Whether on blogs, in books, in numerous movies and among friends, there have been no shortage of conversations about unhappy lawyers. This New York Times article by James B. Stewart, however, is in its own league. Stewart brutally details the multitude of horrible problems that have metastasized throughout the industry by telling the story of a lawyer tossed from the pinnacle of his profession into the dark abyss of personal bankruptcy. It is a cautionary tale well worth taking to heart.
After I finished reading the depressing (and frighteningly too common) saga depicted in the Times, I felt compelled to jot down my own thoughts on the modern legal profession – drawn both from my experiences and those of my friends.
Unlike most attorneys, I’ll try to keep this brief. Although like most attorneys, I can’t make any promises on that one . . .
First, the legal world’s traditional business model is done. Decimated. Dead. It is NOT coming back. I learned that as early as 2002 while attempting to find my feet as a junior attorney only to limp back home after long days (and longer nights) spent within New York’s unforgiving legal community. I quickly suspected there would simply not be enough work to support most of the firms out there; to maintain the stereotypical lifestyles of the attorneys who toiled in the system; OR to justify hiring scores of new lawyers, churned out by what can only be called a “law school industry” (something 100% separate from the “legal industry” – a supposedly non-profit behemoth, apparently incentivized more by size and US News ratings than actual education, relevance or results). The days of being a “lawyer” for a “firm” are over. Way back in my earliest years on the job – well before the Great Recession – I guessed correctly that my own time as an attorney wouldn’t last too long either – and I’ll emphasize: that was by choice. All I had to do was observe my fellow lawyers – especially those desperately scrambling to obtain a constantly shrinking number of coveted partnerships. Their facial expressions, bloodshot eyes and personal crises told me everything I needed to know.
There are still charms left in practicing law, but what I’d say to any smart attorney, especially at the beginning of their career, is to always leave one eye open for the reality that it could all disappear in seconds. HAVE A BACK-UP PLAN. Law firms are in no position to offer the sorts of guarantees that once made them such unique institutions and respected fixtures in American life. As the Times article illustrates, this reality increasingly holds true regardless of age, skill or experience.
Second, law schools tend to do a good job of getting prospective lawyers licensed to practice law. Some may even be adept at finding jobs for their graduates. Nevertheless, I’d contend that no law school today prepares lawyers for the business of law. While glorified as a “profession” (something bold enough to place the word “doctorate” into its title), the truth is that REAL LAW, first, last and always, is a business. But, importantly, it’s a highly individualized business in ways that approximate few others. Every lawyer is the CEO of his or her own name and brand. Therefore, long-term financial security is about generating “personal equity.” Ignore that equity and you ignore your future. You even ignore your present. If you aren’t good at the business side – and that includes marketing and sales – your long-term prospects are bleak, no matter how technically excellent you might be. No professor mentions such things during “Civil Procedure” or “Contracts.”
Third, as a lawyer, you only get to make one mistake. Nowadays, people are more apt to take their attorneys to task than ever before. One negative phone call to the state bar association disciplinary committee, the ABA – or God forbid, an actual malpractice claim – usually make it uneconomical to retain a lawyer even when they’re merely suspect. It is painfully ironic that a profession built on the tradition of “innocent until proven guilty” has evolved into a day-to-day nightmare in which the mere accusatory word from a client or sharp rebuke from an unsympathetic partner can end a career in the blink of an eye. The result: lives of severe stress, sleepless nights, friendships lost, relationships ruined and stunningly high rates of alcoholism, drug abuse and other destructive personal behaviors.
Fourth, the legal industry’s nasty little secret is that actual legal work can be mind-numbing and soul-crushing. Then add in the adversarial tone, a near-fascist attention to detail, increasing financial pressures on one’s firm, endless rumors about who’s “up” and who’s “down,” ballooning student loan debt and pressing (yet unattended) family needs . . . It’s not a pleasant picture. As one progresses through any legal career, options dwindle and commitments mount. You find yourself cooking up the perfect recipe for depression, breakdown, and divorce (if you’ve found the time to become “involved,” that is…) – And in the bleakest instances, even suicide. These are only a handful of potential consequences that the ABA quite openly addresses on its website. And, frankly, I commend them for doing so.
As we can see from the New York Times example, in the end, a painful divorce has financially crippled our “protagonist,” a former top firm partner, Mr. Owens . . . probably irretrievably. Who knows what kind of emotional damage his experiences caused? Given the extreme types of pressures considered here – and endured by Mr. Owens and countless others who have shared similar fates – it’s safe to say that more troubles can’t be too far behind. Then recall all those “basic” challenges that have always been inherent to being a “good” attorney – that is, “zealously representing” one’s clients. It’s not hard to understand why bad judgment can quickly replace ethical zealousness amidst such a poisonous atmosphere.
None of this is to suggest that law school is always a waste or that practicing law cannot still be rewarding. I treasure my law degree. The training and experience have been invaluable in ways seen and unseen. Even my brief days spent practicing law taught me valuable lessons. However, I didn’t stay at it for long and quickly cut my own path toward other endeavors and ways of earning a living. My primary point is that – without massive industry-wide changes – practicing law won’t be rewarding for MOST of the people jumping into the fray. Law is an exceedingly expensive club to join and one in which continued membership requires enormous sacrifice – personal, professional and financial. Indeed, for some, it becomes the proverbial ultimate sacrifice.
So my advice to others:
- Keep the pilot light on for all those things that bring you enjoyment. Fight hard to keep that light shining as brightly as you can and take at least one small step per day to advance your PERSONAL interests. Letting your profession or other responsibilities snuff out that candle is a roadmap to disaster.
- Ensure your eyes are wide open to new opportunities that might better integrate your interests with your financial realities, earning skills and experiences. When you find them, think carefully before continuing to accept the status quo. Talk to people you trust.
- In the words of Bryan Cranston, “Tread lightly.”
- If it all feels too overwhelming, it probably is. GET HELP. There are great folks out there like Will Meyerhofer who have built entire practices (in his case “A Quiet Room”) devoted to helping professionals with the sorts of difficulties, emotional crises and financial woes that can become a wrecking machine with little or no notice. Good resources exist. USE THESE RESOURCES. TRY TO THINK BEYOND YOUR PRESENT HARDSHIPS. AND NEVER GIVE UP HOPE.