A law degree can be used in many different types of careers and industries. Some law school graduates apply their education as general counsel for a company. Others use their law school education to enhance and support a variety of careers in diverse industries, including politics. And of course, many choose to serve clients in the traditional setting of a law firm. Regardless of the path you choose, being a lawyer can be a profitable and respected career decision. A good first step is to figure out what to know before becoming a lawyer.
For those who are planning on a career in a traditional law firm setting, there are things you should know before you start.
You Won’t Land a Corner Office Out of Law School
I wrote this article not to discourage you from a potentially fulfilling and profitable career, but to help you get a feel for what it can be like to enter the market as a brand-new lawyer. The truth is that most brand-new lawyers need to skill-up before they get the keys to the corner office.
Law school provides you with good general knowledge of the legal industry and legal theory. Law school is also important because it’s a requirement in almost every single state in order to become a practicing attorney. But, it rarely provides lawyers with what they need to enter the market and start generating income.
Most new lawyers who enter the legal space are generally treated as legal assistants. This means that senior lawyers pass work down to them. In many cases, brand new lawyers are lower on the corporate ladder in the law firm than the legal assistants or paralegals that have been with the company for some time. Brand new lawyers sometimes need to ask for advice from legal assistants. This can be an ego check, but it might just be what it takes to become a lawyer.
A Lot of Law Students Just Want to Get Rich
People commonly enter the legal industry for two reasons. Number one is that it’s prestigious and well-respected to be an attorney. If you can tell people you’re a lawyer, they’re often impressed and they have something to talk to you about. Most people are very opinionated, either positively or negatively about attorneys.
The second common reason that people enter the legal industry is that a lot of people are inspired by TV shows like Suits or the movie My Cousin Vinny. They ultimately conclude that it’s an exciting career (which it is) and that it’s very lucrative. However, as with most industries, this is only true for 20% of attorneys. Roughly 80% of attorneys don’t make a lot of money.
In some cases, people who become lawyers end up leaving the industry after three to five years. This is because they realize that it’s not really for them and that they can make more money somewhere else. That doesn’t mean that becoming a lawyer was a waste of time. It provides them with the opportunity to springboard into lucrative positions in the government or as in house counsel at a company.
I’m not here to tell you that becoming a lawyer is a waste of time. But there is a massive misunderstanding that once you become a lawyer, you’re going to make a lot of money. And in the first five years of being a lawyer, it’s very unlikely that you will. So, you should prepare in advance for that, financially.
Law School Won’t Teach You How to Get Clients
The reason why a lot of lawyers don’t make money isn’t because there isn’t money in the industry. For example, the divorce industry in the US is worth $50 billion dollars annually. The problem is that only 20% of family lawyers are collecting most of that money. Law school doesn’t prepare you for getting clients. It’s not the fault of law school because that’s not what law schools do.
Law school doesn’t prepare you to run a law firm as a business. And that means that most lawyers don’t know how to go out and get clients. They don’t know how to manage technology. They don’t know how to do accounting. They don’t know how to hire or manage people. They struggle because their skills and expertise lie in the area of law, not these other areas.
The most important part of running a law firm is how to get clients and how to achieve client satisfaction. Most lawyers are terrible at it. They think they’re going to create a one-page website and put up a few social media posts. Then clients are just going to come into their office and write them $5000 checks because of these efforts. It doesn’t work this way for other industries either. If you start a restaurant you’re going to have to do marketing as well.
Working for a Senior Attorney Is a Good Option
Because it’s difficult for a new attorney to obtain clients, many start their careers by working for a senior lawyer. Often senior lawyers have more client work than they can handle and they need the support. This would be one of the lawyers in the 20% that I mentioned earlier.
The thing that many new lawyers don’t like about this approach is that they’re often treated like garbage by the managing partner. The relationship is one where the new lawyer is simply there to support the managing partner and do whatever they say. Again, this might just be what it takes to become a lawyer. But for people who are not 100% motivated by money, this doesn’t sit well for them. They’re not willing to live in a toxic environment just to make a dollar.
The other thing that many new lawyers are unprepared for is just how hard they’re going to need to work. Those managing partners will expect you to work on weekends and late at night. They’re going to expect you to be there to cover them. And that’s part of the deal. You really won’t have much of a life during this time because you must prove yourself to the managing partners. But it’s not forever. Eventually you will gain the experience you need to prove yourself and gradually move on to serving your own clients.
Be Honest with Yourself
If you can become knowledgeable about marketing and all those related business tasks, the quality of your career and life will improve. Lawyers who are able to manage a business often become sole practitioners. But be honest with yourself. If you can’t sell people and if you’re not really a people person, don’t aim for becoming a sole practitioner. You’re going to end up making less money than if you worked at Starbucks. And Starbucks might provide a more positive environment than a divorce law firm.
About the Author
Alistair Vigier is the CEO of Clearway Law, an online marketplace that connects people with legal issues with top lawyers that can provide legal advice. ClearWay Law is growing across North America and is in the process of raising seed capital funding.