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I enjoy being a lawyer, but it's not hard to see why many in the profession (in particular, associate attorneys) are unhappy.
1. The work
Most attorneys work about six days a week, generally fifty plus hours per week, and the norm now is to be available anywhere at any time. It is not uncommon during extreme times (trial, an important deal closing, etc.) for those hours to increase substantially and days off to become elusive. I've had stretches in my career when I went months without as much as a day off. I am a partner at my firm, and even when I am on vacation, I still find myself on the occasional conference calls, dictating portions of motions or responding to emails, because the work never fully conforms to my schedule and clients paying hundreds of dollars per hour for my time rightly don't appreciate delays. Certainly, there are other professions where people work insane hours (doctors, bankers, consultants, entrepreneurs, etc.), but the bottom line is that not everyone is cut out for the time commitment. Add to it the particular joy of the billable hour. If I'm not consistently working and documenting my time in six minute increments, I'm not getting paid, and for younger lawyers, slow periods may result in job loss. It's also unsurprising that many lawyers are working past the point of burning out.
2. The nature of the attorney-client relationship
A lawyer's responsibility is to take on other people's problems and find solutions. It's a challenging and intellectual pursuit, but it's also a stressful one. Some clients are difficult to deal with on a personal basis. Some clients have (grossly) unrealistic expectations of what can be done within the law. Often times, issues are raised at the last minute, necessitating a mad dash to try to meet deadlines. Some clients' problems cannot be solved, but merely managed. Some clients are unappreciative of the work they receive, even when they win. Almost no one is pleased with the costs, even when cases are staffed and run efficiently. And once in a while, clients will try to skip out on bills.
3. The adversarial nature of most legal work, in particular, litigation and criminal law
Many lawyers live lives of constant conflict, since their opponents are just as interested in winning their cases as they are. Some people (like me) love this, but others find this life to be incredibly stressful.
4. Most of what we lawyers do on a day-to-day basis is unexciting
I love reading and writing, so I'm a good fit as a litigator, but a lot of people go to law school with the idea that they're going to be like the lawyers they see on TV (mostly working in court, trials all the time, daily high-stakes conferences with power brokers, etc.). The reality of practice is far different. Most legal work is reading, researching, drafting documents, reviewing other documents, and occasional communication with one's opponent. For some lawyers, that's all the work they do, but in any event, the ratio of work to "action" is very high.
5. For many lawyers, the money isn't great
A lot of lawyers are struggling these days, especially given the increased cost of law school and resulting student loan debt. Even those who make hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars per year are typically representing people who are orders of magnitude wealthier than they are, and those at the top of the legal profession are typically working the longest hours. Moreover, within the general community, there is very little respect for lawyers. Some people might wish they had my income or my educational background, but I don't think I've ever heard a non-lawyer tell me that he or she admired and respected what I do for a living. No, it's mostly "how do you do this?" questions or the standard lawyer jokes. That's fine with me, but a lot of lawyers go into the profession seeking respect from others, not realizing that most people would be happy to never have to deal with lawyers.
6. Perhaps most importantly, the law has an exceptionally high percentage of people who were never cut out for the practice in the first place
This is because a great many lawyers made the decision to go to law school not because they really wanted to be lawyers, but because they wanted "wealth" or "prestige" or "respect" or sadly, couldn't think of anything better to do. Aimlessness isn't a problem with comparable professions. You have to really want to become a doctor because of the hard work and years of training required. If your heart's not in it, you're not going to stick it out to collect your M.D. and survive your residency. And if you don't really want to be a consultant or banker, odds are that you'll be fired or quit pretty quickly, but at least those jobs don't require advanced degrees for entry-level positions. Law school, however, offers the worst of both worlds. It has lower barriers to entry than medicine and thus seems appealing to people who are searching for a path to upper-middle class success and stability. But on the flip side, the law has a much higher exit cost than consulting or banking, putting people in a difficult position should they decide that they're not cut out for the work.
A law degree (J.D.) requires three years of post-undergraduate study -- a significant, but not backbreaking, time commitment -- and is often marketed as a "Swiss Army Knife" that can be lucrative even if you don't want to be a lawyer. As a result, law school attracts lots of young people who aren't sure what they want to do in life but know they have to do something, liberal arts grads who are shocked to learn what their degrees in Art History or English are actually worth in the marketplace, and people who want an "important" job that will make their parents happy and impress others. In other words, a lot of people make the decision to go to law school -- which often requires taking out one hundred thousand dollars or more in student loans -- based on what they expect to get from their degrees. They don't stop to ask themselves whether they actually want to be lawyers, and the reality is that a great many probably don't.
It's one thing to figure out after a year or two of work that you don't want to be a banker or consultant; you may have wasted your time, but you got a resume line, and are no poorer for your efforts. But if you wake up one morning and decide that you don't want to be a lawyer anymore? It's not uncommon for people to have a one thousand dollars or more loan debt from law school (not inclusive of any undergraduate debt). For many people starting out and/or working in expensive markets, one needs a large salary just to service those loans and pay for basics like rent, transportation, etc. In many markets, the only job most J.D.s can make sufficient money at is as lawyers. The very job they hate. Therefore, you wind up with a number of frustrated people who very much want to be doing something else, but can't afford to make a career change, or are unwilling to endure the downward mobility associated with a massive pay cut.
There are certainly a number of jobs that are tougher than being a lawyer (it's still a well-paying office job at the end of the day), but there's no profession where so many highly-educated people are incompatible with the job they're asked to perform, and it's this mismatch that breeds unhappiness.More questions on Quora: