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.