What's it actually like to be a lawyer?
My two cents, with the following caveats - 1) I'm only in my second year of practice, and 2) I have my own small firm, handling a variety of cases. That may make my answers different from some others, and of course, experiences vary. That being said, here's what my experience has been:
- It's extremely stressful. This is a very contentious, sometimes downright nasty job. Right now my docket has about 55 cases, which means that at least one person (and usually many more) on each of those cases hates my guts for the time being, and is doing everything they can to undermine me, destroy my case, make me look foolish, bully me, etc. Then add in the courts, who will crush a motion or call out an error in a second, and the regulatory agencies, who are just waiting for attorneys to screw up on trust fund management, annual requirements, taxes, and the like. Then add in - at times - your own clients, who insist that you're not being tough enough with the other side, or swear that you could have gotten more for their settlement, etc. etc. That adds up to hundreds of people potentially gunning for you in some way, every day. It definitely takes its toll. You need to be pretty thick-skinned and durable to make it work.
- It's a power trip. Maybe this is something that fades over time, but I am still amazed at the amount of power I can wield from this office, just by writing a few words on a piece of paper, or arguing in front of a court. The ability for a DACA immigrant to stay in this country, or for a mother to get her child back, or for a young man to stay out of prison ... just being in a position to have that kind of impact on a person's life is truly incredible. Our nation invests attorneys with an enormous amount of power in day-to-day life.
- It is a very jaded industry. The vast majority of lawyers have a negative edge to them, either because they're naturally that way, or because the industry made them that way. It's just part of the business, and to be honest, it's one of the least appealing aspects to me. But they (and I) really can't help it. This is such an adversarial business, and you typically get to see the worst of the worst every day, so it's hard to be a Pollyanna in your outlook.
- It is interesting beyond description. If you love to learn, you will certainly get a kick out of the law. You learn something new every day about the law itself, of course; but you'll also learn so much about the world, history, business, society, human nature, everything. You're really at the pinpoint of activity in our nation, because we're a nation of laws and everything else flows from that. The most interesting piece is the people. I sometimes feel like I live in the Simpsons' Springfield, because my daily calendar includes a cavalcade of individuals from every imaginable walk of life. The pastor whose church is filing for bankruptcy. The small business owner who never got paid. The Burmese father who is working towards his citizenship. The millionaire doctor who just wants his Bentley restored properly. I get to cut across every level of society, from highest to lowest, left to right, every single day. You get stunning insights into human nature, and learn to read and understand people in ways that most others could only dream of.
- It is very prestigious. Most people will be in awe of you when they find out you're an attorney. Many of them won't say it, some of them will deny it, but the fact is, the general public has a fascination with, fear/hatred of, and admiration for attorneys. People will assume you are rich - and that you're very smart. They will ask you to serve on boards, to speak at events, to volunteer for their organizations. They will ask for your advice, and tell you their deepest secrets. It really is quite amazing, and something I was not prepared (or looking) for when I signed on to be an attorney.
- It is (can be/should be) very lucrative. Sure, there are some attorneys who don't make a lot of money, either because they're brand new, or they're intentionally in socially-conscious practice areas that don't bring high incomes, or because they don't know how to properly market themselves or their firms, etc. etc. In general, though, there is just a ton of money flowing through this industry, and it is not hard at all for an attorney, after paying his/her dues, to make very large amounts of money.
- It is a LOT of hard work. I work a minimum of 12 hours per day, 6 days a week .. and I always leave plenty on the table when I leave, so I could work literally non-stop. Some of that is probably a function of me owning my own firm, but I know enough associates/partners to know that it's common across the industry.
- It can be very rewarding. I'll be honest, I did not get into this business to bring world peace. I'm just a very driven, ambitious person, and saw this career as the best way to advance towards my goals. So, I'm not really one to tell soft-hearted stories of social justice. That being said, getting someone out of a lease from a slumlord, or getting a mother her children back after they've been illegally taken by the father, or sitting with an immigrant as they pass their final test to become a U.S. citizen ... these are amazing experiences that I think would move anyone, and they do provide a lot of "job satisfaction," even if they don't happen every day. You really can impact a lot of lives for the better in this role.
- You'd better know what you're getting into. This job is assuredly not for everyone. From my experience, you'd better be 1) a very driven, Type-A person who wants to build something great, use your intellect to shape things, and make a lot of money (like myself), or 2) someone who really has a heart for people and wants to use the mechanics of the law to improve society in some way (like my sister, who's currently in law school). I just don't see this as being a very fulfilling career for someone who doesn't fit into one or both of those categories, because the work is too hard, and the stress too great, to push through otherwise. I guess if you had some mild enjoyment for the work, were very smart, and had a pathway to a very lucrative partner track, this could be a nice, regular career path. But otherwise, if you're not in one of the two above categories, I would save the money/stress/time of law school and find something cheaper, easier, and more palatable. But hey, that's just my experience with it.