So this last couple weeks, my life has been turned a little upside down. But not as much as my friend, Mark’s, life has. Mark was moving to California from the East Coast, and stopped in Nashville along the way. We sent him on his way last Tuesday morning, expecting to hear from him that evening that he’d made it to his next stop.
Instead, I got a call a few hours later. Mark had been in an accident caused by a patch of ice, in which he spun around 360 degrees, then flipped over twice. Miraculously, Mark was the one calling me, and not from the ER. He had walked away with a bruise on the arm, a scratch on the head, and in the end, barely even any aches. He stayed with us for a week as he sorted the tedious details out. That was the part that turned my life a little upside down, just by having another person in the house for a week. (And not that I minded!)
Mark is out a car, but of course he could have paid a far, far higher price. Things like this always make me think about how much we carry around illusions of safety and certainty. Even though car accidents are the #1 cause of death for people under 44 years old, we get in our cars every day without a microsecond of reflection that we could be taking our last ride.
The Safe Path of Law
And yet, there are so many of you out there who are utterly convinced that staying in law is a path of safety and certainty, and that you would be wildly irresponsible to leave. The fact that staying in law is contributing to your chronic health problems, and triggering or worsening your depression and anxiety, are simply risks that you ignore as blithely as getting into your car daily.
If you don’t live in a city with widespread mass transit, you may not have much choice but to hop in your car daily. You do have a choice about staying in law, though. For many of you, that choice is between keeping your illusions, or not. The chief illusion most lawyers carry around is that law is a safe career.
So let’s look at that.
The Realities of Law Jobs
The biggest reality is that most lawyers work in firms, and firm hiring is declining across the board. BigLaw layoffs continue. Hundreds of lawyers jobs (including partners) were shed by BigLaw in 2013. Mid-size and regional firms aren’t immune, either. Small practices are, by their nature, very vulnerable to economic downturns.
In the past 3 years, several major firms have totally collapsed, including Dewey LeBoeuf (1,000 lawyers), Heller Ehrman (730 attorneys) and Howrey, Simon, Arnold & White (600 lawyers).
The market for attorneys has shrunk substantially since 2008, yet the number of lawyers has not. While application rates for law school have plummeted recently, there’s still a huge oversupply of lawyers.
The starting salary for lawyers is around $160,000, if you are a special snowflake and get a BigLaw gig. Otherwise, you’re most likely looking at $40,000 to $60,000. The percentage of special snowflakes? At most, 18% of the current year’s graduates. The percentage of $40K to $60? Just over half. And if you start out in the lower salary tier, the likelihood of a jump in salary to even $80,000 is going to take years. These are not sustainable numbers if you took out more than about $100,000 in loans. And the average loan burden after a 3rd or 4th tier school? About the same as a 1st tier school, $200,000+.
Let’s also factor in some important trends in law, like clients who are refusing to pay hourly rates, law firms that cling to billable hours like the deranged boyfriend that can’t be pried away from the corpse of a brutally murdered lover, and technology that makes it easier and easier to outsource a lot of grunt legal work overseas to cheaper markets.
Does this actually sound like a nice, stable career path? And are you deeply convinced that you are that special snowflake who can overcome the odds?
Perhaps most importantly, do you feel in your gut that you can not only survive the economics, but thrive in law culture itself?
Depressing? I hope so! I hope I’ve dashed a lot of illusions out there. That’s the first step to empowerment: Seeing what is, and what could be, rather than seeing only what your fears have imagined for you.
Empowerment is having real choices. Real choices are the ones in which fear has not grabbed the wheel and started steering. Hope is a choice, by the way. It’s not choosing a specific illusion, but having faith that you will be OK, and that you can adapt and be happy. Unless you want to live a crappy, depressed life, it’s a choice you need to make.
What will it take to destroy your illusions? A big wake-up like a car crash, a cancer diagnosis, or a September 11? Here’s hoping you’ll opt for something a bit less cataclysmic. And soon.
Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who has outlasted the existence of her first law firm employer, which is weird. She loves helping unhappy attorneys bust some illusions and embrace a richer, fuller life and career. If that sounds like something you want to do, schedule a discounted sample session by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you for this post. As an associate in a law firm who wakes up in a panic daily, I sometimes convince myself that at least law is a steady paycheck and therefore worth staying in practice. Not always the case.
Any advice for helping a friend who I suspect is depressed from being in big law, but won’t come out and say it (yet he reaches out to me). I am not interested in telling anyone what to do, but figuring out how to be supportive.