Prior to entering law school, you would be hard pressed to find a prospective student that understands the reality of the practice of law. Unless the student has some legal experience under their belt due to college internships, jobs after college in preparation for law school (ex. paralegal) where they have observed lawyers in practice, their vision of what a lawyer does on a daily basis consists of a perception that is largely erroneous when compared to what actually is required of a lawyer to succeed. For example, it is often believed that most lawyers handle prestigious matters for sophisticated clients, and are forced to swat away many prospective clients because they’re swamped with handling high level work. What gets lost in this vision is an actual understanding of what an average lawyer’s day entails, and what skills are necessary to actually succeed at the practice of law. It is not until after graduation that most law students are exposed to what actually happens in practice. It would really benefit prospective law students to understand some key concepts prior to enrollment, so that their decision to enroll factors in how their particular personality may mesh with the skills necessary for success in this field.
1. Sales Skills
For the vast majority that is unaware, the legal field is a sales job first, legal practice job second. Like being a waiter, this is a client-driven industry. If you do not have clients that can pay you for your legal advice, you do not get paid. This is why lawyers do not generally enjoy a 9-5, because they are working on matters constantly to meet deadlines for others that work 9-5. When the CEO leaves his office at 7pm and wants something handed to him the next morning, the lawyer doesn’t get to go home at 7, the work must be done. In the context of private practice at medium-higher end firms that handle repeat and institutional clients, an associate may escape the requirement to seek clients for the first several years. However, as he or she manages to enter senior associate status the pressure will begin to build to start developing some client relationships. After all, law firms are in the end a business, and if you are not pulling your weight by developing a book of business, at some point it is highly likely you will slowly have to seek exit options. The good news for law school graduates entering practice with such firms is that they often have solid exit options a few years after graduation to government or in-house practice, where this pressure subsides. Nonetheless, even for government or in-house lawyers, these skills are very useful and it is highly recommended a young associate begin developing a knack for developing relationships and connections early on in his or her career.
The good news above ends quickly, however, when it comes to the average law school graduate because most law school graduates do not end up at medium-higher end firms. For those that end up working for small law firms, the pressure to begin developing a book of business is immediate as small law firms do not generally have institutional clients and a stream of repeat clients to allow for the hiring of new associates without requiring those associates to share in the effort of growing the law firm’s revenues. This, in fact, is a source of major surprise for the average law school graduate. It has only become more pronounced with the recent recession, and is now more often than not not simply a recommendation to a young associate but a requirement. This hustle for clients from the very beginning is exacerbated for law school graduates that seek to enter solo practice.
The problem for any solo practitioner, much less a recent graduate attempting to join the fray, is that law is inherently a field reserved for the wealthy, at least with respect to the client base. The average individual resists spending money on a lawyer unless significant consequences will result from not obtaining counsel. In fact, most people go through life never needing a lawyer. To become a solo practitioner requires extra emphasis on sales and marketing, and even then, barring some substantial connection, the solo’s clients will generally be regular folks with a one time legal issue (ex. divorce, personal injury, criminal defense). The hustle for clients is never ending. Legal practice has never not been this way, it just so happens that this information never really crosses the minds of the average person when thinking about the average lawyer’s responsibilities to keep the lights on. For a great example, read the following quote from Thomas Conyngton’s “Business Law: A Working Manual of Every-Day Law” written in the 1920s:
If a young man aspires to be a lawyer he should first satisfy himself as to his intellectual capacity. If he graduates from high school he should be with the first in his class. If he is only fair in his studies there are many things he can do successfully, but it would not be wise for him to study law. Assuming now that he has this necessary intellectual capacity, he may be sure that if he gives sufficient time and attention to his studies he will be admitted to the bar and have the privilege of trying to secure a paying practice. But this is only the beginning … The next step to success is to secure practice. If anyone will undertake a little research work in this direction he will find that the only profitable practice comes from people who are well to do or perhaps we should say from wealthy people. The average man employs a lawyer, but seldom. A man who keeps his family well but spends all he makes can go through his whole life and contribute very little money to the up keep of the legal profession. Every man has to pay employees, a doctor and a dentist, he has to pay these a generous slice of his income, but if one investigates he will be astonished to find out how little the average man pays for lawyer’s services. Find out how much the people you know well and associate with pay to a lawyer each year or how much they have paid in their past lives, then you can get an idea of how many clients of that class you would have to have to make a fair living. If you find that you are not in a position through family, social, or other connection to secure the patronage of men of wealth you are not likely to make much money at the practice of law. This is a hard fact that too many young men entirely overlook The real problem is not how to be admitted to the bar, but how to secure honorably enough profitable legal work to enable one to live as a professional man should live at this time and in this country.
2. Social and Type-A Personality
The former is required to achieve the greatest opportunities and success, the latter is generally advantageous. Being social goes hand in hand with the sales skills requirement above, and can be self-explanatory largely under that umbrella. Being social is not only positive in connection with obtaining clients, but it is important in growing your network as an attorney as you progress through your career. Knowing people and developing friendships will go a long way towards ensuring you have the best potential career opportunities. Yes, there are plenty of introverts in the practice of law, but assuming they are not working in secluded positions in the corners of their particular employment situation, inherently the practice of law forces them too to come out of their shells at least to the extent necessary to practice successfully. A lawyer must answer to someone, and a social individual greatly benefits from being social even in situations that do not require obtaining clients (ex. government practice). This is so because, at the bare minimum, it improves your ability to work with your fellow co-workers, which is essential.
Although being a Type-A is not required, a lawyer inherently must function in a way that displays at least some of the characteristics of a Type-A personality. No client wants a lawyer that is timid and creates the appearance of being a push over. The only reason clients hire lawyers is to get the legal job done, whatever it takes. A lawyer’s chances of obtaining clients is severely limited if they do not emanate energy and a strong will to provide all they can towards their clients’ success (not referring to being unreasonable). Again, this is not essential, but it often is the case that young associates, unaware of a lawyer’s need to demonstrate social and Type-A characteristics, enter practice and quickly fizzle out, deciding law is not for them. Their legal knowledge may help them in a different career, but knowing this particular information may have served them better prior to their enrollment in law school.