Is now a good time to become a lawyer?

January 3, 2009

To read some lawyers’ contributions to the legal blogs you might be forgiven for thinking that becoming a lawyer today was not the shrewdest career choice one could make. It is certainly true to say that some firms are cancelling (or postponing) training contracts, that the legal profession (in the UK at least) is soul searching whether the partnership model is dead and I suspect we all think that the time of super rich (if never easy) pickings for the stars of the profession may also be disappearing fast.

In short, given this context, if you are about to embark on a career as a lawyer, you might find it much, much harder to get started; then, once you are started, the traditional career model is in a state of flux and, even if you get to be very good at what you do, you might not earn as much as partners in law firms have been used to earning in years gone by.

Okay then – it is time for a serious reality check and for you to answer the one big question: Why do you want to be a lawyer?

If you want to be a lawyer because:

  • You will sit in a big swivelling leather chair, behind an imposing desk on one of the upper floors of an award winning swanky steel and glass cathedral to the great god of the corporate big-shot; or
  • You want to earn enough money to have disposable income even after you have paid alimony to at least two divorced spouses; or
  • You think you look good in bespoke chalk-stripe suits; or
  • You relish the idea of working on deals at 3am and shouting at trainees (because you used to be shouted at and it Didn’t do you any harm); or
  • You want to have a photograph on your imposing desk of the second home in the country that you never have time to visit

…then I guess you really should now pause for thought, because, on this basis, it is my analysis that your career choice may not turn out as you want. I suspect (in fact, I hope) that the world is quickly moving away from such perceptions.

But what if you want to be a lawyer for different reasons? And what if those reasons might be even more important now than ever before? Four reasons like these:

1. What if, for example, you have a passion for the Rule of Law?

Are you someone who sees the law not just as a tool for developing extraordinarily complex tax arrangements and financial instruments, but as a means to ensure that competitive advantage for business is achieved by doing the right things well? Do you see the law not just as a means to exert economic power, but as a means to hold the powerful to account and to ensure that regulatory systems protect those who need protection while not stifling innovation and entrepreneurialism? Do you see the law not as a fig leaf for excess and laissez-faire, but front and centre in a more ethically orientated world?

2. What if you have a passion for a profession based on its own highly developed ethical code?

Lawyers as officers of the court answerable for their conduct so that how lawyers work is just as important as what they work on; lawyers as dedicated men and women who have to put their clients’ interests ahead of their own, always acting in the best interests of those they represent – isn’t that the most extraordinary obligation in this day and age, but isn’t it also an obligation that will help to build trust in a world where trust has been a tradable commodity in so many areas of our lives?

3. What if you have a sense of personal vocation?

Your passion may be to make a difference, for example for the poor and oppressed in your community; or, in a political environment, to help develop laws locally and nationally that make your society fairer; or to help a business you believe in become a success for its employees, customers and shareholders.

4. What if the old professional structures in any event are not for you?

There is a very good argument to suggest that the traditional business model for law firms actually makes it harder for women to succeed, or for minorities to progress and that it doesn’t offer anything much for those who do not aspire to climb the greasy pole to partnership. Perhaps for you the new business structures that could embrace diversity, entrepreneurialism and offer creative flexible career paths, might be a very attractive alternative. Perhaps, indeed, you might help shape and run such businesses.

Personally speaking, and I know it is tough right now, I don’t think there has been a more important time to be a lawyer or a more important time to assert the values that ensure the profession adapts to the renewed expectations of our society; expectations for trust, probity, integrity, thoughtfulness and care.

These are undoubtedly difficult times, but I am certain that more than ever we need our lawyers to be at the top of their game and I am sure as well that there has never been a more important time for young lawyers to come forward and excel.

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