Thursday, August 29, 2013

One lawyer's confession of hating his profession

One of my colleagues said to me a few weeks ago, "being a lawyer is the biggest scam I know." While he was being facetious, to an extent, it really resonated with me. I have never really discussed my profession or job on this blog or elsewhere online, as I like to talk about raunchy, disgusting, religious and political issues that I don't want falling back onto my professional life. All of my social media sites use an alias instead of my real name. Of course, I know it wouldn't take a lot of internet sleuthing to attach my writings to my true identity, but like locking your car door, it's at least a basic level of protection.

However, I do want to take the time to talk about being a lawyer, especially as a fresh crop of unsuspecting students begin law school this month. No one will be honest with you about the realities of the profession before you join, and after you become barred (admitted, for the layman), then no one will dare discuss for fear of admitting weakness or failure. While everyone's experience in law will vary, I can say that for me, this kindhearted bloke typing these words for your eye sockets, a decade after I first stepped foot into law school, I can't help but thinking it was the biggest mistake I made in my life.

While I am not the best in my profession, I am certainly not the worst. I have practiced in state and municipal Courts, argued and settled numerous cases, and even got myself an award this year for my work. I am a member of professional bar associations and an Inn of Court. I have taught continuing legal education classes to other attorneys (and even a Judge). Despite this success, I see it all as a failure.

I hate the job. There are a number of reasons why, but we'll start with the one no one seems willing to discuss - the profession is draining. As that same colleague of mine also said, as an attorney, you can be under attack from your clients, your adversaries, Judges, or Court staff, sometimes all at once. Not only are clients typically upset about their legal problems (as well they should be), but they take out their aggression on their legal counsel. Many clients rarely listen to advice, and often clients cannot (or will not) pay their bills timely. It would be like going to the doctor, then arguing with your physician over how to treat your ailment, and then refusing to pay her for her services. Oh, and by the way, any single mistake could jeopardize your client's case and leave you the subject of a malpractice claim, or worse, an ethics complaint (both of which are taken very seriously and which I, thankfully, have no first hand experience thus far).

Amusingly, I have achieved fantastic results for clients who have turned around and been vitriolic towards me over the experience. Sometimes they don't appreciate what has happened, or they wanted more, or they wanted some unrealistic result, or they wanted it for free. It doesn't matter how many times and in how many ways you explain things to clients, they won't listen. Even the good ones, who sit in front of you and cry because they face eviction or losing their child or losing their freedom, drain you. I have had to sit in my office and absorb the emotional stress and angst of thousands of people.

This perhaps explains why the rate of drug dependence and suicide is so high in the profession. According to the Benchmark Institute, "10% of the adult population is alcoholic. [...] Studies conducted in numerous jurisdictions have pegged the rate of alcoholism in the legal profession at between 15% and 24%. Roughly 1 in 5 lawyers is addicted to alcohol." Philip Thomas articulates very well why the profession is horrible in an article discussing a rash of attorney suicides in Kentucky this summer.

While the practice is bad enough as it is, we (meaning attorneys) treat each other poorly. Not all of us. I try to be courteous to everyone, so I will rarely be curt or rude with a fellow lawyer, or anyone, for that matter. However, to be frank, the best attorneys are assholes, because the practice is saturated with antagonism, the playground of the professional asshole. People who are consensus builders, or thoughtful, or simply do not thrive on aggression and confrontation, have a hard time dealing with the law environment. In my experience, the attorneys who achieve the best results for their clients are the ones who can find a resolution without going to trial. It saves the client time and money, and the Courts in my state are specifically structured to encourage settlement, going so far as to have numerous mandatory settlement conferences, panels, mediation, etc., depending on the type of case. Yet, the profession is at such a point where bullies and jerks thrive, and there is a real economic incentive to drag out litigation. Despite knowing some wonderful people who practice, I can say at its heart that the practice of law is a horrible profession built by horrible people.

Then, of course, if a case can't settle, there is the tremendous pressure of rolling the dice and arguing in front of a Judge or jury. I respect and enjoy most of the Judges I appear in front of, and many of them like me on a personal level. However, they are overworked with huge caseloads. Americans may complain about lawyers and the justice system, but they're the ones clogging the Courts with countless cases. Judges are human, and they sometimes make mistakes, lose their cool, or become miserable like everyone else. Judges have a lot of power, not only over the litigants but over the attorneys as well. They can make life problematic, intentionally or not, but, as I said, I tend to like the Judges I deal with, so that's a small positive in a sea of negatives.

All of the above would not be so bad if I earned a salary that made it worth it. I went to a reasonably priced law school with a good name, paid in-state tuition, and still have a huge student loan. The principle never seems to go down, and as you probably know, you cannot get rid of student loans in bankruptcy. The American Bar Association warned students back in 2010 not to go to law school, as the tuition was (and still is) increasing far beyond the rate of inflation, and yet the job market is drying up. It's easier for someone like me, with experience, to get a job over some law school graduate because law schools teach you maybe, MAYBE, 3-5% of anything you actually use when you practice.

Anyway, back to the salary complaint. So, I have all of this debt, like all of my fellow colleagues, and yet I make a very poor salary. There are countless articles online explaining how great lawyer salaries are, especially in big law jobs. First, those high paying jobs are the province of the miserable. They also drive the average up. A skillful glance at salary listings on websites (or even job postings on Craigslist) show the average salary for attorneys in the Philadelphia area to be between $35,000 to $70,000. Personally, I have never earned more than $50,000 as an attorney. While that may sound like a lot to some people, keep in mind I could be earning that same salary without the stress and the debt. In fact, I have seriously looked into getting a job at Trader Joe's, a grocery store chain, just so I could earn more money.

Not all attorneys make crappy salaries. I know some very successful attorneys, including a handful of millionaires, but they are the exception. According to this article, "the average starting salary for law school graduates declined from $72,000 in 2009 to $60,000 for 2011," but that includes big law firm salaries of the low six digits, which prop those numbers up. Regular law firm salaries are "between $40,000 and $60,000," which was the historic range - those numbers are decreasing.

Most of my clients, including clients with only high school diplomas, make more than I do. Yet, I still have the same bills as everyone else, and, oh yeah, that giant student loan debt that will follow me to my grave. Had I taken my undergraduate degree and just started working, I would likely be earning a comparable, or more likely better, salary than I am now, minus the mountains of stress, debt, and contentiousness that exists in my current profession.

Many attorneys agree with my sentiments, even if they haven't read them, because they are living through the same thing. I know I am not alone. One attorney I know took a pay cut from her already crappy salary to go work for the state, because she could no longer stand private practice. A few months before she made that move, we had lunch, and expressed our dissatisfaction to each other without actually coming out and saying that we hated our jobs. That's a shame. I don't think I will keep quiet about it anymore.

I am usually not one to share my personal problems in a public forum, but it is my nature to try and help people. It's why I wanted to become an attorney in the first place, the fool that I am. If you are a person considering law school and you happened to find this blog, take my advice - find something better to do with yourself. Unless, of course, you are an asshole, in which case, your people are waiting.

(the above handsome fellow is not me)


Gorilla Bananas said...

A fascinating post, to be bookmarked along with your one about divorce. Do you think inquisitorial legal systems might work better that the adversarial systems practised in English-speaking countries? If the judge plays a more active role, there might be less scope for confrontational lawyers to sour the atmosphere.

ChrisV82 said...

I think in our society ("our society" meaning Euro-centric), people feel the need to air their grievances to any receptive audience, in part constantly seeking a parental figure and also in part because they probably never had a parental figure show them how to properly deal with their problems. So, while there could be a system to reduce attorneys, I don't know if you could ever reduce people's need to fight.

Sometimes I think if the law makers allowed attorneys to have the authority to settle cases without client consent, the justice system would move much more smoothly. Not sure anyone would sign up for that, of course.