The Realities and Myths of Practicing Law

A male lawyer talking in a courtroom in front of a jury
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Disenchantment with the practice of law isn't a new phenomenon. A particularly comprehensive and frequently cited survey by the American Bar Association performed indicated in 1995 that a significant 65% of practicing attorneys were considering a job change within the next two years.

Numerous and less extensive studies in the years since indicated similar results. A 2008 survey by the American Bar Association found that almost half of the lawyers surveyed were dissatisfied with their careers. Then, some 10 years later, a study of more than 11,000 members of the State Bar of Texas put the number at just 13.5%.

A lot can depend on having a realistic understanding of what you're getting into so you can avoid letdowns and unpleasant surprises. Gaining insight into the day-to-day life of working in a particular legal specialty or practice environment is crucial to determining whether the job would be a good fit for you.

It's a Guaranteed Path to Financial Success...Or Is It?

Most highly-compensated attorneys are employed in the world’s mega-firms, those with more than 101 attorneys. But these firms represent only about 1% of all law firms, according to the American Bar Foundation’s Lawyer Statistical Report. And most mega-firms are extremely selective in their hiring process, choosing only the top students from the most prestigious law schools.

The vast majority of lawyers work in lower-paying venues, including small firms, public interest, and for the government. In fact, 83% of all lawyers who work in private practice are employed in firms of fewer than 50 lawyers, according to the National Association for Law Placement (NALP).

The public sector ranks among the lowest-paying practice environments, but attorneys employed here reported the most career satisfaction.

How Much Do Lawyers Work?

Billable hour quotas at many "BigLaw" firms require that lawyers work a minimum of 80 hours a week, and they're required to be on call even when they're not technically working. That big-firm paycheck might not seem so generous when you compare your hours worked to your monthly salary, and family and personal difficulties can result from such a consistently heavy workload as well.

Law firm lawyers must track their time in six to fifteen-minute increments throughout the day, a painstaking but necessary task.

Eradicating Injustice and Effecting Social Change

Litigation has little to do with virtue triumphing over evil, and everything to do with advocating your client’s position based on the facts and applicable law.

Judicial decisions aren't so much about the pursuit of justice as they are about reaching a compromise between all parties. Judicial policy also affects many case decisions. Two out of every three lawyers surveyed reported concern that the court system they serve is becoming too political, according to an ABA survey.

You'll Be a Great Lawyer If You're Good at Arguing

Litigation is an adversarial process, but legal advocacy is not about “arguing” in the traditional sense of the word. It's not about engaging in a verbal battle with your opponent, but rather persuading your audience—judge, mediator, or jury—through a logical, well-researched, well-reasoned discussion based on the facts and the law.

A track record of “winning arguments” is not as important as top-notch oral advocacy and writing skills when it comes to succeeding as a litigator.

It's Rarely a Thrilling, High-Powered, Glamorous Life

The majority of the work of trial attorneys occurs outside the courtroom. In fact, only 1% to 2% of all civil cases actually proceed to trial, according to the American Bar Association. The vast majority are settled out of court or through alternative methods of dispute resolution, which are often required by state legislatures before a case is permitted to proceed to court.

The daily life of the average trial lawyer is quite unglamorous as a result. Trial lawyers spend much of their time in the discovery stage of the litigation, reviewing pleadings, drafting and answering discovery requests, meeting with clients, and taking depositions.

The work of a trial lawyer is very research- and writing-intensive. Much of the work involves drafting briefs, memorandums of law, and motions. Litigators spend many long hours engaged in tedious document gathering and review, determining if it each must be turned over to the court and to the other party.

The Work of a Lawyer Is Intellectually Challenging

Law practice can be intellectually rigorous, but much of a lawyer’s work is actually mundane and repetitive. New lawyers, especially those in large firms, are often charged with the mind-numbing tasks of document review, cite checking, and routine research.