The First Step to being an Unhappy Lawyer: The First Job

“Life’s barely long enough to get good at one thing. So be careful what you get good at.”Rust Cohle, (Matthew McConaughey’s character in Season 1 of HBO’s True Detective, aka, the good season).

It is not hard to find articles addressing how unhappy lawyers are in their profession. Some dissect statistics; explaining what percentage of lawyers are depressed while other articles focus more on why lawyers are unhappy. But there seems to be a consensus that a lot of lawyers don’t really like what they do everyday for a living. Drinking is now recognized as a problem for 1 in 3 lawyers.

One thing to consider in this equation is how these unhappy lawyers chose their careers? In fact, how many lawyers actually choose their careers?

I have spent my career working closely with law students. I taught a law school class for six years about representation, negotiations and interviews. Additionally, I have worked with hundreds of law students as they volunteered for the tenant hotline I have worked at since 1996. I know many lawyers that love their work. I know probably as many who don’t.

Some 1L’s know exactly what they want to do with their careers before their first day of their first year in law school. But many (if not most) have no idea. Literally none at all. They go to law school and either hope they will figure out what they want to do during school or more likely decide to specialize in whatever their first employer tells them to specialize in.

The latter approach is not uncommon, which is actually quite startling. Someone gets an undergraduate degree (usually not cheap) and then commits to three more years of law school. The average law school debt (as of 2012) upon graduation is $140,000. This does not even factor the opportunity cost for those three years of non-income earning years.

So, a law student might take on $140,000 in debt plus not earn any appreciable income for three years for the privilege of being told what their career focus will be by the first employer willing to hire them fresh out of law school. It is not uncommon that the student does not decide what their focus will be. The law firm that hires them decides.

How does the focus of a lawyer’s career get dictated to them? Let’s say that a brand-new first year associate in a small or mid-sized firm is told to help out with family law because that is currently where there are too many cases and help is needed. This means that the new lawyer will quickly gain experience and even expertise in family law, whether or not they meant to be a family lawyer in the first place. The more time this new lawyer spends in family law, the more difficult it becomes to break away. The marketable skills that the lawyer is developing are largely family law specific. After five or ten years as a family lawyer, it can feel financially impossible to break out of this career track. Some lawyers shift career paths, but most do not, even if they are not content or even miserable.

So, how can this be prevented? How can the first year lawyer avoid practicing in a field they grow to detest? This is an incredibly basic rule, but no lawyer should ever apply for a job they will end up hating. While this sounds like elementary advice, it’s not. The key is to figure out before applying for any job whether it’s a possible fit or something the new lawyer would likely hate.

With a tight legal job market, it is not wise for a law student, or even a practicing lawyer thinking about a change from one area of law to another, to limit their career options to just one field. The almost-certain temptation is to apply for any job that looks like it will help pay back student loans and leave a few dollars in the bank for everything else. But a really useful and practical approach is to rule career paths out.

Some aspiring lawyers know early they want to be a prosecutor, or a criminal defense attorney. Maybe it’s because these two types of legal careers are so prominently featured in movies and on television. Regardless of the reason, if a 1L claims they know what they want to do with their legal career, it’s a decent bet it’s one of these two types of jobs.

Even these ‘career certain’ law students should try to make sure this is the career path they want to take. How can they make sure?

Let’s assume we have a law student convinced they want to be a public defender. To make sure this is the career path they want, the student should spend time in the world of an actual public defender. Ideally, they would get to know at least two actual, practicing public defenders and spend time with them. If the student is lucky, there is a clinic at their law school that makes working with a public defender not only easy, but a necessary part of the class. The student may conclude that they, in fact, love the world of public defense work. Or, they may realize it isn’t exactly like what they see on television. They’ll soon realize that dramatic courtroom battles featuring lawyers making brilliant strategic and decisive decisions at trial are quite rare. Instead, most cases are usually concluded with a plea bargain. The demands of the job may also be shocking, as many public defenders are fighting ridiculously heavy caseloads.

What about other fields that a law student might be interested in? There simply aren’t clinics for every type of legal work at law schools. But if a law student is seriously interested in a career path (bankruptcy law, for instance), many lawyers will allow a law student to “shadow” them for a day-or longer. The student just goes along with the lawyer through the course of a standard day, getting a glimpse of what that kind of career might look like.

Obviously, this isn’t going to mean that the law student knows everything about a career in bankruptcy law. Maybe they will catch the lawyer on the “shadow” day when things are great … or terrible. But at least they will gain some insight into that world.

If shadowing a lawyer is not possible, the next best thing might simply be to go spend a day at the nearest courthouse. Most law schools are in or near a metro area and going to the courthouse on any weekday and simply observing things can be profound. I once took three law students to a courthouse for a full day to have a look around. Without planning anything, we were able to watch a jury selection in a civil case, what seemed like hundreds of driving without a license/driving under the influence types of cases, several evictions and a portion of a family law case.

Judging by the reaction of these students, it was clear that they had never really thought about what the daily life of a practicing lawyer in any of those fields might include. One of the students, who thought she wanted a career in criminal law, probably decided that day that it was not what she really wanted to do with the rest of her professional life. She was actually ruling something out.

That’s the advice that I wish all law students would get early. Watch lawyers. Watch court. It’s great to try to figure out what you want to do with your career. But since your first employer may dictate your first real career focus, it’s probably more important to decide what work you absolutely don’t want to do before you apply for your first legal job.

Showing Batman Movies to Your Kids

I don’t want all of my blog posts to be about writing. So, I’ll talk about some other topics, including, of course, Batman. Kids (especially boys) love Batman. Whenever a new Batman movie comes out, the marketing of the film is usually tied in with a slew of toys (both in stores and in fast-food restaurants with kids meals). Even if it’s PG-13, these toys will convince even five year olds that they are supposed to see the movie.

Age is Up to You

There are websites that actually tell you what age is appropriate for kids to see virtually any movie. R is supposed to equal 17, PG-13 is obviously for thirteen, but other than that, the standard movie rating guides don’t really specify ages. I always look at them before deciding, but have shown my kids movies that weren’t in agreement with either the official movie ratings or these websites.

Batman: The Movie

This was made in 1966 and features the duo of Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward as Robin. The TV series was practically identical to this “movie”, which really plays like a long version of the original series. The classic “Bam!” comic book captions in the middle of fights, the campy jokes (Batman literally carrying an aerosol can of “Bat Shark Repellent” on his Utility Belt) and the buffoonishness of the villains makes this the safest “starter” Batman movie for kids. Probably safe to show as young as 5 or 6. I let both of my kids watch this when they were 5. No nightmares or concerns. By modern standards, this is incredibly tame.

Batman: (1989)

This featured Michael Keaton as Batman and Jack Nicholson as the Joker. Tim Burton (Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice…) directed. The movie has a very dark feel compared to the campy 60’s version of Batman. While there are some jokes throughout, at its core, this movie is really a tale of revenge. If you’re not familiar with the origin of Batman, young Bruce Wayne’s parents are killed when he’s a young boy and he essentially dedicates his life at some point to avenging them. I didn’t let either of my kids watch this until they were 10. In the movie, you see the murder of Bruce’s parents, a fairly grizzly electrocution (to be fair—this is intentionally cartoonish, but still disturbing), another murder with a pen (not kidding) and plenty of other violence. The final battle between the Batman and the Joker ends in a pretty disturbing fashion as well.

Batman Returns (1992)

Michael Keaton returns as Batman facing Michelle Pfeiffer as the Catwoman and Danny DeVito as The Penguin. Tim Burton also directed this movie and the overall tone is very similar. I’ve seen other parent-based sites claim that this movie is much more adult than the 1989 movie, but I think they are quite equal in the “scary for kids” realm. Once again, a form of electrocution occurs and there are some dark moments featuring parents basically throwing away their disfigured child. I wouldn’t show it to kids before they were 10.

Batman Forever (1995)

Val Kilmer stars as Batman, facing off against the Riddler, portrayed by Jim Carrey and Two-Face, played by Tommy-Lee Jones. Chris O’Donnell is Robin. This movie is lighter in tone generally than Batman and Batman Returns. It does feature the death of parents, once again, along with a fair amount of violence throughout. But this feels like it’s more closely related to the show of the 60’s, with better special effects. I let my kids watch when they were 9. Jim Carrey’s comedic talents help keep this movie lighter than the previous two.

Batman and Robin (1997)

George Clooney takes over the Batcape here, assisted by Chris O’Donnell again as Robin and Alicia Silverstone as Batgirl. Uma Thurman is a villain (Poison Ivy), along Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze. There is violence in this movie, but it seems more like a cartoon than a live-action movie. The colors are all overly bright and the violence seems much less realistic. I let my kids watch this fairly young-when they were 7. Be forewarned, this is probably the worst of all Batman movies for adults to watch. Practically everything Arnold says is an attempt at a one-liner.

Batman Begins (2005)

This signifies a giant shift again in the tone of Batman movies. Christopher Nolan (Inception, Interstellar, etc.) directs this and it stars Christian Bale as Batman. These movies are even darker than the Tim Burton/Michael Keaton versions. There is very little attempted humor throughout and plenty of violent imagery which could be hard for a child to watch. I didn’t let my oldest watch this until he was 12, which will be the same age for my youngest once he reaches that age. Again, we see the death of Bruce’s parents, plenty of violence, drug-induced insanity and hallucinations and Batman almost constantly defying the police (which is largely because they are ‘owned’ by crime lords). This movie really aims for realistic super-hero fiction, if that’s a thing. No super powers here and the gadgets are largely believable.

The Dark Knight (2008)

The 2nd installment from Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale. Rhis time out, we meet the Joker again as played by Heath Ledger (who won a posthumous Academy Award for this part) . We also see Two-Face, portrayed by Aaron Eckhart. This movie was rated PG-13, but I don’t think 13 is the right age. Probably 14 or 15. This movie is terrifying to many adults. I remember seeing this in the theater with a dad and two kids that were maybe 6 or 7. They were crying during many of the scenes. Bad parenting—no exaggeration. Bombs going off (from inside a criminal’s chest), brutal ‘police’ interrogations, Russian roulette, lots of murder, death with a pencil (again, not kidding), a brutal disfigurement are some of the violent highlights here. On top of the violence, the themes are very morally challenging. This is actually somewhat deep stuff (pretty ambitious for a superhero movie). Don’t take this wrong, this is one of my favorite movies ever (not just superhero movies), but it’s really not for kids.

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

The final installment from Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale, this time they battle Bane, an ultra-strong nemesis. I think the tone of this is probably okay for 13 year olds, but since my kids can’t watch the Dark Knight until they are 14, this will wait until then too. Lots of violence; murders, mass terrorism throughout the film. It’s best to watch all of the Christopher Nolan films as a set, so I wouldn’t introduce kids to them until they were at least 14 or 15.



Making of Celebrity Bounty: Part 3 of 3

Editing—Yikes, this is harder than it sounds

From beginning to end, I think I wrote my first draft of my first novel in about six months. This was while I work a full-time job and have two kids who need time and attention as well. My wife works even more than I do, so I’m generally in charge of laundry, cleaning and shopping and a good chunk of the cooking.

I’m not trying to be boastful about writing quickly. Part of the reason it went fairly quickly is that I literally type fast. I’m not kidding—I almost type faster than I think. Including law school, I went to roughly 20 years of formal education. My typing class in 9th grade has been, unquestionably, the most important class I ever took. I understand it’s not required in many states, which I find baffling in our modern society. The writing and the typing went fast, but not the editing.

The editing went on for probably another 12-16months. I showed it to my wife first. I honestly don’t think she wanted to be critical. I think she just wanted to be supportive and say what she liked and also mentioned a few things that needed to be developed. I made some revisions and then I showed it to a co-worker; Matt. It’s a daunting feeling when you hand your first novel to somebody and ask them what they think. I wonder how many people have written a novel and never shown it to anyone. I’m sure it’s a substantial number. It represents time, effort and on many levels a lot of pieces of you.

Of course, a writer thinks their work is great, but you don’t really know. Matt took it home and read it carefully and then gave me some really useful insight and was much less concerned about simply being supportive. In other words, he offered some compliments but mostly said how so much of it was off. Not focused…meandering. I didn’t agree with everything he said, but it was all sincere and he had thought it through. He spent real time evaluating it. I’m not sure I ever would have finished without his thoughts. I again revised the text and it started to come into focus.

I had a couple other co-workers who read the next version; Deb gave nice comments but was upset with one character’s decision in the book. Really upset. I saw her point, but I was happy that she got so passionate about any of the characters. Samuel also read it. He gave me my first real review, 3 out of 5 stars. To be fair, he claims to read a lot and feels that almost no books deserve 5 stars. 4 is typically his best. I’m not sure where he shares all this book reviewing, but I could live with 3 stars for a first effort. He also told me about the fact that there are professional book editors who can be hired. I knew that people edited books, but I assumed it was only publishing houses that employed them. I had no idea they were available for a self-published book, which I assumed my book would be.

I got in touch with one of these editors that Samuel knew; Elena Fultz. We met and she asked me a really insightful question; “What do you want to do with this book?” I had started formulating my approach for the future of the book—I was going to use it solely as a fundraiser, benefiting the non-profit I work for; HOME Line. My goal was to sell as many copies as possible. I had no interest in writing the “Great American Novel,” whatever that is. I personally don’t read classic literature with my spare time. I didn’t want to write a ‘classic.’ I wanted to write something entertaining and contemporary; something that was fiction, but realistic enough to be possible.

With that, I sent Elena my latest draft.  She replied within a month with what she termed a “creative edit.” She wasn’t looking to solve punctuation or tenses. It was a big picture analysis. This led to several rounds of editing together and she helped me find a lot of the footing I was looking for throughout the book. I take full credit for all of the ideas in the book, but Elena was critical in making the book more … digestible.

Last, my sister, Michelle, also had a go at the book. She is a teacher in North Carolina and has a keen eye for grammar. Apparently, I’m not the most accurate wielder of the comma. She helped make sure the book looked like it does.

I’ve gotten some early comments from people since the book was released a week ago. One of the early commenters wrote my a nice note mentioning how much she appreciated the editing. Apparently, there’s a lot of work out there that is unedited. I have no doubt that there may be a spelling error or two and perhaps some grammatical issues–but it wasn’t for lack of looking!

Making of Celebrity Bounty, Part 2 of 3: Writing evil is easier than writing good

I had roughly an hour to kill. I taught a class at a law school and we had our annual opening session which started at night. If I left work too late, I’d get stuck in traffic and be miss the session. Instead, I left work early and grabbed an early dinner, but I still had time on my hands. I was looking over what I had written about winning a lottery and knew it needed something more … a more legitimate conflict. I don’t remember what was in the news that day, but it had focused on some celebrity who seemed to only be a celebrity because she was famous. As recently as a decade ago, people were really only famous for accomplishing great things (or terrible things, I suppose). Now though, people seem to seek fame and worry about how to justify it and perhaps more importantly to many of them, maintain the fame for as long as they can.

But I started thinking about the lure of fame and how some people were drawn to it while others openly despise it. We all know of movie stars who prefer to hide from the paparazzi until their movie opens, at which point they smile at the same paparazzi they claim to hate. But these movie stars sought fame, on at least some level, by choosing their career. Every accountant knows that if they become a great accountant, they’ll still be relatively unknown. But actors? They know that if they hit it really big, they may be famous. But what if some tabloid decided to turn someone into a celebrity against their will?

And that’s when I thought of the name of a character; Heléna Midas. I’ve started on more novels since I wrote Celebrity Bounty. But so far, nobody else has just kind of ‘written herself’ like she did. I worked on coming up with a name, and Midas has a wonderfully greedy connotation—plus, I don’t think I have ever met anyone with that last name, which makes it slightly easier to write about her. There are no images lingering around some real person from my memory banks.

I spent the remainder of the time before the class furiously writing down things that I thought a tabloid would do to exploit our protagonist who won the biggest lottery in American history. How could they exploit his newfound fame and capture him saying and doing things he wouldn’t want publicized? Over the next few months, these thoughts all took shape.

I came up with the not-outlandish concept that the paparazzi are on the verge of becoming extinct and useless. That’s not because consumers don’t want the pictures. It’s because the paparazzi can’t be everywhere. But, cell phones can be. All Celebrity Bounty (the fictional magazine) would need to do is tell people what they would pay for certain photos of certain celebrities doing things. They would publish a “buylist” and basically turn everyone into their hired paparazzi.

The rest of the book flowed from the concepts in these first two parts; how would somebody protect themselves after winning a giant lottery, especially if the tabloid industry decided to make them an unwilling celebrity? Hopefully, the details are what make the rest of the book worth reading.

If you ever decide that you want to try your hand at writing a novel, I hope that you get to meet someone like Heléna Midas. Almost from the minute I came up with her name, she practically wrote herself.