Don’t go to law school unless you’re one of these five people

Starry eyed dreamers continue to consider law school. One of my sorors posted this on Facebook:

“…… thinking about law school. I see law everywhere I am. All the products I use (copyrights, trademarks, consumer safety) to driving down the street (city, county laws) to even being on social media (privacy and communication laws). I’m intrigued…..”

My reply ( because we are acquaintances and I didn’t want to be a dream crushing jerk) was: “Really think hard about that. The legal job market is awful and the practice of law is not what it seems from the outside looking in. There are literally licensed attorneys doing unpaid internships trying to get a foot in the door. You can be equally overworked and underpaid as a teacher, except teachers get summers off, federal holidays, and benefits! That is almost impossible to find as an attorney.”

But here on my blog, I am going to let you all know that there are five kinds of people who are successful in law school and if you don’t fit entirely into one or more of those categories, you need to hang it up. TL; DR: people who enjoy the academic challenge of law are not the ones who are the most successful lawyers.

The people making enough money to be comfortable fall into one of these categories:

  1. The Trust Fund Babies. These kids may not have a literal trust fund, but they have connections. This group includes future Presidents and Supreme Court Justices, of course, as well as people who have lawyers in their family going back to the Mayflower. It’s the legacy admissions who have Thanksgiving with your Torts professor because he taught dear old dad 20 years ago. It’s the children of the senior partners of the biggest law firm in the state. It even includes the son of the local personal injury lawyer whose commercials everyone laughs at. Well, while you’re stressing over exams, he’s got a job for life lined up. While you’re struggling with the finer points of Bluebook citation over spring break, they let daddy’s paralegal revise their memo and hit the beach.
  2. The Second Career Veterans. These people spent 8+ years in corporate America, and have industry specific knowledge that put them head and shoulders above the competition.  A human resources benefits specialist is a shoo in at the employment law firm who needs a worker’s comp or ERISA attorney. Maybe it’s a real estate agent who gets a law degree so they can do their own closings and stop splitting commissions. Whatever the particulars, they have something you don’t– prior job experience that is highly valued enough to launch them into a six figure job after graduation, and a strong professional network in their desired industry.
  3. The Sharks. These are the hustlers, the go-getters, the ones who will succeed by any means necessary (and for some that means buying old exams from alumni to get the edge on finals). These are the folks who started reading the WSJ business section freshman year of college so that they wouldn’t be at a loss for conversation with a potential employer. They are intensely competitive and love working 24/7. They don’t have time for the law fraternity kegger but they are at every alumni mixer and go to local bar association section meetings. They can come from any rung on the socioeconomic ladder but they pursue their goals with single minded focus and precision. 
  4. The True Detectives. Crime is a constant, so it’s a good thing to stake your career on. The thing is, it takes a special type of person to do criminal law no matter which side of the aisle you’re on. Criminal law, much like medicine or the clergy, is a calling. Every successful criminal attorney I’ve met says they knew coming into law school what they wanted to do, and the same was true of my classmates who have taken that route. You must have a bone deep desire to uphold the integrity of the legal system by ensuring fair trials for any accused person, or a bone deep desire to put away the bad guys. Passion required. 
  5. The STEM nerds.  Even in the legal industry, a J.D. alone isn’t  good enough for you to breathe the rarefied air of intellectual property law. But if you’re a nerd who would rather read and write about inventions than build them, IP law is made for you. You need an undergraduate degree in a scientific or technical field along with your law degree in order to take the patent bar. But the overeducation will pay off immediately. For every Google, Microsoft and Samsung, there is a team of IP attorneys writing their contracts, doing their litigation and locking down their patents and being paid handsomely to do so. 

If you aren’t 100% sure you fall into one of these categories, you are not one of these five people. That means you are NOT the exception, you are the average and will likely have an average law career with an average salary. The average is around $118,000 according to US News & World Report, but that number is heavily skewed since they solicit survey responses from lawyers working in large law firms, who are among the highest paid and made up mostly of the 5 types of people listed above. Half of that number is would be a much more realistic average. And yes, you can be an “average lawyer” and still have a satisfying career and a happy life.

I don’t believe that average is a dirty word and if America was more honest about the fact that you cannot actually be anything you want, we could reform our educational system in a meaningful way. Besidesif everybody was exceptional then exceptional wouldn’t mean anything. My point is that a) you don’t need a law degree to get to a $60-80k/yr lifestyle and b) if you are going to end up in the average lawyer position, you should not go to law school unless your cost is being subsidized. If you can get through law school at a cost of no more than $30,000, it’s worth it. Even on an average salary, that is the same debt load as a new car (a lower end car at that) and you will easily be able to carry the payments. If you can get into a top 50 law school I’d say your ROI makes sense if you can get out under $60k. I won’t get into any other hypotheticals because if you aren’t one of the five people above and don’t fall into the two scenarios I’ve already listed, law school is quite simply not for you.

I love my career but if I knew then what I know now I probably would have been an accountant, who dreamt of being a lawyer so who knows? I’m a tax lawyer though, so it’s kind of the best of both worlds.

Feel free to drop me a note in the comments or shoot me an email. If you’re considering law school and have questions, I’m happy to chat with you.

Shine Time

“All this good, I don’t feel bad for it. When you see me smile, you can’t be mad it.” #Mood

2017 has been a hell of a year. Our government may be in shambles but God is faithful, and in the midst of the chaos He brought me safely through a natural disaster and blessed me with what? A NEW JOB! GLORAAAYYYYYYY!

 

The BIble says there is a time to sow and a time to reap. I feel like I’ve been in sowing season for a mighty long time but now I’m finally getting to enjoy the fruits of my labor. PEr my plausible deniability policy, I won’t be too specific about my new position, but I can give a general idea. I’ve left the drudgery of document review and the crushing grind of private practice for the sweet Elysian fields of public interest law. No job is perfect–serving a population that is lower income and generally less sophisticated about the law has its own unique challenges. But the sense of fulfillment I get from doing my job more than makes up for it. I have a female boss who’s really laid back, nice coworkers (I finally see how people have work friends!), pay commensurate with my qualifications and benefits. Your girl has paid vacation, sick days, and holidays, y’all! Plus health and life insurance! It’s everything that I was praying for. Can I get an amen?!?

Things are doing better on the family front too. I’m pulling back on babying my parents, so I gave we flew in on Monday afternoon and back out on Friday evening, to have the weekend to recover. I only had one visit with each parent and they didn’t die, LOL. My grandparents are clearly getting older so I make a point of seeing them when I can. They’re such a joy and I don’t want to have any regrets of not spending time with them when they pass. I saw my younger cousins for the first time in a couple years too. They’re all in college and think they’re grown and I can’t cope…I’m pretending they will all go from kindergarten to gainfully employed, happily married adults. Alcohol? $ex? Nope nope nope, I don’t know about any of that.

I stayed over at my big sister’s new house, which was #goals. It’s beautiful. Hardwood floors, new appliances, three bedrooms, a patio, and a basement that’s ready to be converted into a den or an apartment. I can’t even be jealous because I’m so happy for her. She’s been wanting her own home for several years now, and their homebuying process was fraught with tales of undisclosed defects and mold. So much mold at literally every place they liked. She and her husband are both teachers and wear themselves out doing right by those devil spawn known as middle schoolers. It was great to see how relaxed and comfy they are at home.

Now that my career is finally starting to go where I want it to go, I can think about the things I want from my personal life. Namely, kids and house. Over the Thanksgiving break, DH* and I had a frank conversation about our baby timeline and finances. We hope to start looking for a house by the end of next year (because with both of us working full time it will probably take another year to find one we want), so it’s time to redo the budget and tighten our belts. I’m not disclosing my baby timeline because I don’t need  y’all (and yes I mean specific people, you know who you are) getting all excited about the thought of Baby J.D. before I’m good and ready. I need some more time. But I’m glad to be settled enough that the thought of having a child is only somewhat terrifying, rather than the worst thing that could happen to me. 🙂

 

*DH = dear husband. I’m tired of writing hubs so I’m trying something new.

Time to go solo?

 

I was inspired recently by this post on “Grace vs. Grind“. Being temporarily underemployed (by my own doing, no less!) has given me a lot of time to think about what it is that I want to do. What am I passionate about? What do I enjoy doing for people? What problems do I want to solve? How do I not end up hating my next job?

I’ve been resistant to the idea but I’m starting to think it may be time for me to step out on faith and start my own practice. My law school homie Jaleesa thinks I would be a great solo practitioner and that I don’t give myself enough credit for knowing what I am doing–my fear has always been that I don’t know enough to do it on my own. She’s right that in reality, everybody learns on the job.

Several little things are making me more amenable to the idea. I am part of a local Levo League group, which hosts free networking and professional development events for women every month. Several months ago, I met a woman who was interested in hiring me to teach a mini-session on business law at one of her events. I also had a tax client ask me for my card to do a will for him. No follow up on either of these so far, but it shows that theoretically there is some demand for my services. In addition, I’ve been volunteering with the local bar association. I’m on a committee that provides attorneys for free speaking engagements, which of course is another networking opportunity.

If I’m honest with myself, pretty much everything I hated about my old job related to the fact that I had no control. I didn’t get to decide what cases we took, how much we charged, or how we handled the matter and it was frustrating as hell. While I could go to another law firm and be better paid, I’d still be working crazy hours and have the same lack of control. Work life balance is very important to me and that’s hard to achieve as a lawyer unless you’re willing to go solo. Of course, solo practice is no walk in the park. But whether I’m working 20 hours a week or 60, at least I’m in the driver’s seat and that makes a huge difference to my stress level. It’s one thing to take on a workload that requires 12 hours days and get 100% of the profit from those clients. It’s quite another to be underpaid and chained to your desk until 9:00 p.m. while the partner twiddles his thumbs and goes home at 5:00 p.m. on the dot.

Of course, being a solo practitioner is a lot of work too. It means constantly marketing, and doing everything yourself for however long it takes to make enough profit to hire help. It’s easy to put up a website and download some apps that will help you set up a virtual office. It’s much, much harder to get paying clients in the door. There’s a good reason that most people aren’t business owners–handing over 40+ hours of your time every week for a steady paycheck makes life easier in many ways.

Tax season ends next week and with it, my regular paycheck so for the next however long it takes to get a job offer, I’m on my own. I’ve been applying for a while now, and August will make a full year since I quit. I know I’m not underqualified for the positions I’ve been applying for, so maybe this lack of response is God’s way of giving me an answer…

Common Cents

America, the cheapskate. With this new administration, there’s a lot of talk about balancing the budget, reducing taxes, and that old chestnut–“job creation”.  Part of the problem is that we don’t have people developing skills that are more relevant to the economy than coal mining, but that’s another post for another day. But conservatives love to talk about how policies are helping or hurting small business owners.*

There’s all this talk about job creation and how things like the Affordable Care Act discourage business growth. **The truth is that it takes money to make money. If you can’t afford the expenses for your business–including reasonable employee wages–then you need to reevaluate before you start talking about growth. If you can’t pay your employees, you can’t afford to grow– period! So either you need to reevaluate your business processes to see how you can better handle your workload with what you have, or up your marketing game to get more business in the door.

It’s really unfortunate to me that so many business owners are so cheap. Everyone knows the saying “it takes money to make money”, but few seem to truly understand that. It’s not hard. When you are starting a business, most of your profits should be reinvested as working capital. That’s not to say you shouldn’t pay yourself something to live on. But the first three years are not for you to run out and buy an expensive new car or wardrobe, or lease an expensive office downtown in the hip neighborhood. They are for you to master your branding, network, market yourself, and find out what processes will allow you to scale up from the current skeleton crew operation.

As you all know, I’m a lawyer. As a service professional, an attorney’s or law firm’s reputation is everything because a lot of business comes through word of mouth. Doing a half-assed job on cases you shouldn’t have taken, and missing deadlines because you can’t manage your docket, is bad business and will potentially get you in trouble with the state bar.  Discounting every client who complains about your fee will bite you in the foot. If they are a repeat customer, they’ll expect the same discounted rate. The clients they refer to you will expect a discounted rate. They also won’t take your seriously. In my experience, the clients who get a discounted fee or are on contingency are the most high maintenance, demanding clients. They want to go to trial long after it’s clear they should take a settlement and go home. You waste precious billable hours wrangling them when you could be working on more lucrative cases. All of this for a client who is not substantially contributing to your bottom line.  Many of these things are true for other professionals as well.

So that’s why my interview the other day irked me so much. The firm had a standalone building with a dedicated reception lobby, two conference rooms, four offices and a break room. There was a recent model year BMW parked close by. My interviewer’s shoes looked designer and their shirts and suits looked custom tailored. Yet, they want someone to work for them 7 days a week for a pittance.  See, we millenials peep game. The same Baby Booomers who claim we’re lazy and entitled, told us to know our worth, negotiate everything, and demand respect. Now that the rubber has hit the road, they’ve changed their tune. They want us to do better, just not better than them. And that’s messed up.

 

*Everyone thinks about the Mom & Pop diner when you say small business, but they don’t give a crap. Under tax law you can create an S-Corp, literally “small corporation”, which can’t have more than 100 shareholders. But there are S-Corps which are multi-million dollar  international operations. #TheMoreYouKnow

**The ACA requires that businesses with 50 or more employees provide sponsored health insurance coverage. The cost of this coverage is deductible by the company as a business expense.

Work | Life

So I had an interview at a law firm today. It went well, in that I got there early, came prepared, and delivered my answers without sounding rehearsed (and with a minimum of filler words). Go me! However…I could tell it wasn’t going to be the right fit. The first indication was that the job was advertised on Craigslist and the company was confidential. I applied anyway on the off chance it could be legit. But, I got my last job through CL so I braced myself for the worst. If a firm can’t afford to spend a couple hundred dollars to list on a dedicated jobs site for 30 days, they more than likely don’t want to pay a competitive salary.

In this case, the odds were not in my favor. It started with the job itself. I was told that they expected me to work cases with little to no oversight or guidance from them. I’m an independent worker but most law firms specialize in just two or three areas of law. They do everything- tax, estate planning, immigration, criminal defense, personal injury, products liability, contract, worker’s compensation, YOU NAME IT! That’s fine, I’m willing to learn…but the expectation is that I would be on my own and I was not to bother them with questions. Seriously? It took me a year to get down all the subtleties of the FLSA*, and that’s just one part of one branch of law. Hubs said, “Well then clearly they’re comfortable with you making mistakes and learning by trial and error. ” HA! If only that were true.

The second red flag was the schedule The principal attorney is one of those Gen-Xers with a Baby Boomer “back in my day” mentality. In his associate days, he worked until 1am and then got called back to the office at 6am and didn’t complain! (Mind you, his firm bio says that he worked in BigLaw and finished law school in 2001, so he was definitely getting six figures for his troubles). I was told that in addition to working past closing time during the week (fine), I’d be expected to work every weekend because that’s when they got most of their work done. Not fine. How am I in the office 60 hrs during the week and still need to work Saturday and Sunday, every single weekend? Either a) they’re pulling in a huge volume of cases and need at least two associates to even the load or b) that scattershot approach to getting clients means they’re burning too much time on research.

 

I’m just going to put it out there that a 60 hour workweek is about my limit. That’s already a huge time commitment. Let’s say I get up at 6:30. Take an hour to eat breakfast and get dressed, 30 minute commute (even though the average daily commute is almost an hour, I’ll be generous) to get to the office at 8am. I take a 30 minute lunch and leave at 8:30pm to get home at 9pm, eat dinner, and go to bed at midnight.  When do I have time to exercise, cook a healthy meal, or do anything fun, other than the weekend? It’s just not sustainable. Especially if you’re not going to pay me enough money to put aside how exhausted and stressed out I am.

On top of all this, we discussed salary. I included my bare minimum number ($60k) and they asked if I could go lower.  I had already figured out the job wasn’t for me but that cleared any doubt in my mind. I surely didn’t go to into debt to obtain an advanced degree and get paid less than a teacher. No disrespect at all to educators, but I know my worth. In Houston ISD, teachers start at $54k. You only need a Bachelor’s degree and you get weekends, all federal holidays, and 2 months off in the summer. $60k is a damn bargain if I’m working 10-12 hour days year round with no holidays except Thanksgiving  &  Christmas.

Anyway, I’m not discouraged. If I can get one interview I can get another. There is definitely something better out there for me–even it means that I have to hang my own shingle. If I have to take a pay cut, I’d rather do it comfortably from home where I can set my own hours. Because being cash poor and miserable is a double-L that I’m not signing up for.

 

*Fair Labor Standards Act, which establishes the minimum wage and the requirement that non-exempt workers be paid overtime.

A Lawyer’s Lament

My graduate certificate program will be finished in 3 months so at the top of the year I started job hunting full time. I forgot how demoralizing it is. No interviews yet, although I’ve applied for dozens of jobs, and I’m qualified for most of them. There have been a few stretches of course, but if someone with no political experience whatsoever can be Commander in Chief, then anything is possible! #MURICA

Anyway, I’ve been applying for lawyer jobs as well as corporate ones. Corporate jobs are much easier to apply to–just send in your resume and a cover letter! No need for transcripts, writing samples, or references. Attorney openings on the other hand…SMH. First of all, half of them I don’t even bother with because they ask for top 10% or 25%. It’s no use trying to get around the grade requirement unless you’ve got five years experience or know someone at the firm who will keep your resume from being trashed (that’s a no for me on both counts). One listing that really got my ire up said “Top 25% only (or a REALLY good excuse as to why you blew it).”

Well excuse the heck outta me. Last time I checked, law school was graded on a curve which means IT’S PURPOSELY SET UP SO THAT SOMEONE GETS SCREWED. Despite the fact that the entire class may have an 85% or greater understanding of the material, the curve dictates that somebody’s going to get a grade of 70% because of the curve. I busted my behind in law school after being on the Dean’s List my whole life, but I barely squeaked by in the upper 50%. Mind you, I never received any actual negative feedback on my papers and exams the whole time. But because of the curve, most of my grades were mediocre even though I had an above average understanding of the material.

Law might be the only profession where you need an advanced degree and a state license but your grades still matter. Nobody asks doctors or CPAs for their class rank, so why does it matter for lawyers? If you have to be in the top 25% to get a job at a law firm, why didn’t they just flunk me out after the first semester of 1L year when I was only $10k in the student loan debt hole? I could have gotten 2.5 years of my life back.

Anyway. I hope my loyal readers (shoutout to all five of you, much love!) weren’t too bored by my rant. I’ll write about something more entertaining next time but I needed to whine a little bit before I go back to being adult. I know I just have to keep the faith. I only need one yes, after all.