The Realities and Myths of Practicing Law

A male lawyer talking in a courtroom
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Disenchantment with the practice of law is pervasive among both new and seasoned attorneys. A 2008 survey by the American Bar Association found that almost half of the lawyers surveyed were dissatisfied with their careers.

The best way to avoid making the wrong career decision is to educate yourself regarding the realities of law practice. Gaining insight into the day-to-day life of working in a particular legal specialty or practice environment is crucial to determining whether the job would be a good fit for you.

Many individuals choose a career in the law for the wrong reasons. Before embarking on the demanding, time-intensive, and expensive journey to becoming a lawyer, make certain that you are making a well-informed decision. Below I debunk a few common myths about life as a lawyer.

Becoming a Lawyer Is a Guaranteed Path to Financial Success

The truth is, the most highly compensated attorneys are employed in the world’s mega-firms (firms with over 101 attorneys) and such firms represent only 1% of all law firms according to the American Bar Foundation’s Lawyer Statistical Report.

Furthermore, most mega-firms are extremely selective in their hiring process, choosing only the top students from the most prestigious law schools. The vast majority of lawyers work in lower-paying venues such as small firms, public interest, and the government. According to NALP, 83 percent of all lawyers who work in private practice are employed in firms of fewer than 50 lawyers.

Large law firm lawyers report the least career satisfaction according to a recent survey by the American Bar Association. Billable hour quotas at many large firms require lawyers to work 60-80 hours per week. When you divide your hours worked into your monthly salary, that big-firm paycheck may not look so generous. Attorneys employed in the public sector – which ranks among the lowest paying practice environments - reported the most career satisfaction.

Lawyers Can Eradicate Injustice and Affect Societal Change

While you can make a positive impact as a lawyer, litigation has little to do with virtue triumphing over evil and everything to do with advocating your client’s position based on the facts and applicable law. Judicial decisions are not so much about the pursuit of justice or right vs. wrong as about reaching a compromise between all the parties.

The judicial policy also affects many case decisions. In the ABA survey cited above, two out of every three lawyers surveyed reported concern that the court system they serve is becoming too political.

You Will Be a Great Lawyer Because You Are Good at Arguing

Although litigation is an adversarial process, legal advocacy is not about “arguing” in the sense of engaging in a verbal battle with your opponent. Instead, it is about persuading your audience – judge, mediator, or jury – through a logical, well-researched, well-reasoned discussion based on the facts and the law. Thus, to succeed as a litigator, a track record of “winning arguments” is not as important as top-notch oral advocacy and writing skills.

Litigators Lead a Thrilling, High-Powered and Glamorous Life

Unlike the lawyers portrayed on television shows, the majority of the work of trial attorneys occurs outside the courtroom. In fact, less than one percent of all civil cases actually proceed to trial. The vast majority of cases are settled out of court or through alternative methods of dispute resolution.

The daily life of the average trial lawyer is quite unglamorous. Trial lawyers spend most of their time in the discovery stage of the litigation, reviewing pleadings, drafting and answering discovery requests and taking depositions.

The work of a trial lawyer is also very research and writing-intensive as much of their work involves drafting briefs, memorandums of law and motions. Litigators spend many long hours engaged in tedious document review, gathering thousands of documents to be produced in litigation and reviewing each document to determine if it must be turned over to the other parties.

The Work of a Lawyer Is Intellectually Challenging

While law practice can be intellectually rigorous, much of the lawyer’s work is mundane and repetitive. New lawyers, especially those in large firms, are often charged with the mind-numbing tasks of document review, cite checking and routine research. Law firm lawyers must track their time in six to fifteen-minute increments throughout the day, a painstaking but necessary task.