Is Being a Lawyer Worth it? 5 Things to Consider About 'America's Unhappiest Job'
There’s nothing you love more than settling in at the end of a long workweek with a glass of wine and a rerun of Law and Order. You often catch yourself daydreaming about what your life would be like if you were in those lawyers’ shoes. You’d pace the courtroom floor, argue your case and impress the judge and jury. Law feels like a career you can count on.
A career as a lawyer comes with respect, prestige and an impressive salary—but there’s a big difference between daydreaming and actually being a lawyer. You’ve heard rumors that a career as a lawyer isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. You need all the facts before you pursue a career that might have more cons than pros.
So what is it really like being a lawyer? Is being a lawyer worth it? You don’t want to make your daydream a reality only to discover that life as a lawyer isn’t as glamorous as it’s portrayed on TV. Before you go into the deep end, it’s important to understand the reality of being a lawyer as compared to other legal careers. We identified some of the reasons why lawyer job satisfaction is on the decline so you can make a well-informed decision about your future career.
5 things to consider before becoming a lawyer
Those rumors of unhappy lawyers aren’t unfounded. Forbes ranked the position of associate attorney as the “Unhappiest job in America.” A Johns Hopkins study of more than 100 professions found lawyers the most likely to have severe depression—four times more likely than the average person.
Even with statistics like these, job seekers are still drawn to becoming a lawyer. One of the most appealing factors is the earning potential. The median annual salary for lawyers in 2016 was $118,160, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).* For some, the pay is just the cherry on top of a career that allows them to help enforce justice and use their influence to improve their community.
These perks are surely nothing to scoff at, but it’s important to understand the full picture before making a decision. Before jumping to any conclusions, take a look at some of the realities of lawyer life that aren’t necessarily publicized.
1. The challenging years of law school
The process of becoming a lawyer isn’t for the faint of heart. The BLS reports that it typically takes seven years of full-time postsecondary education to become a lawyer. This breaks down to four years for a Bachelor’s degree, followed by three years of law school. Law schools are highly competitive to gain acceptance, and aspiring lawyers will need to pass the daunting LSAT to prove their worth—a process that can take a full year of study and preparation.
Once a student is accepted into law school, those three years are devoted to rigorous full-time schooling and on-the-job training programs like clerkships or internships. After students finally reach graduation day, they still face long nights hitting the books as they study to pass their state’s bar exam. Needless to say, becoming a lawyer isn’t a get-rich-quick scenario.
2. The cost of education
A lawyer’s high earning potential is tough to ignore, but don’t forget that it’s typically offset by a large amount of student loan debt. The typical undergrad student racks up just over $37,000 in student loans by graduation day. Add $34,000 per year for a private law school, and freshly minted lawyers are looking at a total of around $139,000 of debt before they’ve even earned their first paycheck.
It’s tempting to believe you’ll easily pay this debt off once you’re earning a lawyer’s salary. But the weight of student loans can add pressure to an already stressful career—not to mention that the first job may not come as easily as you think.
3. The potentially shaky job prospects
It’s easy to find a job as a lawyer, right? Not necessarily. Though the BLS predicts that growth in employment for lawyers will continue at six percent through 2024, that growth may not be enough to provide jobs for all the graduating law school students.
Just 59.2 percent of 2015 law school grads held full-time, long-term jobs as lawyers 10 months after graduation, according to data from the American Bar Association (ABA). This can create a very difficult situation for those who take on substantial student loan debt to pursue their law career. New lawyers may get stuck in an area of practice they don’t enjoy simply because they need to earn money, which can in turn lead to reduced job satisfaction.
4. A sometimes stressful work environment
Lawyers in corporate firms can expect to work well over the typical 40-hour workweek thanks in part to the practice of billable hours. According to Yale Law School, “billable hours” are job duties that a lawyer can bill directly to a client, such as preparing for a case. Non-billable hours are all those other aspects of a job, like checking e-mail, attending meetings and participating in continuing education. When it’s all said and done, a lawyer may end up spending 50 hours or more at the office each week.
“Lawyers often have demanding schedules and heavy workloads, which may contribute to increased stress levels,” says the ABA. High stress is a big factor in job satisfaction, not to mention that chronic stress places workers at risk for heart disease, anxiety and depression.
5. A typically pessimistic mindset
Lawyers are in the unusual position of actually being better at their jobs if they have a pessimistic mindset rather than a rosy outlook, according to the ABA. A lawyer’s ability to see everything that could possibly go wrong comes in handy when they’re building an airtight case against the opposition.
Unfortunately, that pessimism doesn’t bring the same benefits to other areas of life. Pessimists are more likely to face a series of health risks than optimistic people, including a tendency to struggle with obesity, pick up smoking and develop other unhealthy habits.
The verdict is in
Is being a lawyer worth it? That’s something only you can decide. Becoming a lawyer definitely isn’t for everyone. If you decide that the risks don’t outweigh the rewards, you don’t necessarily have to give up your dream of working in the legal field. There are plenty of other career options that may better suit your skills and interests.
Learn more about your other options in our article, “6 Overlooked Legal Careers to Consider When You Don’t Want to Become a Lawyer.”
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* BLS salary data represents national, averaged earnings for the occupations listed and includes workers at all levels of education and experience. This data does not represent starting salaries. Employment conditions in your area may vary.