It's funny because, you guessed it, it's true: don't be a lawyer.
My wife loves this show "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend". I started watching it with her, and she informed me that Rachel Bloom is still bitter about not getting accepted to Carnegie Mellon, my alma mater. Of course then – because I was the typical unhappy lawyer - when I first saw this song "Don't Be A Lawyer" on the show (see video below), I laughed it off - "I'm a perfectly happy attorney," I argued, with myself. "This little ditty was created because she's bitter about not being smart or talented enough...like me" I smugly retorted, to no one in particular. But this song "don't be a lawyer" still bugged me. I mean, why was it striking me as funny? Was it funny because it's true?
Don't be a lawyer, unless you like the following every day, all day, for the rest of your working life
Fast forward just one year. After hearing this song, I'm leaving the law for a career in management consulting. "Don't be a lawyer" has become true in my life. How does one leave the law? Were we married? Did I promise never to see any other careers ever again? Or has the law left me? In the nearly fourteen years that I have had a license to practice law, I have seen my day-to-day change dramatically. Now, the profession includes:
- Fighting with everyone, all the time: The practice has undoubtedly become more acrimonious. This is not just limited to opposing counsel. Associates will backstab each other; Partners will backstab associates and their own partners. Fewer and fewer firms offer equity, meaning that everyone in the firm is now fighting purely for a better title. Egos drive work, and the best ideas do not always win. The internet has changed how laypeople view attorneys. It used to be if you wanted to start a business, you'd call an attorney, set up a meeting, have several more meetings, and then get all the paperwork filed. Now, it's a couple of clicks on LegalZoom, and you're done. This has changed the profession because now clients have come to view lawyers as servers, rather than trusted advisors. Why should they pay thousands of dollars to an attorney when the internet can do the same thing for a fraction of the price? Clients have started shopping for attorneys the same way they do shoes. As a result, lawyers are seen as servants to be bossed, bullied, and harangued into doing the client's bidding - no matter if the client's idea is a bad one.
- It's only about the money: Clients can get away with this behavior because attorneys cannot afford to lose the business. What's worse is that the practice as a whole has shifted to corporate business modeling. Hours are tracked meticulously with bonuses tied to who can bill the most, rather than who does the best and most efficient work for the client. The legal industry, increasingly, sells time – with a side of occasional expertise. Shouldn't it be the other way around? Shouldn't we want smaller firms doing high-quality work at an efficient rate? Instead, the industry has moved to a model where associates are worked to death, and partners have unreasonable pressure to find new business at all costs. So I am no longer practicing.
- Lawyers suffer from mental health issues: Yes, there is truth to its message: the legal profession has one of the highest suicide rates, lawyers drink or experience bouts of drug abuse at higher rates than other professionals, and we do tend to be well ... less than gracious.
- Lawyers don't make that much money: The industry model of the practice has pushed already overly competitive people to the breaking point. Add to the fact the dirty-little-secret that the vast majority of attorneys do not earn six figures. Given that there are far too many attorneys in the United States, it really is only the top 1-2% of attorneys that are making the high six and into the seven figures. This only further explains why so many attorneys are unhappy and why the rate of suicide amongst practitioners is so high.
- Lawyers are expected to work in constant conflict: Fighting with clients, fighting with co-workers for the choice cases, fighting with adversaries – life begins to be framed as a series of conflicts to be faced, negotiated, and either settled or conquered. Living in this way is simply toxic. No human should be forced to be constantly on-guard, turned on, ready for a fight. Add to this the unpredictable nature of the attorney's schedule – depositions that are not confirmed until the day before, judges scheduling oral arguments with little to no notice, adversaries filing emergency motions out of the blue. Lawyers are expected to come in and save the day – every time. If the result isn't perfect, if the client isn't thrilled, the whole endeavor is a failure.
- Lawyers suffer so much financial pressure: Add to this the financial pressures: lawyers from mid-to-lower tier schools carry massive student debt burdens in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, just as their elite school counterparts. But for them, they are relegated to a stark reality as they graduate: they're making $80,000 – if they are lucky. So, the vast majority of lawyers in our country – and the vast majority did not go to a top tier school – are working unnecessarily long hours for jobs that do not allow them to keep up with their debt payments while trying to build a comfortable life. Complicating this issue is ego. Lawyers have massive egos! To stroke their egos, lawyers buy fancy cars, large homes, boats, and vacation homes to project that image of status. Our society teaches children that lawyers are highly paid and high-status individuals. But when that mid-tier graduate in Chicago enters the profession making $75,000 a year with a $180,000 student loan bill, there is no plausible way for the lifestyle to match the image that society has created of the prototypical "attorney."
- They become slaves: As the years wear on, the debt piles up. Attorneys become slaves to the billable hour. They must continue to push, continue to fight, just to keep up with the interest payments. Notably, most attorneys started thinking about law school when they were around 19 or 20 years old. Full of optimism of what their life would look like. Having set that plan, and being committed to seeing it through, they have locked themselves into this lifetime on a financial treadmill. It's no wonder then that "lawyer suicide" is googled thousands of times a day. There must be a way out of this trap other than suicide. And there are – there are so many options!
For example, YouTube's highest earner is an 8-year-old making $26 million a year. To be clear, I'm not arguing that being a YouTube star is somehow transcendent work or that money is the end-all, be-all of happiness. Still, that work looks to be a hell of a lot more fun than reviewing that APA for the 900th time out of sheer terror that if you missed one decimal point that your entire legal career would be over. There are better ways to spend your time. But, then again, what will other people think?
As the song goes, "but it's not too late to avoid this fate/fine any other job to pick/sure your parents might think you're a failure/but no one's ever said first let's kill all the tailors" - but that's glib. It is tough not to think you're disappointing those around you.
For me, I have a family, a mortgage, in short, responsibilities. A big fear for me was letting those people down. To get over that takes a mindset shift: to realize that your ego has been controlling a lot of your actions and decisions for a number of years is a tough pill to swallow. No one likes to think that they have been 'wrong' for much of their adult life. But I don't look at it as being wrong; I look at it like I look at the bad behavior in my four-year-old: I just didn't know any better.
Waking up, though, understanding that I was really worried about the damage to my ego. It wasn't what other people would think if I left the practice of law, it was that they would think less of me – which would damage my ego. Letting that go, understanding that our circles around the sun are limited and impermanent, helped me start this journey.
It is possible to leave the law
But I have a law degree - what else is there to do with a law degree other than...well, lawyer?
Turns out, a lot. It turns out "don't be a lawyer" is actually good advice that can happen. The most famous example that is often held up is that of Peter Theil. Before he was ruining stupid internet news sites, he graduated from Stanford Law School. He then worked as a securities lawyer for a hot minute before returning to the bay area to start Thiel Capital.
How did he make such a radical shift? Mimetic Theory. This gets weird, but effectively mimetic theory posits that conflict arises from imitation. When two parties are competing or in conflict, they match each other in battle to gain a competitive edge. In unpacking some of the reasoning for leaving the law, Thiel explains that the big problem with competition is that "it focuses us on the people around us, and while we get better at the things we're competing on, we lose sight of anything that's important, or transcendent, or truly meaningful in this world."
Thiel left the law because he felt the work he was doing was not transcendent – it was pure completion without any real meaning. As I embarked on my journey out of the practice, a friend told me to google "crazy ex girlfriend don't be a lawyer" as a joke. Watching it again, I see the ugliness in the profession.
Don't be a lawyer. But then what? What comes next?
When I was 15, I walked into my English class, and on the whiteboard was, "Find out who you are before somebody tells you." While the board attributed this quote to 'Anonymous' we all suspected it was our English teacher being rather blunt with us. I probably should have started thinking about who I was and what I wanted, but instead joined with the rest of the angsty-smarty-pants teens who thought the quote was just an attempt to control us…somehow.
It's interesting how much I think of that quote now, and how little I thought of it in the years after high school. I attended law school because I was a 20-something smart kid that did not know what he wanted to be, so why not?
As this song suggests, the reasons are numerous: your true skill is billing people for your time, you work on boring subjects that you could care less about, and my goodness is it soul-crushing. Trading time for money usually is. When we trade time for money, we necessarily put a value on time – which is just absurd. Time is invaluable. It is definitely limited for all of us, and some of us have so much less than others. If you had a commodity, but did not know how much you had, but knew that everyone in the world wanted it, how could you possibly put a price on it? Yet this is precisely what the legal industry does.
During my time in the practice, I did work at a family law firm. Never have I ever seen a more soul-less practice centered around the most intimate parts of human life. In thinking about that time, it strikes me as hopeful that one of the founders of Southwest Airlines was a divorce attorney.
Some fifty or so years ago, Herb Kelleher was a hard-charging, hard-drinking, creative, and zany divorce attorney in San Antonio. As the story goes, one of his clients, Rollin King, came to his office and over drinks, he drew a triangle on a napkin. Each point on the triangle represented the three cities Southwest would connect: Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio. Herb took the leap because he was bored with the law! He left to pursue something that fit his unique genius – being scrappier, smarter, and just plain odd.
That Southwest is still seen as the oddball upstart airline despite its $17 billion market cap – which trades on the NYSE under the symbol LUV, is a testament to what can happen when you align yourself with your purpose. When we find the work that is aligned with our most profound vibrations, amazing things can happen.
So, I then took a long look at myself - if you want to change your life, you have to change yourself first. I really dug deep into who I thought I was, how I saw myself, and what I wanted to be doing with my time. The realization that I was simply not aligned with my true self was jarring. But we can all move forward to our true nature, this much I know.
In the end, we are the masters of our domain!
With that revelation came freedom. I understood myself better and clearly saw what I wanted for myself for the first time in my 38 trips around the sun. I am finally able to feel like I am in control of my time and efforts.
I wanted to learn a little more about this song, checking out to see who wrote it. I was shocked to discover that Adam Schlesinger wrote this song. Not only did Adam grow up in the town I now live in, but he was the frontman of Fountains of Wayne of "Stacy's Mom" fame (side note, my current neighbor is Stacy of that same song...small world!) who recently passed away due to COVID-19. So this one's for you, Adam - and to all you unhappy lawyers; this song shouldn't make you more miserable, it should set you free. It's not too late to leave the law behind!
Studies show that over 56% of lawyers are frustrated with their careers.
"But," you may ask, "how can I know I'm leaving my law job right?"
Or "How do I create a new resume?" "How do I make enough money in a non-lawyer job?" "How do I get over this negative feeling I'm a quitter?"
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