Monday, July 30, 2012

Reader Request: Why Being a Lawyer is Like the Worst Date Ever (Sort of)

Alternate Title: "Why Being a Lawyer Generally Sucked and Isn't Nearly as Exciting nor Populated with Good Looking People as Hollywood Would Lead You to Believe - Not that I'm Bitter About It."

Not to worry: we'll get back to the non-legal business of being Pretty tomorrow. Pinky swear.

You know when you have a crush on someone from afar, someone so supernaturally beautiful, so funny, so entirely perfect it's almost painful? Your stomach churns at the mere thought of 'em.

And then, at long last, you actually talk with him or her. It may even get as far as a first date. And . . . crickets.

Whether it's the way he doesn't pause to breathe between endless stories about himself or that spinach stuck in his (otherwise flawless) teeth, you know one thing for certain - this is not the one for you.

How could two people who on paper seemed so perfect together have such a total lack of chemistry? How could NBC's Olympics coverage be so alternatively drippy and disrespectful? These, friends, are questions for the ages.

But I digress - thanks to some super-duper reader requests, today I'm droning on endlessly about what I didn't like about the practice of law, what I did like - yes, there are a few bits - and whether I regret having been to law school in the first place. Consider this a part two to my Law School Questionnaire - lucky you!

Please enjoy my PowerPoint skills - apparently I learned something from all those years chained to my computer!

What I Hated About It

I hate to admit this, but you already think I'm shallow if you've spent any amount of time here, so . . . like for so many people, what drew me to the law was all the image, and none of the reality, of the practice.

From a young age, I'd glamorized the legal profession as one stuffed with smart people in gorgeous suits fighting for justice and making impassioned courtroom speeches. To be blunt, I imagined big paychecks and the admiration of my friends and family. I love/d reading, writing, arguing, my Poli Sci major, and fancy suits, so what could be better than getting paid to do all of the above?

Mind you, I'd spent zero time with an actual attorney, so I had no idea that the vast majority of most lawyers' lives are spent outside of the courtroom, and that to get to the coutroom one had to do a crushing amount of (to me) mind-numbing research and writing. Or pore over equally thrilling piles of discovery. Or deal with intentionally antagonistic opposing counsel, not to mention the clients. In short, it was a business devoted to getting lost in the trees when I was a big-picture forest type.

About that "I love to argue" thing . . . it's one thing to enjoy highbrow undergrad debates over coffee Coors Light about Big Ideas, and quite another to be sending endless nastygrams back and forth with opposing counsel, who is doing everything in their power to make your & your client's life a living Hell. The practice of law beat that argue impulse straight out of me.

It turns out I do love to read, write, and give impassioned speeches, but only when I'm actually interested in the subject matter. I wasn't good at faking interest in non-disclosure agreements, or what zoning regulation would allow my client to sue the contractor for simply doing his job, or . . . much of it, to be honest. I was a macro girl stuck in a micro world.

I found the competitive atmosphere amongst attorneys - I reluctantly note that some of the older female attorneys I worked with were the worst about this - draining. There was a macho, sink-or-swim mindset to the profession. Had I been interested in the subject matter, this may have motivated me, but instead it just further discouraged me, particularly in the beginning when I was eager to find mentors.

I intentionally don't moan about that other lawyer un-favorite, the hours, here, though those merit a mention for anyone considering the profession. Again, had I found the job itself interesting, working long hours (pre-child, at least) would not have been nearly as big of a factor. So called "BigLaw" and I mutually had no interest in one another, however, so my time in small firms, clerking, and as GC was incredibly reasonable by comparison - and my salary was commensurately much lower as a result. There isn't really a 9-to-5 job in law - it's a service profession in the end - but my experience was as close to that as you get.

What I Liked About It

My last, longest lasting job as an attorney, as a GC to a private group of companies, was my favorite, and I absolutely enjoyed many aspects of that job.

First and foremost, playing the role of counselor - as in, "attorney and counselor" - came naturally to this student government bossypants type, particularly when I could focus on my one "client". I loved boiling down an issue to its important parts and translating that into layman's speak for my boss. As my son's favorite Thomas the Train would say - yes, I'm quoting a cartoon character - I liked feeling really useful.

I also enjoyed quarterbacking outside counsel in my role as GC, which played to my macro preferences of getting the "big picture" business goal accomplished without having to draft the micro specifics of an agreement.

Also, yes, I enjoyed the trappings of the job, mostly the respect my job title seemed to garner. In my heart, I felt like a secret failure since I knew it wasn't the profession for me, but the external pats on the back helped me stumble along.

There's also the number of practical, real-life benefits of having been to law school that I use in everyday life. Just the ability to draft a coherent email is a surprisingly valuable (and rare) life skill. Which leads me to .  . .

Do I Regret Having Been to Law School or Having Practiced Law?

It's like Sinatra crooned. Regrets, I have a few - some moments are not teachable ones but simply awful  - but I'm not sure I can say law school was one of them.

What price meeting many of your best friends and, through one of them, your eventual (laywer) husband? Spending perhaps the best summer of your life studying - ahem, "studying" - abroad in Italy?  Completing something so difficult you were certain you'd never finish?

About that last bit - I was very, very close to dropping out of law school after my first semester. I recall sitting outside of my apartment, bawling into my cell phone (which was probably the size of Michael Phelps' mug back in those dinosaur days) to one of my best friends, devastated that I'd invested no small amount of time and money into something that just wasn't quite right. The classes were incredibly dull, my grades were abysmal, it was . . . not at all the challenging yet glamorous future I'd envisioned.

The trouble was, I had a long, inglorious history of quitting things I wasn't immediately great at, and I grew determined to not let law school & ultimately the practice be yet another challenge I gave up on too early. I summoned whatever WASP "suck it up"- age I had left and proceeded on, resolving to finish school and give the practice at least five years before giving up on it entirely.

I ended up lasting seven and, at the risk of sounding boastful, I'm proud. I may not have enjoyed a lot of it, I don't intend to practice in the future, but again  . . . what price helping a family business I enjoyed and respected (and still do) achieve some of their goals? Helping build the savings that now allow me the privilege of staying home with Master P? Learning, at long last, the pride in sticking something out?

If I had it to do over again, would I take a year or two off before going to law school? Spend more time upping my LSAT score and less at the little "b" bar? Spend some time with actual lawyers before pulling that law school trigger? Taken the teaching master's route I'd also considered instead of the J.D. one? Quit law earlier to pursue that teaching (high school English) plan B?

Duh. But then, like a bad date, at least I got a story or two out of the wrong answer, didn't I?


I've had some excellent questions about quitting current professions in favor of something you actually want to do, or re-entering the workforce after having stayed at home with kids . . . and I feel wholly, 100% unqualified to answer those.

If there's interest, though, I'll happily try to scare up some guest posters on these topics - what do you think?

Any attorneys in the audience want to chime in extra thoughts on this one?


The Houston House said...

Nail. On. HEAD. I'm in my second year of practice, and there are definite ups and downs, and I have had the same exact struggles and questions as you had. It is a very difficult living-to-make-a-living out of, and anyone considering law school should take that into account. It isn't glamorous, it isn't The Firm, and it isn't Law & Order. It's piles of papers, long hours, and very little YOU time. I think to do any job well you have to have a passion for it, but this is especially true in the practice of law, wherein you are met with extraordinary challenges from day one.

Carly Anne said...

"I was a macro girl stuck in a micro world." Are you in my head, or what?

Also, being able to draft a coherent email is among the few reasons I don't consider my PR career a total loss...

Carly Anne said...

Also, might I add that your points on the ratio of glamor work to tedious, stab-your-eyes-out work were right on.

As with law, people tend to think that a career in advertising and PR consists mainly of impeccably dressed people dreaming up clever slogans and taglines, possibly while sipping martinis. The reality is more along the lines of drafting the same press release eighty times, or sleeping with your phone an inch from your face, in case a client takes advantage of the 24 hour news cycle to do something terribly stupid.

Lisa @ Trapped In North Jersey said...

Worst part about being an attorney: other attorneys. (Line from correspondence I actually wrote: Opposing counsel will cease his contumacious behavior or Defendant will be forced to seek sanctions. Please be advised accordingly.)

I think "please be advised accordingly" is the snarkiest, rudeness-masquerading-as-politeness sentence in the English language.

There was much I hated about the practice of law, but mostly it was boring, stressful, and if you screwed up you might not suffer personally but your mistake would cost your client either money or opportunity. I hated having that responsibility on my shoulders.

Sylvie said...

Melissa, I find your blog very "useful." I appreciate your input - and that of your informed commenters - on the matter of attending/paying for law school and practicing law.

As a (successful bright intelligent middle manager at a Fortune company Before Children) 40-something woman who is attempting to re-enter the workforce after a completely voluntary 10 year absence for SAHM-hood, I would love for you to host a guest-writer to address this odd situation of being a "displaced homemaker" (a term I'd never heard of until now). There are many voices out in the blogosphere bemoaning the problem; but, beyond entrepreneurship and teaching, not much more in the way of solutions. Thanks again for the insight.

Adrienne said...

This is like me and education. I wasn't meant to be a teacher, but I'll never regret my ed degree. It absolutely improved my life.

Also, I'm a file clerk/receptionist at a big firm. So, it was interesting to hear from the "other side."

Kristen said...

I'd love to have a chat with you one of these days, Melissa! I relate to so much of what you said, right down to crying on the cellphone during that first semester of law school. Only I was crying to my then-boyfriend (now husband!) because I knew law school might be right, but being a lawyer just wasn't the best fit for me. Anywho, I'm still in struggling phase trying to figure out whether there is in fact a practice area that will work for me. Currently trying immigration on for size, and if it doesn't fit, then I'm moving on. My friends used to tell me that I was "too nice" to be an attorney. They might just be right. ;) But like you, I don't regret law school because of all that came with it. I made so many friends and I passed that damn California bar the first time (excuse the boasting/cursing!) when I wanted to give up a longggg time ago. There's definitely a lot to be gained from sticking it out . . . AND knowing when to move on and live for ourselves :D (Oh, and haiii it's kristenannes!)

Anonymous said...

thanks for your honesty...i'm curious about your comment regarding high school english teacher...after swapping a pre-med major for an english/sociology major as an undergrad, i seriously debated between law school and grad school. i chose the latter and loved it. i was supposed to teach english, but ended up working administrative positions in higher education. it's not bad, but it's not great. i hope to return to the classroom someday. many of my friends chose med school or law school and we had many (boozy) cell phone crying sessions in our mid-twenties. keep posting, i love reading your insights and find you witty and gracious!

Anonymous said...

I was inspired by your sound advice to would-be lawyers to de-lurk and tell you how much I enjoy reading your blog (from the serious to the shoes). You have a great perspective on your former and current careers and life as a recovering attorney. I'm recently married and a few years into my practice in biglaw, so it's enjoyable to hear about life on the other side. Your honesty about the highlights and the struggles is refreshing as well - it's nice to hear the good and the bad, especially for those who will be making similar decisions in a few years (like me, hopefully).

My only advice to any would-be attorneys is to truly appreciate the investment (of time/energy and money) that law school represents. It isn't necessarily a clear path to financial success (if that is yout motivation), and, at least based on what I have seen, it does not really open doors outside of the legal profession. Please ignore the people who say "you can do anything with a law degree"; you certainly can do other things, but the law degree doesn't make you any more marketable.

Hope you're surviving the deathhellheat of Texas. I lived in Austin and Houston for a few years and feel your pain. What I wouldn't give right now for a Z Tejas margarita or a trip to my happy place, aka the Whole Foods flagship, though. Keep up the wonderful and entertaining writing!

Anonymous said...

Law school also taught us how to think critically and analyze problems -- invaluable skills.

But, like you, after 26 years in small firm, biglaw and law dept of a family-owned business, I am also a [permanent]refugee from the practice of law.

I could have stayed at the private company until retirement doing real estate deals, with a healthy measure of public policy issues [which, turns out, I love], but the company decided it didn't need me and eliminated my position at the beginning of 2012.

So now I'm an entrepreneur -- handling public policy and communications (BS in journalism with 7 yrs of newspaper reporting) for people I've known for years, who, turns out, respect and value my capabilities.

Best part -- no office politics in my home!

Wiz said...

This is so interesting to me! I feel like I could have written the part about wanting to go to law school. I completely agree it was about image. I envisioned cute fasionable suits, smart people to engage with and just an all around glamorous lifestyle. The only difference is I decided NOT to go. During my junior year of college I changed my mind and decided to get my MBA instead because my major was accounting. Frankly, it was the quicker route. I didnt want to be in school three more years.

I went into public accounting which was probably similar to a law firm but I was able to easily transition to an 8-5ish corporate job. I now stay at home but I dont regret my decision to not go to law school.

Love your blog and sorry for the late comment. I am trying to catch up!

Ann said...

Just found your blog and loving it! I am a former banker (similarly painful, and not for me) soon to be SAHM but I have many lawyer friends - will be mailing this around! Made me laugh!!

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