So You Want to Be a Lawyer?

Hello Mr. Shahrestani [...] you and I shared a few phone conversations about two years ago. At the time, I was a junior [in college], and unsure about my future, specifically as it pertained to my legal education. I wanted to write and thank you as well as update you. The most valuable piece of advice that I got from you during those phone calls was the idea that I needed to “go out and get my hands dirty” in the world before starting a terminal degree, such as a JD. I took this to heart, and after I graduated [...], I immediately began working with a local grassroots conservation organization [...]. In addition to running a legislative campaign for them, I have built a new program [...] which takes University students out into the [...] Wilderness [...] for trail-work trips, as well as environmental education trips for “at-risk” high school students [...]. Both of these endeavors have been extremely fulfilling. I may still pursue a JD in the next few years, but I wanted to write and say thanks for re-assuring me that the true value of ambition is in how you can help others in your community. I wish you well, and thanks again for your help and your time in 2009.
— April 2011 Letter from a Local Non-Profit Organization Activist
Upon researching your firm, I came to a better understanding of what you do. Between your vast areas of practice and your remarkable language dexterity, I am awfully impressed . . . I find your transition from teacher, professor, and farm-worker to a public interest attorney to be both poignant and inspiring . . . I want to thank you for all that you do and tell you how great your involvement in social justice truly is. I know it might not mean much, but you have truly convinced a seventeen year-old girl that a career in law might be for her.
— January 2010 Letter to Ali Shahrestani, Esq. from a Sacramento, CA High School Student

Often, I receive calls and emails from young men and women in high school, college, and law school seeking advice and mentorship regarding a hoped-for or pending law career. Now in early January mere days before so many law school applications are due, I write this short article for them. Here are some basic pointers and truths about the practice of law:

  1. Grades matter! While there are probably a thousand law schools in the USA, just over 200 of them are approved by the American Bar Association. US News and World Report ranks the best law schools each year, as you likely know. I would not recommend even thinking about applying to any law school that is not ABA accredited and in the top 100 ranked by US News and World Report. Sure, a law degree is just a piece of paper, and every lawyer knows that law school teaches you nothing about lawyering. You could read everything you learn in law school in a book shorter (and far less educational) than Don Quixote. Frankly it’s the result of the modern, obsessive regulatory machine benefiting special financial interests that people need to meet certain educational and licensure requirements in order to practice any profession in the first place. Abraham Lincoln, remember, did not attend law school. That said, in today’s real world the reputation of the law school from which you graduate hovers over you in every case you handle as an attorney. It impacts your career choices every step of the way. It is common opinion that the students and faculty at the top law schools are of a higher intellectual quality. Your professional network starts there. And to be accepted to a top law school, nothing counts more than your LSAT scores and your college GPA. Your GPA is typically weighted by the top law schools based on the ranking of your college, as well, such that a 3.5 GPA is worth more from a top-ranked college than a 3.5 from a lower-ranked one. In short, earn the best grades you can, become admitted to at least a top-100 law school, and do your best there as well. Based on my experiences interacting with lawyers of many different stripes, I am of the opinion that it’s not worthwhile to consider a law career if your grades are not sufficient to become admitted to such a level of law school. Clearly this may be an offensive point-of-view – which brings me to my second bit of advice.

  2. Be an intelligent and assertive person – not the other kind. There are plenty of fist-pounders who practice law – big mouth, know-nothings who love to make threats and cast false accusations. Too often they win cases because the law is not the same thing as justice: this is a truth that likely has discouraged many youngsters from pursuing a career in the law. It almost discouraged me when I figured this out in college after having a fantastic freshman year seminar taught by a round-table of luminary legal scholars and attorneys. But then after some potent real-world experience I realized that that is precisely why it’s important to be an ethical lawyer: to clean up the mess that so many lawyers, judges, politicians, and others are making of our legal system. Robert Kennedy, Jr. has always been a big influence – a model of the ethical lawyer – for me. Before I learned about his work in environmental law, I didn’t know there was even such a thing as an ethical lawyer! He is one of the reasons why I decided to attend law school in the first place. It’s key to be ethical and intelligent as much as it’s crucial to be assertive and resilient if you’re going to be a lawyer. It’s like a tough game of football – if you play the game, you’re going to get some scars. Be prepared for that. If you can’t handle the “slings and arrows” of ne’er-do-wells, can’t stomach the injustice with which you’ll be faced every single day, can’t deal with the garbage people will throw at each other and even at you — or worse if you’re the type who will respond to such wrongs by eventually joining the “dark side” yourself — then trust me, the law is not the career for you. I’ll give you one brief example. In a hotly contested arbitration matter where the opposing party was foisting the most unjust and deceitful garbage I’ve ever heard as a professional attorney, during a brief bathroom break the opposing lawyer – truly the very example of a sleazy nincompoop – followed me into the bathroom, sidled up next to me while I was using the urinal, and while mid-stream himself uttered to me his client’s icky settlement offer! Obviously I didn’t respond with anything more than a head-shake of disgust. But as a lawyer, you have to rise above such things every day in one form or another. Know that going in: this kind of trash exists, and it will be your job to deal with it, win or lose.

  3. Don’t be a “typing monkey.” I had a colleague in law school who came up with that description for lawyers who work in big law firms and never do any real work, like wrench-turners on an assembly line who focus on one small part of a larger case, and who never really learn how to interact with or represent a client. It’s the kind of work that pays a lot but costs even more. It’s not why anybody goes to law school. And don’t kid yourself by thinking you’ll work for “the man” for a year or two to pay off your loans and then go on to do “good guy” law. That’s a transition that rarely happens, such is the allure of a big salary. And once you get on the train, the options to get off become ever more rare.

  4. Choose your clients carefully. Many solos and boutique law firms start out practicing “door law” – that is, they take any case that walks in the door! Funny, right? But remember that your client becomes a bit of a business associate: for the time you’re representing that client and even afterwards, you may be impacted by more than just their case. Their manners, behaviors, and ethics may very likely impact you. The foibles and errors that got them in some sort of legal complication in the first place may likely be visited upon their relationship with you as well. So for all the allure of taking on a paying client with an interesting case, think to yourself: is it safe for me to do business with this person or entity? When their chips are down, are they likely to be the type of client who shifts blame outwardly, conjures false evidence, and unjustly directs scorn onto their lawyer? Is this client a liar, a cheat, or a louse? They exist, so steer clear. Otherwise you’ll find out why malpractice insurance companies and the State Bar are so busy all year-round: that’s a racket you’re best to avoid.

  5. Get some real life experience before heading into a career as a lawyer. Too many kids are on auto-pilot with directives preset by their well-meaning parents. They head like robots straight from high school to college to law school. But years of real, gutsy life experience helps you face the truths of justice and injustice in society. It’s important to know what causes people to act as they do, to be able to read people, to have real courage, and to have a honed sense of purpose. A kid on the academic hamster-wheel can’t possibly acquire that kind of real-world knowledge, wisdom, and judgment that a good lawyer needs. So many lawyers who skipped the real-world experience of life after college and before law school end up becoming the biased, judgy, and ethically-challenged bully lawyers that clog the legal system. Don’t join their ranks, even accidentally. Live a good amount before deciding whether a career in the law is a good choice for you.

  6. Realize that even if you end up becoming a lawyer, it just may be a career choice that you pursue for only a certain period of time. It’s well known that the average person in the USA will dramatically change professional paths a few times in the course of their life. It’s also well known that the job satisfaction statistics for lawyers are pretty dismal. We deal with a lot of awful people – and those are just our colleagues! Just kidding. Kind of. Not really. So think big picture when you’re studying in school and living life. If you pick the law, have a “what’s next” plan simmering in the back of your mind. Make sure that you’re taking the steps – academically and experientially – to be able to pursue your other professional goals when it’s time. It’s not easy to make a professional transition, regardless of your career; but good planning is what makes the difference. This brings me to my last bit of advice.

  7. Preparation is 4/6ths of it. Apart from the ethical failures of so many lawyers, the biggest problem I have seen with their work springs from their lack of sufficient preparation, which in turn is a result of their insufficient care and intelligence. If you don’t care and if you’re not smart enough, don’t bother being a lawyer. We don’t need more gook in the gears of justice. If that’s too real a thing to say, then I’ll end with some sharp advice from President Abraham Lincoln who once said, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”

Fiat justitia ruat caelum