What Is It Really Like To Be A Lawyer?
Let’s just call a spade a spade: the law is a dejected profession. Lawyers have for years led other professionals in the rates of alcoholism and mental illness. In 2016, the New York Times reported that lawyers struggle with substance abuse, particularly drinking, and with depression and anxiety, more commonly than other professionals. CNN has highlighted the legal profession’s drinking problem. And, just now, Akin Gump announced that it added on-site mental health counseling for its 900+ attorneys.
Why is all this going on? I don’t have all of the answers here; surely, some of the stress is inherent in the profession that, by definition, involves solving peoples’ problems and, frequently, doing other peoples’ dirty laundry. But, having worked in large law firms, and having now run my own successful plaintiff’s practice for a decade, I think I know what is at least in part at the root of the problem and can suggest a partial solution. My guess is that many lawyers are depressed, and therefore drinking and abusing drugs, because they don’t see a way out. They feel trapped in jobs that pay above average yet handcuff them to their desks, to their responsibilities, to their stressful schedules, to their cases, to their travel, to their partners, and to their firm clients.
Most don’t have the skills to start their practices, to advertise, to retain clients, to manage their offices, to deal with accounting responsibilities and to do the myriad other tasks that successful, self-employed lawyers must do. According to New York Times Bestseller The Millionaire Next Door, even though only 20% of working adults work for themselves and two thirds of the millionaires in the country are self-employed. That is a number that shows self-employment as a potential key to greater control over one’s schedule and caseload, but it is also as a significant predictor of financial success. And, according to some studies, it turns out that self-employed people are the happiest types of workers. But overworked lawyers are too fearful to see this, and, for many, their thinking is numbed down by the affects of alcohol and drugs.
Which leads me to the following basic question: why are the nation’s law schools not teaching students basic entrepreneurship skills? They teach Constitutional Law, Real Estate Law, Criminal Law, Contracts Law, and Torts Law. These and other standard subjects have been considered ‘basics’ for generations, but the profession of law has become specialized. Most lawyers rarely encounter constitutional issues. Real estate lawyers almost never take criminal cases. Injury lawyers rarely deal with contract law, and non-criminal lawyers almost never deal with criminal issues. I’m not against teaching these basic subjects as a grounding in the profession, but I think there is a need for more. Something or someone is failing in a system that turns out such an unhappy bunch of professionals.
So I think law schools should teach lawyers entrepreneurship. Law schools should empower students to start their own practices or join firms where entrepreneurship counts. Law school graduates should know the basics of running a law firm, from logistics to advertising. Let me propose a law school class that I think would benefit 21st century law students: How to Start and Run a 21st Century Law Firm.
The following basics could be covered in a class like this:
Basics of Opening Your Own Practice
- The business plan
- Financial plan
- How to select practice areas
- Agreements with clients
- Logistics: office rental, telephone, computers
- Case management systems
- Office…do you need one?
Introduction to Types of Solo and Small Firm Practice Areas
- Can small firm lawyers do big firm work?
- The generalist practice
- How to build a litigation defense practice
- How to build a criminal law practice
- How to build a personal injury practice
- How to build a plaintiff’s practice
Advertising in the 21st Century
- How to build a website
- Social media for lawyers
- Search Engine Optimization for Lawyers
- Pay-per-Click Advertising for Lawyers.
- Social Media for Lawyers
- TV Advertising for Lawyers
- Client Development for Lawyers
- Secrets of Million-Dollar Solos
The University of Connecticut Law School seems to have an incubator program, and more schools should follow suit. Certainly, even with a course like this under their belt, most law school graduates might still take the traditional route of working for firms or the government upon graduation. But they should be equipped with a basic self-starter kit that could enable them to start their own firms or bring entrepreneurial attitude to firms they join. Sure, law schools receive substantial donations from large law firms that need new crops of keep-your-nose-to-the-grindstone worker bee associates each year, not entrepreneurs. But if law schools view their responsibilities as also promoting the happiness, health and professional satisfaction of their graduates, then teaching students to work for themselves can’t hurt.
Find me on Twitter: @lemberglaw