How Your Career Affects Your Happiness (or: Are There Any Happy Lawyers?)

Rainbow Valley, originally uploaded to Flickr by rwangsa.Reader C wonders who the happy lawyers are… but I think this leads us to a bigger question that will hopefully make for an interesting discussion: how do you view your career in your general quest for happiness?

Hi Kat, I have a question for you and your incredible readers. I am an undergrad applying to law schools now for next fall and I do recognize the oft-quoted “realities” (from friends of family, professors, etc) of being a lawyer- mountains of dense reading, long (sometimes extremely so) hours, getting stuck in a job you hate just to pay of the $200k of student loans your education cost you. I sort of stumbled onto the idea of law, I wasn’t one of those who dreamed my whole life of putting away the bad guys or anything; I randomly found it through a class but I have never been more in love with a subject. I am an avid Corporette reader, but the things I read in the comments section of many posts terrify me and leave me to ask, rather desperately: Is anyone happy being a lawyer? I know everyone is different, had a different idea of “the dream lawyering job,” reacts differently to stress, etc. but if there is anyone out there who loves being a lawyer, it would be a huge comfort to hear about it!

First off: apologies to the non-lawyer/JD students among Corporette readers; hopefully our discussion will take us to greater truths about happiness and your career.  That said… reader C’s question is a great, great question, and I think the readers will give far better answers than I will considering that I never really found my happy sweet spot in the law, personally. Something I’ve heard often, and agree with wholeheartedly, is that there are two kinds of people: those who enjoy law school, and those who enjoy the practice of law. I am totally in the first camp of people — I loved law school, which I found to be filled with ethereal questions that you can ponder at your leisure and come to your own conclusion. There are clear paths to “success,” and good work is tangibly rewarded with grades and other honors. (Pictured: Rainbow Valley, originally uploaded to Flickr by rwangsa.)

On the other hand, I found the practice of law (and to be clear, my experience is mostly limited to BigLaw litigation) to be better suited for people who loved debate — you’re not picking the “right” answer for yourself, but arguing whatever’s best for your client. The practice of law involves both customer service (and in BigLaw they expect you to be always responsive) and, the higher you climb up the ladder, sales — in that you’re expected to wine and dine new clients to bring to the firm. There are not many tangible rewards for good work, at least in Big Law — everyone is paid the same, and whether you win or lose a case often has very little to do with the level of effort on your part. The drudgery quotient is also high, at least at the beginning — lots of doc review and case-hunting (where partner says, “I need a case that says the sky is blue — go find it.”).  There’s also often an element of “you must learn your client’s industry and business inside out so you can understand the documents you’re preparing or the arguments you’re making.”  All of this isn’t a bad thing, per se, but when you hear about the high number of unhappy lawyers I think it’s often because people went into it thinking they “like to write” or “loved thinking about legal questions” and find themselves in a customer service and sales position.

That said — there are LOTS of happy lawyers, and many of them read this blog. In reader surveys, people consistently say that they’re happy with their work on an intellectual, monetary, and lifestyle basis. I’ve noticed more than a few comment threads where people talk about their love for their job, and some of the older readers even noted that they had to switch jobs numerous times or that they had to work for 15 years before they found their happy place.  (Way to be persistent, ladies!)

The other thing to mention (especially to a college student) is that I’m not sure I put stock in the idea that your job is going to be your ultimate source of happiness and fulfillment — after all, they do pay you do to it.  I think it’s better viewed as primarily a source of income (and possibly accolades) and certain types of happiness, such as the society you keep at work as well as the intellectual stimulation the work provides to you, weighed against the stress inherent with the job and the time your job takes you away from other things.

So let’s talk about this.  Readers: If you’re in law, are you happy?  For those readers who’ve been lawyers for more than 5 years — what facets of the job do you enjoy the most?  In general, ladies, how do you balance the “work” nature of work with this broader idea that we want to be happy and fulfilled most of our waking hours?


  1. 1L here. I’m ambitious, driven and eager to have a successful career – and also deal with depression and anxiety. Would love to hear the responses to this thread, it’s incredibly timely around finals.

  2. Lil' lawyer :

    I just started my second year of practice. I am not paid as much as I would like to be but I cannot complain because I really like what I do. Plus there has not really been an opportunity for raises yet – reviews are in January. I was started at a low salary to “see if I worked out” and I am told things are going great.

    I have frustrating days from time to time. But overall, I love my job. I love winning. I love the type of law that I do. I love my firm and almost everyone in it. I am in a 10 lawyer firm that practices a niche field. I love most of my clients. I get the support I need. That being said I have not had a life this past year. But I have been following a much needed exercise program.

    My only worry is that the second thing will affect the first. Will I ever leave a job where I am happy for more money? Hopefully I will not have to address it. For now, just trying to do it without the training wheels.

  3. Anon Attorney :

    My philosophy on work is that you can have 2 of 3 of the following in a job: (1) top pay, (2) responsibility/interesting work, and (3) flexibility. There really are not a lot of jobs where you find all 3. Big law will offer you (1) and (2). Public interest law jobs may offer you (2) and (3). Think about what you want in life. I find that the lawyers who are most dissatisfied are those who want flexibility and more time for friends and family, but realize they have gone into a services/customer service profession where serving the client is top priority. Personally, I love doing top-of-the-market work for top-of-the-market clients. It is extremely challenging and rewarding. However, it doesn’t leave a lot of time for a personal life.

    • Finishing my first year of practice and this is so, so true. Also, another thing that is good for my happiness level is thinking about jobs I had before that were worse…customer service jobs that were stressful, low-paying, mind-numbingly boring, and hectic all at the same time. In this job I get paid an obscene amount of money, am constantly challenged and learning new things, get to exercise my brain, and am physically comfortable (I am still new enough that I really enjoy having my own office, my own window, not having to be on my feet all day). I try to think about these things when I’m having a moment where I lament the loss of number (3).

      Very interested to hear other responses, as I am just at the beginning of my career.

      • I do public interest law, and I agree that you can have 2 of the 3. I have 2 and 3. I occasionally wish I had more money, but not enough to do BigLaw. [I also have 3 children and no nanny, so I have two challenging lives].

        I have also heard it said that you can have 2 of the 3 1) great marriage 2) great relationship with kids 3) great career. I don’t know if others agree with that or not, but it has been true for me.

        • I also should note that I have very little debt, which makes it possible to do public interest. I had the choice between a very prestigious, expensive law school, and a lower-tier one with a full scholarship. I went with the scholarship, and that has made my life possible. If I had gone to the expensive school, my choices would be very different. So, think cheap!

    • I’m not a lawyer, but this is very good advice for just about any field.

    • I disagree (slightly) – I think it’s quite possible to have all three in a job, but DEFINITELY not right away and sometimes (usually?) not for many years. People who are stimulated and energized by their work usually perform better, become more valuable to their employer, get paid better, and are eventually – because they are so valuable – are able to have more control over their schedules. I think this is the holy grail situation, a virtuous cycle. There are so many points during the career path where you could derail and fall off this track (often through no fault of your own) that most people never get there, or don’t want to keep trying. But it is entirely possible – just not very easy.

      I think a more important takeaway for the OP is that you have to be patient. Our generation (or, the OP’s generation) is so trained to work work work for a specific goal, and life/careers are not like that. You may have to endure X years of crap before getting to the point where it all feels right (or close to right), and you may decide well before then that it isn’t worth it. But that is your decision. Just go in with eyes open.

      • anon atty :

        I agree with you. I have all of those things, though Ive been at it for a (little) while. Ive been practicing almost 9 years, the last 5 of which have been in BigLaw (the first 4 were gvt). I get paid very well and i usually like my work (of course there are good and bad days/weeks/months, but i have found that true in everything i have every done). And I now have flexibility. Admittedly, that is a relative term, given my status as a biglaw atty. Also admittedly, the the i like least about my job is the fact that i would like to see my kids/husband/have time for myself more often. But I do have a flexable schedule. I can work from home when i need to. I can take time off when i need to and i am actually working a “flex” schedule in which i am at 80% — though this too is a moving target.

        The thing that has helped me the most with it though is to learn (and this was very, very difficult) to enjoy/take advantage of the down time. When Im not busy, I leave, even if for a few days, because i know that soon enough, I will be extremely busy.

        The second thing that has really helped me is to understand that i cant be all things, all the time, to everyone. I cant do all of the extracircular work things right now, while my kids are little, so i pick just a few each year. I do a lot of pro bono, but that means i dont really have time to write articles. And this holds true for things at home as well. I might need to skip the gym on a weekend afternoon if i want a manicure b/c i cant fit both into my kids nap time and i would rather spend their time awake with them.

        I may be unusual though, because i loved law school, i loved clerking, and i love the practice of law. I often give myself a gut check and ask, if i wasnt doing this, what would i rather be doing. As long as the answer keeps being “i cant think of anything else id rather be doing” i know im doing the right thing.

      • I agree with this. I’m 10+ years out of law school, have always worked in biglaw doing work that I enjoy, and definitely put in years and years of a crazy work-focused day-and-night-and-weekend schedule. And, I really enjoyed most of it, because I was lucky enough to find a specialty practice that I find interesting and energizing (that’s the key – do you get all excited about reading the new developments? When comments come in from the other side can you barely wait to print them out?) and have always worked with really sharp colleagues whose work ethic, intelligence and acumen I respect immensely. And who can be fun to be around. Now that I’m more senior, I can delegate a lot more work and have more control over setting deadlines, so I have over the past couple of years been really enjoying that flexibility. Sure, sometimes things get crazy hectic for a bit, but it’s much easier to deal with these days. Law can be a great field (though honestly, the clients can be ridiculous in their demands), but I will say that out of my classmates and colleagues I’ve known over the years, a relatively small percentage really stuck it out through the years of toil and training.

        • Oh! And, I also think there’s something to Kat’s comment re law school vs. practice. I found law school classes to be mind-numbingly boring and painful. So much pontification. Hated it. And now, one of my favorite parts of practice is negotiation. I don’t love the client service demands, but I do like working directly with clients and giving them advice on how to handle issues.

          I do think Kat’s comments were a little litigation-focused though – in many areas of practice you do still have to find the “right” answer, not just argue a side, and IME you are rewarded for great work. Better reviews = higher bonuses, and after a certain point firms aren’t necessarily lockstep in base salary either, particularly after you reach partnership.

        • I found this USED to be more the case. I made good money (not top of the BIGLAW payscale, but just below market), had flexibility, and great experience. As we have gotten more busy, however, we have not yet hired more people. So have been doing 200 hours of billable/month plus a significant roster of nonbillable work. I am exhausted and worried about how much longer I can do this. I am just beginning my 8th year now.

      • I’m sure that it’s possible to have all three, and it’s something to hope for and strive for. But, at the same time, I think that a lot of people “expect” all 3, and then they see it as a negative when they don’t get them. It’s great if you get them, but most people should understand how unlikely it really is (at least, until they’re very senior).

    • This is a nice way to think about it, and I should really value the fact that I have quite a lot of 2 and 3 at my job (instead of being annoyed that academics are paid so little!).

  4. I was pretty miserable working at a firm, but recently moved in-house and love my job. Rather than spending countless hours writing endless research memos or drafting/arguing silly motions or dealing with awful partners and awful clients, I now primarily give “counsel” to my company, which I really enjoy.

    My advice to people who are thinking about going to law school is know what you want to get out of it. A lot of people go to law school just figuring they’ll be a corporate lawyer or a litigator, without knowing what that actually means. On the flip side, my friends who knew they wanted to be a criminal attorney or a some other really specific type of lawyer found happiness a lot sooner. The flip side of that, of course, were the tons of law students who wanted to save the world and do public interest law or environmental law, without fully realizing how hard it is to get those types of jobs or how hard it might be to pay off loans afterward.

    All of which is a long way of saying that if you are passionate about some type of specific legal career, do it. If you just want to go to law school because your parents/friends/mentors told you it would open a lot of doors and give you a good salary, or because you enjoy the philosophical legal debate (like Kat mentioned, which is rarely a part of what practicing lawyers do), I’d recommend that you try some other career path first. You can always go to law school later in life, but you might as well explore some other passions or other interests before you spend $200,000 and 3 years of your life, only to learn that the practice of law is nothing like the movies and likely nothing like what they teach you in school.

    • Lost Generation :

      THIS. To me, knowing what you want to get out of it also includes having specific goals and the background to get you there. Law school is no longer the best place for bright young people with general/diffuse talents who figure they will fall into a practice area. If you “love law,” go be a paralegal or a legal assistant somewhere first for a couple of years, so if you decide you still want to go to law school, you can show up already having some familiarity with “thinking like a lawyer” and the real day-to-day practice of law. That will likely help you do better in school, and will also probably make you a more competitive job candidate later. At the very least, observe courtrooms, meet lawyers, go to networkig events and ask lots of questions.

      Everyone agrees that law school is nothing like law practice, no matter what your area is. It’s a huge gamble to make that commitment if you have no plan and no real idea of what practice is. This whole rant is because in this day and age, what job you take may not be entirely up to you unless you have *top* credentials stacked up from law school, and that can take a lot away from your potential for happiness. That’s assuming you do find something, and I know people from my class (2010) who still haven’t.

      I don’t mean to be totally depressing, but your happiness may come down to whether it’s enough for you that someone paid you to do work today, and you did the work to the best of your ability, or if you also need to feel creative, stimulated, and that your work is meaningful. Either is legitimate, but you have to know yourself and be aware of the current realities.

      • I second the “go be a paralegal or legal secretary” idea. The BigLaw firm where I worked for 5 years had a quasi-paralegal position designed for people coming right out of college. Most of them thought they wanted to be lawyers. Of the dozen or so people I saw go through that job, 1 (ONE!) decided to go to law school after seeing what real litigation practice looked like. I figured they made small salaries for a few years, but saved themselves thousands of dollars and many years of being in the wrong job.

        I was one who loved (LOVED) law school and hated doing commercial litigation. I knew by about week 3 on the job that it wasn’t for me. I got through 5 years because I wanted to pay off my debt, save a bunch of money (which I did by living very leanly), and have a resume that would let me do something else. I realized I sold my life to my firm for $160,000-$210,000 (I worked on their schedule, was on call full time, and had to do anything I was asked to). I am a planner and planning was impossible–between legitimate last minute projects, partners who wait until the last minute, demanding clients, etc. I canceled more lunches/dinners than I can count–and, overall, I think I worked at a good firm with nice people. I also think that being an introvert is not helpful in the job because you’re phone rings all the time or people are popping into your office with questions/comments/new projects (I know some people here disagree). I also don’t like working on several things at one time–and multitasking is certainly part of the job. The job left me stressed out and seriously depressed (thank goodness for anti-depressants). I wondered so many times: “If I had to do it all again, would I go to law school.” And I didn’t have an answer because as much as I loved school, I hated the job.

        I finally left my firm when I found “dream job.” I am now a career law clerk and love my job. It’s almost like law school. I get to research interesting issues, read briefs, draft opinions, and no one bothers me all day long. I have set hours and can plan my life outside of the office. I think I have the best job in the world! The only thing I miss about my firm are the friends I left behind. I wouldn’t go back for $500,000/year.

        Now I would definitely respond that I’m glad I wen to law school–but there were five years of hell between law school and getting to happiness.

        • Do you mind me asking how you found your dream job? Did you do a lot of networking? Did you find it through an online job bank?

          I would love to shift into something else, but I’m not sure where to focus my efforts, and it’s tough to stay on top of it when you are busy working. Any tips would be appreciated :)

        • I agree completely with being a paralegal — or getting some other sort of career experience first. If you aren’t loaded, law school is such a huge investment, and those BigLaw jobs are generally in big, fairly expensive cities. My point is, if you have $150k in student loans, and you’re living in NYC, SF, or LA, you’re looking at spending AT LEAST 5 years at a BigLaw job (or otherwise making a BigLaw salary) to pay off those loans. Personally, I have about $120k in student loans, and hope to have them paid off by the time I’ve been out of law school 9 years (it has currently been 4).

          But, by the time you’ve been 9 years out, you’re looking at partnership. Do you want to be a partner? Do you want to take out another loan to join the partnership? Are you really willing to stick around 9 years at a big firm to pay off your loans? A lot of people aren’t — they leave after 2, 3, 4 years. And a lot of other people stick it out for some semblance of financial stability, but are miserable.

          Overall, it has largely worked out for me. I went from college right into law school (which by the way, I totally agree about the law school vs. law practice thing). I’m now at a mid-side to biggish firm, which has generally been alright (I was at a BigLaw firm, which was less alright). I largely like the work, and the pay and hours are ok. But just because I was lucky doesn’t mean that I don’t wish someone had told me to get some career experience first, and figure out if I really wanted to drop more than $100k on a degree.

      • I agree with the “be a paralegal” advice–it is what I am currently doing and the experience has been incredible. I have already gained immeasurable practical experience in this area as well as made a number of contacts in the industry. There are plenty of jobs for recent grads, too as many firms are looking for a recent college grad who wants to go to law school, but wants to work for 1-3 years first. My boss is fantastic, too, and often lets us try our hand at the more “lawyerly” tasks (although he reviews it, of course!).

    • This, 100%.

      If you don’t know what you want to do next in your life, don’t just go to law school because people tell you it will “open other doors” for you. People used to say to me, “You can do anything with a law degree.” Well, I can certainly practice law with a law degree, but … that’s about it. The JD has definitely come in handy sometimes, and I love the way law school and my litigation experience taught me to think, but the truth is I don’t need a law degree to do what I’m doing now (which is a job that I am really enjoying, fortunately).

      If you insist on getting a JD but don’t know what kind of lawyer you want to be, at least do a JD/MBA program. It will open so many more doors, and it’s only one more year of school. I regret not doing that when I could have.

      • meh. I got a joint degree and found that the OCI/law firm employers were confused, and the MBA interviewers had no idea what to do with you.

        Since MBA’s are a dime a dozen, I feel like my (top 20) mba degree was kind of a waste of about 30K. I litigate now.

        • I have a joint JD/MLIS (info management). I’m prosecuting now and almost never use my MLIS skills.

          However! I took the joint degree because I didn’t have a clear career path and was thinking policy analysis or government. I loathed law school. I didn’t discover criminal law until a legal clinic in my last year. I’ve been practicing for four years and love my job. This is largely because I get bored easily and it’s always different, and I’m on the road on circuit regularly.

        • I earned a JD/MBA because I knew once I was done with school I wasn’t going back. I now work in corporate and securities law and, while I don’t specifically use my MBA skills on a daily basis, I more fully understand the concepts and reasoning behind why certain things are done and how to help clients understand what they want to do.

          So, bottom line, before you invest more money in racking up more letters to put behind your name, think about in which area you want to practice and whether the additional degree would be helpful.

    • Aria is absolutely right.

      Would you buy a house if you weren’t going to live in it? Well, law school is like buying two houses. $200K debt. And you don’t even know if you will find *any* job, let alone one where you can at least pay of part of your loan payments every month.

      I don’t recommend anyone to go to law school these days.

  5. Westsidebee :

    I am happy to raise my hand here as a happy lawyer!

    I graduated in 2006 and so am wrapping up my 5th year of practice, in a medium sized firm. After 5 years of experience, I have just a couple of thoughts here —

    First — I am in the second camp — I hated law school, and I enjoy practicing law. I hated the hide-the-ball tactics of the law professors, and the lofty theoretical/academic debates about hypotheticals. I like solving actual problems for real clients. I like obtaining results, and helping to steer real companies. I am glad I stuck through law school, but boy was it torture.

    Second — practicing law isn’t limited to law firms. I am at a law firm right now, but don’t expect to be forever. There are politics here that you may not like, but that doesn’t mean you will never be happy as a lawyer somewhere else, like in-house or government.

    And finally, third — like Kat said, my job is not my ultimate source of fulfillment or happiness. It’s intellectual stimulation, it’s interesting people, it’s great pay, and it helps me lead the personal lifestyle I want. But I don’t require it to completely define me or give meaning to my life. I guess I just don’t take it that seriously — although don’t get me wrong, I have always wanted a successful career, and I am proud of it.

    So with all that, I’m, so far, a happy lawyer!

  6. I’m a newly admitted lawyer who just graduated law school in May and I love what I’m doing. I work as a law clerk for a state appellate judge. I am in the “first camp”– I loved law school and love learning new things. For the same reasons I liked school, I like this job. I spend my days writing and researching and trying to come up with the “right” answer.

    But let me assure you that my job is not for everyone. There is very little human interaction (prompting me to come home to my husband each night DYING for attention). It is you and your computer and the books. That’s about it. And of course, I make 50k a year. It would drive many people nuts, but I really like it! I’m not sure what my next move will be because I just don’t know if firm life is for me (I suspect it’s not).

    • The “dying for attention” part resonates with me! Whenever my roommate comes home I constantly want to chat with her just to have some meaningful human interaction!

    • Loved law school. LOVE working as a judicial law clerk. It’s interesting work, there’s a great variety (of issues, not of tasks), the hours are great, and I actually don’t mind the relative lack of human interaction at work because it means I get off work early enough to hang out with my husband. Plus, I grew up below the poverty line, so the law clerk salary doesn’t seem too bad, even with my student loans (I can afford the name brand mac’n’cheese!).

      But, also pondering the “what comes next” and a bit worried that I won’t enjoy other law jobs nearly as much as I do this one.

      • Exactly! I literally work 8:30-5:00, M-F, and enjoy work-free nights and weekends. To me, hours like this that give me a chance to enjoy life are more important than working all the time and paying down my loans more quickly. It’s all about priorities!

        • I just got an in-house job, and I feel like I was just let out of prison. It is so freeing not to have the billable hour or the expectation that you should work every night and weekend.

          • High five, sister. Same here.

          • midwestgirl :

            This, x 1,000. I am in month 10 of my in-house gig after two years at a law firm that slowly killed my soul. I feel like a new person and am still giddy on a daily basis about going to work.

            It is possible to be a happy lawyer. You just have to find the job that is the right fit for you and your personality. Like others have said–it is a balancing act between money, fancy career and personal life. You may not be able to find it all in one job, but you CAN find the balance that ultimately fulfills you.

    • Just FYI, not all law clerks have great hours. I clerked for two federal judges and worked longer hours for those judges than I have during any year of my biglaw, commercial litigation practice.

      • Current clerk :

        This is true. But the identities of the super-demanding judges are usually open secrets. So if you’re applying, ask around (your law school, any former clerks you know). Get on Google, even. You may decide it’s worth it to work for one of these judges, but at least you will know what you’re getting into.

      • Yuck! My federal clerkship was the greatest job ever and if I was there at 5:30 pm, my very sweet judge would tell me it was time to go home. Damn, I miss clerking!!

  7. I went into law school not because I wanted to go to law school, but because I wanted to practice a specific type of law, and for that I needed a law degree. I was never interested in biglaw or the law school experience. Now as a lawyer, I am constantly learning, an I have found an employer who supports my career and personal endeavors outside of the billable hour. That seems to make a huge difference. Of course that means that I don’t make a crazy salary. I rent a reasonable apartment and drive a sensible car, but my hours and pay are reasonable. There are times when it can be soul crushing (my last week), but at the end of the day, I think I am a pretty lucky girl.

    For a quick threadjack, I have to share some fantastic news! I am going to be in a wedding in a few weeks, and when I picked up my bridesmaid’s dress about a month ago, it wouldn’t zip up! I had gained some weight around my midsection. This morning, after a month of hard work and dedication, it zipped all the way up! I am elated!

  8. I think it is crucial (at least to me) to enjoy the people you work with. I am an attorney and I work with a fantastic group of people – bosses, peers, and underlings a like. To me, it’s almost more important to like WHOM you work with as much as you like what you do.

    I also agree that deriving the bulk of your happiness from your career is not for everyone. It works for some but not for all. And personally, I think it’s best to find your joy in multiple, fairly reliable sources so that you don’t lose it. Diversify!

    • I could not agree more. I’ve often said that I’d rather mop floors for a fantastic boss than have my dream job with an awful boss. I really believe it.

    • Ten years into my career, I couldn’t agree more. I became a MUCH happier worker when I stopped expecting my career to fulfill every part of me. And, I learned the hard way that who I’m working — at ALL levels — is more important than what I’m actually doing. In my last job, the responsibilities were exactly what I wanted but I was completely miserable because I worked for, well, crazy people. It was a harsh awakening after my first post-college job. That job wasn’t a perfect fit for my strengths and interests, but I absolutely loved the team I worked with. I really didn’t know how good I had it, and liking/respecting my coworkers was priority No. 1 when I looked for my current job, which I’ve been doing for four years. I have zero desire to leave, even though I’m sure I could have higher responsibilities elsewhere.

    • Totally agree. Love what I do, but I’m not a fan of the office culture and it really wears on me.

  9. Hmm, how to answer this.

    Side note – I am a 2002 grad, in biglaw until 2007, since then in a smaller (30 atty) firm.

    I do really like the *work* part of being a lawyer. I do T+E and a little bit of nonprofit work. I love doing research (lots of weird issues lately like does the word “person” include a trust, what do you do when there are 3 wills and undue influence, etc.) and finding cases and/or tax authority that are relevant to the situation the client is facing. I also like figuring out what plan works best for a client, what makes sense for people to do with their money, and (less so) drafting the documents.

    I do NOT like:
    (1) billable hours. Hate. It is OK if you have enough work to keep you busy, but billable hours reward people for being inefficient. I am a very fast reader and worker, and so I get done with things before a typical person would. Then I either have to pretend it takes me longer/pad my hours, so that I have enough hours, or take a hit on the hours. Neither of these is a good option IMO.

    (2) Not having enough work. This goes hand in hand with the billable hour problem. In the 3 jobs I have had, somehow I start out with enough work, but that pace never keeps up and eventually I am bored and wondering how I am going to make my hours.

    (3) Networking. I have no talent for schmoozing – it feels fake to me – and I really have no effing clue how to get clients. And it’s not taught anywhere, either. Partners don’t want you to get your own clients bc it’s a threat to them (they fear you’ll take away their clients), or else they just don’t have time to sit down and help you understand how they got their clients and what you can do to be in their place someday. In biglaw it was worse than now – I knew no one of sufficient wealth to qualify as a client – and now I have a few (a very few) friends for whom I have done estate plans. But by no means enough to keep me busy enough to make hours/have enough work (see above points).

    (4) Face time. There are some older lawyers for whom nothing will do but a face-to-face conversation. Not by phone or email. Gah. I would much rather work from home most of the time and only come into the office once in a while – this probably goes along with my introversion/hatred of schmoozing, etc. – but face time is still very much a requirement at all the firms I’ve been in contact with. Right now I am able to work from home one day a week, but I wish it were more.

    I am actually thinking about setting up my own ‘firm’ with my one big client next year. I am pregnant with #3 and would really like to spend more time with our kids; plus with my current salary (100K), I would only take a 15K hit or so if I factor in my expected salary with my one big client (50K), current nanny costs (35K) and assorted commuting/work clothes.

    • Oh, side note – I agree with V above that it is important to like the people you work with. I found biglaw (at least at the firms and departments where I worked) to be full of egomaniacal a**holes. My current boss is really nice.

    • Business&LawStudent :

      This list sounds like my fears of working in a big firm. I’m a very efficient worker, at work often have to repeatedly ask for more to do (at multiple jobs, so it isn’t just my office), and have a strong distaste for networking.

      • Sixth-year in the corporate department of a big firm, and have to say that dislike or weakness in networking/schmoozing is a big problem for anyone whose plan is a long-term career in BigLaw. At least at my firm, it is very much “up or out”. I have seen several people at my firm and other big firms who worked hard, were smart, etc. get forced out because they weren’t able to bring in clients.

        • Whether you like networking/schmoozing isn’t the end of what you should consider, though. Even if you do, getting clients at a large firm is tough. Consider this: as a senior associate / young partner at my former firm in Texas, you would bill out between $400-500/hour. That is serious scratch. At firms in other cities (or more prestigious firms in my city), it’s even higher. I’m working with a national firm right now that’s billing out a very junior partner at > $600/hour and a second year lawyer at > $350/hour (I’m trying to be circumspect here).

          If you went straight through undergrad to law school, you’re going to be in your early thirties by the time you’re up for partner. Your peers and contacts likely are not going to be able to afford your rate or, if they’re in-house already, probably will still be so junior that they won’t be the ones making the decision about who to hire anyway. And guess what? The decisionmakers who can afford your rates aren’t giving their business to some baby-faced 32- or 33-year old. They’re giving it to the 40- to 50- year old partner who has some grey hair.

          So you can be the schmooziest, most networking-loving person anybody knows. Doesn’t mean it’ll get you anywhere.

          I would be fascinated to hear from any attorneys at large firms who are relatively junior (let’s say fifth year partner and below) and have developed business. How did you do it? What’s your book look like at this point? How are you going to develop more business?

          • I have about 6 clients. only one is a major corporation. the rest are smaller companies. i only bring in about $50k. they have all been personal friends or referrals from personal friends, except the major corporation, which i met through the bar association. 8th year. i think it helps because it shows i have the ability to develop work, but i would never make partner based on my book alone.

      • Networking is really important, regardless of whether you work at a big firm, small firm, in-house, whatever.

        No one really likes it. But you’ll have to suck it up to get yourself into the career path you like.

  10. I graduated from law school in 2009 and some of my classmates still do not have legal employment. I saw the writing on the wall in 2008 and got into a couple of internships that really opened some doors for me. I worked really hard in a job I didn’t like for 2 years and have now taken a compliance position at a non-profit, which I absolutely love. I make less money than a Big Law atty at my same level, but I work 9-5 and go home happy at night to my husband and dog.

    People always say: “there are so many things you can do with a JD”. I don’t know if that’s true, but I did my best to find another path when Big Law was no longer available. I’m incredibly grateful and happy where I am.

  11. I have been lawyering for 15 years, and I am one of those happy lawyers you hear about. I am a civil litigator, and, after a first couple of years at a biggish law firm, I moved to a small firm – small means there are 4.5 of us. I’m a permanent associate, and, at 15 years experience, the most junior. I make less than a first year lawyer at the big law firms, but I make fine money (and have had a couple of phenomenal bonus years based on firm performance). The hours are generally reasonable, but when you’re approaching trial or in trial, all bets are off, that’s just life as a litigator. Luckily that doesn’t happen that often, and, honestly, it’s kind of fun when it does. We do business litigation, and a fair amount of contingency fee work. I am an expert in nothing but litigation procedure. It feels like every case has me learning a new field – construction one quarter, banking regulation the next, medicare regs after that, followed by grocery distribution. Love that variety — love, love, love it. And with so few lawyers, I do it all from doc review to summary judgment to trial. It’s great to get to know a case that well, rather than being a cog in a wheel. (although sometimes we’re cog-in-wheel, as we have a steady practice representing, e.g., employees who need separate counsel in some big monster case. That’s fine too; balance is good) My favorite thing is starting with a stack of docs (or a drive of docs, as is obviously more common now) and just figuring out what happened, how to tell the story.

    I’m extremely lucky; this place is a great fit for me, and my coworkers are wonderful. I struggle sometimes because I have definitely fallen off the ambition bandwagon. I have two kids, now 8 and 6, and it seems that as they get older, I’m starting to feel an itch to do more with my career again. I think my firm will be a fine platform for that, but as small as it is, I really am going to have to figure it out on my own. Which is more than a bit intimidating – I’ve certainly appreciated that I have no marketing responsibilities — but over the last 15 years, the tradeoffs have been worth it.

    So, I obviously think happiness as a lawyer is possible. I haven’t heard about liking law school or lawyering, but, interestingly, I hated law school. It really is the story telling part of a case that I love the most, and I found a job where I got to do that part of it more than a lot of lawyers are able to. It means small firm (so more responsibility for me) and usually smaller cases (so that you can wrap yourself around all of it). But, as I said, that tradeoff has been worth it.

    • Anon for This :

      I am about 10 years out of law school now and recently left Big Law for a government job. Like ahh510, my job requires me to do every part of the case, which I find a big improvement over Big Law, where delegating chunks of the work to others, and then managing them, was a huge part of my job.

      That said, on my way here I spent a number of years in Big Law, with the over-the-top demands that others have mentioned. I have also recently read that according to psychology research, the law is one of the few jobs in which pessimism a predictor of success; I suspect that spending so much time thinking about the bad things that could happen encourages us to develop whatever pessimistic tendencies we already have before we go to law school. Rates of depression, alcoholism and divorce are also much higher in our profession. And at least if you believe Above that Law, men don’t want to date lawyers.

      Early in my career I married a guy who I thought was perfect for me; after years of working way too hard, becoming an overly-serious and stressed-out person, and suffering several bouts of clinical depression, my husband and I split. It’s hard to be sure why we didn’t work out; maybe he really wasn’t the right guy, but I also think it’s possible that my Big Law experience (or perhaps even just being a lawyer in general, as I did work briefly at a small firm and had some of the same problems) turned me into a person that my husband couldn’t be excited about being married to.

      At the time I thought of my time in Big Law – as some commenters on this board have described it – as giving up having a personal life for a few years in furtherance of my career. But now I find myself single in my late 30s, finding very few prospects for any type of serious relationship let alone marriage. I also have developed some relatively minor but chronic health problems (like back pain and repetitive stress injury) that probably resulted from my long hours and lack of exercise. So now I am wondering whether what I really did during those years was give up my chance to find happiness outside of my career that Kat was talking about.

      Am I a “happy lawyer” now? Yes. I sometimes love my job, and I think I’m probably as happy with my job as most non-lawyers are with theirs. Would I go to law school over again? No – not unless I had a very good idea of both the type of practice I wanted and where/how I was going to find that job within a few years after graduating from law school.

      I will finish this depressing post with some constructive advice: do lots and lots of informational interviewing before you make the final decision to go to law school. Find people through your college’s career office and/or your family’s friends, and ask them questions like:
      – What is a typical day like?
      – How much time do you spend on the phone, in meetings, doing legal research, writing short letters, writing long letters and briefs, analyzing facts?
      – What are the typical turnaround times for projects you work on – do you spend a lot of time answering client questions with just a day or two’s notice, or are you working on briefs for months at a time?
      – Are you able to predict and plan around your busy times?
      – Is there a typical career path for lawyers in your specialty/at your firm?
      – What types of things do people in your specialty do to get business? (This varies; in my specialty we do a lot of CLE presentations for in-house lawyers to stay on their radar screen, which I find much more fun than other kinds of networking.)
      – Do you think the skills that lawyers in your specialty and at your firm are transferable into any non-lawyer jobs? If so, what jobs and what skills?

      Ideally, you would also interview nonlawyers and ask them similar questions to get a sense of whether there are other jobs out there that use the same skills and might provide you some of the same satisfaction, but that don’t have the disadvantages of requiring a law school degree and having you enter an oversaturated job market at an inopportune time. Some options I can think of off the top of my head are investor relations and communications (public speaking skills), technical writing (precision writing skills), various jobs in public policy or academia (persuasive writing skills and thinking about how the world “should” work), FBI agent ( to the extent that they are analyzing financial crime, what they do is very similar to what I spend about 60% of my time doing), and accountant (some people in this profession spend a lot of time analyzing and applying accounting standards that are very much like regulations; there are also forensic accountants who do something much like the factual analysis part of litigation).

      By the way, when I was in Big Law, I worked with a number of legal assistants who were just out of college and considering law school. I discouraged all of them; most of them went anyway. I think what they did was different enough from what a lawyer does that I’m not sure it was a good way to find out whether it was the right thing to do, but it was at least a good way to make some contacts and meet people (like me) who would be willing to give them advice as their careers progressed. so if you aren’t willing to do extensive informational interviewing – which I really think is the right way to go – this would be better than jumping right into law school right now.

    • 5thYearinLA :

      I’m super happy to read this! I am a 5th year, and, to be honest, I’ve had a hard time finding a position that I enjoy. I started at one firm and then was recruited to another, which then laid me off when the economy got bad in Dec. ’08. Then I worked for a sole practitioner which was completely insane, and almost killed me.

      Next week I am starting with a small firm with a similar practice to what “ahh510” describes, except it is all in different facets of the construction industry, which I LOVE. I’m hoping when I get to year 15 I will still be at this firm!

  12. I am in my sixth year practicing law and just made partner at my firm. I’m very far removed from BigLaw and completely fine with that. I practice family law at a small boutique firm in a mid-sized city. For a variety of reasons, my firm does not emphasize billables (our city’s culture is somewhat laid-back, plus the practice of family law is extremely intense anyway, so the partners at my firm have made a conscious decision not to be ruled by the billable hour – we’ve got enough intensity without it). I feel very fortunate to have found a firm that appreciates work-life balance, so I encourage young attorneys to really evaluate a firm’s culture before jumping in. Don’t be seduced by BigLaw if it’s not right for you. The salary is lovely, but if the intensity of the hours doesn’t match up with what you want your life to look like, no amount of money will make up for that. I make much, much less money than most of my law school classmates, but I have time to spend with my family and time to spend the money I do make.

    And yes, I absolutely love my job. Family law is crazy, to put it mildly, and that’s part of what I like about it. I get to work on interesting cases, and no two days are the same. I got to jump in on day one with my own clients – I have never done doc review or any of the other drudgery so common at BigLaw. It may sound Pollyanna of me to say, but I truly feel like I am making a tangible difference in my clients’ lives and those of their children. I am intellectually challenged and have argued several appeals. I loved law school, and I love practicing law, for very different reasons.

    Pre-law school, I worked in the non-profit sector and liked a lot of things about that, too. But I feel much more intellectually fulfilled now, and I honestly feel good about the work I do. Don’t get me wrong, there are days that are absolutely atrocious. But on the whole, I am a very happy lawyer.

    I think the key is knowing yourself and not settling for what you think a lawyer’s life “should” be like. We’re not all corporate lackeys (not that there’s anything wrong with that) or characters in a John Grisham book. If that’s not you, don’t be dissuaded. It is a broad enough profession that you can carve out the practice you want to have. I definitely suggest identifying some attorneys you admire and talking to them about their career paths. Even better, do something else first. It’s a huge commitment, and you should be sure you want to do it. But don’t feel that there is only one way to do it. Autonomy over your career is key to happiness, I think. Getting sucked into the rat race is the surest way to burn out.

  13. I’m a staff attorney for a federal appellate court. I *love* my job. I liked working for a small firm for a few years after graduation, and I liked public entity work (city), which I will hopefully go back to after this job ends. (I’ve been a lawyer since 2004.)

    I think the thing is to go for what sounds fun to YOU. People thought I was nuts when I took a job at a small firm in a small city near friends and family after graduation for $65 k instead of the $120+ people were making (in the good old days and from a school that had heavy firm recruiting). Guess who was the only one to like her first year practicing? I make good money now (probably about what the big firm kids did right off the bat), and I think I can continue to make that happen when I get out of this job.

    Listen to your heart more than your career services office, and don’t go 200K into debt over law unless you honest to God want to (and can) do the big firm thing. You are setting yourself up to be stuck. I went to public school with financial aid, so I wasn’t as limited as you will be if you borrow a ton. If you put yourself in the financial position that big firm is the only option, then you find the despair of the super long work week at a job you hate, or terror of unpayable loans if your resume isn’t fancy enough for the big firms, or the economy is still not in your favor that would suck. Seriously, run the cost/employment numbers for the school you are looking at, reasonable wages for jobs that don’t sound soul-crushing, and THEN decide if you want to go. Don’t just go and work it out later- times are too tough to waste 3 years and $200k on being miserable for the next 20 years.

    • Gourmet Chef :

      Totally agree. Regionally well-respected law schools will give you a degree for way less than 200k. My JD (from the best school in the region) will cost around 80k with scholarships, part-time work, and in-state tuition after the first year. Still expensive, but not as insane as 200k. I will pay it off over the next 5-10 years whether I work in biglaw or not.

    • …if you’re lucky enough to get a job.

      It’s dire out there. Don’t take it as a given that you’ll be able to pay it.

  14. Put me down as a happy lawyer. I am a solo practitioner with a niche. I got out of law school 20 years ago with experience as a health care provider and worked that experience into a legal specialty. My clients are hospitals, companies that own nursing homes, medical practices and individual clinicians.

    I am happy to make my own decisions about what I will and won’t take on. I am happy to set my own hours. I am happy to decide what direction the practice will take and to develop new service lines. I am happy when my clients express their satisfaction and when they come back with repeat business.

    My way is not for everyone. But whether you decide to go with a large firm, small firm, in-house, government or solo, develop your expertise so that you are the go-to person for your chosen subject matter. The attorneys I know who have done that are pretty happy.

    • What you’ve described is where I’d like to be a few years out from law school (I graduate in May). Would you mind sharing more about your career path and how you developed your niche?

  15. I think people who are happy as lawyers are those people who enjoy intellectualism: researching, analysis, and writing. I didn’t find law like sales at all but I was in a mid-sized firm before I transfered to a one (now two) attorney firm. Lawyers spend a lot of time researching and writing. This is how we move cases a long. If you don’t want to be stuck at your desk doing this, you may not enjoy a career in law. There are different areas of law but I believe this point is true of most all of them.

    I believe the environment you work in will play a huge factor in your happiness (small versus large, billable versus no billables, flexibility, friendly co-workers you enjoy, perks). I think people may have to move around to different firms before they find the right fit.

    I went from an insurance defense firm with billables and a long commute, to a one (now two) attorney firm with three other staff member and no billable and no commute. I am SO much happier now and I’m getting a lot more court room experience!

    • I agree with CK. If you love research and writing, you can have a legal career you love. I spent a half dozen years at Big Law during the 80s when working conditions were more relaxed and collegial. But the sales component of law firm practice is really tedious after awhile. I didn’t enjoy shilling for work, and came to dislike the way outside counsel are largely given “piece work” for situations where a company hasn’t planned well and needs an escape hatch. So I went in-house in a corporate government affairs position, where I’ve remained for 25 years. There’s nothing better. I have a considerable amount of automomy in choosing what to tackle, really enjoy the partnership with the business divisions, and spend most of my time doing research and analysis. This is not a position in the legal department, but being a lawyer is a prerequisite for the position. The schedule is consistent with a health work/life balance, and the compensation more than adequate. If you’re in Big Law and not loving it, try to get close to your clients and be open to in-house opportunities. It is possible to love your work.

  16. As my dad says, “If it weren’t for the money I just don’t think I’d be doin’ the job.” As Kat says, your job is a source of income. Most lawyer jobs wind up being your life because they require so much time at work. I think this is why there are so many unhappy lawyers.

    I am a happy lawyer, I think, but it isn’t because I am a lawyer. I found a job where I work from 9-7 during the week, which gives me time on the weekends and at night to do the things that make me deep down happy (hiking around, cooking, reading a good book on my couch with a cup of tea while it rains outside, spending time with my family and boyfriend, biking, wearing my riding boots and walking to get a morning bun and coffee on a cold morning…those kinds of things). Yes, you can be a happy lawyer, but it most likely isn’t going to have a darn thing to do with what you do at the office. Most law work is tedious and repetitive. Sometimes I feel like I am paid way too much for what I do (I worked much harder in high school washing dishes), but since I have those huge loan payments I am not going to complain.

    Please avoid the huge loans. I had no idea how they would impact my life and am now worried about being able to have children because even with a great job, I am barely getting by after giving half of my take home income to SallieMae. I had no idea what freedom I was giving up by having $160k in debt. Please please please go to the school that gives you a scholarship or don’t go.

    Finally, on the happiness note, it has been my personal experience that doing work that you really care about and believe can have an impact can be a thousand times more miserable and stressful than doing work you don’t care about. Call me whatever you want, but that has been my experience. At my first job out of law school my work had a direct impact on my client’s quality of life. I was getting gray hair and not sleeping, and I was miserable. I was constantly worried. Now I do financial litigation and sleep like a baby because, while I work very hard and take my work very seriously, I am not worried about ruining someone’s life by messing up. Food for thought.

    • I feel like I’m the mean creepy kid in the room after reading everyone who posted above…work can be great, but at the end of the day it is work. Your life should be different from your work. Being a happy lawyer has a lot more to do with you outside of the office, but apparently that is just my opinion.

      • I agree with you. I expect I’ll hear some strong disagreement when I say this, but I view my job as just that: a job. I don’t expect to be personally fulfilled by it, intellectually or emotionally, but I do hope to be paid. My job (associate at large firm) is satisfying because I like to keep busy and do things well – that’s rewarding to me. It’s no more satisfying than the job I had as a server while in school (that I also did very well and found very satisfying and – speaking of law firm work being essentially a service profession – that was the previous job where most of the skills were transferable). I do like my current job more because I get paid more and thus it allows me to spend money on things that truly make me happyt: lots of books, lots of travel, lots of food, lots of clothes. Granted, the hours can be long and extremely hard but I wouldn’t trade it for the world. It gives me great colleagues who, both individually and in the aggregate, are great sources of legal knowledge. It gives me security and it gives me quick-paced, productive days. To ask anything else from it (e.g. some deep level of intellectual fulfillment and/or personal happiness) seems to beg for dissatisfaction.

      • Given that everyone has their own job, and nobody but you can really know what it is like, there is obviously no single answer. It’s different for everyone. There are plenty of people – many of whom toil in offices for large, nameless companies – who see their job as “just a job”. On the other hand I have plenty of entrepreneur and artist friends who see their work as their life, their passion, their interests, and their source of income, all in one.

        Know yourself. I think that’s the key.

        • Of course. But the relevant post was about legal jobs – which probably fall more into the “toil in office” type ones, although personally I know many people who do incidentally get (rather than demand) some level of happiness from it. If you want to have a job that is your life, your passion, your interests and your source of income, you probably shouldn’t go to law school and expect to land something like that right off the bat, or ever. I thought that was the issue this post/question was addressing. Nobody’s arguing a job can’t be that, but let’s be realistic – they’re extremely difficult to get at all, much less in the legal world.

          • sure, i understand, i’m not a lawyer and i sometimes post non-lawyerly things in here just to mix it up :)

            also for the OP though – it’s a big world out there. even law school grads can turn into career-loving writers or bakery owners or entrepreneurs or whatever.

          • Anon at 6:36 – I completely agree and look forward to that day, but the point of my post is that you simply do not get to be a writer or bakery owner or park ranger with $160k in debt. Any person considering law school needs to be very aware of that before they go.

    • “Please avoid the huge loans. I had no idea how they would impact my life and am now worried about being able to have children because even with a great job, I am barely getting by after giving half of my take home income to SallieMae. I had no idea what freedom I was giving up by having $160k in debt. Please please please go to the school that gives you a scholarship or don’t go.”

      This is excellent advice, LMo. I don’t think you hear it enough and, as a law student, having children wasn’t on my radar at all. Not only can loans cripple your ability to change careers (or even take a legal job you might like more that pays less), they can have a significant impact on your plans to start a family. Even if you don’t have those plans now, you very well could in 2-3 years.

      • WORD. :/

        it wouldn’t be AS BAD if even half of law school was devoted to something useful/applicable to practice. When I have to bust my ass to learn how to practice (while only being able to bill half of it), I get pretty freaking PISSED at professors making 150K or more who taught classes on “gender in the law” or “argentinian tort reform.”

        Respectfully, law school, and the practice of law is kind of a racket. Pay $500/semester for books. pay another $500K to tell you what those casebooks say. Pay 3K to learn information to pass the freaking bar. Pay $2-500 a year in “bar association” dues to receive a magazine you throw away because you have too much billable $hit to do, even though you mean to read it. Pay 500-$1k per year to take CLE’s. pay 100-300 for state bar licensure. Pay mortgage-like payment to Sallie mae each month until you retire. easy, right?

      • Fab Kaari :

        But your loans don’t have to dictate everything. You can use Income Based Repayment on the federal ones. (Yes, I know that you are ultimately going to pay back more money in the long run perhaps, but it does leave you options)

  17. NYCMomof2 :

    I am out of law school about 15 years and most days you can count me as a happy lawyer. I was a partner in a firm, hated the politics, billables and sales. Went in-house. Love my company, still hate the politics. Found a good salary, intellectually challenging work, opportunities to network in my field and great colleagues, all with a dash of work life balance. Quite a few of the years in the middle were filled with frustration (especially before I settled in my current field) and I too went through a “what ELSE do I want to be phase”? You need to figure out what’s important to you and get your job to fit into your life that way. And FWIW I hated law school. :)

  18. I’m in my sixth year of practice and just made the move from a mid-sized firm to starting my own solo practice. Though I wouldn’t recommend hanging your own shingle right out of law school because, as you find out after you graduate, law school teaches you just about nothing re private practice, going solo has been a fantastic experience for me.
    I am a transactional attorney (business, estate, and real estate). The firm I started with, and just left, was essentially an eat-what-you-kill system where you were expected to bring in clients and handle them almost immediately. As a new graduate, this was fairly petrifying, but it gave me immediate experience drafting diverse documents, marketing, networking, and handling client files independently. After five years, though I enjoyed working with the other attorneys in the firm, I had been the only female attorney there for four years, and I was unhappy with the lack of pay growth. Someone asked me why I didn’t go solo and I didn’t really have an answer, so I started looking at the possibility more closely. The harder I tried to find reasons not to make the jump, the more I found affirmation that it was a good fit for me.
    I already had my insurance through my husband’s job. The nature of my practice makes it ideal for keeping overhead low, as I don’t have to worry about the costs associate with extensive discovery, experts, paralegals, etc. I was already comfortable with finding and maintaining my own clients.
    I have two young children and, though I have an (out of the house) office and maintain the same office hours as when I was with the firm, I won’t have to worry about being able to meet them at the bus stop when they reach that age. I obviously have the pressure of billing hours, but I alone get to reap the rewards from those hours. The vast majority of my clients made the switch with me, which is personally gratifying and takes much of the financial pressure off. I find that new clients most often come to me through referrals from clients or other contacts, so I do a lot of networking, which I enjoy.
    Mostly, it’s extremely rewarding to be navigating my own ship. As long as I can maintain an income I’m comfortable with, I’m honestly not sure what would prompt me to join a firm again.

    • I agree. I used to work for a big high-energy law office, but just started my solo practice this summer. I’m making money quicker than I thought I would, and I’m super-happy now.

      But solo practice is not for everyone. You have to run and market your business. But I love it.

  19. Anon for this :

    If I had to choose again, I would never have picked a job in an office. I hate sitting at a desk and hate “office life.” I would be in sales or be a nurse or something. But with law school loans, I can’t just pick a new career and start all over again.

    • Me too! I would be a park ranger. Not kidding.

      • Agree!

      • I am so with you – I dream of doing something with the National Park Service as a “retirement career.”

      • LMo, I agree with everything you wrote above, and I too am a lawyer who daydreams about being a park ranger…crazy how common that is!

    • Word. Maybe after I pay off the loans.

    • Anon for this too :

      I don’t have loans. I lucky enough to have parents who can afford to pay my tuition, but if I didn’t work as a lawyer I would feel guilty that they spent all this money on a legal education that I didn’t even need.

      • Anon for this :

        Glad I’m not alone :) I sometimes feel like the emperor has no clothes – would rather be “doing” something than pushing papers.

        • When I was a first year, I decided that I wanted the firm to assign all associates to one day of physical labor around the firm every month. One full day, counting towards 8 hours of billable credit, just polishing the brass or mopping or picking up the trash or dusting the picture frames or something. Rest your brain and not have to answer the phone or emails for one whole blissful day.

          • J., just wanted to comment that I have fantasies about being one of the janitors in my big firm for the day! They wear uniforms and clean and are friendly to everyone. I know I should be grateful for what I have, but sometimes I do long to be doing something that feels more real. And to have to be friendly to everyone instead of litigous.

          • When I worked as a customer service representative in a call center, the best part of my work week was when I volunteered to take out all the recycling. I was just happy to contribute something with real results and get outside for a minute. Now I work as an editor, and I still have the same urg — the “ahhh get me out of here, yes I’ll do anything, I’ll take out the garbage, whatever needs to happen to get me away from this desk and the ringing phone” feeling. Working in an office all day can be very de-motivating.

          • Exactly! I just want to be able to move my body and rest my brain a bit, just every now and then. Find a little balance!

          • I feel like my problem with being a lawyer would be that I always have to know if I am right. I’m a 3L so I don’t know for sure but my issue is that I can’t just go into something thinking that it is probably ‘good enough’. This wouldn’t be a problem except I end up spending so much time looking for this right answer when there really is none and I get frustrated. Also I feel like I do not want a challenging job right now. After college, law school, personal dramas, etc., I am exhausted and just want something to come easy for once!

    • I dream of owning my own chocolate shop. I have a feeling it will happen, though maybe not for another decade or so…

      • I dream about being an orange grove farmer… or a marine biologist. Neither of which I know a dime about.

    • I started my pre-legal career in a non-office job (outdoors much of the time), and I will say the grass is always greener elsewhere. It has helped me learn to appreciate air conditioning, a predictable commute, and less traveling (not to mention no more bug bites, visits to the middle of nowhere, etc.).

  20. As a second year attorney who just started in BigLaw (clerked last year), seeing all these happy lawyers makes me want to cry tears of joy, both because I am not alone and because it is possible, even after years and years of putting in long hours, to still love what you do. :-)

    OK, the tears part might have something to do with not sleeping much last night, but still.

  21. I am in my sixth year of practice and consider myself a happy lawyer. I would note, however, that my satisfying job does not pay enough to cover my large student loan payment. My husband has to make my student loan payments for me. I would not be a happy lawyer if it weren’t for him.

  22. Don’t forget transactional practice groups! I am a happy lawyer at a big law firm who is entering her fourth year. Yes, there are long hours, but I love talking on the phone to my clients and other lawyers, negotiating, minimal drafting, learning about what companies/industries do, reading the Wall Street Journal/finance and working on deals with a 2-3 month time horizon. That being said, I was one of the ones who hated law school but love the practice and I knew that because I was a paralegal at a big law firm beforehand. I went to law school in order to do this job and have no regrets, even with the debt. If you have to take on debt to go to law school and think you will be at a big law firm for a while afterward, I highly recommend 1-2 years as a paralegal to figure out if it is really the right thing for you. I am also incredibly lucky to work for nice and supportive partners/senior associates. The importance of the personalities of the people for whom you work cannot be understated. Good luck!

  23. I just started my second year of practice at a boutique firm. I was at a wedding a few weeks ago and reunited with all of my law school buddies. I was the only person who could honestly say that she loved her job, which I do.

    I work for a former BigLaw partner in a very niche field (one that I had no interest in or knowledge of in law school). I do high level, interesting work with sophisticated clients. I also, have a life. To me, there are no downsides. To others the downsides would be pay (I’m not earning BigLaw money – but I’m not doing poorly either) and involvement in business development from the get go. I am tied into the success of the firm, so I have to impress our clients and work on bringing new clients to the firm. Luckily, my boss has realistic expectations about my ability to bring in business particularly with the sophistication of our practice. My work with business development centers on being poised at networking events, speaking effectively and passionately about our practice, and talking about the decades of experience that my boss has.

    I love being a lawyer, I love practicing law and I love my job. It took me over a year of scraping by to finally land this job. I got this job because I was able to show my boss that I am bright, confident, driven and a hard worker who is interested in something more than a paycheck — and is trustworthy to communicate with the clients he has built relationships with over years, if not decades.

    I think the key is finding good mentors and bosses – folks who see someone worth investing their time and knowledge in. I think it’s also important to think outside of the box. My law school’s model of success was BigLaw or nothing – and that didn’t fit me for a whole host of reasons. I am very lucky to be where I am, and I’m grateful that I’ve gotten this incredible opportunity.

    My advice to folks in law school, is not to do it as a fall back or because people say you would be good at it. I think you have to do a lot of due diligence and you can’t assume that because you line up all of your ducks in law school – great school, good grades, journal, moot court etc. etc. that your career will be all set for time immemorial or that you will be happy.

    I know I have had that mentality – line up ducks, life will go well. That’s not necessarily true, the success that I have had in my career thus far has come from tenacity, confidence, social skills and excellent work product. In a recent business development success, I got the meeting not based on my “ducks” but on the ability of my firm to meet this potential client’s need and my ability to sell my firm.

    • I think that former Biglaw attorneys can often be great bosses. I work at a small boutique (about 20 lawyers) that’s a spinoff of a niche practice at a big firm. The partner for whom I work left Biglaw to have more control over his practice and to not have to share his profits with the bigwigs in the main office in another city.

      In the plus column, I make very close to big firm pay for my year (about a 7th year now), though I didn’t start that way when I joined the firm 5 years ago. Without the handcuffs of lockstep pay, my firm tends to pay first and second years (the few that are hired, anyway) a bit low, but gives big raises to those who prove themselves. Our work is sophisticated and interesting, and because I’m in a small firm environment, I have a lot of responsibility and autonomy. My partner has given me great opportunities — lots of really valuable client contact — because he knows that having his senior associates build his book is the surest way to grow his practice. He’s completely transparent about the financial side of the business, and I feel like it’s always a team effort to make the practice successful. Because the office is small, with just a few equity partners, the politics is nowhere near as frustrating as I imagine it would be at a big firm. I generally really like and respect my coworkers, attorneys and staff alike, which is really important in a small office.

      On the downside, I’m at a small firm that acts like a big firm. In exchange for my close-to-big-firm salary, I am expected to bill big firm hours. So yes, the hours are long. Yes, the work can be drudgery.

      But I think I would say overall, I’m satisfied with my experience as a lawyer. It’s a good thing, too, and totally a stroke of luck. I have massive student loans to pay off (sticker price of a really expensive law school in the early 2000’s). I knew nothing about this practice area and went straight from undergrad to law school with no idea what I wanted to do afterward. This just happened to be the place I landed after a clerkship. I do think that this makes my situation the exception rather than the rule.

      The one thing that’s going to drive me out of private practice, however, is the billable hour. I HATE it. Not only the big yearly requirement (especially in December, as I try to eek the last few hours out of the year), but the pressure each week, each day, each 6 minute increment, to record what you’re doing, in a way that will ensure that the clients will pay for it. Exhausting.

  24. Anonymous :

    I am a generally happy lawyer (civil litigator/private practice/mid-large firm/6 figure $). I’ve done the same job at different places, and I like my job more when I make more money doing it, to be completely blunt. More than that, I like my job more when I don’t work with a lot of crazy people, and that is less common in the law than one might think.
    I would not make a blanket statement that one should not go to law school. However, I would encourage anyone applying to law school to also consider other graduate programs and careers that might fulfill the same needs/capitalize on the same strengths and perhaps even apply to those programs/jobs at the same time, esp. if, like the reader here, law is a new interest. I think that ultimately I would have been happier pursuing public policy and working for the government or a non-profit organization in policymaking or lobbying. That is my true interest, and while my current job certainly touches on policy, I don’t get to craft policy or debate what policy “should be” much. Most often, I just analyze and argue about whether my client is inside or outside the lines of the law/regulation, etc.
    I had professors urge me to consider other paths, and I paid them no attention. I regret that a bit (esp. with $160k educational debt 6 yrs after L.S. graduation), even though I really do like what I do.

  25. Wow corporette…reading my mind lately? This is a very timely topic for me. I am a brand new attorney in my first year of practice (about 3 months in) at a mid-size law firm. I started my career very excited and motivated, but…. so far, it has been miserable for me.

    This blog post forced me to think about why this is. I actually love the work and the people that I work with, but billable hours are killing me. I will think I am having a great, productive day and then when I enter my time, I realize I’ve only billed 5 or 6 hours (for reference, I need to bill about 8 each day/40 week to be on track for the year). At my firm, we do not get billable credit for anything other than true billable work. That means anything pro bono, seminars, even my swearing in ceremony, basically doesn’t count. Even though the firm says it takes these hours into account, I am finding out that they really don’t, and that billables are the only thing that matters.

    I realize this is the norm in large firms, but for me, the billable hours requirement is draining all life out of me. Because I am behind on my hours (I am one month into the billing year and already behind by 40 hours!), it’s all I think about. I feel guilty about eating lunch, taking breaks, and even doing personal things on the evenings (I say evenings lightly because I usually get home at 7 or 8 and go to bed at 10) and weekends because I am not billing. I have even started to worry so much about it that I can’t sleep. I am smart, a hard worker, and generally productive, but I just feel that I will never meet the billing requirement.

    On the lines of finding happiness, do any of the more seasoned, happy lawyers have any advice for dealing with the feeling that billable hours are burying you alive?

    • You probably need to capture your time more effectively. For example, if you spend half an hour answering emails from 3 different clients or partners on 3 different cases, bill each client 0.2. Don’t count the 2 minutes you spent getting up to go to the bathroom. Figure out what works best for you – electronic timers etc or scrawling time down on a piece of paper. Try to capture EVERY SINGLE THING you do and see if you are getting more billable time that way.

      If you have enough work, come in on a Sat morning (or work at home then) and knock out a few hours. After a few weeks of this you will be caught up.

      Good luck!

      • GREAT advice. My law school taught me nothing about the billable hour, and the partners at my mid-size firm at my first job (ins defense) didn’t have time to teach me. Fortunately my secretary helped a lot and showed me the way.

        I eventually started keeping a self-made graph right next to my keyboard that helped me keep track of my time, in pretty much real time. The page was basically divided into six-minute increments, so it was easy to add up my time at the end of the day. It was very basic, probably a little old school, but it worked: my billable count went up after that.

      • Speaking as a client, it makes me see red to get billed .1 or .2 for e-mails. It’s so ticky-tacky, nickel and diming, and it makes me feel like I’m paying for someone to reach their 2000 hour requirement so they get their bonus, not for legitimate work. Yes, I want to be fair to you, and I believe you should get paid for the work you do. But you should be fair to me, too. If you bill me .1 for responding “Yes” to my e-mail asking you whether opposing counsel agreed to our request for an extension, you’re not giving me great client service. If two lawyers bill me .1 each because they’re reading each other’s short e-mails about my case, see above, you’re not giving me great client service.

        • You’re probably getting billed for this either way – either someone was trying to separate out tasks to show you that they weren’t just doing something vague like “attend to file” or they lump checking emails with some other task they did. Honestly, if it took me .1 or .2 hours to respond to an email, it would be a long email. I’m not going to bill you separately for 30 seconds for a “yes.”

    • I think it is really hard to get in that 8 hours/day at first! My whole first year, I realized that even though I got in at 9 and tried to scrupulously work all day, I would have to stay until 8 pm every night to hit 8 hours. It just took a long time to figure out how to eliminate transition time between matters. I’d sit down at 4pm every afternoon, count up my hours, and figure out exactly how long I needed to stay to hit 8. Looking back, yuck. But that is what it took! Everybody goes through this transition into full-time work at a desk job, I think.

    • I hear you, and billable hours can really stink. I found some strategies that helped, but I have ultimately discovered that billable hours are actually easy to hit when there is more work than you can handle. In this economy, I find that just scraping up enough work to hit hours can take a significant amount of time, and responsibility tends to be hoarded by higher ups who only give you little pieces at a time, so there is a lot of switching back and forth between things.

      Here are a few tips that have worked for me:

      1. Force yourself to bill 3 hours before lunch. I get in to work at 8 and aim for 3 hours by noon, so this means I only get to mess around for 1 hour in the morning.

      2. Time your lunch. Literally. I set a timer on my phone, and at 1 pm I have to start a work task. Otherwise, I will surf the internet (as you can see, I failed today!)

      3. If you’re switching between a lot of things and losing time, set a timer for half an hour, shut down everything except what you need on your computer, close your door, and work on one thing for that half hour.

      4. Try to do work from home on weekends or at night – getting in four extra hours on the weekend, plus an extra half hour each night, gets you down to 6.5 or 7 hours during the weekdays. And for some reason, working from home just feels more relaxing than working at work.

      5. Use electronic timers. I read an article once that said that men on average lose minutes when they use timers but women on average gain hours. I gained about half an hour a day when I started using timers. (Think about it – that’s at least 100 hours a year) And I use timers for everything – even my down time. That way I can go back and figure out why I lost billable, and fix it.

      6. Find a way to stop worrying about it. As a junior associate, I asked a partner about my hours (which were significantly lower than goal), and was told that mine were the second highest out of all the female associates in the section (there were several), but lower than all the male associates (also several). At that point, the firm wasn’t going to fire any of us for our hours without a big ol’ sexual discrimination lawsuit, and the firm knew it.

    • I am glad to know I am not alone with my billable hour anxiety. I work at a small firm with a very reasonable billable hour requirement (which I still struggle to meet), but knowing that my fellow first year bills insane numbers all the time makes me worry that I should be doing more. I don’t blame him–if I was single with a steady supply of adderall I’d probably be a billing machine too. I just don’t know what to do.

      I don’t want to kill myself to keep up with him just so I don’t look bad by comparison for doing the minimum (the pay isn’t terrible, but it’s not enough to justify grinding out >40 billables/wk just because), but at the same time I worry that my bonus will be affected because, well, “If he can do all that, what do YOU do all day?” Sigh.

    • MeliaraofTlanth :

      I feel the exact same way. People tell me it gets easier the longer you’ve been there (I’ve been there about 4 months), but I’m not exactly seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.

      That, and I work for clients who are notoriously cheap and will refuse to pay if something took longer than they think it should have. Which basically means I have to get creative about splitting projects into annoyingly tiny increments, which then takes me forever to enter into the billing program.

      In short, I hate billing time.

      • It’s very important to develop good habits. I find that when I enter time daily, I capture much more of it than when I take a week or two of scrawled down notes and attempt to re-create the prior days. Also, totally second EMC’s advice, and especially the comment that’s easier to bill the time when you’re swamped with work. At just a few months in, it’s not at all unusual that you’re not at that point yet. I suspect that the longer you stick with it, the easier it will get to hit your targets.

        For the past 6 months or so, I have been using the timekeeping grid similar to what M in CA described above. I first found it when someone linked to it here (thanks, Corporettes!). It’s on this site — — along with some helpful articles and tips.

  26. IANAL. I have worked at several law firms in legal assistant/paralegal positions, and two of my siblings are lawyers. I do have a thought on the letter-writer’s particular situation, though, and that is to spend a year or two after your bachelor’s degree, if you can get a position, working in a law firm in a position that puts you in close contact with lawyers — secretary, assistant, paralegal. And be very open about the fact that you’re considering applying to law school but you’re not sure if the field is right for you.

    I say this because at a couple of the places I worked at, there were staff in exactly that situation. And several of the lawyers often went out of their way to show those folks what their work life was like and give them advice about law school and the career. The folks I know who took that path to law school seemed pretty grateful for the experience; it made at least one person I knew much more certain about law school and steered another away.

  27. Eight years in BigLaw, and reasonably happy (like the work, but the hours and stress can be killers). PLEASE think about working for at least a couple of years before law school: the legal job market is really not great right now, and what if you spend your 20s in law school and racking up debt, only to discover that you don’t like the law? I am glad there are so many happy lawyers posting here, but most of my happiest friends are ex-lawyers. Getting your feet wet in the world of full-time work will give you so much better perspective on what you really want to do with your life, whether that ultimately still means law school or something else.

    • Completely, absolutely second this. Like I said above, I am lucky to like it so much, and I can say that a relatively small percentage of those who went through school with me/worked with me over the years actually stuck with it.

  28. I have been practicing for 6 years and am not particularly happy. Like the writer, I stumbled on law. Not a huge fan of law school, but practice in a litigation firm was, for several years, great. Then a few things happened: I mastered the basic skills of lawyering so every day wasn’t such a quest just to be competent, I got enough experience to notice the shortcomings of the law (expensive for clients, jury trials produce random outcomes, and things move SO slowly) and I had kids. I’m now looking for a career change.

    My advice is this: talk to everyone who will talk to you who works in the law. Do it now, before you rack up a ton of debt. Talk to transactional lawyers, litigators, young and old lawyers, female lawyers with and without kids. Ask them what they really think of their jobs. See if any of the day-to-day sounds like something you can picture yourself doing. Take the time for this reflection before you start law school, which will narrow your focus and cause you to feel pressured into a traditional, long hours, competitive career. Your network will only help you down the line, when you eventually need to find a job inside or outside the law.

  29. This is timely. I just had my last prof responsibility class of the semester and the professor spoke about the problem of lawyers being unhappy. One of our readings argued that much of it has to do with the following fatal combination: (1) pessimism and (2) low decision latitude. Pessimism in the sense that as lawyers we tend to see the worst of all possibilities (which is a perk in our field bc we can better mitigate, but, unfortunately, it carries over to our everyday life). Low decision latitude bc as first year associates we don’t really have a choice. Anywho, I found it to be a very depressing and relevant class.

    See Seligman, Verkuil & Kang, “Why Lawyers Are Unhappy”
    23 Cardozo L. Rev. 33 (2001).

  30. Let me preface this by saying that I have been practicing for 4 whole weeks now, but YES, so far I am happy being a lawyer. I have an awesome job that I love. I am doing exactly what I set out to do, and can’t imagine a job I’d rather have.

    I have a fair amount of debt (6 figures), but I don’t stress out about that too much. Everyone has debt.

    In further disclosure: I also have parents who were able to help me out a TON throughout law school, still pay my mortgage, and basically supported me all throughout failing and re-taking the bar exam.
    Also – I don’t have a boyfriend, spouse, child, or any sort of person who depends on my outside of work. So if I have to work through dinner or work a 100 hour week during trial (which hasn’t happened yet, but will happen very soon), it’s no big deal, no one misses me (that sounds way sadder than it is, ha). If I come home from work and want to go to bed at 730, no one is bummed I’m missing dinner with them, etc.

    All this being said – I think I’m honestly the only one of my friends who feels this way. Pretty much everyone I know who has a job hates it, and there are still plenty of my friends who graduated in 2010 with me who don’t yet have full time work.

  31. Nice to read about happy lawyers. I’m a civil litigator for the government, 15+ years now, and love it as much today as when I first started. I have autonomy, great cases, nice co-workers, and flexibility. People keep mentioning how much research and writing there is, and that’s true, but for litigation, people skills are very important. I have negotiations to handle, witnesses to prepare, staff to lead, and opposing counsel to deal with. I like writing, but I really love getting into the field and meeting my witnesses, figuring out my case, getting immersed in the details and the facts.

    • Totally agree. Research and writing are a nice break when they come up, but it’s not the bulk of my work.

    • I have a similar job and the opposite temperament of you (Betty). I basically HATE “getting into the field.” Eight years in, I’m still searching for a litigation job that fits me better, and really, it might be that my personality is not cut out for it. Especially because with more seniority comes more dealing with clients, witnesses, and opposing counsel, and less of holing up in my office on Westlaw. I can’t imagine making the statements you did about what you love about litigating—- so maybe that helps explain why I don’t love litigating. I do love writing, though. Briefs are the bright spots.

      • So the lesson here is know thyself. As you are, not how you want to be, or should be.

      • BigLaw Refugee :

        I know someone who is currently 20+ years into her career and works for a small litigation firm that she founded with people she knew. They handle the clients and court appearances; she does nothing but write briefs. Everyone is happy. Just goes to show that part of crafting a happy lawyer life is knowing yourself and creating the job you want, instead of settling for a predefined path to “success.”

  32. I’m interested in broadening the scope and how the MBAs in the room feel about the reader’s questions. Was it worth it to take on debt for an MBA? What career change did it facilitate and are you happy with it?

    • Anonymous :

      I chose not to FWIW.
      $100k+ to expand my experience and grow as a professional didn’t seem worth it, and unless you’re in a top 3 program you’re not likely to buy yourself a better job. Banks are the only ones who seem to care if employees have the degree.
      My $0.02.

    • momentsofabsurdity :

      I will be taking on $70-100K of debt to attend a top tier (H/S/W) program next year. It is a LOT of money, especially as someone who has never been “in debt” before as I was in the lucky position of not needing to take out loans for undergrad.

      It is very scary. I’ve run things through loan calculators already to get a sense of what my monthly payments will have to be to cut down that debt and they are substantial. However, at a startup now I make fairly little, and with a reputable but not “head-turning” degree from my undergraduate institution, I think the networking and career advancement potential for me is substantial. I am also fairly young (24), and I think there is some element of diminishing returns for an MBA. If I was 30, I probably would not go. YMMV.

    • I’m guessing it’s too late for more comments here, but thanks for asking, Thursday! I’d love to see some answers to this.

      I’m 4 years into a financial career, but am thinking about whether I need to get a MBA — I’m being promoted fairly steadily (and I’m making good money) but I’d like to move into management, and I suspect the degree might help…

    • blue cupcakes :

      Yes, an MBA is for sure worth it if you want to switch careers or move to a more prestigious company. I’m am currently an MBA1 and there are a ton of companies recruiting, which I was surprised about how many companies since the economy is still iffy. Research the employment reports from the top MBA programs and decide if it makes sense for your story. I am very happy I chose to go back to school.

  33. karenpadi :

    I’m a 2005 law grad, now patent lawyer. I went straight through because I knew that I didn’t want to work as an engineer and the tech bubble burst a year before I graduated so there were no engineering jobs to be had anyway.

    It took working at 3 firms until I found my fourth. The first three firms were awful for reasons I won’t go into. I was one of those associates who end up on a therapist’s couch crying my eyes out.

    Now, I work for a great firm. As a job, it’s fine. Was it how I planned to live my life? No. Do I want to be a lawyer until I retire? No.

    I paid off most of my student loans and bought a house. I have 7 more years before I pay off the house (I bought way less house than I could afford, thank goodness) then I’m out of full-time practice. If I have kids, I might practice part-time (yes, I love my firm for having this as an option). If I don’t have kids, I have another career planned.

    It’s a job. It’s do-able because I am with a great firm and have great relationships with my clients.

    My advice: stay out of debt just to keep your options open.

    • Second this advice, as someone who didn’t stay out of debt and has limited options.

    • Wow, I am dying to ask you a million questions! I guess they all boil down to this — how did you trust the fourth “try”? After three bad firms, I’m impressed that you stuck with it. Your comment really resonates with me, and I’d love to hear more!

      • karenpadi :

        My fourth firm was highly recommended to me by a mentor who had gone in house and was working with the4th firm (and other firms) so he saw what a great firm it is.

        Honestly, because of my student loans, I couldn’t afford to leave law after firm 3. My initial plan was to work at firm 4 for about a year until I paid off the student loans and get out of law asap.

        This firm is really what made me see that the only way to eventually cut expenses to do what I really want to do in some comfort, I had to buy a house and pay it off. It was a trade-off: 8 more years of law and having less costs going forward vs taking a sub-optimal “not law” option to cover housing costs or moving out of the area.

        • karenpadi :

          I would add one thing: I think the happiest lawyers after ~5 years of practice are at firms where compensation/life balance can be determined by the attorney, not the firm.

          This could be an “eat what you kill” firm or a firm like mine where I determine my billing rate. At these firms, the attorneys have autonomy and power over their lives. In my experience, having control over one’s life is happiness.

  34. Anyone considering going to law school or considering giving advice to anyone going to law school really should read Paul Campos’ series on legal education on Lawyers, Guns and Money. This is the latest post:

    www . lawyersgunsmoneyblog . com / 2011 / 12 / losing-it

    (remove spaces for working link)

    The take-away message is that law school is a losing proposition because the market for legal services has imploded. Only 100 legal jobs were added across all of America in November, despite the thousands of JD-holding candidates with no work. In the long term, law schools will produce at least twice as many graduates as there will be job openings for lawyers.

    There’s no such thing as happiness in the legal profession because the chance of getting a legal job after graduating with 200K debt is 50/50 or worse.

    • I’m inclined to agree with you. For me, the professional disappointment has definitely been the worst part of being a lawyer.

      I guess it’s particularly hard because I’ve always had everything else so easy. (I assume this is true for most law-school-bound folks, so don’t take that as bragging.) School was easy, getting a college scholarship was easy, college was super-easy. Up to law school, I’d gotten every job that I have ever interviewed but one (which didn’t work out because of scheduling). I expected law school to be harder, and it was, but I really enjoyed it and was in the top 10% of my class. Yet, the job search was incredibly difficult (note that I had an easier time than many, as I’ve not truely been unemployed), and, although I like my current firm a lot, it is not anything like what I went to law school to do, and I’m still kind of bummed about that.

      It’s not that I’m not happy; I am. But there’s been a lot of disappointment associated with the law market.

    • Thanks for this!

      Asking whether happy lawyers exists begs the question that one will be able to get a job as a lawyer after finishing law school.

      Am Law Daily reported just the other day that 100 jobs were added in the American legal sector last month. Not a typo: — over 40,000 people graduate from American law schools every year (, and to say there aren’t enough jobs for everyone is an understatement.

      If you don’t know exactly what you’re going to do with your law degree; if you don’t have a full scholarship; if you can’t take the opportunity cost of having no income for 3 years; and if you don’t get into the top-tier school, then don’t go to law school, at least not now.

    • Don't believe the hype :

      To those of you considering law school – please take the time to read opinions other than those written by Campos. He has some good points hidden in his diatribes, but there have been a lot of trenchant critiques of his arguments and assertions.

  35. I JUST started practicing – in fact, yesterday marked my one-month anniversary with my organization. The following is my perspective on my path, and how/why this path has made me happy.

    First, I was one of those that was kind of “talked into” law school after undergrad. I wanted my Masters in Campaign Management, my mom lobbied for the far-more-practical JD. Mom’s argument won. I spent three years in between undergrad and law school working administrative positions at two different law firms. THIS WAS THE BEST THING I DID. It helped me firm up my decision to go to law school before committing countless hours to LSAT prep and a staggering amount of money to school. I had an idea of what real practice entailed, and I loved it!

    Second, like a previous commenter, I was NOT a fan of law school. While I love school in general, I’m the type that likes to find an answer, not rework the issue 5748957 times to see if it leads to a different result “just because.” My first two-ish years were awful, as it was primarily all theory. By the end of my second year, I was starting to take more skills-bases and practical classes, and that’s really when my love of the law came rushing back. I LOVE taking a client’s case, determining the issues, and helping them reach solutions to problems. I LOVE being in the courtroom. I LOVE making a phone call to opposing counsel and hashing out an agreement.

    Finally, while I know I still have that wet-behind-the-ears sense of awe, I do really love my job. I’m not 100% happy with it all day, every day. I don’t make a ton of money (and I knew I wouldn’t coming in), and I have clients that drive me NUTS. But I also have clients that express their gratitude that I took their case, and that I’m helping them get out of a bad situation. I can see, almost immediately, that I am truly helping people, and I LOVE that.

    I view my career like I view a good relationship: I might not be ecstatic with every aspect, every single minute of the day, and it takes a lot of work, but overall, I am genuinely happy. I am fulfilled by what I do for a career, and that fits in to a life I am happy with.

    • I agree with you! I worked at a law firm for 3 years full time before I ever went to law school, and I chose to go part time while still working full time at that job because I felt the real law job and law school combination would be a better fit. There have been zero surprises and I have no grandiose views of instant gratification or six figure pay out of school. I am in my last year of law school and i am COMPLETELY exhausted with not having a life for four years, but overall, I am happy with my decision. Going to law school is not easy. Not everyone can get into law school and many will never get the level of responsibility in their careers that attorneys have day in and day out. If you’re on this board talking about this at all, consider yourself lucky to be in that position which many desire but few can achieve, whether it has to do with life circumstances, finances, ability, or any other reason. I am 100% burned out at the moment but I feel like gratitude has helped out a lot. I think those that are unhappy in law have lost that sense of awe that they are doing what they’re doing or how challenging it really is, or perhaps they went into it never having that feeling in the first place.

  36. 4th year evening student here. Obviously, I don’t know yet if I’ll be happy practicing law, but it took me a long time to go to law school precisely because of the challenge that Kat mentioned above – I always knew I’d love going to law school, but I really wanted to wait to go until I could picture myself actually practicing law (law will be my 2nd career (I’ve spent 10+ years in technology).

    I’m also in my 30s, and the best advice I can give someone contemplating law school in this market is to wait. It breaks my heart to see my classmates taking out huge loans when they’re obviously going to have serious troubles getting jobs out of law school. Take a few years to work in the real world, make sure that law is really what you want to do, and learn how to live on an entry level non-law salary. Make sure you understand the value of all the dollars you’ll be borrowing – so that if and when you do go back to school you borrow only the minimum necessary. Law school debt is debt that will never go away. You will be stuck with it for the rest of the life. But law school will always be there, and you’ll appreciate it all the more.

  37. Anon today :

    I’m a happy lawyer. I’ve been practicing for about 7 1/2 years, all in the public sector. For the last 4 1/2 years, I’ve been at my state’s civil rights agency, and for the past 3 years, I’ve been in the appeals and litigation unit. I feel like I’m helping people, which was why I went to law school, and I enjoy the research and writing that my job requires.

  38. I agree with so many of the things in these comments. For background, I’m about 1.5 years into practice in a 15 attorney firm in a niche litigation area.

    (1) People who mentioned the people you work with are 110% correct. You will spend a signficant amount of your life at work, if you don’t like the people you work with, no matter what your substantive work is, you will be miserable.

    (2) I fall into the category of people who love practicing law, but didn’t really like law school. I didn’t hate it, I just didn’t care for it. For those of you who are currently students, when I got done and started studying for the bar exam, BARBRI’s method of just (god forbid) telling/teaching you the rules and exceptions was AMAZING. I wish all of law school had been like that.

    (3) I’m currently working on not derving so much of my identity from work. Being well rounded helps keep things in perspective.

    (4) You will work. Alot. I’m certainly not required to bill 8 hours a day, but I still work from 7am to 6pm most days, eat lunch quickly at my desk, and work weekends once or twice a month. Part of this is due to thoroughly enjoying the people I work with and at times spending time talking to them.

    One of my law school professors gave a great lecture at the end of our last year, here are some of his key points:

    (1)WORK: be efficient so that you have time in your life for 2-5 below. To be efficient, while at work, do only work, unless you’re in trial, leave your work at work. When you are just starting out, you need to work harder than the older attorneys, accept every assignment, finish it earlier than required and do a better job than they expected. (My note: some of this is ideal and I don’t always follow these “rules”)

    (2) FAMILY: this is THE most important thing in life, schedule time alone with your spouse, text kids quickly during the day so they know you’re thinking of them and also, take vacations. He worked in big law and said that he didn’t take a vacation his first 3 years and not only did it fry his brain, no one even noticed he had forgone vacations.

    (3) HEALTH: exercise, eat well, don’t drink coffee all day long, and mentally, you need to make time alone for yourself.

    (4) FRIENDS: have at least some friends who are not lawyers. (my note: after practicing for a bit, it seems like it could be really easy to get wrapped up into a network of lawyers and judges you see regularly, then your work is your world, having friends that know nothing about what you do are fabulous).

    (5) SPIRIT: Have a purpose in life, both in general and for your work. You need to feel like your work matters. Also, if you are religious, attend whatever it is you recognize.

  39. Just like Legally Fabulous I have to qualify what I’m about to say: I’ve been practicing for a whole 3 for weeks now. That said, I work as in-house counsel and have never been happier. I feel happy because every day brings something new and nothing gets routine. As much time as I have to spend doing boring tasks like reviewing contracts, I spend just as much time going to meetings, assisting on projects and giving opinions. Rarely have i had a day thus far where I’ve just been sitting behind my desk the whole time. I should also note that I’m not making nearly as much as my colleagues in firms, but that isn’t a huge consideration to me.

    I did, however, do the doc review/contract work thing for awhile and never enjoyed it- I found it neither intellectually stimulating nor steady. Best of luck going forward!

  40. hopeful ex-pat :

    I asked this a couple of days ago late in a thread, but does anyone have experience getting a law degree abroad and coming back to the States for an LLM to be eligible to take the Bar?

    • There are a ton of Israelis and Canadians who take this path, so it’s doable. Many states do not allow LLMs to sit for their bar, but NY does. Honestly, though, unless you’re planning to ultimately practice in the country where you do your law degree, I’m not sure why you’d do this.

    • I have relatives who have gone to college abroad and now are practicing attorneys in Ameria. NY and California both allow non-JDs to sit the bar. One of my relatives actually practices in Atlanta but only in federal court. To date, no one has had an issue finding a job and everyone has thriving practices (although they all came over 5+ years ago.)

      The country that my family is from actually has a program in its largest city which is basically barbri for people with degrees from that country. It focuses on the differences and similarities in the legal systems, etc.

    • I think it depends on what your plans are after you’re admitted. If you want to practice in the U.S., I don’t know that I would do it — I’m not an employer, but if I were in a prospective employer’s position, I would look very warily at a (presumably) American candidate who chose to get an LL.B. overseas without a compelling personal reason instead of doing the conventional J.D. and studying abroad. If you want to practice overseas with American bar admission, I don’t have an opinion, but you’ll want to check the employment immigration laws there very closely before you enroll.

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