Balancing the Bar

Happiness and the Practice of Law

THE LAW SCHOOL MYTH: STUDYING VS. PRACTICING LAW

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The formula seemed simple. You do well in undergraduate, spend three years studying the law and then graduate, pass the bar exam (or two if you are me) and then viola you are an attorney.  Sound familiar?   All attorneys I know have been there at some point.  But, quickly this stellar accomplishment falls to the wayside and you are stuck with the business of practicing law.  The preparation of law school seems suddenly useless as you figure out what your client or senior partner wants.

As we attend law school we are filled with anticipation and hope at finding ourselves as advisors and advocates for others. We are also told that if we excel at the law school game (good grades, law review and/or moot court) we will land a lucrative big firm job.  We are never told what the reality of practicing law is really all about.   As we progress through our career, we find that there is little if anything about being an attorney that is predictable.   There is no easy way to sugar coat this fact – we cannot control everything in your business, your job or life for that matter.

What does your average lawyer struggle with – control, imagining and forestalling against worst case scenarios, and attaining perfection. Some of us also struggle with being what our clients want and how to manage that expectation.  The biggest challenge of all is making money to support ourselves and in most cases our families. Has money become the primary motivator in our business has passionate advocacy and dedication to improving our profession fallen by the wayside?

As we all know, there are many ways to deal with lawyer compensation within law firms.  So, many that I will not go into great detail here.  Money at th e large firm can be great but there is a cost you pay in terms of quality of life.  On the other hand, there are lots of solo and small firm people who have to live life on a tight rope monthly and yearly.  One of the great things about being an attorney is the ability to set out a shingle and be your own boss.  Even if you are not a solo, you can still be quite entrepreneurial in your own office.  It is thrilling to get that first fee check and first client.  But there can be downsides.  Depending on the type of practice you have you may go months without steady fees.  Contingency personal injury, class action and probate fees can take months if not years to earn.  Then you have clients who you allowed to pay on a monthly basis and stiff you.  Not to mention the ones that fain outrage when they find out you bill for emails and phone calls .

So, how do you manage the instability which comes with the business of being a lawyer?  Personally, I find that my practice goes through a change every few years on its own as the needs of the credit community changes.  What used to be a stable income ,can go away when the regulatory climate changes or the economy collapses.  It is best to understand the industry you serve and to develop back up plans.  Further, never lose contact with possible client referrals.  Stay connected even if it is a Holiday Card.  People need to know where you are and what you do even if they can’t use your services right now they may be able to later.  Also, whether you realize it or not, the practice of law is all about clients.  Specifically, attorneys who seem to do the best are those with the ability to get and keep clients.  If you don’t feel comfortable with the “sales” aspect of being an attorney, then you need to accept that your earning potential will be lower, that you may never make partner and or that you will have less control as you would if you had clients of your own.

Also, law school was law school. You can’t always be the best and the brightest.   Sad but true, law school has little if anything to do with being a successful legal practitioner. Many very smart people graduate and never practice.   Or, they practice for a while and find alternative careers which better suit their needs. If you are not satisfied with the instability and frankly, drudgery, of a legal career then it may behoove you to pursue other options.  There are many things you can do with a law degree which can be rewarding and enjoyable.

Finally, just because you ranked highly in your law school , does not mean you will succeed at the business of law.  The instability and constant retooling is not for everyone, but for those who can and do want to be practitioners there are ways to stay ahead of or keep pace with the constant changes and demands.  In the alternative, we can learn to accept instability is a part of life and embrace each change as a new opportunity to grow and learn.   Personally, change is something I have learned to be grateful for.  The sooner you realize that uncertainty is a part of  the job then the quicker you can make the life adjustment you need.

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Author: Tabitha M. Hochscheid

Attorney since 1995, interested in Attorney Health and Well Being and related issues for lawyers and the general population. Developer and Committee Chair of the Cincinnati Bar Association Health and Well Being Committee.

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