A Day in the Life of a Attorney

Lawyers counsel their clients on matters pertaining to the law. Law can be intellectually fascinating, and many take great satisfaction in the daily challenges. Detail mavens and big-picture thinkers alike find a friendly home in the loose definition of attorney. But not all were as gushing as this respondent: “You are paid to provide expert counsel to someone in a specific area of expertise, where usually the answers aren’t black and white. This pushes you and makes you think harder than you ever have before. It’s the last job you’ll ever want.” The last is an overstatement; over 30 percent of those who receive law degrees are not practicing law (regularly) ten years after graduation. It is impossible to mention attorneys without mentioning the public perception of attorneys. One attorney reminds us of the joke: “What’s the difference between a run-over snake and a run-over attorney? There are skid marks in front of the snake.” Attorneys are blamed for a variety of social ills, from the litigious nature of our society, to hindering new inventions from reaching the marketplace, to getting guilty people set free due to technicalities or sloppy police work. While these labels speak to the excesses within the profession, many people apply them to the profession as a whole. “It’s hard to work fourteen-hour days researching a case when you know that even your client thinks you’re a bloodsucker,” wrote a New York attorney. The work is hard. Attorneys can work eighteen-hour days and spend up to 3,000 hours per year on cases. “On some level you have to like what you do, because you’re doing it all day long,” mentioned one attorney. Many lawyers are subordinate to senior associates and partners for the majority of their careers. Attorneys usually work at a number of firms before finding a position perfectly suited to them. Many spend their first few years finding out if they want to focus on transactional work (corporate law or real estate law) or litigation (criminal or civil cases). Some specialized lawyers have restricted areas of responsibility. For example, district attorneys prosecute accused criminals and probate lawyers plan and settle estates. The quality of life is low during the early-to-mid-years, but many find the financial rewards too enticing to abandon. Those considering entering this field should have solid work habits, a curious mind, and the ability to work with, and for, others.

Paying Your Dues

Attorneys must have a law degree from an institution accredited by the American Bar Association. Many find that undergraduate majors with heavy reading and writing loads, such as history, English, philosophy, and logic, prepare them well for law school. In addition, students must take the Law School Admissions Test. Application to the 175 accredited U.S. law schools is competitive. In law school, students first take general courses, which include such classes as torts, contracts, constitutional law, property, and trusts and estates. They then move on to specialized study in an area of expertise. Law students spend their summers working for potential employers, finding out what the working attorney’s life is like and discovering whether or not they want to work in a particular area. Before an attorney can practice in a given state, he must pass a state bar exam, a two-day written examination that tests the prospective attorney’s knowledge of the specific laws of that state. Following passage of the written part of the test, many states require “character and fitness” oral examinations to test the ability of a person to practice law in a given state.

Present and Future

The field of law has a long and storied history. The Sumerians wrote Hammurabi’s Code, the first written laws of mankind. Ancient Greek civilization trained youths in logical thinking and rhetorical skills, a key part of legal training. The English under Henry II developed a system of common law, matching offenses with standard penalties. America operates under the general guidelines of statutory law, in which elected lawmakers enact statutes which can be reviewed by the judiciary. The number of lawyers grew exponentially in the 1980s when commercial activity was at a peak. When the economy slowed down, so did the need for attorneys. But people will always need attorneys to represent them, and the profession should remain the stable, lucrative field it is today.

Quality of Life

PRESENT AND FUTURE

Second-year attorneys work grueling hours, but they use their paychecks to buoy their spirits. Those who work in the field of public interest law and those who clerk for judges often find they work as hard, but they don’t get the paycheck to show for it. However, their positions are prestigious and the experience they gain makes them all the more valuable if they choose to re-enter the job market.

FIVE YEARS OUT

Many find it difficult to switch specializations beyond this point. Career paths diverge for those pursuing partner-track opportunities at large firms and those who choose to dedicate time to other aspects of their life. Partner-track associates can work thousands of hours a year, spending most of their time in the office. A number of attorneys pursue work at smaller firms or as in-house counsel at corporations, where the chances of advancement are greater and the hours are more palatable. Salary, however, declines for those who choose this work.

TEN YEARS OUT

Those who have survived ten years as attorneys have accrued valuable knowledge in their area of specialization and have established reputations. Attorneys pursuing partnership at a sizable firm try to recruit new business to prove that they can be valuable assets not just as attorneys, but as “rainmakers,” who bring in business. Those who are passed up for partnership either migrate to smaller firms or take positions with corporate firms that need in-house counsel. Hours may have declined somewhat.