Sunday, August 28, 2011

What Do College Students Really Want - And Can They Get It From Law School - Part 4

In Part 1 of this series, we discussed how most college students really deep down want a personal balance of four things - 1) Money, 2) Job Security, 3) Appealing Job, and 4) Free Time.  But can working as a lawyer really provide these things?  In Part 2, we took a look at the Money factor and determined that it was unlikely that working as a lawyer would be able to provide the amount of money that most law students expect at this time.  In Part 3, we took a look at the Job Security factor and determined that a job as a lawyer is not very secure.  In this post, let's take a look at the Appealing Job factor.


Of all the factors, the Appealing Job factor probably varies the most from person-to-person.  There are some generally accepted principles of what may make one job more appealing than another, but much of a job's appeal is based on the personal characteristics of the person making the choice - which can vary widely.

We specifically talk about Money, Job Security, and Free Time in other posts, so I will try not to talk about them much here.  Obviously they can influence the appeal of the job, but let's look at some other factors.

Here are a list of elements that most people would generally agree make a job more appealing - not counting money, job security, and free time.  It's not a complete list, but it's what comes to mind right now based on my conversations with people about their expectations of law practice.
  • Not hard physical labor - indoors with air conditioning 
  • People respect you for what you do
  • You get psychological reward from your work - help someone/make a difference
  • Not a lot of pressure
  • People you work with care about you - Good working environment - Ability to have social interactions with coworkers 
  • Ability to explore topics that interest you
Now let's take a look at the factors.  In law, assuming you can get a job, you will usually be working indoors with air conditioning.  That's usually much preferred by people going into the field and is very nice on hot or cold days.  Of course, after about 10 years, you might appreciate a job that lets you get up and move around a little more, but overall it is a plus.

With regard to people respecting you for what you do, if you make it to judge then you pretty much get respect.  Other than that, there is typically a very limited field of people who will respect you for what you do.  The majority of people tell a lot of lawyer jokes - and usually mean them pretty seriously.  They "already know all about you lawyers and how you are."  If you are a regular commercial lawyer, pretty much the only people who respect you are your clients - and maybe some other lawyers.  If you are a prosecutor, some "tough on crime" people will certainly respect you, but many others may not.  Conversely, if you are a public defender, some of your clients may respect you, but the court and the prosecutors usually wish you didn't exist.

This is in contrast to several other careers that you might be considering.  For one, doctors get more respect.  From talking with my doctor friends, their clients also seem a lot more thankful.  Another career that gets more respect is that of a teacher - and they work a LOT less than most lawyers.  Also, how about a police officer?  More people will respect them for "putting their lives on the line" - although when the workplace death rate and the suicide rate are combined, lawyer is a more deadly career than police officer.

With regard to helping someone or making a difference, the opportunities for most practicing lawyers are few and far between. It's nice to see a building that you did the legal work for get built or a product you helped bring to market appear on the shelves. However, if you aren't focusing on studying criminology theory or representing individuals fighting injustice this sensation can often be missing. For most non-criminal law, non-family law lawyers, there's not a lot of human element involved - and consequently not a lot of the "I feel good because I helped a human" feeling. Of course, from what my colleagues in the criminal area tell me, that's actually a good thing. The sheer amount of pain, recidivism, and hopelessness that people I know in criminal law are exposed to daily is just staggering. They often feel like they are locked into a system and powerless to make any real change.


Of course, there are a couple of areas that seem more psychologically rewarding - immigration law seems to be one - and I am sure that there are a few others.  Note that in immigration law, there is the opportunity to really make a fundamental difference by getting someone citizenship - and the people sometimes seem to thank the immigration lawyer for their later success.  It's a positive event in their lives rather than (for example) some criminal trouble that they want to forget.  Also, considering other careers, you may feel that you are better able to make a difference for someone by being a teacher or a doctor, for example.

With regard to pressure, nobody wants to be pressured.  Even an enjoyable experience can be ruined by pressure.  Don't believe me?  Think about eating the best meal you ever had - now think about a coach yelling at you while you are eating that you have to "Eat faster!" "You are way behind!"  "You have 5 minutes to finish and then we are taking away the plates!".  Your enjoyment of the meal would probably be impaired.

Needless to say, there is a LOT of pressure in law.  It's going to vary with your specific situation, but it's probably one of the highest-pressure professions around.  I have yet to meet a potential law student whose fantasies of what the practice of law will be like actually included any realistic element of the amount of pressure that will be placed on them.

With regard to people that you work with caring about you, some firms make a real effort to try to stay human.  It's really not very easy to do with the time pressure and the fact that most lawyers really work on projects by themselves - and social time, time spent caring about other people at work, is non-billable.   Also, lots of lawyers are pretty standoffish and individualistic by nature.

Also, (and I see this one often hit women especially hard) in a regular business where people clock in and out, talking to a co-worker might help you get through the day.  You work a little, talk with co-workers when you need a break or some psychological reinforcement, and then get to leave at 5pm having put in "a full work day".  Conversely, in law, every minute that you spend talking with the co-worker is a minute that you will have to stay later doing work.  Thus, there is a massive disincentive to talk with others.  Also, it's pretty reasonable for people to get pissed at you if you are using up their time - you are actually making them stay at work later.  It's one reason why "mentoring" is so hard.  It's also why firms are often seen as very cold.   Time also becomes a precious commodity - and some can view uncompensated time spent mentoring or talking to co-workers as taking away time spent with family.

The bottom line is that they want to care - and they do - but with the incentive model set up the way it is, they have to express their care in a different way from what people might expect - especially because people may be familiar with how care is expressed in situations where time is not a limiting factor.  Unfortunately, there is often a great mismatch between how people would prefer that others demonstrate that they care and how lawyers and law firms are able to do so.

With regard to being able to explore topics that interest you, the time pressure can also be limiting.  Even assuming that you are lucky enough to work in an area that interests you, after several years of practicing in that area you pretty much know all about it.  If you want to learn a new area, but it's not client work, then it is on your own time.  I'll contrast this with Google, which has its employees set aside their day-to-day work every Friday and explore something new.

So you can see that for most of the Appealing Job elements that people commonly identify, practicing as a lawyer is not really that great a fit.

Of course, depending on your specific personality, there are aspects of practicing law that can indulge you/provide you with psychological rewards quite well.  These may include:
  • You like power/control
  • You like conflict
  • You enjoy being angry
With regard to power/control, some lawyers really enjoy it, and some areas of law give you the opportunity to really indulge it.  For example, I have met prosecutors (although not all prosecutors) who really get a psychological reward by exercising their power to put people in prison.  This can be more psychologically rewarding to them than even being a police officer, for example, because there is typically even less review of the actions of the prosecutor.  Additionally, review of your decisions as a judge may be only under an "abuse of discretion" standard, so you have a LOT of free reign.

Really enjoying conflict can make for a very bad person to be friends with, but can make for an effective lawyer.  Instead of being run down by the constant conflict like most people, the conflict may energize them.  People that are always looking for a fight can be effective in some areas of law - and if you are looking for a fight in law, you are going to find one.

Similarly, some people seem to enjoy rage.  Some seem to only feel in control when they are angry.  With some, it feeds into enjoying conflict.  They are angry so that they can make you angry so that you will be in a conflict, which they will enjoy.  Of course, there aren't too many careers that will pay you to write angry letters to someone.  Similarly, there aren't too many careers where, if your anger causes the problem to get bigger, the client might end up paying you more.  Further, clients sometimes like to see their lawyer angry - it justifies their own sense of outrage and gives them the belief that the lawyer will be more aggressive on their behalf.  Of course, even if the lawyer is more aggressive, it may not actually be to the long-term benefit of the client.

OK, I don't want to paint too grim a picture, but when a potential lawyer is trying to balance the four factors of 1) Money, 2) Job Security, 3) Appealing Job, and 4) Free Time, it should be recognized that Appealing Job is probably going to be one of the more negative factors that will need to be balanced out.  Taken as a whole, with regard to the psychological reward factors outlined above, the practice of law is usually considerably less on the Appealing Job scale than the average college graduate office work for an average company.

Unfortunately, most potential lawyers rate "lawyer" as higher than average on Job Appeal.  They typically fantasize that they will have the same level of psychological assistance and care from co-workers - as well as free time - that they would have if they were working in an office job, and they will have the added "respect" of the title of "lawyer".  However, that's just not an accurate representation of the environment.

Now, I'm not saying that no one should even be a lawyer, but with regard to the Job Appeal factor, potential lawyers should recognize that it is kind of like having to work at a sewer waste processing plant.  It's not a plus, and they should have to pay you more to compensate for it.  It's not like working for some charities where you get constantly thanked and substantial psychological rewards - which makes up for the lower pay.

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