Should I Become a Lawyer? Some Advice from the Author of Best Friends at the Bar

Susan Smith BlakelyToday I’m very excited to have Susan Smith Blakely, author of Best Friends at the Bar: What Women Need to Know about a Career in the Law, here to talk about the challenges women face in the legal profession, and how they can be overcome.

Susan has another book coming out soon, so keep an eye out for that! Now, without further ado…

Alison: I’m considering going to law school, but I’m concerned about the impact such a demanding career path will have on my life. What should I think about or do, before I apply to law school, to make sure this is the right career for me?

You are correct in anticipating that law school and the practice of law will be demanding. However, all things worth doing and having — like going to law school and having a law degree — take hard work and dedication. If that sounds like a level of commitment that you are not prepared for, you should think twice about spending money and effort in law school.

Attending law school, including tuition, books and room and board, can cost upwards to $150,000, and many students will have to take out student loans to afford that investment. However, it is an investment in your future, and it can definitely be worth it if you have the right amount of commitment and dedication and do some important planning.

You also are correct in asking these questions and addressing your concerns before law school.

I wish more young women would do this, and, for that very reason, I am looking forward to addressing undergraduate women at the National Conference for Women College Leaders in June. I hope that this experience will lead to many more opportunities to address women in undergraduate schools. That really is the place to start, but you also should continue to rethink these issues early and often.

Planning is the key so that you are not blindsided at some time during law school or afterwards by unexpected circumstances.

My books, Best Friends at the Bar: What Women Need to Know about a Career in the Law and Best Friends at the Bar: The New Balance for Today’s Woman Lawyer (Aspen Publishers, expected to be released July 2012) are all about preparing for and planning a career in the law and finding the balance that you will need in your career.

The books provide background about the legal profession and give readers an idea of what a legal career entails.

In addition to giving valuable information, I also encourage young women law students and lawyers to anticipate their future needs long before those needs actually arise and to have personal definitions of success — definitions that work for you and not for someone with separate agendas than your own.

For instance, if you think that you will want to have children and that you will want to participate in their upbringing, your needs are different from the lawyer who does not anticipate that for his or her life. Your needs are also different from the managing partner of a law firms who sees you as a means toward billing 2200 hours for the benefit of the law firm.

Having and caring for children is certainly the greatest of the work-life challenges for most women, but there are others. Read about those challenges and how to plan and how to choose, and make those things a priority in your life.

Nothing is carved in stone, and you will change your plan as your circumstances change.

But, you will have a head start, and you will be ready to address change.

The Best Friends at the Bar books are available for purchase through my web site (www.bestfriendsatthebar.com), direct from Aspen Publishers or at Barnes and Noble superstores throughout the country. The web site also will provide you with up to date information on the profession, and my blog will be helpful in keeping you informed about the issues facing young women in the legal profession today. I publish a monthly Best Friends at the Bar newsletter that you also can access via the web site, and my Best Friends at the Bar Facebook and Twitter accounts are also accessible through the web site.

All of these tools have been designed to help young women just like you make the best decisions possible about a career in the law.

I’m a 3L who has an offer to return to the BigLaw firm I summered at last year, but I’m not sure I want to go back because I felt like I wasn’t really welcome there as a woman. I’ve got a bit of time to figure things out, because I’m clerking for a year after graduation. What are the three most important factors to consider in deciding how to move forward?

Big Law is challenging, not only for a woman. However, the statistics are very low for women who make it to partnership, and a recent survey shows those figures to be much lower than for law firms in general.

It is important that you identify what experiences at the firm made you feel uncomfortable and whether you think that those circumstances can be overcome with time.

Large law firms can provide invaluable practice experience and benefits, but the firm has to be right for you.

Pros and Cons of Big Law

I am sure that you have heard horror stories about Big Law practice. Some of it is overstated, and some of it is true. There are web sites that specialize in these horror stories, and you need to beware of those agendas. There are definitely pros and cons to the Big Law experience.

  • The experience and exposure to law practice at a very high level may be worth giving it a try and seeing how your experience as a woman will evolve during your early practice years, but you will have to be realistic about the possibilities.
  • It will be very hard work, and evaluating your circumstances and planning will be key.

Take a look at your individual circumstances and ask yourself whether you are in a position to give the practice of law top priority during those early practice years.

You need to be able to answer that question affirmatively so that you will get the most out of the experience in terms of practice skills and also so that you will have the opportunity to adequately demonstrate your talents to create value. That value will help you leverage for years in the future when your circumstances change and you may need to address alternative practice situations like flexible work schedules or part-time practice.

The first years in Big Law are all about learning and creating value. If you do not have time to do that, you may be wasting your time.

How to Decide

The three most important factors to consider when making your decision (after you have decided that the gender issues at the firm are not a true impediment) will be:

  1. Anticipating your needs
  2. Having a personal definition of success
  3. Assessing whether you have the time and the dedication to succeeding under those terms

You have a year of clerkship ahead of you, and you should use that experience to the maximum.

  • Learn from the close relationship that you likely will have with your judge, and use the judge as a mentor.
  • Observe the attorneys who practice in your court.
  • Listen carefully in any private conversations you have with them and get the best idea possible about what they do and how they do it.
  • Ask yourself whether you can see yourself doing that job in that way.

What is right for you eventually will become much more clear to you, and then you will be ready to face the next phase of your career.

Could you talk a bit about what you do in the average day at work, and how it’s similar to (or different from) what you thought you’d be doing when you started law school?

I no longer practice law. I have been retired for six years, after more than 25 years in a combination of private practice and public service, and now I concentrate on the Best Friends at the Bar project — the writing, the speaking and the consulting.

However, looking back, my experience in practice was nothing like what I had expected.

My husband and I graduated from law school two years apart, and I thought that my career would be similar to his. We both started out as trial lawyers, and he has been a commercial litigator, mostly in Big Law, since. He has had what can most accurately be described as an upward straight line projection in his career.

My career, however, has been interrupted over and over again by the needs of my family, particularly the needs of our two children.

As a result, I have been a full-time associate (chosen for partnership as the only one in her associate class), a part-time associate (after the first child was born and I decided not to pursue the partnership route at that time), a part-time of counsel, a Chief of Staff in a legislative role in public service, and, finally, a partner in a law firm when my responsibilities for home and family made that more realistic.

If it sounds challenging, it was. But, I am exceedingly gratified that I learned to reinvent myself and to stay in my profession.

I am very proud of being a lawyer, and I worked hard to be one and to persevere.

That is why I started the Best Friends at the Bar project — to share my experiences and those of other women lawyers as role models for young women to help improve the retention rates for women in our profession and to salvage careers.

There is not just one way to be a woman lawyer — there is only your way. Law school does not teach you the survival skills, but I am happy to.

Do yourself a favor and read the books and encourage your colleges, law schools and law firms to invite me speak to you and your female colleagues. You will gain confidence and valuable experience, and, hopefully, the profession will gain women lawyers who are ready for the challenge and will stay in their chosen profession one way or another.

It is good for the young women, and it is good for the profession.

— – —

Thanks so much, Susan! We’ll eagerly await your next book.

In the meantime, check out Best Friends at the Bar, or get in touch with Susan on Facebook or Twitter.

You can also read her follow-up Girl’s Guide post: Rejecting the Male Definitions of Success.

And are you on our mailing list? If not, feel free to sign up now and stay tuned of lots of great stuff!


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Comments

  1. Thanks for the interview. I knew a lot about the Big Law experience. However I think that the interesting thing is that planning. I think if you go in with correct expectations of workloads then it is not such a shock. However I could see a challenge where the workload is different than what you expect.

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