Editor’s Note: Ever wondered what an American lawyer’s life is really like? We see them portrayed on TV all the time. But if we’re going to write about lawyers ourselves, we’d better recognize that Hollywood isn’t the end-all and be-all of honesty on any trade or profession.
As such, I’ve invited real-life lawyer Robert Brown to school us authors on 5 misconceptions about a lawyer’s life. If any of your characters are ever going to be a lawyer, you do not want to miss what he has to say!
The corner office on the 30th floor…
The $2,000 power suit from Neiman Marcus…
The mansion in Beverly Hills AND the palace in the Hamptons for summer vacations.
20 objections raised. 20 objections sustained.
Ahhh, the American Lawyer – revered when needed; hated when not! Popular culture has painted a picture of attorneys as flamboyant, brilliant, and obnoxious yet envied. But how realistic is that really?
Here are 5 common misconceptions about a lawyer’s life we’ll clear up for you!
#1 – We ALL go to court.
In 2017, the American Bar Association reported there were 1,335,963 lawyers in the United States. While the general public believes all 1.3 million of them regularly argue in courtrooms nationwide, this is not the actual case.
Many lawyers never even SEE the inside of a courtroom other than getting sworn-in to the bar. Yes, some are litigators (“court” lawyers), but many others are transactional lawyers who represent their clients in drafting, structuring and interpreting contracts and other agreements; or regulatory lawyers who navigate and sometimes challenge government regulations.
What a diverse occupation!
#2 – We’re all rich.
Although most lawyers don’t take showers using $100 bills, they’re definitely not in the poor house either. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median 2016 salary for U.S. lawyers was approximately $118,160.
Not a bad chunk of change. Even if it’s offset by all the student loans graduates have to repay after earning their sheepskins.
A 2017 LendEDU article reported the average amount of total law school debt ranges from $24,000 to upwards of $170,000. So while the median salary is impressive when stacked against most other occupations, the often hefty debt most lawyers face post-graduation could give pause to dropping down-payments on any shiny new Teslas right away.
#3 – You MUST graduate from law school AND pass the bar exam to practice law.
Not too keen on spending three years in law school racking up all that debt we just talked about? Then check out California, Washington, Virginia and Vermont, where aspiring attorneys can skip law school and engage in “reading the law” (an apprenticeship with a lawyer/law firm).
How about a nice little mix of “reading the law” with just a smidgen of law school? Try New York, Wyoming and Maine.
Cool with law school but not the beast known as the bar exam? Wisconsin may be the state for you since it’s the only one offering “diploma privilege” to its law students, basically making them automatic members of the bar upon graduation.
#4 – Ask any lawyer ANY legal question, and we’ll have the correct answer!
Quite the contrary! Although all members of the bar should have a strong foundation in the core areas of the law (property, contracts, civil procedure, criminal procedure, etc.), most practicing lawyers only have one or two specialties they’d consider themselves expert in.
So don’t be surprised if the expert tax lawyer you have on retainer in Boston knows diddly about dog leash laws in West Virginia.
#5 – With a law degree, you can ONLY practice law.
Tell that to the 24% of ALL U.S. lawyers who passed the bar exam in 2000 and, by 2012, were on to non-legal careers. The critical thinking and analysis skills learned in three years of law school regularly transfer well to the fields of banking/finance, academia, politics, entrepreneurship, recruiting and project management.
So the next time you’re watching a courtroom drama with high stakes litigation on primetime TV, just remember you’re seeing only a small part of what the real thing looks like!
A lawyer’s life is a little more complex than that.
About the Author: Robert Brown is a member of the District of Columbia Bar and the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, having represented clients in the fields of complex litigation, civil rights class action, bankruptcy, worker's compensation, patent litigation, mergers/acquisitions, personal injury and Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) investigations.