Monday, June 21, 2010

Leaving The Law

No, not me. I actually got into this profession for the right reasons.

And although it's hard for many to admit, many of today's law students and lawyers, didn't.

I call it the L.A. Law syndrome. It started right before I started law school. The T.V. show L.A. Law showed us that law offices were nice places, in tall buildings, with nice furniture, and beautiful people. L.A. Law caused a whole generation to go to law school. The work was tedious for those sent to BigLaw, but the golden handcuffs were tight. Where else could a 25 year old make $100,000 the first year out of school? It wasn't about the "profession," or "representing clients," or building a practice. It was about the paycheck.

And like the last line in "Goodfellas," "now it's all over."

So to no one's surprise is this article in the ABA Journal about a legal career consultant who claims 25% of her clients want to leave the law.

As a result, the ABA Journal posted a poll, which is running 50/50 now on those that want to leave the law.

The article is nothing to write about, but the comments are:

Elena (whose name probably isn't Elena, nor is the comment probably real, writes:

I would like to leave the law, but not the paycheck. So the only way I can leave the paycheck is to find a guy who will support me. I am having difficulty finding a guy willing to pay for me and my lifestyle. So I must continue to work, even though it is not as interesting as shopping and eating out in restaurants.

Dream boat, probably a close friend of fake Elena, says:

I would like to find a nice gal to support and pamper, too bad you are a lawyer. The thought of freely spending time with a lawyer makes me nauseous. Otherwise it would totally work.

Robert takes the first easy shot at BigLaw associates:

There’s more to “law” than working in a big firm where one has to expect to be told what to do, and that some of what one is told to do is .... distasteful; after all, you have to figure that if the work employees do could be considered “fun,” the Bosses would do it themselves, right?
You also have to figure than most employee-employer relationships will tend to degrade to “employer pays employee just enough so they won’t quit, employer does just enough work to not get fired.” That’s not enough for everyone, but it’s all a “career counselor” usually has to offer.

Then here comes the "wait, it didn't happen like I thought it would, otherwise commenting as "Looking for the right fit:"

I would like to find the right fit in the law, but I graduated right when the crash struck and so it has been a while since school. I’ve done some contract work here and there, but I’d really like to use my legal degree to help start-up businesses get off the ground.
How do I transition into this? I’d like to stay in the law but have a more interesting and stable life!

A police officer who took the bee line back to being a police officer because the money is better there in this economy, blames the ABA for creating and selling law school as a ticket to cash:

From JD to PD:

I just graduated, pass the bar, and will return to my previous field of law enforcement. I will get all of my loans paid off with 10 years of public service. Plus, get a great pension, start at 50k per year, and get a months vacation.
It is sad the ABA keeps accrediting more schools who publish misleading salary stats. Who thought you could make more money as a nurse having an AA degree than a lawyer.

And no comment section would be complete without the "get off your ass" cry that offends so many new graduates:

Hey JDtoPD
I think it’s great you found a government job with good benefits. Good for you. To all those who are bitter about JDtoPD’s good deal, instead of complaining, get up and do something about it. Instead of denouncing the public sector’s reasonable pay/benefit packages, why not demand that the private sector provide the same. Yes, I know the biglaw lawyers chained to their blackberries 24/7 are well compensated, but most lawyer-employees in the private sector have a much worse deal, and calculated hourly probably do make less than a nurse. These lawyers need to demand more of their stingy employers or quit and open their own law offices and compete with their stingy former employers.
That said, JDtoPD, don’t get too caught up in the nurse-with-an-AA comparison. You with your law degree have a much greater upside. Ten or 20 years from now you could go into the private sector, hang your shingle, and command many times per hour what a nurse makes.

Just bringing this up infuriates today's law school graduate and young lawyer. Those that know they went to law school for the cash, and aren't making it, or aren't making much of their career as a lawyer, don't like to discuss this. The others will admit with righteous indignation that "yeah, I went to law school for the $160,000 salary first year out. Who I feel sorry for are the few who actually thought about becoming a lawyer before entering law school. Those numbers are few, and diminishing.

Ever wonder why ethics are more and more of a problem? because more and more law students see law school as career school, not professional school. They see law as a business, not a profession. It is a means to a nice living, not a high calling.

I've written before about the lack of shame a lawyer should have in deciding to get out. The question always is "and do what?"

My answer? "Something else."

Located in Miami, Florida, Brian Tannebaum practices Bar Admission and Discipline and Criminal Defense. He is the author of I Got A Bar Complaint.Share/Save/Bookmark


Twitter Fail said...

I've lost count of the number of people I've met who have a law degree, and a career doing something entirely different. It's a shame that they had to go through the whole process before finding out they didn't like practicing law, weren't cut out for it, or it wasn't the cushy dream job that Hollywood has led them to believe. Fortunately, I have also met people who are truly great lawyers because they are focused on providing the best representation possible for their clients, and love every minute of it.

Jewish Marksman said...

Have you ever considered the fact that there are no ethics rules governing how senior lawyers are to behave towards junior lawyers and other staff in their employ? Do you lend any credence to the anecdotal evidence that a growing number of young lawyers are being subjected to Dickensian sweatshop conditions and tyrannical overlords who provide none of the traditional apprenticeship training?

As I talk to young lawyers, I find that the money is not really the issue. It's the lack of any sense that the people they work for have any care in developing the young lawyers in their charge. They were under the impression that by taking such paltry pay, a senior lawyer would be showing them the ropes. After a year or two, they realize they have had nothing more then two weeks of "training" repeated one hundred times.

There are legal mills here in South Florida that turnover dozens of young lawyers each year. We have no "Rate the Lawfirm" web site for young lawyers to see reviews of the actual experience of working for certain firms. They leave embittered.

The problem is one I have a moral problem with, personally. But from the Bar's perspective, it also troubles me to think how these young lawyers' perceptions of the profession are being shaped. They are learning from some very bad examples. Are they taking their frustrations out on clients? Is there a connection to the general decline in courtesy we lawyers show each other? Whenever a fellow lawyer is discourteous to me, I wonder who was the lawyer who taught him it was acceptable to behave that way?

We reap what we sew. I understand you are practicing "tough love" on this web site. But I think the Bar needs to address the lawyers who are flat out exploiting the young lawyers and leaving a trail of disgruntle and angry lawyers in their wake.

shg said...


The problem with adopting the anecdotal evidence is that it comes through the eyes of the young lawyers, who might be inclined, given the anecdotal and empirical evidence that they tend to be narcissistic and entitled, to see the normal and appropriate employer/employee relationship as being overbearing and Dickensian.

The biggest complaint that I keep hearing about (and again, it's anecdotal) is the long hours demanded by Biglaw. The problem I have with this is that a small percentage work in Biglaw, yet a far larger percentage gripe about it, and that they are paid a princely wage for their suffering.

They could walk away any time they want, but won't leave the paycheck. My problem is that you can't have the paycheck but refuse to do the work in return.

Jewish Marksman said...

I agree with you on the BigLaw kids (to some extent), but not the "mills." I am hearing of young lawyers being expected to bill 60 hours a week, and being paid less than $50k. In return for their time they are receiving questionable experience and training. I hear of partners screaming at and berating associates. Surely the high turnover at some of these shops can't be all the fault Generation X or Y whatever they are called.

I am no opponent of capitalism. But if this profession welcomed unbridled capitalism then there would be no advertising rules or rules on referral fees, non-lawyers being shareholders, champerty, etc.

It just seems, as I said, that professional courtesy does not extend to associates. And to me it seems odd that no ethics rules address employment issues and conditions at law firms.

My feeling is, you hire a kid out of law school you are assuming the responsibility for training that person and turning them into a great lawyer. It's not all about exploiting every last billable hour you can get out him/her. Or is it? We have CLE requirements as individuals, but no burden or oversight of the manner in which lawyers employ other lawyers.

I don't think it is enough to say that young mistreated associates will simply quit and the market will solve the problem.

Brian Tannebaum said...


You raise a timely issue - that there are no ethics rules regarding how lawyers treat each other (other than the basics). I just wrote an article on the proliferation of these "codes of conduct" that local bar associations are writing that concern how lawyers should talk to each other. I think they are disgraceful. When we as lawyers have to legislate courtesy - it's bad for us.

There's little training in law these days - even in the government offices. I don't know when that became a trend, probably when law became a business and not a profession. It's disturbing.

Young lawyers behave as they are taught - don't grant extensions, call at 5pm, make demands, threaten, this all comes from the higher ups.

I think you may be right that some lawyers get out because they don't like the conflict and hardball tactics, but most are frustrated because they "invested" in law school for a payoff, not necessarily a profession.

Jewish Marksman said...

Again, in full disclosure, I am just going by the anecdotal evidence of the young lawyers I talk to, often friends of the family, acquaintances from synagogue, etc. So I may not have a valid sample size.

These aren't kids that got into it solely for the money. But also maybe not to "change the world." Somewhere in between. Which in my book, is fine. Not every lawyer can or should be an idealist. I talk to a few who got into good firms with courteous lawyers who take their mentoring obligations seriously, and those kids are happy. We're talking 3 years out, making $60-$75k. They're more or less happy, but most importantly optimistic. I can't speak for criminal law, where supposedly I'm told lawyers are "passionate" about "justice." But it makes me nervous to think that there are firms with lawyers making $45k a year handling hundreds of thousands worth of client money...that's a recipe for disasters like Scott Rothstein.

I don't think its appropriate to call out the mills I know, but we all know them. These are the firms that hire kids right out of law school and have them churn boilerplate work. I would imagine these are the firms that generate the most bar complaints. And then we have the solos with delusions of grandeur who take on interns and associates out of school with no oversight or proven ability to mentor.

Simple suggestions for ethics rules:
1. CLE requirements addressing mentoring lawyers for all attorneys with associates.
2. Disciplinary measures for turnover above market norms.
3. 1/3 of an associates billing revenue must be paid to the associate.

I am not saying the young lawyers aren't themselves to blame in some situations as you are oft to point out. But right or wrong, they are either going to become very bitter lawyers, or very bitter about lawyers in whatever profession they land in. Either way, its bad for all of us.

You address the "supply" side of the problem quite well, but nobody is addressing the "demand" for cheap, disposal commodity legal labor.

Marcus L. Schantz said...


I must be a bit younger than yourself. I remember L.A. Law, but it was popular when I was in high school.

I can't honestly remember why I went to law school. But it must have had something to do with helping people. I never had any grand illusions about how a lawyer was supposed to live, because I didn't know any.

My history taught me that being a lawyer was a noble profession, but my common sense told me not all lawyers are noble.

If I had to attach my current efforts as an attorney to anything or anyone fictional, it would be Atticus Finch. Really.

I, too, have recently met a few people with law degrees that once practiced. It's not for everyone. And honestly, some days I wish I was doing something else. But overall, I am happy with where I am.

Brian Tannebaum said...

One of the problems in discussing lawyers, especially today's culture of lawyers that contains many who went into the profession for the money, is that those bitter over the current state of the economy think that people like me are talking about everyone.

I'm not.

I represent a lot of young, hard working, passionate, committed lawyers.

I also talk to law professors who tell me about what's going on in the law schools. I hear things like "job," and "paycheck" when I ask how many of them see the profession.

Again, not all of them.

I envy those who don't practice. Tim Russert was a lawyer, the founder of Home Shopping Network is a lawyer, as well as the founder of Discount Auto Parts. There is nothing wrong with those with law degrees not practicing law (as long as they are not attempting to make money from lawyers by claiming they are "one of us.")

I wish more people would do what they loved, instead of growing bitter because the practice is not giving them the payoff, cash or otherwise, that they wanted.

shg said...


I'm not as familiar as the mills, as they don't really exist in my niche, criminal defense. If what you say is true, and they are taking advantage of this awful market and surplus of lawyers, then that's deplorable. There have never been a shortage of lawyers willing to take advantage of others, and it is an ethical nightmare.

I also agree about interns. I used to take on interns as a courtesy to my law school in order to mentor them. I saw it purely as a mentoring opportunity; their work wasn't of any use to me and it never dawned on me to take advantage of them. I stopped taking on interns because they became overbearing, too many questions at inappropriate times, coming in late, leaving early, personal problems in the office, that sort of stuff.

My solution was to stop taking interns. I had some wonderful law students, but I watched as things changed over the years. Just my anecdotal view, but over time, they became increasingly needy, irresponsible and self-centered. One of the biggest on-going themes was about money; they expected the corner office upon graduation but showed little interest in serving clients.

Jewish Marksman said...


I just think we should meet this generation somewhere in the middle, it should not be taboo or otherwise inappropriate for financial reward to be one reason among several as to why people are drawn to the profession.

I have no pity for the whiners making 100k+ right out of school. They should expect hard and boring work, but they should also expect to be treated with decency. They probably shouldn't expect a reasonable life/work balance at that rate though.

My sympathy is for the thousands of others who are saddled with six figure debt, who really aren't asking much more than $50 to start, $75 by year 3 as a cap, and anything above that based on their ability to build their own books. I think at those rates a fair life/work balance is in order.

shg, if you want to know who the civil mills are, simply look at the classifieds. The firms that are hiring lawyers month in and month out are usually mills with high turnover.

These are basically civil firms that run themselves and treat employees like the county public defender or state attorney, even though the partners are making hundreds or millions a year. Indeed, they especially like to hire out of those government agencies because of the low expectations of lawyers coming from those environments.

Some may say capitalism at its finest. Not me.

Jewish Marksman said...

Let me just add, that perhaps there is a bit of a cultural divide as I am coming from the civil side.

Of course on the criminal side you have no such thing as contingency fees, as one example. On the civil side, for better or worse, money motivates lawyers to do their very best.

So I am not so offended by new lawyers who want to make an above average living, so long as they have realistic expectations and money is just one piece of the puzzle.

Frankly, as a social conservative, I'd be very concerned if law schools were only pumping out liberal idealists who only want to use their law degree to "solve" social problems. Walmart and BP need lawyers too! We need a good balance of lawyers entering the profession for all sorts of different motivations, including money.

You may not like seeing money motivated lawyers in criminal practice, and I certainly am not qualified to opine there, but as an outsider looking in I could easily be persuaded that money is not a good primary reason to get into criminal law if one wants to be happy in life. I would guess the non-monetary rewards are more important? In civil there is often just a screwer and screwee, and we can't always pick the right horse and often never know until the end who was the white or black hat.

Dan Hull said...

Nicely done. Really. A good call to arms for the poor of spirit.

Jewish Marksman said...

To revive a dead post, Brian check out this link and read the 4th bullet point:

Just an example of how the "whiners" (as you seem to think of them) affect all of us, as starving lawyers start taking on cases they might not really be able to handle competently or have easy access to a senior attorney who can show them the ropes. Granted a will is not rocket science, but you get the general idea.

JLB said...

Given the cost of law school tuition, it seems to me (I had to pay for my own law school) that the money HAS to be there for law school to be tenable (unless mommy and daddy or a rich uncle are paying).

Anonymous said...

I'd like to add to JM's sample size and relate my experience. I graduated with few prospects and ultimately had to settle as a Law Clerk making 12.50 an hour in a 3-partner firm. I passed the bar on my first try and was promptly admitted. After negotiating a raise I began my career as an Associate Attorney with a yearly salary of 31,200, no benefits. Most posted jobs from employers within the 1-10 partner "small firm" range offer compensation packages that average between $40,000.00 and $45,000.00 with no benefits. (this estimation is from surveying classifieds/job boards for 6 months and includes roughly 2,400 posted positions. Some of course, were repeats, and some did not fit the category, but the number should still be sufficient to represent the average trend.) NALP estimates that only approximately 1/2 of law school graduates have jobs in the legal field, and 1/3 of that group has the income necessary to pay off their loans. In discussing their positions with my colleagues at CLE's and volunteer programs I can tell you that what JM says is true for them and myself. We took jobs with severe deficiencies in compensation packages with the understanding that our firms would attempt to bridge that perceived gap by providing extensive training. Instead, the practice seems to be to simply give us enough of a knowledge base to complete specific tasks without teaching us how to take cases from "cradle to grave". We push through this because we have no choice while unscrupulous partners use the economic downturn as an opportunity to exploit eager young attorneys. The idea of my generation having a sense of entitlement is misplaced. All we want is an opportunity that provides us with the ability to prove ourselves. No one I have ever met has had the illusory idea that we will all be making 100k+ and instantly land positions of power, importance and influence. In fact, 94% of us do not fit that category. What most of my colleagues did expect however, was a job that would allow them to live modestly while servicing their loans, maybe some basic healthcare and training that would allow them to prove themselves and a system that would provide only the opportunity to advance. All we asked for was an entry level position. It is insulting for Boomers and other apologists to immediately dismiss a request to be paid a living wage commensurate with our qualifications and claim that this attitude is tantamount to a sense of entitlement. I went to college then immediately acquired a doctorate, and passed the bar, I do believe that I should be making more than 15 dollars an hour. That isn't arrogance or needless entitlement, but the very basic idea that drives everyone to enroll in education beyond high school.