Your First Years as a Lawyer: An Owner's Manual

Why is satisfaction such an issue with lawyers?

Do accountants or physicians or goat-herders also worry about their vocations, and their places in them? Well, probably yes. But law seems particularly susceptible to career introspection. Perhaps this is a result of the type of people who are attracted to law...and the realities of law practice.

Many, many new lawyers first enter their law offices...without a clue. They've gone from high school to college and on to law school, perhaps nervous, perhaps unsure, but with each academic experience reinforcing a self-perception of intelligence and capability. When they walk into their new offices, however, those academic reinforcements do not follow. The world of law practice -- where bosses are not professors and clients are not parents -- presents a new and frustrating (and often disorienting) reality.

A few generations ago, a new lawyer might have had a little more leeway to bloom into a senior practitioner. No more. The world is fast-paced, and there's now little room for meandering or late starts. So many different forces confront the new lawyer that it's hard to know where to begin the advice (...and it's even harder for the new lawyer to know where to apply it). Worse, law practice is not a stationary target. It's not that law practice is completely different now than a generation ago -- it's that *clients* are so different now, and firms are struggling to adjust...within the framework of a necessarily labor-intensive profession and an established and sometimes constraining heritage.

For the former law student, the important point is that legal employers (in firms and elsewhere) will demand large volumes of high-quality work. That, alone, isn't so bad (nor is it much different, except in intensity, from the past). The danger lies in the abruptness of the transition, and in attitude. Senior lawyers are not mean (well, most of 'em), or vindictive (well, most of 'em), or busy (yup...all of 'em). Most simply don't have the time (or patience) to watch over new lawyers in any meaningful apprenticeship. Plus, the new lawyer has spent an entire, embryonic life in academia, where uncounted time and resourceful regurgitation were rewarded. Law school develops some of the skills that are later needed by practicing lawyers, but the emphasis in real life is the *reverse* of academia. Education purports to teach process, but instead rewards results. In law practice, you are retained to get results for your clients, but will be rewarded, in large part, for the *process* of serving your clients. Part of the frustration for a new lawyer is this Twilight Zone reality -- particularly because it's rarely explained, and because the new lawyer sees only a very small part of the picture. Worse, the issues facing a new lawyer are rarely, if ever, of the same dimension as are those discussed in class. Very, very few clients want to challenge the Supreme Court's holdings on First Amendment law; they'd much prefer their contract, deed, variance, or what-not. And they want it fast and cheap. A jarring transition, for many new lawyers.

Finally, the people attracted to law school tend to be bright, creative, and socially (and ideologically) active. Although these skills eventually play a role in law practice (or professions from which practice is the jumping board), they can be as much a hindrance as a benefit when first getting started.

Amazed at this odd process, I started writing a book about surviving the first few years of law practice. After a few years of drafts, and with comments and suggestions from many other lawyers, The Young Lawyer's Jungle Book: A Survival Guide was published. These guest columns for Find Satisfaction in the Law draw from, and in many cases are extensions of, subjects discussed in the book and in various internet discussions.

In short, it is well within your grasp to enjoy your work -- to find satisfaction in the law. The first step, as in finding satisfaction elsewhere, is to figure out what it is you want, and what it is you're best at. (Note that those two keys are strongly correlated.) From there -- with an eye towards a goal of your own making -- the technical demands of acclimating yourself to the law and fulfilling your professional duties are attainable -- and more likely. Just realize that law is not an a la carte career; it demands your full attention.

Courtesy of Thane Messinger.