The questions I’m asked most frequently come from young people considering a career in law. They not only want to know what to expect in law school and beyond, but often ask me directly whether the legal field would be a good one for them. Today’s blog entry discusses the status of the legal profession today. While a career in law still offers challenging opportunities for personal gratification and financial success, there are significant negatives that ought to give would-be attorneys serious reason to pause before committing themselves to the field.
Most young people have a distorted idea of what practicing law is all about. This is not surprising considering the number of television programs and movies in which lawyers prance about the courtroom to effect justice in a spectacular manner just in time for the closing credits. In reality, an extremely small percentage of lawyers come anything close to being trial attorneys. Most attorneys rarely, if ever, try a case, preferring to leave trial work to the select few who are emotionally suited to the rigors of that specialty. Moreover, trial attorneys, themselves, spend most of their time hanging around courthouses waiting for juries to be selected and judges to become available to handle their cases. In the end, the great majority of cases wind up being settled before the first witness is called. This is the world of the trial attorney and it is one they don’t show on television.
Law Schools today are far more diverse in their student body than they were 30 years ago. In fact, several schools now report enrollments in which women predominated. In addition, responding to complaints that graduating students were generally unprepared for the realities of law practice, most schools have incorporated courses in practice skills into their curricula.
While the number of applicants to law schools has dropped off during the last few years, admission remains competitive. There is no specific college major required for admission to law school, although Business or English seem to be the better choices. Most schools require applicants to take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) which has proven to be a generally accurate indicator of how a student will fare in his or her legal studies. Of course, the student should have reasonably decent college grades as well. When push comes to shove, however, a solid performance on the LSAT is probably more important. Those applicants who receive a series of rejections from the so-called high profile law schools should redirect their attention to smaller, newer institutions, even if out-of state. Upon graduation, all students from whatever law school they attended still have to pass the bar examination. Surprisingly, some of the more prestigious law schools don’t always top the list when it comes to success rates on the bar examination.
Law school itself is not particularly difficult although some lawyers seem invested in convincing people otherwise. While there is a lot of material to digest, students have a smaller caseload than in college. Those who can afford the luxury of concentrating on their studies without having to hold down a job enjoy an extra bonus. This is not to say that law school is a lark. There are some students who, despite good college grades and solid native intelligence, just can’t seem to get a handle on learning how to think like a lawyer. This is where the LSAT is particularly valuable because a poor performance on that examination, absent some extraordinary explanation, should give a prospective law student serious cause to think about whether law school is really for him or her.
Achieving outstanding grades in law school will translate into a financial bonanza on graduation only if the student is interested in joining one of those large, prestigious law firms. Those graduating a first rate law school at or near the top of the class are often actively recruited by these firms. Young attorneys who are employed there can expect starting salaries well into six figures. In exchange, they better be prepared to spend 80 hours a week or more working for the firm. For those attorneys interested in starting their own firms or working with a very small firm in their home communities, law school grades are rarely a factor.
The legal field is a lot different today than it was 30 years ago. Unfortunately, many of the changes are definitely not for the better. In 1970, lawyers belonged to what could rightfully be called a profession. Hackneyed lawyer jokes aside, most understood that their chosen field was something very special to which was entrusted the time honored principle that the true administration of justice is the firmest pillar of good government. Lawyers responded by conducting themselves with dignity, obtaining clients by providing solid legal representation, and benefiting from the word-of-mouth recommendations that followed.
Today, thanks to an ill-advised decision by the United States Supreme Court authorizing legal advertising, many lawyers solicit cases the way street peddlers hawk cheap watches. Time and again bar associations have tried to establish some reasonable regulations of lawyer advertising only to have their efforts stricken down as violative of the attorneys’ first amendment right to free speech. Even those lawyers who find advertising repugnant, claim that they are forced into doing it as a matter of survival.
Besides reducing the legal profession to the appearance of any other business, lawyer advertising gives economically prosperous firms a huge advantage in obtaining clients over those unable to spend the money to promote themselves. This has a particularly disastrous impact on a young lawyer trying to establish a practice who finds it difficult enough trying to pay the rent on his office much less coming up with the dollars necessary to market his business.
Still, it is inaccurate to label the legal field as merely a business because of the stringent ethical constraints placed on attorneys. In addition, such emerging concepts as mandatory continuing legal education and obligatory pro bono work distinguish lawyers from traditional businesses.
Besides legal advertising, other factors have combined over the last 30 years to make it more difficult for lawyers to earn a decent living. Several major companies are now offering pre-paid legal insurance as a benefit of employment. As a result, clients who would otherwise seek private attorneys in their community are utilizing lawyers provided by their insurance plans. Legal aid organizations and community law operations, ostensibly in business to provide legal assistance to poor people, have become increasingly inclined to represent individuals who do, indeed, have the means to hire private counsel. While some judges and bar associations are doing their best to monitor such situations, there are significant limits to what they can actually do to prevent this kind of abuse.
The last several years have also seen the emergence of the paralegal as an integral part of many law offices. Though they must work under the supervision of licensed attorneys, they are performing many tasks that would otherwise be undertaken by lawyers at a substantially reduced cost.
Not too long ago, the American Bar Association Journal had a lead story on alternate careers for lawyers. The best way to avoid having to consider that possibility tomorrow, is to enter the legal field with your eyes wide open today.
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