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From the Introduction:
So you want to be a lawyer.
Are you sure?
It's no idle question, given the impact choosing law will have on your life. Before walking away from three years of income (and head-on into a $100,000-plus commitment), you'd better figure out whether the reality of legal practice jibes with your vision of what your day-to-day experience will be. Many applicants, attracted by eye-popping salaries and the drama of shows such as Law and Order, are "woefully uninformed about what the practice of law is like," says Deborah Post, a professor at Touro College's law school in Huntington, New York, and former co-chair of the committee on admissions for the Society of American Law Teachers. Much too often, they "stumble into the law because they don't know how to find a job," says Michael Young, former dean of the George Washington University Law School inWashington, D.C., and now president of the University of Utah. "If you love it, you'll have a great life. But do you really want to spend 10 to 14 hours a day thinking about the stuff of law? If not, it might be an acceptable living, but you won't necessarily be happy."
Indeed, several studies suggest that attorneys are among the least happy people. A 1990 analysis of data on 104 different occupations by researchers at Johns Hopkins University, for example, found that lawyers were 3.6 times as likely as the general working population to suffer from major depression. University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman, in his book Authentic Happiness, suggests three reasons: Attorneys are primed to constantly anticipate "every conceivable snare and catastrophe that might occur in any transaction"; young lawyers, in particular, often hold high-pressure jobs in which they have little voice or power to make decisions; and these days lawyering often seems more about making money and crushing opponents than offering wise counsel and finding justice.
"There's been a huge change over the last 20 years," says David Stern, an attorney and CEO of Equal Justice Works, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group that promotes public interest law. "It's no longer a profession-it's a business. The number one priority is profits per partner."
That's undoubtedly a major reason for the incessant lawyer jokes you'll put up with. A 2002 survey conducted for the American Bar Association found that about 70 percent of Americans think of lawyers as "greedy and manipulative," and only 19 percent have confidence in them. (Full disclosure: Of the 10 professions and institutions covered in the survey, only the media inspire less confidence.)
Obviously, these conditions don't define every lawyer's job, and some attorneys thrive on the intrigue and competition. Moreover, graduates whose motivation is a strong commitment to social justice have plenty of opportunities to find work in public service, perhaps with the government, or maybe (more lucratively) through pro bono work for a law firm. The point is simply that you need to make this choice with both eyes open.
Those who do end up with a fancy paycheck-the median first-year salary at large firms is now $160,000 plus bonuses-are apt to work into the wee hours, researching case law and statutes, and then drafting memos for the partners (who are doing the interesting work).
Partnership, the carrot dangled seven or eight years down the line that confers a share of the firm (and even more money), comes less easily than it once did, as the ranks of young associates have swelled and as firms have created alternative salaried partnership tracks. According to John Heinz and Robert Nelson, Northwestern professors who have studied the changing career paths of Chicago attorneys for the American Bar Foundation, only 16 percent of lawyers surveyed in 1995 who had started out at a large law firm had made full partner at the firm and stayed, compared with 35 percent in 1975, for example.
And the fact is that many lawyers end up in small or solo practices, making ends meet by taking on debt collections work or acting as public defenders. When the time comes, students who had planned a career in public interest law often find they can't pay off their debts and buy groceries on a $40,000-a-year salary-and so they end up at a big firm after all.
How can you tell if you're among those who truly belong in law school-whether the "stuff of the law," in Young's words, really "lights you up"? He advises prospective attorneys to first expose themselves to legal ideas, if not by taking an undergraduate course in law, then by talking to lawyers and following newspaper coverage of legislation and the courts. Can't make it to the end of a New York Times article about a Supreme Court decision without yawning? Take that as a sign.