Not surprisingly, there are thousands of unhappy lawyers who are new to the profession. After all, there’s plenty to be unhappy about if you’re unemployed and trying to pay back six-figure loans. But what about more-experienced attorneys who have stable jobs and little-to-no debt? Are they a satisfied lot?
A 2007 American Bar Association survey found that only 55 percent of lawyers were satisfied with their careers. In my opinion, this is because many of them become lawyers with vague or unrealistic expectations about what a career in the legal profession would be like.
First, I’ve learned from my experience as a coach, that many seem to decide to become lawyers by default. I’ve coached well over 100 lawyers who came in all shapes and sizes -- solo to big firm, rural to big city, consumer to business. During my first session with each lawyer, I ask a series of questions.
One question is, “Why did you go to law school?”The number one answer by far (and there is not even a close second) is, essentially, “I couldn’t think of anything better to do.” Some of my clients within the Jewish community even joke that “nice Jewish boys who don’t like the sight of blood choose law school.”
While my sample contains a good cross-section of lawyers, there is admittedly an element of self-selection that biases these results. In any event, I’m still convinced that a majority of attorneys go to law school by default, lacking any strong passion to do what lawyers do. (Full disclosure; yours truly went by default)
Little knowledge of what lawyers actually do is the second reason for unrealistic expectations. Did you know what lawyers do when you enrolled in law school? I certainly did not. We were all smart enough to realize that most lawyers don’t go to court every day, but what do they do on all of the other days?
Becoming a lawyer is not like becoming a doctor. Everyone knows what doctors do. When I started law school, I thought that I would become a labor/employment attorney. After all, I had majored in labor and employment relations as an undergrad. Did I have any clue what it would actually be like? Absolutely no clue.
In short, many lawyers decide on this career path hoping and assuming (based on absolutely no evidence) that it will be a financially rewarding and satisfying career. When those expectations fall short, it should come as no surprise that they wonder what went wrong.
Next in line for blame are the law schools, which only make a bad situation worse. We enter law school not knowing what lawyers do. How much more about that do we learn during the next three years? Not a helleva lot. Furthermore, law schools create the expectation that practicing law is going to be a great intellectual exercise. Yes, there have been times during my 30-year career that my brain has gotten a thorough work-out. Unfortunately, I wish it had been more often. I am sure that many of you agree with me.
Finally, from the perspective of “outside looking in,” there are some lawyers who seem to have it good. They appear to have successful practices and significant financial rewards. One day, despite all this, these lawyers sit back in their fancy chairs and ask themselves, “Is this it?” The new luxury car and big courtroom win simply don’t bring the thrill they used to. Perhaps, those things never even brought a thrill at all.
I’m a lawyer, not a psychologist. I can’t say for sure why some attorneys are unhappy or what their expectations were at the time they entered the profession. Certainly, lawyers are not the only ones who realize that money rarely buys happiness, yet continue to toil away at not-very-meaningful work.
Well, enough of the doom and gloom. I want to end this post on a more optimistic note. Most legal career counselors believe that it is rarely too late to make changes in one’s career. Lawyers are fortunate in that they have an extraordinarily wide range of choices.These include switching law firms, modifying practice areas, going in-house and going solo. There are also opportunities in fields related to law, such as e-discovery, bar association work, alternative dispute resolution and legal recruiting. Of course, you can also cut your losses and get out completely.
Change is not always easy and can certainly involve risk. But if you happen to be one of those unhappy lawyers, life is too short to simply accept the status quo. Do something to take charge of your legal career.
Originally published on Lawyerist.com