» Practice in General, Solo Practice » An Unemployed Lawyer Is Still a Lawyer

An Unemployed Lawyer Is Still a Lawyer

The legal market is not good. You probably knew that already. There are unemployed lawyers everywhere and probably even more soon-to-be-unemployed-lawyers sitting in law school classrooms around the country. You probably knew that too. It seems like everyone knows it’s a rough economy for legal services, but people are entering the profession in droves. Is it that they all assume they’re the best? That they’re the ones who are going to be first in their class and skyrocket to lawyerly fame and fortune?

I don’t have an awful lot of sympathy for law grads struggling to find work. It wasn’t too long ago that I had nothing but a bar number, an awareness that I had no clue what the hell I was doing, and a desire to change that as quickly as possible. I was surprised by the encouragement I got from other lawyers and the fact most of them treated me as a colleague. To a large extent, I was an equal in the marketplace, lacking experience but still capable of representing clients if I put in the time and understood my limits. I quickly learned you should never feel sorry for a lawyer. Although bar admission is certainly not a license to print money, if you are willing to work your ass off, you have access to a world of possibilities most people can hardly dream of, job or no job.

That makes snippets like this one at Above the Law a bit frustrating:

So now the Tulsa law dean is making it sound like the babysitting gig was just one of the many heroic efforts Tulsa undertakes to make sure students can make ends meet while in law school. This from a school that charges $32,056 per year plus another $7,993 for room and board for the privilege of attending the #99 law school in the land. Oh, but presenting babysitting opportunities is a way that the administration can help.

This one too:

Kansas Law received a $1M donation to support scholarships. The dean is thrilled, because the school will be able to compete to attract and retain students who will someday be unemployed.

Sure, law school is expensive, and much of it is a waste of time. But it’s one step on the way to becoming a lawyer. Much of it is really, really interesting too. It directly and indirectly enables you to figure out how an important part of our society works, a part that few people understand but that affects everyone at some point or another. With a law license comes an incredible ability to make a positive change in the world. It is what you make of it.

The comments above make it seems like law school graduates are helpless little babies, victims of big bad law schools that preyed on their weaknesses. I’m not buying it, and I don’t see what’s so bad about Tulsa and Kansas. What can a Harvard grad do with a law license that their grads can’t? Most clients certainly don’t care if their lawyer’s law school is #99 in some arbitrary ranking in some magazine they don’t read. Like I said, there’s no reason to pity an attorney, and that applies regardless of the school they happened to attend.

It’s telling that very few of my musician friends, many of whom spent more on their highly specialized and often useless performance degrees than most lawyers spend on law school, complain about how they were duped. I suspect that’s because they all learned something they wanted to learn, loved it at some point, and were more than happy to pay top price for the opportunity. Lawyers should learn something from that. Go to law school to be a lawyer, not to make a salary that lawyers don’t actually make. Seems simple enough, right? Apparently not. For some reason, the mystique just won’t go away. People insist on believing a law degree entitles them to something.

Even legal support staff who should know better seem to buy into the myth. I’ve spoken with quite a few paralegals and legal secretaries lately, and they are generally as unaware of the market as law students are. I shouldn’t be surprised, though, as paralegals, parelegals-to-be, and paralegal-students-to-be frequently expect salaries that the market probably wouldn’t bear for new associate attorneys. They are surprised to find out they currently make more money waiting tables or tending bar. I can’t imagine what they think lawyers make. It must be a lot, as their unreasonable expectations persist even after their bubble is burst about staff salaries. They assume the solution is not to consider another profession, but to go all in and apply for law school. For the reasons above, I can’t really fault them if they go through with it, but it struck me at first as an unusual decision. What is it about the legal profession that draws in even those people who should know better? I think there are two major reasons, each with inherent dangers and related lessons future lawyers should learn.

First, there are a lot of lawyers who do well. When I marvel at how many people I meet want to go to law school, Adrian enjoys reminding me that it’s our fault. I may whine now and again, but life is good. I work on interesting cases, have flexible hours, and take a relatively large amount of vacation time each year. And yes, I make decent money too. People see that, not the day to day uncertainties of owning a business, the frequent marathon workdays, and the other things that aren’t so much fun. The profession would be without a lot of its most disgruntled members if people thinking about law school all knew to keep an open mind, never assume they’ll be rich, and be willing to take the bitter with the sweet.

Second, everyone these days seems to expect an organized program. Why wouldn’t they? They had to put in twelve structured years before graduating high school, even if they could’ve learned everything in half that. Ta-dah! A diploma. They’re high school grads. Next, they have to get an acceptable undergraduate degree to get into law school, even if it in no way prepares them for what lies ahead. Ta-dah again! A bachelor’s degree. They’re college grads. After that comes the LSAT, law school, and the bar exam. Ta-dah! They’re lawyers. A career in the law sounds like the perfect way to continue the program indefinitely, but there’s a problem. This economy has made it so there aren’t enough programs to go around. What now?

Lawyers who feed into big law or big government may just continue along a path prepared for them and spend the rest of their lives being a little cog in a big machine, doing things that were laid out for them to do in advance. I wouldn’t know because the program ended for me after I got my bar number. I couldn’t have been happier, but many people went to law school for the express purpose of avoiding that. A lot of people just want something to do and believe that simply doing things like slogging through the required curriculum or putting in the hours is the accomplishment. The job, not the work it entails, is what they want. They’re still attached to the program, and they can’t think outside the box and understand there may not be another feeder shuffling them forward to the the next stage. For people who went to law school to continue the program indefinitely, the lack of any predetermined path to follow can be terrifying. In this market, every person considering law school needs to ask themselves if they’re able to cope with that.

All of this comes back to my first point. The economy sucks, but there’s plenty of work out there. There just aren’t many jobs. The problem with being an unemployed lawyer isn’t the same problem as being unemployed in a field where you have no choice but to work full time for someone else. A law degree is a ticket to new and amazing opportunities, the power to help people and make a difference as well as a living. I’d rather be an unemployed lawyer than an unemployed anything else. The key to not having to wallow embarrassingly in pity is to see things as they are and embrace the unknown. For people who understand what being a lawyer actually entails and know that they may have to make their own program whether they want to or not, law school is still a good choice. Even in this economy.

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5 Responses to "An Unemployed Lawyer Is Still a Lawyer"

  1. Andrew Sivak says:

    Many poor people desperately need legal services. Neighborhood Legal Service organizations rarely answer their phones and have ridiculously low income thresholds. Some large cities like San Antonio, Tx. don’t even have a Public Defenders Office. Yet there is an over-abundance of unemployed lawyers and graduating law students without job prospects. Why don’t they form co-operatives and take cases on a pro-bono or contingency basis to develop and enhance their skills? All I notice is a lot of whining on the internet and pictures of PI attorneys advertising on billboards. No wonder the public has such a low opinion of the legal profession.

    1. k says:

      and what store or creditor takes “pro bono” as payment. If low incom clients need lawyers they usually do not money to pay and that inability to pay does not solve the lawyer’s financial problems.

    2. fortner says:

      I spent my whole professional life helping poor people like you suggest, and now I don’t have a goddamn thing to show for it, and no thanks either. A lawyer’s time and advice are his stock in trade, you fucking idiot.

  2. This blue-skies benevolent universe post is just another instance of a privileged successful person shouting, “Let them eat cake!” In the top 5%’s world view people should slave away for very low wages in order to be able to work in a profession they invested years and tens of thousands of dollars in and there is no such thing as fraudulently misleading employment statistics.

  3. U. of Kansas Law has scholarships? They never told me about those. Maybe I missed the memo. They did, however, mention that I could pay my own money or apply for loans. That was a feature.

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