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Becoming a Lawyer? – Part I

By Arthur Katz, JD


Becoming a Lawyer? – Part ISince I started writing this column, the question that I have been asked most frequently has been “Should I become a lawyer?”

The question customarily is asked by college students whose principal knowledge of what lawyers do has been gleaned from television shows, most of which romanticize the lawyer’s role. Moreover, each year, newspaper articles discuss the seemingly astronomical  “going rate” paid to starting lawyers at several “Wall Street” law firms (few of which are still located in the Wall Street / lower Manhattan area), which now is $190,000 during the first year after law school! These two factors, in combination, appear to make the choice a simple one.

However, the cost of law school is not insignificant, and currently approximates $90,000 annually at many law schools when board and incidentals are included. Law school is a three-year commitment and student loans aggregating up to $200,000 and beyond are typical. 

In general, law school does not teach a law student the necessary practicalities of practicing the law, but focuses on honing logical thinking skills and learning case and statutory law. Unfortunately, and while these basics are necessary, law schools don’t teach a law student how to apply the law and the other practical skills needed to be a practicing lawyer upon graduation. As a result, law school graduates, fresh out of law school, do not have the necessary skills to represent a client or prepare legal documents, skills that are learned during the first years of practice. Thus, the first year of practice, even in a law firm with supervisory attorneys, is generally unproductive from a client’s viewpoint, while the starting lawyer is taught the necessary practical skills to make the lawyer productive.

The practice of law has changed significantly since I started practicing. It has become more of a business, but less collegial and, with the advent of the Internet, with greater pressure to more rapidly be responsive (which limits the amount of time a lawyer has to consider outstanding potential issues and their solutions). Moreover, the cost of cross-training young lawyers has become burdensome at many law offices and clients baulk, for good reason, at paying for such training as the hourly charge for legal services has steadily increased. As a result, most law firms now train their new lawyers with a narrow field of focus so that the lawyer can become productive sooner and the firm can more quickly recapture the lawyer’s salary and other costs. Unfortunately, narrow training puts the lawyer at a long-term disadvantage. Although the lawyer can become a specialist in a narrow field, this methodology limits the longer-term flexibility of the lawyer, requires him or her to refer the matter to other “specialists” if it wanders outside the lawyer’s narrow specialty (assuming that the lawyer is able to properly identify the issue — a task harder than it would appear), increases the pressure upon the lawyer to perform and does not enable the lawyer to problem solve in an unexpected situation. In my view, narrower training also leads to eventual job dissatisfaction and earlier “burn out”.  Moreover, much of what any lawyer does is tedious, time consuming and unrewarding.

Most lawyers can not obtain employment at a “Wall Street” law firm due to the limited number of jobs available each year; and if he or she can get such a job, they will find that they are working far more than a forty-hour week and, then, under significant time and supervisory/client pressure. Moreover, these jobs are usually filled with lawyers from a small number of “top tier” law schools who graduate at or near the top of their law school class. The vast majority of law school graduates do not have the opportunity to obtain such employment, and a graduate of a mid-tier law school who is in the middle of his or her class will have difficulty obtaining any legal employment upon graduation.

Lastly, I believe that a good lawyer has to continue his or her education after graduation from law school and be willing to spend endless hours learning and expanding his or her knowledge base throughout the lawyer’s career. Although much of the law remains constant, the more exciting practices constantly have changing characteristics and the problems that lawyers solve today become commonplace over time, permitting the client to resolve them without legal assistance while creating new unanticipated issues.

However discouraging the facts may be, the practice of law can be a rewarding profession. Especially for a person who goes to law school with knowledge of the odds of succeeding, and who still really wants to be a lawyer and is willing to invest the time and energy into continuously honing his or her skills.

I, for one, have thoroughly enjoyed most of my working experiences as a lawyer, perhaps because much of what I do involves constant problem solving for clients who are willing to compensate me to help them with problems that they can not easily resolve themselves.

But the question of whether one should go to law school remains, and the answer (as with many things) is that “it depends”.  If you are in it for the money, you may be disappointed since as with most things in life, luck and gained experiences have a lot to do with it.  And to succeed, you will need to invest the time and energy not just in law school, but thereafter.  #

After earning degrees from MIT and NYU School of Law, Arthur Katz has had a distinguished law career. He can be reached at katzlaw@pipeline.com.



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