Legal Practice

The Bad and the Ugly of Being an Attorney

Beginning your career as a new attorney is so exciting. You’re finally working in your dream career and it feels so rewarding to start a fresh, new chapter in your life. Plus, when you go to court people call you counselor and it’s pretty awesome the first few times it happens–not going to lie. But soon you’ll realize the big open secret: being a lawyer is hard y’all and that is in large part due to the culture shock you may experience.

Culture shock is normal and typical when starting something new and learning new codes of conduct and expectations. Where I think some struggle with moving beyond the shock is when we face those harsh realities when it comes to practicing. The sooner you understand them and understand your best approach to overcome them, the better you will feel. What are those difficult parts when you’re new?

One. Theory is different than practice. Especially when you’re fresh off the bar exam, everything is a cause of action and a possible liability. It’s easy to think you have a winning case only to be brought back to reality with practicalities. That is because in the real world, it’s not just about the black letter law and whether the facts apply to the tests. Instead, you have to consider resources available that can be used for a case; the likelihood of prevailing in your district; and many other factors that make assessing a case not just a practice in legal viability, but a practice in good business sense too. It’s tough because we just want to be on the side of good, but that is not how the system is set up.

Two. Experience trumps idealism almost every time. We’ve spoken about this before, but it bears repeating. Your fresh blood and ideas and zeal are needed! But one of the more frustrating things will be how often you’re told that a case isn’t viable or that your theory won’t work. Often the basis is due to senior staff’s experiences, which you can’t always push back on. I’m not saying you shouldn’t push for a good case or to try a novel, good-faith argument, but not every decision is negotiable and you may find yourself pursuing paths in a case you wouldn’t have done if you had the final.

Three. There’s a lack of acknowledgment about trauma. As an attorney, you’re exposed to people’s most vulnerable and traumatic times in their life. You see the really ugly side of humanity as well–child abuse, cruelty, despair…and rarely do employers take the time to acknowledge what that exposure may be doing to you. It is so important that you recognize what vicarious trauma is and how it manifests in your behavior so you can address it before it hinders other areas of your life. Moreover, lawyering hours can be brutal, whether you’re billing in big law or are working night and day in a nonprofit because you feel lives are at stake–you’re working hard. Lack of sleep, nutrition, self-care, all of that can increase those negative feelings. Stressful work environments will eventually take a toll and knowing your cues to take a break or seek stronger help is vital in stabilizing yourself in your career.

Four. People are rude af. A horrible trait of this profession is how dickish people can be to one another–opposing parties are naturally mad at you, but sometimes so is the opposing counsel (hell, sometimes the client!). Judges can be overly terse as well. You can easily feel as if you’re working in an overwhelmingly negative space; looking to avoid getting snapped at by someone–or you start snapping at them in defensive response. It is dysfunctional. Everyone has their approach on how to handle those negative demeanors. I am a kill-them-with-kindness-and-pretend-they’re-confused type of person. It’s hard for people to stay mad at someone who isn’t responding, but that may not always be the right response. And even if you figure out how to navigate Horrible People, it is still stressful to deal with them so frequently.

So, there you have it. The bad and the ugly. But let me leave you with some good:

Points one and two will get better with time and experience. You’ll get your sea legs and become an expert in ascertaining good, viable cases soon enough. Point three, is up to you about how serious you want to be about taking care of your mental and physical health. And like, you should be real serious lol. And the last point–look, I’m not a positive vibes only type person. I believe we should experience the spectrum of emotions while never, ever accepting disrespect from people that know better. But the most powerful thing I learned when I was faced with people that were mean and rude was to remind myself that their behavior was not because of me. They were inherently rude and mean without my influence and so my decision of how to respond needed to come from how I wanted my inherent self to be and frankly, what approach would be best for my client. We’re tricked into thinking aggressiveness is the only path, but it’s just one option and I have seen many more collaborative approaches that work far better. You get to decide what is best for you.