My daughter is thinking about becoming a lawyer. How supportive I am of that plan probably depends somewhat on the kind of a day I’m having, but I have tried to be honest with her about the pros and the cons of a career in the legal field.
There is no question that pursuing a law degree requires a major commitment in terms of both time and money. Law school is a graduate degree, so plan on an additional three years of education to finance after graduating from college. And while some lawyers do very well financially, the popular perception of lawyers all being wealthy is not terribly accurate. New associates at smaller firms and those beginning attorneys entering the public sector probably make less than you think, and their standard of living is often reduced further by their massive student loans. No one should become a lawyer in hopes of getting rich.
The profession also has some disturbing statistics when it comes to health. Attorneys are several times more likely to suffer from depression, experience substance abuse, or commit suicide than the general public. The work is stressful, the hours are long, and the cumulative effects of living that lifestyle can take a toll. Our own state supreme court has a current initiative to improve lawyer wellness, in recognition of this problem. Personally, I have lost a lot of sleep over the years, worrying about cases and clients as a lawyer, and the decisions I have to make as a judge. The practice of law is almost never an easy job.
So in light of all that, why would someone want to be a lawyer? For most of us, notwithstanding the stereotype of lawyers as the bad guy, the short answer is to help people. A law degree allows you to help a client navigate an unfamiliar system, enforce their rights, or seek redress for some sort of harm. Although courtroom trials get most of the attention, some of the most rewarding work for lawyers happens in their office, when they are able to answer a client’s questions or get a positive result without ever setting foot in the courthouse. The role of counselor is just as important as that of advocate.
Most of us find the work to be very interesting. We are constantly learning about new things as we apply the law to different situations. During my time in the county attorney’s office advising the sheriff and his staff, I learned a great deal about law enforcement training and tactics. Several prosecutors and public defenders who appear in front of me are extremely knowledgeable about DNA and other forensic science subjects. The law itself is constantly changing, forcing all of us to stay current on the latest trends. And sometimes, especially for those who do trial work, the job can be downright exciting. Giving a closing argument in a difficult jury trial is an adrenaline rush like few others.
I don’t know if my daughter will ultimately decide to follow in her old man’s footsteps, but if she does, I’m confident she knows what she’s getting herself into.