It’s not always a bad thing that the profession is seeing people leaking out of it in the early years. In fact – sometimes it’s better.
Oh It’s So Sad that People are Leaving Law
Here’s how is often starts – I’ll be talking to someone and about how many lawyers leave the profession so quickly in the first few years.
They’ll say something like, “Yeah, it’s such a pity, that’s a terrible thing”.
I’m not so sure. Not every young lawyer that leaves law needs to be a cautionary tale.
Sometimes it can be a good thing.
Statistics can Prove Anything – 9/10 people know that
You’ve heard the statistics probably: lots and lots of lawyers leave the profession within the first few years of practice.
In almost every context I see them, the question is always about the numbers. They look at who’s leaving (gender in particular) and when.
I think we’re not necessarily asking the right questions. It’s not inherently a bad thing for someone to leave the legal profession (or any profession) within the first few years of legal practice, because across the entire playing field there will be many many different reasons why people are leaving the profession in the first few years. Some of those reasons are actually good ones.
If You Don’t Want to Be Here – Then Don’t Be Here
If you have decided that law is not for you, then it’s much better if you leave (for you, and for the profession).
I’m not talking about when it’s because of the kind of training you’re getting or because you’ve experienced some bad things, but by and large if you are genuinely disliking the practice of law and what it entails – then perhaps you should leave.
Every year, every five years, every 10 years that you stay in the profession that you hate, is inevitably going to decrease your levels of satisfaction with your life. You’re going to be dragging yourself into work every day and, frankly, in a job as hard as what a lawyer can be, that’s not exactly an ideal situation.
So, let’s start with this fundamental premise:
Only people who actually want to be lawyers, should stay in the profession.
Within that big statement, we’ve got to think about a few things.
In particular we’ve got to think about this: why is it that people when they become lawyers, suddenly realise that in fact they don’t want to be lawyers?
Sometimes that happens in the first few months. Or the first year. Then it takes them a few years to realise that it’s not necessarily changing for the better and so they leave.
And the reason is often that they don’t know what it is they’re getting themselves in for in the first place.
Why Are you Even Here?
If I ask many young lawyers “Why did you study law in the first place?”, there are going to be a variety of answers.
I’ve asked a lot of people this question and so I’m always interested in wildly varying answers.
Trying to Help People?
Sometimes we get people who were genuinely interested in helping a certain category of people. They’ve had some experiences in their life or they have a particular passion, and they want to help some particular category of people.
So let’s follow them through on their path for a minute.
These people did a law degree, so they studied law (which is very different from the practise of law). They studied law in order to achieve a goal – which was getting the piece of paper that would give them permission to then practise in a way that would help the people.
It’s a long-term plan. It takes a lot of grind and it takes a lot of hard work to get that piece of paper. And that piece of paper only allows you to start to help the people in the way that you had anticipated helping.
What a lot of people who had “helping people” as their goal find is that they don’t have the same opportunity they were hoping for.
What do I mean?
I mean there’s an expectations mismatch. They went in a little idealistic about what they might be able to achieve or the job they might be able to get, and they come out the other end and they can only get one job in one firm in one particular location who doesn’t even practise in the area that allows them to help the people in the way they thought.
Then they need to decide: is this sufficiently meeting the goal that I set for myself when I wanted to study law in the first place?
Or is this so far removed from what it is that I had anticipated that in fact I should leave the law, and find another way to help those people or pursue that goal?
Perhaps they were unrealistic, perhaps the landscape changed. It’s not a blame game, but it could be right for them to leave the law if that was their situation.
It Doesn’t Mean Law is Evil
That doesn’t necessarily mean that law is evil. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the person went crazy.
It just means that they’re making good decisions, because they shouldn’t stay in the career.
The Suits Problem (again)
There are people out there who despite every piece of common sense available to them, somewhere in their subconscious continue to believe that legal practice is like you see it in television.
Yes, from Suits, from Boston Legal, from The Firm, from L.A. Law (depending on what generation you’re from).
Now nobody actually thinks consciously to themselves that legal practice is like that. But we are influenced by watching these things and somewhere just in the back of our head we think that maybe, just maybe, legal practice is like what we see. So what happens then?
We go into study law and we think, when I get out of studying law I’m going to be this high powered, all knowledgeable graduate who has all this information because that’s what I’ve seen people are like on TV.
Then you get into legal practice and you realise that in fact it bears no resemblance to that.
There’s a lot more paperwork, there’s a lot more administration. There’s a lot more meetings that aren’t actually that interesting.
So you then need to think, is this so far removed from my expectation of reality, that I should leave the law and pursue something else?
Is it something that if I stick with it for a bit longer it will get better because life as a junior lawyer is different to life as a senior lawyer? Perhaps I need to keep trucking, and just get through those early years?
The Biggest Problem
Inherent in these issues is a big problem. Personally I think it’s a big contributor to why a lot of people are leaving law.
Put simply: at the time they started their law degree there was a complete ignorance about what legal practice was actually like.
Partly that is because there’s not a lot of information out there. Partly it’s because it’s very hard to describe what legal practice is actually like to a third party (but it’s not impossible).
The Best Advice an Aspiring Lawyer can Get
If you’re in your senior years and you’re interested in law I think one of the most valuable things you can do is this: find a lawyer, find someone who does what you hope to do and ask them what it’s really like.
Don’t just say, “Hey do you like being a lawyer?”. They’ll say, yes or no or maybe or sometimes and you’ll be no better informed than you were before.
Ask them what they do during the day. Get them to explain a few days to you, ask them, “What’d you do on Monday, “what’d you do on Tuesday, what’d you do on Wednesday?”.
Get them to break it down. What is a day actually like as a lawyer? What happens? How much contact do you have with clients? How many lunches do you have in a week at fancy restaurants? How much paperwork do you do? How many meetings do you have about marketing, and admin, and things that you might not necessarily find that interesting?
Of course, you’re going to be taking up some of their time so hopefully it’s someone you either know well, or who at least is prepared to volunteer that time for you.
You need to drill down if the exercise is going to be useful. So respect them, and do it properly – don’t waste their time with inane questions.
Leaving Because your Firm Sucks
This reason for leaving practice isn’t so great.
People study law, they enjoy it. They might get some work experience, and then they get a job – and they get lumbered with people that aren’t great people.
Law, like every profession, is full of a wide variety of personalities. Some of them are not very good to work for.
Unfortunately, for a very junior lawyer this can be a highly damaging experience. For some it is damaging enough that they leave the law.
Some lawyers are horrible people. I don’t know many of them to be honest, most lawyers given half a chance to be decent people will be decent people. But they might be decent people but terrible managers, and they can be very hard to work for as well.
So, what are you going to do in that situation? Obviously jobs are few and far between at the moment. You might not be able to get another job in short order, and that’s going to make things very challenging for you.
When you have invested four or five years of your life, and a decent chunk of money into studying law I think it’s important that you take a little bit of time to assess: is the way you are being treated really fundamental to your experience of law?
Don’t create a norm out of your experience. Just because you’re experiencing something terrible in a particular situation doesn’t mean that every situation will be like that.
Perhaps what you need to do is duck out of that situation. Yes it’s going to be hard to find a job but your longer-term success, and your longer-term mental health frankly, might depend on that.
But I encourage you not to convince yourself that what you’re experiencing now is going to be the same as what you experience everywhere. There are a wide variety of places to work, a wide variety of people to work for.
Be bold in those sorts of decisions. If you need to make a move make a move.
But if law is not for you, and you’re not for it – then don’t be afraid to leave. Nobody wins if you stay.
So, unless I’ve convinced you to leave….