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Friday, March 5, 2021

4 Terrible Reasons to Become a Lawyer

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Lots of people decide, or want, to do a law degree. But in light of the massive numbers of lawyers leaving the profession within 5 years of starting their careers, I can’t help but think that many are commencing their law degrees for entirely the wrong reasons.

lawyer leaving the office unemployed

Who Cares?

If you’re going to sink $50k or more into a legal degree, and you decide within a few years that was a dumb decision then you’ve just thrown $50k (plus interest) down the drain.

You’ve also spent 3 – 5 years of your life studying subjects that are largely useless in any other area (despite what people might tell you).

As with any career, aspiring lawyers need to make smarter, well-informed decisions.

At the very least, you need to find a good reason to become a lawyer that you can hold on to for the long term. Not a fleeting fancy that keeps you energised for a few days that will be followed by 10 years of hating your life.

So let’s do what we can to help you identify some really terrible reasons to become a lawyer – the ones that won’t last the distance.

#1 – Because Lawyers Earn Lots of Money

There are some people who are going to tell you that “it’s OK if money is your motivation”. I’m not one of them.

There are a number of problems with this reasoning:

  1. It’s wrong – for many years, you are not going to earn that much money. You might also find yourself unemployed regularly, in a smaller firm that pays less, or even (like I did) in the middle of a Global Financial Crisis with consequential pay freezes.
  2. It’s misguided – if you’re clever and hard working, you can earn considerably more money, faster, by doing any number of other things than studying law and working as a young lawyer. The opportunity cost of studying law and working your way up the ranks is massive – over that time entire multi-million dollar businesses have been built while you earn a fairly modest (although comfortable) salary.
  3. It’s neverending – the last problem with this reason is that it’s impossible to satisfy. You’ll be chasing “lots of money” for your whole life, while the fortnightly pay increases slowly and you incur more debts, get more stuff and generally flesh out your belongings. But there’s always “I wonder what next year’s pay rise will be” or once you’re an owner “how much can I draw this year?”.

This is a short lived, weak motivator that simply will not get you through your legal career. You will quickly become disillusioned and leave for greener pastures if this is your primary motivator. You will also become cynical and start practising law like it’s a game to be played, rather than a service to be delivered.

#2 – Because The Show “Suits” Looks Exciting

I know you’re not an idiot.

I know that, intellectually, you have told yourself “I understand that a legal career isn’t like suits”.

Because I also know that without a good framework of what a legal career is like, you can’t really fill in that void. As a result, somewhere in the back of your head is this nagging feeling that, just maybe, legal practice might bear some resemblance to your favourite legal TV show.

Maybe there will be an office full of hot girls/guys who all dress well (despite their poor incomes)?

Maybe I’ll be involved in exciting midnight injunctions on a regular basis?

Maybe I’ll get to drink good whiskey and smoke cigars on the balcony at the end of each day?

Maybe my days will be filled with fast paced witty banter?

Rather than telling you what you already know (that a legal career isn’t like Suits) I want to encourage you to fill the void by finding out what a legal career is actually like, rather than just guessing.

#3 – Because a Law Degree is a Useful All-Round Degree

This nonsense seems to have been trotted out by a few organisations recently, and some people seem to swallow it hook, line and sinker. To me it seems to be a platitude that is used to help unemployed young law graduates feel better about the massive investment they have just made without being able to find a job at the end of it.

Here it is from the University of Queensland course page under the helpful heading “What can you do with a Bachelor of Laws“:

UQ law graduates enjoy exceptional success in the employment market. Many law graduates enter into private practice as a barrister or solicitor. Others work as corporate lawyers for large firms, legal officers in the public service, community lawyers or in a wide range of positions outside the legal profession.”

Now surely as you read this it doesn’t sound entirely convincing, does it? Firstly, it’s so generic that you should immediately be on guard – there are no figures here, no percentages, and a bunch of superlatives like “exceptional success”. I’m not saying that educational institutions are lying to you – I’m saying that you need to be careful what blanks in the information you fill in with hopeful expectation, rather than actual facts.

Could you do something else after a law degree? Sure – of course you could.

But, once again, it’s a question of opportunity cost. You could do those other things WITHOUT doing a law degree too. Plus you could probably do them faster and cheaper, without having to engage in a bunch of completely irrelevant study in the meantime.

Let me say it out aloud for you:

A Law Degree is NOT a Useful All-Round Degree

The easiest way for me to demonstrate this is to take a look at the subjects that you’re going to be exposed to in a law degree (this is from the University of Queensland course list – I should emphasise that I’m not UQ bashing here, it just happens to be the info I found most easily):

UQ law list courses


Just read the list and ask yourself “if I go in to [politics, management, entrepreneurship, business] will I use [foundations of property law, jurisprudence, law of evidence, torts]?”.

For each time you answer “no” calculate:

  • the cost in dollars of that subject; and
  • the total time it will take you to study, and pass, that subject (let’s say at least 5 hours a week for the duration of the semester).

The total of those things is your opportunity cost – it’s the time you are completely wasting if you’re considering law without wanting to become a lawyer.

#4 – Because I Like Arguing/Did Debating at School

I actually hear this fairly often, as it seems to be a common reason that students decide that a legal career might be right for them.

Unfortunately, I suspect it’s connected with #2 above (Because Suits Looks Exciting) and is based on a misconception of what lawyers actually do during their average day.

Your ability to debate or argue with someone is, at best, a peripheral matter to your success as a lawyer.

Far more important than your ability to argue is the ability to persuade. Persuasion is a dramatically different skill to arguing.

After all – you might need to persuade a client of something, but that doesn’t mean you should argue with them.

The rules of debating are different. It’s true that you might adapt some useful skills in debating (irrespective of whether you become a lawyer or something else entirely). But in reality, being good at debating is a tiny part of the overall legal process, and if that is your primary rationale for becoming a lawyer, you’re going to find it a frustrating experience.

The reality of a lawyer’s day is that you’re going to be doing things like:

  • reading emails
  • taking notes
  • doing research
  • reading client documents
  • writing lists
  • going to internal meetings.

Might you do some arguing? Of course.

Will it be a big part of your day? Not really.

Finally (and I’m sorry to do this to you) in most cases the correctness or persuasiveness of a particular argument makes very little difference to the outcome of anything. Opposing lawyers will never admit to agreeing with you, and decisions are consistently made on commercial rather than legal grounds.

So it’s great that you’re all exciting about how awesome your arguing skills are – but don’t let that trap you into thinking a legal career is a great path for you.

What Else?

That’s my top 4 terrible reasons for people to become lawyers, but I’m confident there are many more.

What are yours? Have you heard some shockers in your own discussions? Let us know in the comments!

Happy Lawyering!

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