Practicing law can be an incredibly rewarding profession in so many ways. And it can be financially rewarding.
But money isn’t the most important thing. At least not to me.
Obviously, one needs to make enough money to cover expenses. And then you want to be able to live comfortably. Sometimes you get lucky and achieve this level of success quickly. Often you don’t.
I was lucky
When I graduated from law school because I got multiple offers to work at prestigious firms that paid associates a lot of money.
I worked hard in law school, got great grades, and made law review and the moot court team (and garnered other resume-enhancing accolades).
But still, I was lucky. The job market was hot back then.
Right out of law school, firms were willing to pay people like me more than $50,000 per year.
But I didn’t opt to go work at one of those firms.
Instead, I went to clerk for a federal trial court judge, a job that paid only $27,000 per year.
My best friend in law school thought I was making a big mistake. He took a high-paying job.
When I told him I’d be clerking for two years, he said I was totally nuts.
The way he looked at it, I was losing at least $50,000 over two years.
Plus, I was putting myself two years behind my peers in terms of the partnership track.
Why did I do this? How could I justify this decision? Well, for starters…
Money is just one consideration
If you’re only focused on making money, and making as much of it as possible, then my decision makes no sense.
But I was thinking about the incredible experience of working inside a court. I wanted to know how judges evaluated cases.
I knew that understanding how things worked behind the scenes would help me once I started practicing law and appearing in court myself.
What David Norman said
In my first year, I had a law school professor named David Norman who taught Civil Procedure.
He would often go beyond the lessons in the casebook and talk about what the practice of law was like in the trenches.
He knew because he’d been a trial lawyer for 30 years before he started teaching at law school.
Professor Norman often said that if we wanted to be trial lawyers, we should get to get a job clerking for a federal judge. But not the appellate judges because that was just a lot of legal research and writing.
Norman said it was better to be able to see what happened in trial. So he recommended clerking at the trial court level.
I trusted his advice more than that of the other professors, almost all of whom had little to no experience practicing law.
The key to appreciating Professor Norman’s advice was realizing that gaining the right kind of experience was more important than money.
Experience is valuable too.
A lot of my fellow law students scoffed at Professor Norman’s advice. They’d never sacrifice the high income of a big firm to work for a lowly judge.
They only saw a short-term sacrifice. And beyond that, they saw nothing.
There was indeed a big difference between the world of big law firms and small judicial chambers. And not just in terms of salary.
I didn’t have a secretary working for me when I was a law clerk. I had to type my own memos to the judge myself — on an electric typewriter.
I ate in the basement cafeteria every day, not in fancy restaurants like friends in the big firms.
I didn’t get a wardrobe allowance like they did.
And I had to be in the office every day and didn’t get to take vacations.
The Work Mattered
If I was sick, I could not take off of work. I had to show up because there was no backup.
The judge depended on all his staff members to do their work — and keep all the cases moving.
I never thought about how much money I was making or not making.
The work I did truly mattered. And that’s something I was keenly aware of.
In short, I was deeply fulfilled. And a big part of that was because I was learning so much – every single day.
I got to see some great lawyers in action. I saw a lot of bad lawyers too.
I learned why lawyers failed to make convincing arguments. And most importantly, I learned how to avoid making certain mistakes without making them myself.
The value of the education I got in the two years I clerked was worth so much more than the ‘ ‘lost income.”
But as I said, many attorneys could not see that.
Money doesn’t bring fulfillment
When I finally went to work at a big firm, I started making lots of money.
I had my own secretary and paralegals to do all the grunt work. I got to go to fancy lunches and got an allowance to spend on clothes.
The firm even supplied everyone with free sodas and snacks.
But I sensed a difference in the nature of my work. Often it seemed we were doing things just because it produced billable hours, not because it truly mattered.
And if I didn’t show up for work, someone else could easily do my job. I was only valuable if I billed hours and clients paid for my time.
This was unsettling but on the bright side..
I became a partner (after about six years), and then I started earning hundreds of thousands of dollars.
And yet I was miserable.
I felt like I was supposed to be happy with the money. So I felt like maybe there was something wrong with me.
I was uninspired, felt unworthy, and was on a treadmill.
I kept plugging away billing hours, competing with others for greater stature…by billing more hours. I was on the road to nowhere, but I couldn’t figure out how to get off.
I noticed a few other lawyers didn’t look so happy either. Every once in a while, one would peel off and go to another firm, but they’d still be miserable, but just somewhere else.
Some lawyers, however, left to do something radical, like one who became a minister and obviously made a LOT less money.
But I noticed they were suddenly a lot happier. Then one day, I took an opportunity to do something radical…
I took a year off to go teach at my old law school.
I made a lot less money, but I was much happier. I liked teaching students, and I tried to model Professor Norman in doing so.
In other words, I pushed students to look beyond superficial theories of the legal system and see how lawsuits actually unfold in the trenches.
After my one-year sabbatical, I had to return to the big firm. But that taste of fulfillment stuck with me.
Eventually, I went out on my own. As I’ve said many times, technology made it possible for me to create a fulfilling solo practice where I could earn enough money to be happy by eliminating a lot of unnecessary overhead.
As I said at the outset, practicing law can be a very fulfilling profession.
But some hidden traps can divert you from the aspects that are most fulfilling.
One of those traps is money. Another is status.
Many lawyers fall for these traps. I could say I feel bad for them, but I really don’t because it’s their fault.
I fell into the money trap, and that was my fault, which I accept.
So here’s the most important lesson that I hope you can understand…
We all have the power to build the life we want. It may not seem like it at times, but it’s true.
Granted, it takes a lot of time and energy to build the life and law practice you really want.
Play the long game, not the short game.
Trust your instinct and always aim for the stars. That’s where the biggest payoffs come from.
Oh, and one more thing
(as Steve Jobs would say)
Here’s a quote from a famously successful person that’s 100% relevant to everything above (my wife Donna sent it to me literally two minutes ago).
“Build a good name. Keep your name clean.
Don’t make compromises. Don’t worry about making a bunch of money or being successful.
Be concerned with doing good work and make the right choices and protect your work.
And if you can build a good name, eventually, that name will be its own currency.”
That sounds like something Professor Norman would have told us back in my first year of law school.