typically takes to be a partner and whether the other partners are happy at the firm. Also remember that most lawyers do change jobs at least a couple times during their legal career. Thus, you should also think about if the job will ultimately help you in furthering your career down the road. For example, if you want to be a criminal defense lawyer, you may consider a job at the local State Attorney’s office or as a Public Defender. While this may not be a job you want to do permanently, the experience of working for such an entity could be invaluable in furthering your long term goals.
Most lawyers find a “niche” and practice a very specific legal area. Even practicing one particular area of the law can be challenging since you will be expected to understand the minutia of that area and considering that the law is always changing. Notwithstanding, you will have family and friends that will come to you for legal advice in areas well outside your expertise. For example, let’s say you specialize in Construction Law and a friend asks for advice about a criminal matter. Be careful!!! Providing legal advice in practice areas outside of your expertise can potentially result in legal malpractice even when the advice is free. And, while your law firm may have malpractice insurance to cover potential legal malpractice, it may not cover you if you are giving advice outside of your practice area or the “client” is not being represented by your law firm.
Thus, you should always be very careful providing advice outside of your practice area. At the very least, you should advise anyone asking for such advice the this is not your expertise before providing any opinions. Often, you may know a lawyer that you went to law school with or met during your legal career that does practice that law type. In those situations, you may want to consider referring your family member or friend to this lawyer for possible representation. This can often result in a win/win situation for both the friend/family member and the lawyer. And, for some types of law, you may even be entitled to a “referral fee” from the handling attorney if the representation results in a recovery. For example, many personal injury and workers’ compensation lawyers will offer up to 25% of their fee to the referring attorney. Obviously, just like any type of referral, you should feel comfortable that the lawyer will provide good advice and can be entrusted to do a good job.