10. For the money.
I only said money isn’t everything; I didn’t say it was nothing. As a lawyer, you will probably always be able to earn enough to survive and, perhaps, a lot more.
How much can you earn? It depends, in part, upon the type of job you take. In general, attorneys who work for law firms and businesses earn significantly more than public service and government attorneys. According to a 1999 survey conducted by The National Law Journal, entry-level salaries for attorneys working for Legal Aid organizations ranged from $22,000 to $30,000 per year. At the other extreme, large law firms were starting new associates at $60,000 to $107,000 per year.
Dramatic increases in starting salaries have occurred within the past year. Law school enrollment has been flat, which has reduced the supply of new lawyers, while the booming economy has increased demand. The result is that some firms are now offering salaries and bonuses totaling up to $170,000 to attract top law school graduates. Keep in mind, however, that to get this pay you will have to pay the price — long hours plus any associated emotional costs.
9. You will improve your communication skills.
As we enter the so-called information age, the ability to communicate is becoming a survival skill. The better you can read, write, speak, and listen, the greater your competitive advantage. Nowhere is this more true than in the legal profession.
As an attorney, the bulk of your professional life will be devoted to communicating with others, including clients, other attorneys, judges, jurors, and witnesses. You will write more than a best selling author, ask more questions than an inquisitive six-year old, listen more than a psychiatrist, talk more than a politician, argue more than a philosopher, and read more than an editor.
In the process, you will discover the truisms of effective communication: “Words count.” “Easy reading is damn hard writing.” “He who asks is a fool for five minutes, but he who does not ask remains a fool forever.” “Knowledge speaks, but wisdom listens.” “Never assume that what you said is what was heard.” “Use soft words and hard arguments.” “Reading without reflecting is like swallowing without chewing.” With each revelation, your ability to comprehend others and express your thoughts will improve.
The value of the communication skills you develop will extend well beyond your professional life as a lawyer. Many lawyers end up in non-law jobs. If you go looking, you will possess one of the most important skills employers look for. And the better you can communicate with your family, friends, and all the other people you interact with on a daily basis, the better your personal life will be.
8. You will find passion.
I have seen too many people going through life feeling that something is missing. Often, what is missing is passion. The people who are happiest and accomplish the most are those who have a passion for what they are doing.
It is almost impossible to become a lawyer and not acquire a passion for justice. More than any other profession, you will be exposed to people who have suffered injustices. You will get to know many of them personally. You will feel what they feel. And you will come to understand it is not a game. They are real people and what you do will affect their lives, sometimes in dramatic ways. Their cause will become your cause and you will become a passionate representative of their rights.
Passion is a source of strength and energy and creativity. Harnessed and channeled properly, it will bring out the best in you and inspire others.
7. It will increase your self-confidence.
There is a psychological experiment that has been repeated many times with the same result. An unsuspecting subject is placed with a group of people who appear to be strangers but in fact are part of the experiment. A simple question is asked, such as “What is 2 +2?” Each person is then asked to give the answer, leaving the subject until last. If every person before the subject gives the wrong answer, the subject will usually agree with the group and give the wrong answer as well.
As a lawyer, you are likely to find yourself in a similar situation. Your client will be asking you for an answer. You may be surrounded by other attorneys and even judges who are saying the answer is different than what you think. What answer will you give?
There is a common misconception among non-lawyers that there is a clear-cut answer to every legal question. Nothing could be farther from the truth. That’s why we have lawsuits — because lawyers can disagree about the answer to a question. That’s why we have appellate courts — because even judges can disagree.
It is a given, not just in law but in life, that people will disagree with you. Some people will do anything to avoid controversy. Lawyers cannot. That means part of being a lawyer is learning to trust your own judgment. You are going to have to make up your own mind based upon your research and your interpretation of the law and the facts. When others disagree with your answer, you will have to stand up for what you believe and provide evidence and reasons to back it up. Each time you are able to convince others your answer is correct, your self-confidence will get a little boost.
Interestingly, your self-confidence will increase even when you lose an argument. When that happens, you will find yourself questioning your position. You will go back and check your thinking, looking for things you may have missed and defects in your logic. If you don’t find anything, you will remain convinced you were correct. You may even try to prove it by filing a lawsuit, appealing a court’s decision, or publishing an article.
If you discover a mistake, your initial reaction will probably be “Darn” (or some other four letter word), followed by thoughts of the consequences. But once you are done kicking yourself, you will concentrate on identifying the lessons you have learned. You will promise yourself never to make the same mistake again, confident that next time you will do better.
As you gain confidence in your own judgment, you will develop the strength to say and do what you think is right even in the face of adversity, peer pressure, and potential embarrassment. You may actually come to enjoy disagreement because it is a way to test your beliefs. But don’t get arrogant. You could be wrong. But that is one of the benefits of self-confidence — it gives you the strength to admit when you are wrong and learn from your mistakes.
6. You will learn to focus on issues.
Law is all about questions. One of my biggest frustrations as a teacher is that so many of my students just want to know the “right” answer. The trouble is, the answer depends upon the question. Ask the wrong question and, no matter how good your answer, it will be wrong.
Here is an example. There is a Michigan statute commonly known as the Security Deposit Act. One section of that act states that the maximum security deposit a landlord can charge for a rental unit is one-and-one-half times the monthly rent. Assume you are starting a business and rent a store for $1000 per month. Your landlord charges a security deposit of $2000. Has the Security Deposit Act been violated?
If your answer is “Yes,” I suspect the question you asked was “Is the security deposit more than one and one-half times the monthly rent?” Since the $2000 security deposit is twice the $1,000 monthly rent, you concluded the Security Deposit Act was violated.
Perfectly logical — but wrong. It’s the wrong answer because the question was wrong. The right question is “Is the store you are renting a `rental unit’?” “Rental unit” is defined in the Security Deposit Act as a place used for residential purposes. Since you are renting the store for business purposes, it is not a “rental unit.” That means the statutory limit on the amount of the security deposit does not apply to your situation. Thus, the security deposit charged by your landlord does not violate the Security Deposit Act.
Besides helping you identify the right question, learning to focus on issues will help in another way. Imagine two attorneys have waged a strenuous, often highly emotional battle during the course of a trial. After the judgment is rendered, they shake hands and congratulate each other on a job well done. People have often asked me how they can do that. The answer is simple: it was not a personal fight; it was a fight about issues.
The next time you observe an argument, pay attention to what the participants are saying and how they are reacting. You will notice some people attack their opponent personally. They say things that are intended to hurt or blame. If their opponent strikes back in the same way, the argument quickly devolves into a “p***ing” match. When the argument ends, nothing has been resolved and bad feelings remain. Those bad feelings may prompt the participants to seek revenge in subtle and not so subtle ways.
On the other hand, if at least one participant sticks to the issues, the argument plays out very differently. Personal attacks go unanswered and the argument keeps returning to the issues. Emotions calm down and the argument evolves into a rational discussion. This increases the likelihood the problem will be solved. But even if it isn’t, each participant will leave with a better understanding of the other’s position. They still may not agree with each other, but are usually able to “agree to disagree,” let it go, and move on.
Focusing on the issues will improve your ability to deal effectively and constructively with all types of people in all kinds of situations. When all is said and done, the answer may not be what you wanted, but it will probably be one you can accept.
5. It will change the way you see the world.
While studying and practicing law, you will be exposed to the personal stories of a great many people. You will see people at their best and worst. You will see innocent people who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. You will see smart people who have done dumb things. You will see people who sincerely believe the law is wrong and violating it was the right thing to do. You will see amoral and ruthless people who have no qualms about taking advantage of or harming others. And eventually you will come to understand that the world is not black and white but full of various shades of gray, that right and wrong is not always clear cut and things are often more complicated than they first appear, and that people always have reasons for what they do, reasons that make perfect sense to them.
There is an old saying among trial lawyers: “There is no absolute truth, just different versions of reality.” Different people see the world differently. As a lawyer, you will come to see the world through many different peoples’ eyes. To represent your client effectively, you will have to understand his or her point of view. But, in addition, you will also have to understand your opponent’s point of view, the witnesses’ points of view, the judge’s point of view, and the jurors’ points of view.
Looking at the world from so many different perspectives will invariably affect your view. You will pick up on little things, see how they form patterns, and notice how those patterns come together and form a big picture. You will become more open-minded and learn not to assume you are right, to question, and look beneath the surface. You will learn empathy and become more tolerant and better able to accept people for who they are. You will learn your problems are not so bad compared to others’. In short, you will see things others often overlook. And what you see will shape your philosophy of life.
4. You will make better choices and decisions.
The quality of a decision is a function of two things: the information you have and your ability to analyze it.
When I started law school, I anticipated I would be learning law. I discovered it was not so simple. Laws cover every facet of our lives. As a result, the study of law introduces you to and requires learning something about a wide variety of non-law subjects — from business to the hard and soft sciences to the liberal arts. I graduated from law school knowing a lot about law and a little about a lot of other things.
The advancement of human knowledge has necessitated increased occupational specialization. One of the consequences is that breadth of knowledge has been sacrificed for depth; acquiring expertise in one field comes at the expense of ignorance in others. While the field of law is not exempt from the trend toward specialization, its inherent interdisciplinary nature counteracts the loss of breadth that typically accompanies the pursuit of depth. The result is that lawyers often possess a more diverse and comprehensive information base than their contemporaries.
The study of law also sharpens critical thinking, reasoning, and analytical skills. You will become more objective and logical and better able to recognize the myriad factors that can affect an outcome and understand their interrelationships. This will improve your ability to predict the consequences of alternative choices.
Life is full of choices. We make them every day. Now don’t get me wrong. I have made my share of bad decisions and will no doubt make more in the future. But I also have no doubt my study of law significantly shifted the balance in my favor.
3. You will learn your rights and responsibilities.
Life is not fair. Sometimes bad things happen to good people. Sometimes crime pays and hard work does not. Sometimes it has everything to do with power and nothing to do with reason. Sometimes what you look like and who you know is more important than who you are and what you can do.
I graduated from college with an undergraduate degree in Business Administration. Despite excellent grades, work experience, and strong recommendations, I couldn’t find a job. I got interview after interview because of my credentials, and rejection after rejection because of my beard. Rrustrated to the point of obstinacy I went to law school to learn my rights. Once there, I discovered the law prohibited employers from discriminating on the basis of sex, race, religion, and certain other protected characteristics — but it was not illegal to discriminate solely on the basis of facial hair. Ironically, after graduating from law school I was recruited by a firm sight unseen on the basis of my record, but not offered a position because of my beard.
I have since learned that’s life. Becoming a lawyer did not and cannot make it fair. Laws do not address every inequity and injustice. People get away with violating laws. And sometimes, s*** happens. But it gave me the knowledge and skills to make life fairer. There have been a multitude of little things, like utilizing the Michigan “scanner law” to collect $2 in damages from a grocery store because the price marked on a box of wheat crackers was $.20 less than the price I was charged. There have been a few big things, such as successfully derailing a frivolous personal injury lawsuit. And there have been a lot of things in between.
Of course, even now, after more than two decades as an attorney, I do not know all of my legal rights. But I am aware of many more than most people. I also have a greater awareness of the flip side of the coin — my legal responsibilities arising out of others’ rights. I have made good use of that knowledge, not just professionally but personally, to protect myself and my loved ones in the course of daily living. I am better able to anticipate and avoid problems before they can occur. And, when I can’t, I am in a better position to take remedial action because I am a lawyer.
As financially and emotionally rewarding as my “victories” have been, there is one additional benefit that is arguably worth even more. Being a lawyer has given me the perspective needed to accept the inherent and inevitable unfairness of life. There is a time to fight and a time to walk away and I have learned how and when to do both. Now, instead of dwelling on the past and bemoaning what should have been, I am able to concentrate on the future and what can be.
2. You will have options others do not.
Approximately one of every 250 people in the United States is a lawyer. Some argue this statistic shows there are too many lawyers. But there is another way of looking at it. Only lawyers can practice law. By becoming a lawyer, you will have the option of doing something 249 people cannot.
Being a member of the legal profession will open up even more options. If you want to practice, you can do so as a sole practitioner, as a member of a law firm, or as a business or government employee. If you want to specialize, your choices are virtually unlimited — from admiralty law to zoning law. Or perhaps you aspire to be a judge. Or a law professor. Or a reporter of legal news. Or to work for an organization that serves the legal profession.
Although most lawyers work for someone else, the option to hang out your own shingle is a safety net many people do not have. After several years of working for a law firm, one of my friends wanted to escape the pressure and stress. He quit his job, moved to the country, and started a one person practice out of his home. He limited his practice to appellate work, used a public law library, and typed his own documents on his computer. This simplified his life and reduced his costs considerably. No secretary to pay. No office or law library to maintain. He could work when he wanted and spend time with his family when he wanted.
Another advantage of being a lawyer is that you can opt not to be one. It is not necessary to be a lawyer to reap the benefits of legal training. Every profession and organization operates within a legal environment. Coupling a legal background with expertise in another field has a synergistic effect. Your knowledge of the law and legal system will give you an edge over competitors and enable you to perform a non-law job more effectively.
For example, in addition to being a lawyer, I am also a licensed builder. The licensing exam had two parts — a practical part and a law part. Obviously, being a lawyer helped me with the law part. But the benefit goes well beyond that. There are many other ways law interacts with building — contracts, service liability, employment law, property law, safety regulations, insurance, and the list goes on.
And if there comes a day when you want nothing more to do with law? The underlying knowledge, background, perspective, and skills you acquired on the way to becoming a lawyer will enhance your performance in almost any area you choose. Among other things, lawyers have become best selling authors, television hosts and commentators, talent agents, and presidents of businesses.
Your future success will depend upon your ability to adapt. We live in a rapidly changing world. Individuals change over time. Most people change careers — not jobs, but careers — at least three to four times during their life. I can’t think of too many other professions which prepare you for these transitions better than law.
1. You can make a difference.
We are a nation of laws. They affect everyone at the national, state, and local levels. As a result, law is one of the few professions where a single person may get a chance to do something that impacts every person in the United States. I suspect every lawyer has dreamed, at one time or another, of arguing a landmark case before the U.S. Supreme Court and being the catalyst for a dramatic precedent with nationwide ramifications. While few lawyers ever get that chance, similar opportunities arise relatively frequently at the state and local level.
But it is about more than high-profile and precedent setting cases. As a lawyer, you will be presented with daily opportunities to help those in need. Good people sometimes find themselves in difficult, even desperate, circumstances. Everyone makes mistakes and many deserve a second chance. The weak and disadvantaged need protection from the rich and powerful. Deserving individuals become victims of incompetence and ignorance or fall through bureaucratic cracks.
Your intervention and assistance can be the key to leveling the playing field, successfully navigating the procedural terrain and, ultimately, securing their substantive rights. What you do — or don’t do — will change peoples’ futures. Occasionally, their very survival may hinge upon it.
Of all the things I have done in my life, using my legal expertise to help others is among the most satisfying. Helping one person may seem like a small accomplishment. But all those ones can add up to a big difference.
To be or not to be a lawyer? That is the question I asked and answered many years ago. Today, the question I ask is: “Do I ever regret going to law school and becoming a lawyer?” The answer is a definite NO. When you get to be my age, there are times you find yourself looking back, wondering what you could or should have done differently. If I had the chance to do it over again, there are some things I would change. But going to law school and becoming a lawyer is not one of them.