In case you hadn’t heard, Donald J. Trump wants to make America great again. How? Well, according the man himself, by doing smart things, having a great plan and getting the best and most capable people to do smart things, all while working with, around or straight through those who would stand in the way. It will be fantastic. It will be amazing. Very classy and really, really great.
I’m going to offer some thoughts on legal careers. Taking a page from Trump’s playbook, what I won’t offer are links, references or any verifiable support or justification for what I say. Feel free to disagree with my assumptions, arguments and prescriptions. That’s on you. I will just sit back and bask in Trump-ian certainty and confidence that I’m right. It’ll be great. Really, really great.
The status quo is terrible
Law school tuitions are sky high. Bar exam pass rates are plummeting. Many graduates can’t find jobs to service their crushing debt loads. Many who do find work are faced with precarious employment, lower wages and poor training. And in the latest twist, even those with the golden ticket to Big Law (i.e., Bay Street, AM100, Magic Circle, etc…) are confronted with clients increasingly preferring to direct their legal spend away from subsidizing associate training and toward robots, outsourcers, in-house counsel services and (what we used to call) accounting firms. Turning to mid- and late-career lawyers, the future won’t hold a candle to the past as market forces will put the squeeze on small and big law alike as clients demand and pursue more cost effective solutions to their legal issues. I hope you enjoy being a contractor to LegalZoom or an outsourced resource to the Wal-Mart legal department.
Why would anybody want to be a lawyer? Any honest assessment will tell you the financial prospects are bleak and worsening. We won’t even get into challenges like the outrageous working hours and higher than average risk for mental health issues and substance abuse problems.
I’ll tell you why people want to be lawyers.
Because it’s a great job. A fantastic way to make a living and to make a life. You meet cool people and do cool things. Half the best shows on TV are about lawyers (by the way, when is season 2 of Better Call Saul?). Why wouldn’t you want you be a lawyer?
For all the complaints and all the problems, tens of thousands start their JD or LLB studies every year, and orders of magnitude dream of being in their place.
Any career that has people climbing over each other to enter is a great one.
Want to change the status quo? Then change the way you look at things.
Gates, not a yellow brick road
Law school, licensing and getting hired as a lawyer – these are gates, not a road to anywhere.
Do you want to know why so many people, including lawyers, are so down on the idea of a career in law? It’s probably because somebody told them that being a lawyer was a safe, defined and profitable path.
There are things you need to do to become a lawyer, so you’ve got to get through the gates. After that, there is no path and no map. Stop looking for it and complaining that you can’t find it. You are on your own. If you want to believe your legal career can be great, you’ve got to handle that part yourself.
Oh, by the way, even those gates are becoming less important. It’s not just the people going around the gates or those trying to take them down from the outside, plenty of us who have cleared the gates are trying to create more openings.
For anyone that thinks today’s gates are a permanent fixture, here’s a thought experiment:
Consider the current model of legal training, employment and regulation. How far back do you have to find a time when things were quite different? With that in mind, what logic allows you to believe that today’s mode of operation will or should hold well into the future?
At some point in our history, we did things differently. At some point in our future, we will do things differently. Unless we believe we are currently on the one true path to enlightenment (or that we have already achieved it), then no aspect of our current models is sacrosanct or immutable, and there is no inevitability to retention of any particular feature or attainment of any particular goal.
A defined path across a field will only develop and hold if we limit how people access the field and we dictate where they are going. Expand the entry points and eliminate the destinations, and eventually there will be so many criss-crossing paths that there may as well be none.
I’m not trying to get all Neitzsche here and suggest none of it matters, my point is that every last participant is either pushing or pulling in some direction and none of us can completely anticipate the direction or the speed in which we will travel. The only certainty I can offer is that the cycles of change (from the way it was, to the way it is, and on to the way it will be) will accelerate as internal (students, law schools, law societies, courts, firms) and external (clients, governments, competitors, technologies, humans with legal rights and interests) players and forces increasingly take it upon themselves to own their role and seek to influence their future.
How to make a great legal career
Don’t shed a tear for the good old days. They never existed. Exceedingly few participants actually had a common experience along the pre-law, law school, and professional road.
Don’t plan as if the future will resemble the present. There are simply too many variables beyond your control.
Pick a short time frame over which you can plan and pursue goals with some confidence, and a slightly longer time frame to populate with aspirations that can serve as a beacon to give you hope and validate the choices you make in the short-term.
Focus on skill development.
Imagine yourself finding professional fulfillment in a variety of different places and roles.
Find mentors and supporters.
Be a mentor and supporter.
Not every job is going to be great, but when you create and own your personal definition of success, you can make your legal career great again.