The Life of a Lawyer: Myth vs. Reality

Most people have some kind of image that comes to mind when they hear the word, “lawyer.” They may think of Atticus Finch, the earnest, hardworking country lawyer in To Kill a Mockingbird. They may think of Perry Mason, the hard-charging defense attorney on TV who seemed uniquely gifted with the ability to force the real culprit to break down under cross-examination. Younger folks may tend to conjure images of someone from the cast of CSI or Law and Order.

The main thing that all these idealized visions of an attorney’s life have in common is that they are largely wrong. Oh, certainly, most lawyers I know are dedicated to upholding their clients’ interests and will spare no effort to make sure that they obtain the best outcome allowed by the applicable law. But the other truth is that the vast majority of lawyers spend most of their time in pursuits that would appear decidedly unglamorous to the outside viewer.

For example, most people assume that the practice of law is a yellow-brick road leading to sure financial success and happiness. Now, I can’t complain on that score; I worked for some of the finest firms and one of the biggest corporations in America, and I was well compensated. But the preponderance of my erstwhile colleagues in the legal profession work in small- to medium-size firms that employ a tenth or less of the number of attorneys who work in the mega-firms, where the really big money is. And by the way, according to a recent survey by the American Bar Association, those attorneys working for the big firms and making the big bucks also report the lowest levels of job satisfaction. Want to know which group of lawyers reports the highest level of job satisfaction? Those who work in the public sector—which typically pays the least of any area in the legal profession.

Another popular misconception is that if you are good at winning arguments, you would probably be a good lawyer. Well, it’s true that we “argue” cases in court, and the litigation process is by nature adversarial, but most of what makes a lawyer successful in court is the ability to build a logical discussion that non-legal, often relatively uneducated hearers—especially jurors—can understand. Your job in court is not to win an argument; your job is to present the facts and the pertinent law in a way that best benefits your client. The bottom line is that excellent speaking and written communication skills are more important than being good at verbal fisticuffs.

The last lawyer myth I’ll mention here is the notion that lawyers lead lives of constant intrigue and glamour. Trust me, there is nothing glamorous or intriguing about reading pages and pages of legal pleadings, or poring through discovery requests to determine which must be answered and which can be denied or amended to benefit the client. And yet, such tedious review is how lawyers spend a majority of their days, especially if they are junior partners—the ones usually relegated to such legal “grunt work.”

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