I whine a fair bit about the legal profession. Occasionally someone asks me what I would have done differently if I could go back and start over. Of course, the trite answer is “be an optometrist.” (Some neat things about being an optometrist: (i) you get to wear a white coat; (ii) the hours are fairly regular; (iii) you rarely have to worry about getting sued for prescribing the wrong lenses; and (iv) according to Dr. Google, your average salary will be higher than the average salary of a lawyer.)
But, in the interest of trying to provide some useful information to those starting out, here are some of the things that I would tell my younger self if I could go back in time:
- Straighten yourself out psychologically before you go anywhere near a law firm. Law firms will take your psychological weaknesses and magnify and exploit them. Read some self-help books. Get some counselling. Understand who you are, what you want to do, and what your level of confidence is. Fix yourself up. Especially the confidence thing.
- Choose an area of practice which lines up with your personality and your life goals.
- Read all about the legal profession. Understand the different career paths that are available. Big Law is not like working inhouse which is not like working for government which is not like working for a small firm which is not like going solo. None of them are better than the others. Some of them just have larger marketing budgets which they use to sell you on the idea that your life will be better if you work for them. It is a load of nonsense. Don’t fall for it.
- Either understand that developing a client base is an essential part of private practice and get comfortable with that, or don’t work in private practice.
- Some people are miserly miserable miscreants. Don’t work for them. Don’t be partners with them. Don’t be their lawyer. Life is too short for putting up with other people’s baggage.
- If you are going into private practice, try to work for someone who gives a damn about you, and not just about maximizing their own income.
- Law firms may all look alike on the outside but they are all different on the inside. Firm culture is everything. Find a firm with a culture that does not suck.
- Meet with lawyers who are doing the type of work which you (probably wrongly) think you want to do at the type of firm for which you (probably incorrectly) think you want to work. Talk to them about what their work life is like. More importantly, speak to them about how their work life affects their personal life. Understand what you are getting into.
- There are three ways to make money in private practice. The least fun method is to bill many, many hours. The most fun route is to have a tonne of clients. The third approach is to be so brilliant that people want you just because of your intellect. There are very few people who are that smart. You probably are not one of them. For obvious reasons, I have no idea whether that approach is fun or not.