Law School Myth #4: Life as a Lawyer is Exciting and Intellectually Challenging

StressIf you believe pop culture, life as a lawyer is pretty exciting.

Jury trials take half an hour and there’s an ongoing highlight reel of witty cross-examination and bombshell surprise evidence. Sadly, that’s not the way things work in reality.

At best, a career as a lawyer is comprised of long periods of tedium punctuated with moments of excitement, or sheer terror, depending on your constitution.

The Reality of Life as a Litigator

If you’re a litigator, most of your time will be spent in the discovery phase, where you’ll face hundreds of remarkably similar requests for documents, admissions, etc. — each of which is designed to trip you up and get you to admit something that will damage your client’s case.

By the time you get to trial, there are no bombshells. You’ll probably be able to put on your opponent’s case for them, because it will come down to a handful of documents and statements, culled from hundreds of hours of tedious deposition testimony and the thousands of documents eventually exchanged, after the frustrated judge told the lawyers to sort it out and stop bothering her.

Jury selection alone may take days, and much of the trial itself will be about as exciting as watching paint dry.

If you think criminal cases have to be interesting, try sitting through the third day in a row of evidence about the procedures of the crime lab that determined the white powder in front of the jury is indeed cocaine, and you’ll be rapidly disabused of that notion.

The Reality of Life as a Corporate Lawyer

Similarly, if you decide to go the corporate route, and have visions of yourself jetting around the world closing deals, keep in mind that you’re basically the hired help.

The real action belongs to the businesspeople, who regard their lawyers as a necessary evil, at best.

While your litigator friends stress out over discovery disputes and document review, you’ll find yourself pouring over tedious contracts and other due diligence materials, or at the printers for days on end (literally), making sure every I is dotted and every T is crossed in a three hundred page document that’s been revised thirty-seven times in the last twenty-four hours.

The Bottom Line

Is this to say that law’s never exciting? No, of course not.

Sometimes interesting questions arise, or exciting things take place. You just need a really high tolerance for boredom to survive much of the day-to-day work.

Read On:

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  1. This seems a bit exaggerated. Sure some of the day-to-day work is mundane, and no one thinks doc review is thrilling, but there are plenty of lawyers I’ve talked to that say they really find their work to be challenging and interesting. This is both corporate transactional attorneys and trial lawyers at legal aids and public defenders offices. You found it boring, but not everybody does.

    • That’s a totally fair point. What I will say is that I was surprised by how tedious a lot of legal work was. I hardly did any document review (since I came in after clerking), but just the day-to-day minutia of litigation was a lot less interesting than I’d anticipated. But I’m not super detail-oriented by nature, so that probably explains a lot!

  2. Ross Edwards says

    I just want to thank you for this series of articles. They are more spot-on than I think a lot of the dreamers considering law school today may realize.

    I work in state government in administrative law, and it would not be an exaggeration to say that my job is to hurry up and wait. My workflow would probably make a perfect third leg to your argument here in that government law is held up as this amazing public-interest passion pursuit where you have amazing media outreach and a stellar future in politics on deck, and then you find out in reality that it’s sort of like trying to fix a giant motor with an endless litany of design defects while having to persuade elected officials to approve each tiny individual fix and assure them that making that fix won’t ruin their re-election prospects by upsetting the pressure group that is invested in the other tiny fix a few sprockets away on the motor, that is always broken but nobody wants to fix because fixing it doesn’t gain votes. It’s a constant struggle to adapt the grim objective reality of what’s on the books with the subjective wishful thinking of people who were elected for the very purpose of making their subjective wishful thinking into grim objective reality — SOMEHOW. And that’s always the sticking point.

    The workflow is that you do exhaustive amounts of archaeological legal research on the entire history of a given issue or legal point that’s in contention, you propose new statutory or regulatory language for it, and then a series of elected people each sit on it for weeks and eventually reply with a series of different ways they want it done, which often conflict with one another. In the meanwhile there’s always a statutory deadline looming for implementation of new language, whether via legislative or rule promulgation mechanisms, but it turns out those clocks and calendars concern us “mechanics” but not the elected officials piloting our particular machine. Hurry up and wait. An issue is meaningless and beneath their notice until the one morning they get a complaint call from a stakeholder, remember that they’ve been sitting on the project, decide that you should somehow have already solved it by now, and they spend four hours emailing you every ten minutes with spec changes while you attempt to compensate and keep a set of master provisions in legally functional form. Most of these elected officials are pleasant people, too — they sort of had to be to get the jobs they have now — so it’s hard even to get upset at them. They just have a completely different set of prerogatives than we do.

    That said, it’s a decent job as law jobs go, it’s very stable, there is such a scathing shortage of attorneys with administrative law expertise that I could probably walk into the office wearing nothing but a Speedo bathing suit and not get fired, and while the cash pay is lodged in the $60k range, the benefits are fantastic… which a married father of three like me considers important. And at five p.m. every day, work is OVER. In the legal world, that’s no small thing. Still, if I had it all to do over, instead of law school I would have finished an MFA and gone into full-time writing. You hear that, dreamers? Here’s a guy who has the career thing WORKING and STILL says he shouldn’t have gone to law school. Consider well these words.

    Top-rate blog and thanks for your insightful material!

    • Thanks for the comment. This is so interesting!

      I don’t know much about this type of work, so I’m very glad that you gave us the day-to-day insight. Fascinating!

      • Wow this is so discouraging…especially what ross edward said. What about free time? I know they work a lot but what about staring a family or spending time with family? That’s what I’m more worried about. By the way, how many hours in average do lawyers work?

        • Don’t quote me on this, but I think I’ve seen statistics that the average lawyer works about 50 hours a week. It definitely varies a lot, depending on the type of job you’re in. But, on average, I think most lawyers work more than the average person, just because it’s an inherently demanding job, with a lot of external deadlines (particularly if you’re dealing with court cases).

          Honestly, this tension between work and everything else in life is a huge issue for most attorneys. If family time is a priority for you, it’s worth thinking really carefully about what job you want in the legal profession!

      • Btw, does it matter what school you go to? Will it matter if a person graduated from NYU or from CUNY Graduate? Cuny is inexpensive.

        • Absolutely, and that’s a great point. There’s an inverse relationship between your debt load (for student loans) and your options in terms of what kind of job you could accept. On the one hand, you’ll probably have more job options out of NYU, but you might not be able to afford to take most of them. (Granted, there’s the loan repayment assistance option, which works for some people, but not having the debt to begin with is certainly preferable, if you can manage it.)

          This is a perennial law student dilemma – do you go to “the best” school you can, or go where you’ll graduate with the lowest debt load? Always a tough call.

    • What an interesting confession: you say the work yo do is oppressive and tedious to the point of being suffocating. But like others working for the government you don’t ever have
      to work after hours and the benefits are excellent and your chance of being fired is about nil, so you’re not going anywhere. Oh, and the salary you make is $60 a year. Amazing. I on the other hand work for a major motion picture studio (my 5th), and my salary, benefits and options exceed $450k a year. (If I worked harder it would be much more.) I never stop thinking about my work, and have not for all the years I have done it, because it is endlessly interesting. My business colleagues value me because I understand their work, and they cannot complete it without me. I have traveled all over the world, staying always at 5 star hotels, and met fascinating people. I read confessions like yours and would be astonished by them if I had not seen so many. By the way, I graduated at the absolute bottom of my law school class, and worked my way into entertainment law through legal aid work as a start. My conclusion is this: on the first day of law school I realized that most of my fellow students lacked verve, depth, even any real personality. They were balding little accountants in the bodies of 6 foot guys with a lot of hair. In the middle of the first year of law school I stopped attending law school classes altogether and squeaked by cramming for about 10-15 hours per course using just review books. That first day revelation was largely correct and I’m afraid you may have been one of those accountants getting ready to pass as a lawyer. I don’t know how old you are, and three children would certainly give anyone pause, but you might consider leaving your dull and safe environment, and striking out to actually have a career afforded you by your degree and experience that is both interesting and lucrative.

      • Hi John,

        I am an undergraduate student considering a career in law.
        I read your response and wanted to learn more about the type of work you do, if possible.
        As a senior and preparing the LSAT, I am trying to get as much information possible about various fields in law. I think your experience and advice would help me immensely, especially before I step into law school and find myself miserable!


        • Andrew McGoey says

          Don’t do it! Worst decision of my life. I’ve worked at a bunch of top-shelf law firms in NYC over the last 20 yrs, and overall I’d say that the work is brutally repetitive and boring, is not lucrative (unless you’re an equity partner), most of the people are either nasty, lifeless, socially stunted, completely delusional, unintelligent, or any combination thereof, and — the worst part — you are treated as totally fungible, no matter how hard you work, no matter how good you are at your job. Firms will let you go at the drop of a hat. Raises are practically nonexistent, bonuses (if any) barely cover half a month’s rent for a studio apt, and benefits are minimal (no 401K match/kick-in, paid vacation days are earned [not granted], no transit check, and health insurance is not subsidized [mine was $746 per mo for me, w/ $50 co-pays]). All of this while they’re billing you out at $400 per hour but are paying you a fraction of that. Add in 50-75 hour weeks, very high local food, clothing, and transportation costs, and you’ll find that after paying all of your bills, you’re barely breaking even. It beats working at the lumber yard or waiting tables, but overall, it is SO not worth it. Go do something that you enjoy and that will help people instead. You can thank me later 🙂

      • Solange Mba says

        Hey helo me a John I need to know more
        Am have a law Degree form Africa and want to go to a law school. What part of the law should I get into

  3. Allision, I would like to thank you from the bottom of my heart for this website and especially the series of law school myth busters. I have a law degree from a European law school. The system over there is (or at least was when I lived there) completely different. You go to law school straight after high school and study it for 5 years. After 5 years of law school you have a law degree, but you need another 3 years and basically passing 2 equivalents of the bar exam to practice. During those 8 years you don’t make any money. Instead, you need to pay your patron who was kind enough to let you work for free. On the flip side, you don’t need to pay for your degree if you had a good entrance exam score and you maintained a good GPA. That means that if you are a good student, you go to law school for free.

    When I was in my 3rd year of law school, I started having doubts about this path. I was doing well in school, but law just wasn’t really ‘it’ for me. I graduated, because I didn’t think dropping out would be wise. I basically just stuck with it. After I graduated, I met my husband and moved to the US.

    I have another advanced degree and I found a career that not only allows for a work – private life balance, but also offers excellent benefits and a really decent pay. It is not law-related. Due to a mix of luck, scholarships and a lot of research, I don’t have any student debt yet I kept having doubts about my career. I kept wondering if I should go back to law school and be a lawyer. This would require me to take on an enormous amount of debt and go back to school for yet another 3 years. Thanks to your website, I was brought back to all of the reasons why I left law in the first place. I make almost 50k now and have the potential to make closer to 65k in the next 4-5 years. This combined with good hours and no debt is really difficult to beat.

    Sure, some people really want to be lawyers and this job is indeed a good fit for them. If you dream about being a lawyer, go for it! However, if you consider going into law solely because you are drawn to prestige, the title or the money, you should reconsider. I know I was drawn to law for all the wrong reasons and I would be extremely unhappy and unfulfilled if I stuck with it. Listen to this woman; she really knows what she is talking about.

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