So you Want to Go to Law School...
Recently, the Washington Post did an exposé on the dwindling pool of applicants for law school and about how law schools throughout the country are facing a crisis because fewer and fewer people are applying. Stories about hordes of recent law school grads with crushing debt who can't find jobs are scaring people away. Is this a good thing? The common belief is that the world has too many lawyers, so any reduction in the number of lawyers a good thing. But the truth is that we need good lawyers. Our society is so complicated, that we need people who's only job is to keep the rules straight so that everyone else can do their jobs without having to worry about them. Without lawyers, everything we did would be a big crap shoot (kind of like it is in every society without a functioning judicial system).
So how about you? Are you cut out for a career in the law? How do you know? Well, for starters, you can watch TV and movies. Hollywood loves lawyers - we're written into darn near every show and film in some way or another, so that must be a treasure trove of reliable information, right? I mean, even if you see through the tropes, you can discern that lawyers are shrewd and cunning, that they work incredibly long hours, that people fear them, and that they make life and death decisions every five minutes.
Well, before you sign up for the LSAT, here's some stuff that they don't show in movies and television:
1. The Lousy Pay
I always laugh when television shows depict doctors living in trailers or dingy apartments. Every doctor I have ever met has so much extra money, that they run out of things on which to spend it by the time they reach the age of 50. Regardless of constant use of technically accurate medical terminology or graphic depictions of gore, I won't believe that any televised doctor show is realistic until they show Dr. McDreamland rolling up to work in an S-Class Mercedes, yacking on his cellphone to his CPA about the property he just bought in Barbados. And if you know a doctor who doesn't, live like that, you need to tell him that he's doing it wrong.
Lawyers, on the other hand ... Law is more like other professions. There are a few big winners, and a whole lot of people just scraping by. But why? Getting a law degree used to be a guaranteed ticket to a country club lifestyle. So what happened?
A number of factors contributed to it, but there are a few key culprits. First, in the 1990's, the IRS started cracking down on corporate excesses that were written off as expenses and deductions. Suddenly, corporate legal departments had to contain their costs, and that meant they had to scrutinize their legal bills for the first time since the Great Depression. The spillover effect of not being able to have three lawyers billing the same fat corporate client for the same work was that the biggest law firms suddenly found themselves needing only a third of the lawyers they were used to having. Corporate law gigs are the big dollar jobs in the field, and when those salaries started dropping and those jobs started disappearing, it dragged down salaries across the entire field.
Second, individual people stopped being able to afford lawyers. Doctors can charge you $1000.00/hour because you don't pay it, your insurance does. But we don't have an equivalent for legal insurance. Want to write a will, start a business, or get a divorce? You're going to have to pay that lawyer out of pocket. As it turns out, not a lot of people can afford to pay $300 to $500 an hour for legal services, and the economic crash didn't help.
Third, remember the McDonald's coffee case? The U.S. Chamber of Commerce rode that case all the way to massive tort reform across the country. Now, in most states, there are restrictions on the amount and types of damages people can be awarded, and on the types of lawsuits people can file. But it's worse than that: the massive anti-lawsuit marketing campaign didn't just influence lawmakers and judges, it influenced ordinary people, the same people who serve on juries. As a result, even if the plaintiff wins a lawsuit, the amount he's likely to win has shrunk. Because people who are injured often have no way to pay a lawyer, lawyers take such cases on a contingency fee basis, usually charging around a third of the amount awarded. With smaller jury awards come smaller attorney fees, meaning that law firms are getting less and less money.
All of this, plus a dozen other factors, mean that there is simply less money going to law firms. Now add in people peddling bogus legal services on the internet at cut rate prices, a crashed economy, and an older work force of attorneys who keep hanging onto their jobs because their savings has been wiped out, and you have a recipe for lousy job prospects.
2. The Lies
There's an old joke: "How can you tell if a lawyer is lying? His lips are moving!" Ha ha! Good one! But actually, its the clients that lie. They lie, lie, lie. Almost everything they tell you is probably bullshit. Even after you explain to them that everything they tell you is protected by the attorney-client privilege, and that it can never be revealed to anyone, so please, please, please tell us the truth so that we can actually represent them in court ... they still lie. The problem is that you can never be sure which part of what they tell you is true and which part is bullshit.
Until you put them on the witness stand, that is. Maybe it's a contractor who hired you to sue a project owner for not paying after a job was finished. In preparation for trial, you gather all of the documents, get statements from witnesses, take photos of the job, review the plans and permits at the county offices, and everything appears to check out. Your guy completed the job. He should get paid. And then, during the trial, it comes out that you guy's license was suspended at the time of the job and, as a matter of law, he can't get paid because he wasn't licensed to do the work. Gee, I hope you didn't take that case on contingency!
You know who lies the most? Divorce clients. Hands down. But here's the weird thing: the clients that almost never lie to their attorney? Criminal clients. On TV and in the movies, the clever defense attorney never asks his client if he is guilty or innocent, because you can't put the defendant on the stand to proclaim his innocence if you know for a fact that he's guilty. In real life, you can't get criminal clients to shut up about being guilty. It's starts with the initial phone call.
Me: "Hello, this is Delay, Whine, and Kvetch law firm. How can I help you?"
Criminal Defendant: "I just got arrested with two bags of coke and I was driving a stolen car on a suspended license and I had an unregistered gun with me at the time. I need a lawyer. Do you do that?"
3. The Boredom
TV and movies love trials, especially criminal trials. I mean, come on! There's been a murder! The fate of the defendant hangs on the back-and-forth repartee of the trial attorneys. There's high drama, complete with surprise witnesses, sudden revelations, and in the end, someone always cracks under rigorous cross examination. It makes for excellent viewing.
The reality, however, is that trials are so stiff and formal that they end up being long, dull, dreary affairs. Even in "exciting" trials involving murders and rapes, it is not uncommon for jurors, judges, and even the attorneys to nod off during the trial. Now, consider a ten-day long trial on a commercial real estate transaction. The rules of evidence are complex,and it is not uncommon for trials to be regularly interrupted by arguments between counsel over exhibits and testimony, sometimes causing the jury to be scuttled out to the jury room while the lawyers and judge argue it out for hours at a time. Then, there are the rules that require a foundation be laid for each piece of evidence introduced - which makes admitting every photograph and document into evidence a slow, laborious process.
And that's just the actual trial. The months, or sometimes years, between when a case is filed and when it actually goes to trial is filled with such high drama activities as filing subpoenas, reviewing tens of thousands of pages of documents, fighting with doctors' offices for copies of medical records, tracking down witnesses, etc. etc.
What it comes down to is this: one of the most important qualities you need if you want to become a lawyer is patience. Especially when it comes time to deal with:
4. The Jerks
Imagine if you took all of the most obnoxious, Type-A people from your high school and put them together with 500 other Type-A people from all of the other high schools in your state. Then you pit them in head to head competition with each other. That's what we call a law class. Law schools typically grade on the curve, meaning that no matter how hard everyone works, there are always going to be winners and losers. Of crouse, one way to ensure that you don't lose is to make sure other people lose instead. See where this is going? Lawyers are trained, from the first day of law school, that success means someone else has to fail. Then, after several years of ensuring that lesson is ingrained into their heads, the law schools turn them loose on the public.
If you were, for example, a cabinet maker, you'd have to compete with other cabinet makers for jobs. But once you got the job and installed your cabinets, you could rest assured that the cabinets would stay right where you put them, and you'd get paid for doing the job. But what if making cabinets was like practicing law? In that case, as soon as you made a cabinet, a rival cabinet maker would come along and try to rip it out so that you didn't get paid.
With law, everything you do is being defended by some other lawyer who wants you to fail. In fact, neither of you can get paid for your work unless the other one fails. As you can imagine, that type of work environment breeds a special brand of assholery, especially among the younger, newly minted attorneys who don't yet have a lot of life experience. This results in: antagonistic motions practices wherein your opposing counsel is perpetually threatening to have you sanctioned; invasive and abusive discovery practices; outright dishonesty; hiding evidence and documents from you; and snarky little things like faxing over impossible demands with unreasonable deadlines at 4:59 p.m. on the day of whatever deadline you're currently under. I had one attorney who was so antagonistic that I informed the court that I would not have any conversations with her without a court reporter present.
Who are the worst offenders? Prosecutors and divorce attorneys, and for very different reasons. Divorce attorneys could resolve all of their cases in five minutes - most states have pretty strict laws that detail who should get what. But you can't bill much for resolving cases peacefully. Fortunately for divorce attorneys, their clients are usually emotional and vulnerable. By exploiting their feelings of hurt and betrayal, a good divorce attorney can take up the client's cause and use it to go on a rampage, viciously attacking the other party for as long as their client is willing to pay. The secret is to be such a belligerent asshole that the other side has to respond in kind. If both parties are so angry at each other that they're frothing at the mouth, both attorneys can run up massive legal bills.
Prosecutors, in my honest opinion, are worse, because they feel very righteous in being assholes. In many states, being a prosecutor is the path to judgeship or holding political office, so prosecution positions are highly sought after by people with such plans. These are people who have never done anything wrong ever in their life. They got perfect grades all the way through school, never got in any trouble, and go to Church every Sunday. They go straight through law school and into prestigious jobs, developing an active disdain for everyone who doesn't follow the rules. They see the world as Us v. Them, where "them" is everyone who isn't a police officer or a prosecutor. This mentality allows them to justify being a complete dick to any attorney who sullies himself by representing criminals, and it explains why, even when a person is definitively proven to be innocent after a lengthy incarceration, the prosecutor on the case will continue to insist that the conviction was valid. Us v. Them.
But if you can deal with other asshole lawyers and your own lying clients, then maybe you'll find that:
5. You can Actually Help People
If you want to be a lawyer because you think you're going to make big bucks, or because you think you can single-handedly save the world, then you're delusional and should focus on writing unrealistic legal dramas for television instead. Law, like anything else, is a business. We lawyers have a service to sell, and we have to make a profit doing it, or we will go broke. We have to convince people to hire us, we have to deliver for our clients, and we have to get paid.
But, in the middle of all of the dealing with assholes, being lied to by clients, and getting stiffed for your fees, you have to bear in mind that people are coming to you for help, often at the lowest point in their life. They've been severely hurt in an accident, or they've been accused of a crime, or they've been denied some benefit they rightfully deserved. No one goes to a lawyer because they like lawyers. They go to a lawyer because they're getting screwed over by life and they have no where else to turn.
Yes, it is possible to actually help some of those people and get paid while doing it. But sometimes, you manage to help people beyond just being their lawyer. Your title is "attorney and counselor." Emphasis sometimes needs to be on the "counselor" part.
As an example, I once represented a guy who had gotten beat up by a security guard at a concert. The client complained that, after the security guard had been following him and his group of friends around, he got tired of it, and finally mouthed off to the guard. My client was certain that it had to do with his race, but that was tough to prove. We ended up settling, mostly because the guard in question had a history of violence (both on the job and off). Justice done, right? My guy was vindicated, and I made a nice fee. That's that. Except that I had to deliver the news about the settlement to my client in jail, because he had been picked up on his third DUI and was busy serving out a three month sentence. As I talked to him in jail, I learned that he had a pretty bad alcohol problem, that he had lost his son in a custody battle due to his drinking, and that he had no job skills and a criminal record. I knew after a few minutes that whatever money I got for him in the settlement would be gone in about 20 minutes.
So, I convinced him to put the settlement money away for his son. I contacted his mother, whom he hadn't seen in years, and she and I met him at the jail when he was released. She took him in and made him start going to Church with her. I got him an apprenticeship with a trade union through a contact, and his mother and I hounded him about keeping up with AA. Today, he has a steady job in a union shop doing welding work, and he just got his own apartment where he can now have court-approved visitation with his son. He's got a long way to go, but he's figuring things out.
You run across situations like this several times a year, and most of the time, there's not much you can do. But every once in a while, you can actually make a difference.
So, if you can get up every day and deal with the assholes, the lies, the crappy pay and the stress because you know that today might just be the day that you can actually make a difference, then law school is for you.
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