Posted by on February 27, 2010

Upheaval in the legal profession has spawned much discussion in the press about how the practice of law is changing.  In particular, a great many newly minted lawyers are disillusioned (to put it lightly) at their dim prospects for finding that dreamy, six-figure associate position at a prominent and well-heeled law firm.  The position they’ve been dreaming of for years.  Now, blame is laid at the feet of law school placement offices and admissions officers, for having overstated the promise of wealth and success to be scooped up by their smiling graduates.  The American Bar Association is blamed for accrediting too many law schools, glutting the market.  “I can’t find a job,” they lament.  Or, for those who are certain if there were jobs to be had (there are), surely they would be hired:  “There are no jobs for young lawyers.”

When you went to law school, what was your dream?

Perhaps you told yourself, “One day, I’m going to be a low-level associate in a big firm, someone whose name nobody knows, and who toils ceaselessly to enrich a class of middle-aged (and older) men who have high cholesterol, high stress, and who drink too much to assuage the fear of losing their wealth.  Then, one day, I’ll be one of them!”  (Perhaps someone led you to believe that’s just the way it’s done.)

Or was your dream to be a lawyer?

You went to law school.  You studied hard.  You passed the bar.  You have your license.  Congratulations:  You’re a lawyer.

Perhaps you even went so far as to qualify your dream:  “I want to be a successful lawyer.”

Why stop there?  “I want to be a happy, successful lawyer.”  That’s dreaming big!

Now, then, what was the problem?  Oh, the “happy, successful” part.  Right.

The difference between a lawyer and a successful lawyer is clients (preferably, paying ones, but I can cite to cases that demonstrate how that may not always be the case).  Wherever you work as a lawyer, whomever you work for, eventually, you will have to find clients.  Ask any experienced lawyer; it’s true.  I assure you they’re out there.  And there are a great many clients – yes, even paying clients – who will never dream of hiring Dewey, Cheatham & Howe at $400/hour.  They need lawyers, too.  (If only to protect them from the $400/hour lawyers.)  Start there.

Be Proactive and Aggressive:

  • Join your local bar.  Meet lawyers.  (Someone might actually like you, despite your bitter cynicism, and offer you a job, if you can imagine that.  Especially if, in starting out on your own, you actually demonstrate that you’re a lawyer someone might like to have working at his or her firm.)
  • Meet people.  Clients are people*, so the more people you meet, the more prospective clients you’re meeting.  Volunteer.  Get involved.  Demonstrate your dedication, commitment, diligence, intelligence, and all those other things that will convince people you’re the person they want on their end of the rope.  *It is true that, for bigger firms, a great many clients are not people, or at least not natural persons.  Corporations (whom we now know have free speech rights, just like any other person…) tended historically to favor the bigger firms, under the old “You can’t go wrong with IBM” mentality, but even they are increasingly sending work to smaller, more nimble, and more economical firms.

Be Practical:

  • Don’t bite off more than you can chew.  But be prepared to chew vigorously.  Start with the basics you know from school, like contract and property disputes, simple criminal misdemeanors, even traffic tickets.  You may not have noticed, since for the last three years everyone around you knew scads about the law, that most people out there don’t know much about it at all.  You know a great deal more than you realize.  Put it to work.
  • Know when to ask for help.  Get a mentor.  Or ten.  Know the experts, and if you stumble onto a case that’s bigger than you’re ready for, consider referring it and asking to second chair, or ask if they’ll help you through it.  The more mentors you have, the less likely you are to wear out your welcome.  And the more people you have who may toss you smaller cases that they think either aren’t worth their time, or that they think may be particularly suitable for you to cut your teeth on.
  • Get malpractice insurance.  Even if your bar association doesn’t require it, many referral services do, and especially as a new lawyer, clients may be reassured by the fact that you have it.

All of that being said, well, all of that has been said, by others before me.

The Bigger Lesson: Dream Big

There is a bigger lesson to all of this, and it’s related not only to the practice of Law, but the practice of Life.  It’s called Passion.  You need to find your passion, and pursue that.  That’s what takes care of the happy part of “I want to be a happy, successful lawyer.”  In fact, if you can find the happy, the successful will almost always follow – or adapt.

When you find your passion, it will lead to your dream.  Why do you want to be a lawyer?  If money is the only reason, you may find success – and especially happiness – to be elusive, regardless of what you do; you’ll always want more.

If you want to be a lawyer (doctor, teacher, etc.) because you want to solve a problem, help someone, or pay the world back, take the time to think about all the different ways to approach that goal.  Match that up with what it is that makes you want to get up in the morning and set about your day.  If you didn’t like getting up Saturday mornings to read case law in law school, you can be reasonably certain that you’ll not want to get up on a Saturday morning and go to the office to read through hundreds of pages of emails to see if there’s evidence in there of employment discrimination, or embezzlement, or whatever.  If you didn’t enjoy learning about land title race statutes, you won’t relish deciphering a hundred years of metes-and-bounds land descriptions in order to figure out what interest your client’s soon-to-be-ex wife has, if any, in the undeveloped portion of the subdivision that used to be the client’s great grandfather’s family farm.

Don’t build the dream around a life; build your life around the dream.

Dream big, follow your dream, and then settle into it after you find what brought you there.  Don’t just imagine a narrow, specific life you thought you wanted, and pin all of your hopes and dreams on that one particular thing, only to settle into disappointment (or complacency) if you find that it wasn’t exactly what you wanted, or if you simply can’t find it.

  • Do you want to work in a restaurant, or be a chef?  (Do you prefer chopping celery, or creating new dishes?  Some people just want to be part of something.)
  • Do you want to paint, or be an artist?  (Is a bathroom as inspiring as a mural?  For some, it means more to design something that will make someone smile every day.)
  • Do you want to work in social services, or help the handicapped overcome barriers?  (You may learn that they inspire you more than you inspire them.)

Of course, dreaming big doesn’t mean losing perspective.  You can still change the world; some of us just do it best by doing it one life at at a time.


  1. Alexandria Skinner
    March 1, 2010

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    Good perspective! Too many people go to law school for the wrong reasons, thinking they’re going to pay some dues and then be set for life. Law school is quite an investment of time and money, and there’s no assurance of a gravy train at the end. After law school comes the struggle of either working as an Associate billing thousands of hours per year or starting a practice, with clients depending on you to get it right and, if you’re honest, you have to admit to not feeling quite as confident in yourself as you’d like. And the work demands can translate into years and looking back and wishing you’d spent more time with your children. In my view, the only reason to go to law school is that a person has a burning desire to work in the law and is willing to put in long hours for low pay in order to do it. If things work out better, so much the better but the bottom line is that you’d better love, love, love the work. Do you agree, Rick?

  2. AttyRick
    March 1, 2010

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    One of the job search sites put it well: “When you love what you do, it isn’t work.” That speaks to the general idea that “work” is more often than not a word that means you’d rather be doing something else. While there are sometimes pragmatic reasons for accepting that as the status quo (at least for a time), in the long run, it’s hardly ideal.

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