10 reasons not to become a lawyer

By all accounts, Thomas More was a good lawyer and good trade negotiator in Europe (a skill that we need now) but was less successful dealing with his boss.

In the last few days, there has been a discussion on LinkedIn about how difficult it is to qualify and practise as a lawyer, and how certain individuals have been successful despite the strong advice they received from careers advisers  and others to avoid this path.

IP Draughts’ view is that is important to be realistic about one’s chances. And about the opportunities that a legal qualification may provide, even if the career path doesn’t end up with you becoming President of the Law Society or Chairman of the Bar Council.

IP Draughts recalls the very strong advice he and others received, as students, to avoid the Bar. Often this advice was from practising barristers. The underlying message seemed to be that the chances of becoming a successful barrister were very low, and unless you were extraordinarily talented and had enormous reserves of resilience, you should find an alternative career path. The advice was kindly meant, but usually ignored, including by IP Draughts.

The statistical unlikelihood of becoming a practising barrister was emphasised during IP Draughts’ Bar Finals year (now the BVC), when approximately 1,500 students were crammed into a building off High Holborn that was designed, so he was told, for 1,000. The 1,500 had already survived one whittling process, as the numbers applying to the Inns of Court School of Law were a large multiple of the numbers accepted. At the time (the early 1980s) only a small number – a few dozen? – of the people who completed the Bar Finals course were taken on as tenants in chambers each year.

Recent complaints about the law schools taking money off students who have no hope of qualifying seem to imply this is a recent phenomenom. IP Draughts’ experience is that it has been going on for generations, at least on the barrister side of the profession.

The Bear Garden, part of the Royal Courts of Justice

As it turned out, IP Draughts was successful in obtaining a pupillage, after interviews with several chambers. He just ‘clicked’ with the barrister who was interviewing him, on a day when he (IP Draughts) was on good form. Probably rightly, the chambers didn’t offer him a tenancy at the end of his 12-months pupillage. Although he received some good feedback about his written work, and generally got on well with clients, he wasn’t sufficiently comfortable in his own skin for the performance levels required in court, in chambers, and in the clerks’ room (the biggest bear pit of all). About half of the pupils in IP Draughts’ chambers obtained tenancies, some in other chambers after further periods of pupillage.

The contrast, when IP Draughts obtained a job in industry at the end of his pupillage, was astonishing. Overnight, he went from being a junior know-nothing to the in-house legal expert. Three years later, there was another major shift, when he joined a firm of specialist IP solicitors.

With these experiences in mind, IP Draughts offers the following 10 reasons not to become a lawyer and, in some cases, not to spend money on obtaining legal qualifications. (The money was less of an issue in IP Draughts day: first degrees were free of charge, and the Scottish Education Department exercised their discretion to pay for IP Draughts’ Bar Finals course to qualify as an English barrister, for which – 35 years later – he remains both surprised and grateful.)

The purpose of this list is not to dissuade anyone from pursuing a legal career, but rather to ensure that the would-be lawyer goes into the process with their eyes fully open to the risks. If you are new to the legal world, some of these points may not be obvious.

  1. Are you bright enough and can you look objectively at yourself? Sorry, but it has to be said: hard work is not enough. You need to be bright – well above the average for graduates. You also need to be clear-headed and objective in assessing whether your level of intelligence is sufficient for success as a lawyer, particularly in the areas of comprehension, reasoning, analytical and communication skills. Many people find it hard to be objective; if you can’t do this, you are unlikely to make a good lawyer. As this blog has previously commented, many job applicants don’t seem to have the requisite skills.
  2. Do you care the right amount about the law? If you intend to practise as a laywer, it is important to be interested in law as a subject, but also to regard it as a professional ‘tool of the trade’ for providing a professional service, rather than an end in itself. It is essential to understand and uphold the ethical and professional standards of the legal profession. But too much interest in law for its own sake can get in the way of providing a professional service. If you want to be a ‘pure’ lawyer you may need to go into academia or find a role where the law itself is the central focus, eg working for the Law Commission. Equally, if you just want to earn lots of money and couldn’t care less about the law as a subject, becoming a lawyer is probably not the best route to follow.
  3. Are you comfortable with process work? There are several trends. Increasingly, legal jobs are becoming automated, e.g. law firms use office templates for contracts much more than when IP Draughts qualified. And some legal jobs are all about the process, with limited scope for pure legal work. Whether in the field of M&A, conveyancing, company formation or financing transactions, many law firms make their money from their reputation in following a process, rather than for their legal expertise. IP Draughts has been accused of practising as an artisan, as though (to follow an analogy) making individual, hand-crafted loaves of bread is a quaint irrelevance in the 21st century, compared with the mass market, factory-production of sliced white. But even he gets involved with work where processes are important, eg in the field of data protection. Newbie lawyers need to be okay with following processes, or find themselves a niche where this is less important.
  4. Are you comfortable working in a hierarchical environment? Nowadays the world of law is not quite as rigidly hierarchical as in the famous Class sketch from the 1960s. But there are still areas where it is expedient to “know one’s place”. When IP Draughts first started in practice, if a partner and associate attended a client meeting, it was not unusual for the associate to be entirely silent for the entire meeting. Some clients expect to deal with a partner. Some lawyers are, regrettably, very old-fashioned in their social attitudes. Some judges are unpleasant to counsel and ‘put them down’. It gets better over time, but some of these attitudes remain. You don’t have to be like that, but you need to be able to cope with that type of environment, if you encounter it.
  5. Can you work with other lawyers? Linked to the above point, are you comfortable working with other lawyers, including judges before whom you may appear in court? IP Draughts has found that, in general, IP lawyers are a good bunch of people, probably better to deal with than the average lawyer. But some are hard work.
  6. Can you work with (non-lawyer) clients? In his brief career as a barrister, IP Draughts found that he was better at working with clients in the corridor outside the court room than in standing up in court before the judge and arguing his case. Nowadays, with greater experience and maturity, he is comfortable dealing with most people. Depending on what your legal role is, you may have more or less exposure to commercial or private clients, or to other lawyers and judges. Are you good at dealing with non-lawyers? If not, certain areas of law will not be good for you.
  7. Do you have enough stamina and resilience? You may have to fail a few times in your chosen ambitions, and move on, before you achieve what you want and what you are suited to do. Some people sail into their chosen careers but most of us do not. There are more forgiving environments than the law. And in some legal work environments you may find yourself stretched to the limit, in terms of the amount of work you are asked to do. For example, US law firms have a reputation for paying well but pushing their junior lawyers to their limits. Do you have enough stamina and resilience for the law?
  8. Can you afford to become a lawyer? Nowadays, students take on debt when undertaking university and vocational courses. There is no point in doing so unless either (a) you have a real vocation for becoming, in this case, a lawyer, or (b) you will make enough money in practice to make a decent return on your investment. Which leads on to:
  9. Will you make enough money? The range of earnings of lawyers is large – much larger, say, than that of airline pilots who are mostly within a fairly narrow band. You may be earning less than the minimum wage, trying to keep a small legal aid practice afloat, or you may be a millionaire partner in a leading City law firm. Most of us are somewhere between the two, nearer the former than the latter. If you are at least partly motivated by money, what are the chances of being well-off? The public perception of lawyers’ incomes is often very ill-informed.
  10. If law is a qualification rather than a career, are there better alternatives? If you are planning to qualify as a lawyer but not practise as one, why do you want to qualify as a lawyer? Are there alternatives that may be more suited to your circumstances or make you more attractive to an employer, e.g. in some cases, doing an MBA? The traditional status of a legal qualification may not count for much in (some parts of) the modern world.





Filed under Legal practice

2 responses to “10 reasons not to become a lawyer

  1. Thanks for this Mark. I’m in my sixth year of practice and quite like my job, but it’s impossible not to notice how many of my former classmates can’t muster more than a resigned “eh, it’s ok” when asked about their career choice. I often wonder, if someone asked me if they should go to law school, what I would tell them. The analysis might be a little different here in Canada, where the path to being a practicing lawyer is perhaps longer but more predictable, but for the most part I think your suggestions above would still be very applicable. Point 7 in particular rings true. I don’t think my ego has ever taken such a beating as it did in law school and my first year of practice.

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