Being a Lawyer.

Being a Lawyer: What is it like to practice law?

If asked, most attorneys would probably tell you that being an attorney is challenging.  It is challenging taking the LSAT and applying to law school, it is challenging getting through law school, it is challenging passing the bar exam, and it is challenging practicing law. 

This article focuses on working at the various types of law firms.  (Take note that outside of working at a law firm a lawyer may work at a nonprofit company or work for the government.)

Working at a law firm.

Lawyers who practice law at large law firms have high-stress jobs where advancement and success is dependent upon; i) the amount of billable hours they put in at the firm, and ii) whether they can bring new clients into the firm. Large law firms generally put a much higher priority on the “bottom line” compared to medium and smaller law firms.  You should consider being a lawyer at a large law firm if you; i) want a large salary, ii) are willing to work long hours and can attract clients to your law firm.

Most law firms today (either large or small) are structured as “equity partnerships,” which means that the top partners in the law firm share the net profits of the firm. Below the equity partners are “junior partners,” who are paid a yearly salary but must prove themselves and must wait years to become equity partners. The “associates” at law firms rank below junior partners and are paid a yearly salary and must generate a certain amount of billable hours at the firm each year. Every hour that an attorney works has to be billed to a law firm client at an hourly rate determined by the law firm. The revenue generated from an attorney’s billed hours is what makes a profit for their law firm.

Medium and smaller law firms obviously also care about the profit you bring in as an employee of the firm, however the quality of life is generally a lot higher.  Thus, your minimum billable hours will be less, and the culture of the firm may be less intense.  But all law firms are different in terms of their requirements, lifestyle and firm culture. 

Most attorneys at law firms work an average of 60 hours per week, while most professionals in other careers work only 40 hours per week.  But then again, with experience even lawyers are medium to smaller firms can easily make six figure salaries, depending on their geographic market (major law hubs, New York, LA, Chicago, Atlanta) and still have an active social life outside of the firm.

Will working at a law firm be profitable for me?

The largest law firms in most major cities are generally very profitable. Most of these firms generate large profits by representing the nation’s largest corporations, banks and Wall Street stock brokerage companies. If you think you could be both an excellent attorney and help your law firm generate business through sales and marketing skills, you should consider being an attorney. Most law firms require that their associates have well-developed client development skills (this is known as “rainmaking” in the legal profession).

Do I have to have certain skills to be an attorney?

If you have great skills with computers, modern technology, reading, writing, and generally have high academic abilities, you should consider being a lawyer. The reason is that even though there are many different subsets and niches of law, all lawyers conduct activities that are reading and writing based.  Thus, to be happy being a lawyer you should enjoy doing these types of activities.

Will I enjoy the work as an attorney?

New attorneys at small law firms generally are trained by being given small responsibility at first, then getting more responsibility as they become more skilled in legal matters. If you think you would like an entry-level job at a small law firm where you would take responsibility for relatively small projects, you should consider being a lawyer. New attorneys at large law firms may gain experience early in a special area of the law and deal with more complicated legal problems. Thus, basically in terms of exposure to work, at a smaller firm you will be acquiring a more general knowledge of the law (because you will be working on many smaller and different legal matters) while at a larger firm you will be much more specialized (working only on one type of legal project).

Should I be an attorney and open my own law firm?

If you are very independent, want to be your own boss, and would like to start and control your own law practice, you should consider being a solo law practitioner. If you open your own firm, you will generally have to have many contacts early on that you can use to generate business. Most young attorneys who open their own solo law practices must rent office space from another attorney who has their own independent law firm. The attorneys usually agree to share office space but not to practice law together.

In the beginning, you will usually not specialize in any particular area of law, but will do mostly general legal work for your clients, such as drafting wills, handling personal injury cases, and dealing with real estate closings and mortgage work. Many times, you will meet with your clients in your office to update them on how their case is progressing. If you have good people skills and think you would be able to work with a small legal staff to get the best results for your clients, you might consider being a solo practitioner. Many new attorneys choose to hire a legal secretary and paralegal to help with handling client contact and doing legal research and writing.

Conclusion: Being an Attorney.

In conclusion, there are many different kinds of lawyers who work for different types of employers; nonprofit companies, the government, large law firms, small and medium law firms.  Generally speaking, if you work for a larger law firm you will work on more specialized matters, receive a higher salary, but will work longer hours.  If you start working at a smaller firm, you will work on more general matters, have a higher quality of life, and receive a lower salary.  However, after several years of experience it is not uncommon for any lawyer (in a major metropolitan area) to earn a six figure salary.

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