Law Students and Young Lawyers

Show Me the Money

“Youth is always impatient, even though, ironically, youth alone has time for patience.”

Lucilla Andrews

In my new pastime as a cynical commentator on aspects of the legal profession which I whole-heartedly embraced and profited from for many years, I speak to quite a few folks at the early stages of their careers. I try to think back to when I shared their enthusiasm and optimism, but frankly it was way too long ago.

The one morsel of wisdom which I impart to the young folks that generates the most resistance is that there are more important things to focus on at the outset of their career than money. In response, they tell me about student loans, the cost of rent and houses, and other stuff.

Although none of them say it out loud, having learned to read between the lines over decades practicing law, I am pretty sure that they are thinking, “it is so nice of you to call me from wherever you are travelling in the world to tell me not to focus on money.  It is easy to say when you have some.”

I guess that I can see their point, especially in today’s world of high interest rates and higher cost of living. But there’s a different type of investment to consider.

There is a world of hurt waiting for young people out there in private practice. Much of it can be avoided by the following very simple (but not necessarily easy) steps, which I call the “Prime Directive”:

  1. Get good at what you do.
  2. Work with great people.
  3. Develop a client base.
  4. Make time to stay physically and mentally healthy.

Choosing job opportunities based primarily on how much money you will make is frequently not consistent with these goals. For example, jobs in Big Law may pay the most money, and some of them will undoubtedly allow you to work with great people and also provide mentoring and experience to help you get good at what you do.  However, many will do neither and make it difficult to develop a client base or to take time to stay healthy. Ten years in, having made (and spent) a lot of that great salary, they find that they have been churning out paper for others, with little client base, less satisfaction with the work they have been doing, and nowhere to go.

Of course, you can also find employment which will neither make you much money, nor achieve the Prime Directive.

I tell my young friends that, provided that they can pay down their student debt and cover their basic living expenses, in the early years of their career they should prioritize the Prime Directive and that the money will follow eventually.

For example, I recently spoke to a young lawyer who is thinking about working in an environment which, in the short term, would require her to take a cut in pay, but which will provide phenomenal training, position her as an expert in her field, and let her choose her opportunities. To me it is a no-brainer. Take the pay cut for a few years. Become an expert. Then do whatever you want to do.

My young friend is thinking about it.

Perhaps I can be convinced that money can buy happiness. But I know for certain that not achieving the Prime Directive is practically guaranteed to buy misery.

This article was originally published by Law360 Canada, part of LexisNexis Canada Inc.

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