It’s tempting for smart, motivated university students in their second and third years to look for a prestigious career that pays well and law seems like an obvious choice.
Then they go to law school and realise the reality is a little different from the expectation; not wildly different, but different enough that they may have made a different decision had they considered some of the following:
1. A training contract won’t make you rich
On paper big law firms offer the highest starting salary of graduate jobs but they are located in obscenely expensive central London and you will not be able to start straightaway.
If you pay for law school yourself there’s a huge financial commitment for a skill that isn’t very transferable and even if you are sponsored, there is the huge opportunity cost of a monthly salary elsewhere.
The starting salary – when distributed over the time you spend studying and long hours during training contract – becomes less of an outlier. By the time you finish university you will have a very particular set of skills, skills you have acquired over a very long career studying; and whatever they are, there will be an easier and potentially more fulfilling route to making your fortune.
2. The extra studying is a serious commitment
Whether you take time off before law school or go straight in, it feels like a step backwards being in a classroom again. The work is not intellectually stimulating and there’s a lot of it – the weekends and weekdays blend into one.
Law school is actually a step beyond the commercialisation of education because you are not the customer – the firms are, which is why the label “sausage factory” is so appropriate in this context (albeit rather than being served sausage you actually are the sausage).
It might be worth it at the end but even then, ongoing training doesn’t stop – you have professional skills courses once you start your training contract and as a qualified lawyer you have an obligation to keep up with Continued Professional Development and of course the constant stream of law being created and repealed.
3. The work isn’t glamorous
If you’re applying for training contracts because you can’t wait for lots of client contact working with big household names you may be disappointed. You will email documents to clients and answer administrative points but your correspondents may have been involved with running successful companies since before you were born! The advice they need will be specific and sophisticated along the lines of “how can we use the precedent we used on Project Gingerbread if our Russian joint venture wants to declare a dividend?”
It will take a long time before you do anything as exciting as graduate recruitment talks promise.
4. There are other career options available
There are lots of interesting industries in which jobs aren’t very well publicised: specialised insurance, start-up technology, niche market research or family office services – not to mention companies that don’t fit nicely into industry sectors. Some law firms push applicants to justify why they want to be lawyers and suggest a different profession that would apply equally to the answers they receive.
Of course law is multifaceted; it is to do with communication, writing and business but mainly it is to do with law. And although commercial awareness is important (and more so as you rise through a firm) it isn’t the point of the job. So unless you are genuinely interested in law for law’s sake you could at the very least be as equally well suited to a different kind of professional services role and you owe yourself a good answer to the question “why law?” that goes beyond the answer you give at interviews.
5. There is a significant distinction between the myth a brand creates and reality
Once you begin your training contract you realise firms have insane advertising budgets; their offices might seem like impressive glass palaces. But a law firm is like a hotel at Disneyland – it’s impressive if there as a guest but once you’re there changing beds all day the magic disappears.
Law is an industry in which prestige is important and it’s natural to want to be part of that; but the day to day experience of building the brand is inevitably very different from the casual experience of coming into contact with the brand.
6. Not everyone is suited to the BigLaw environment
People are suited to different careers and some people just aren’t suited to law. Do not judge a firm solely on trainees or HR; being a good HR manager requires a different skill set from being a lawyer and many trainee lawyers have the realisations this article discusses at some point during their training contracts.
Find associates three years qualified and take note of their background, choices and life outlook. It’s a good sign if you wouldn’t mind them being your boss and can see yourself in their position in five years’ time.
7. Don’t forget the benefits of going into law
Despite the above considerations I chose to be a lawyer and am enjoying it enough to write about it. I honestly think law can be a rewarding career and enjoyable job; you are surrounded by smart people, learn lots about the corporate world and develop valuable professional skills.
Nevertheless, it is important to know what you’re getting into and to be aware of the alternatives. A healthy scepticism is a good quality in a lawyer and knowing your exit plan makes good business sense.
You might also be interested in…
- Our series on how law firms work