By Andi M. Metzel
Just weeks ago, another 294 lawyer members were admitted to the Indiana bar. Amidst the celebrations of surviving the bar exam and outpouring of pride for our freshly minted colleagues, it occurred to me that certain harsh realities may lurk in the minds of those new lawyers. To be fair, these same vexing issues also frustrate “seasoned” lawyers (like me) in private practice, and concern members of the judiciary, bar associations and political thought-leaders who genuinely believe in and serve as champions for the future of our legal profession.
Let us collectively face the facts. Veteran lawyers and recent graduates are experiencing — albeit in different ways — a new normal that includes intensifying competition; stagnant salaries; declining bar passage and enrollment rates; increasing debt burdens for legal (and higher) education; and the threatened commoditization of legal work.
I benefitted from tremendous moral and emotional support of family and friends while I worked my way through law school. However, my career trajectory suffered post-graduation because I did not have a legal mentor to give me a credible “reality check” or guide me through potential career landmines and professional hazards.
With the benefit of retrospection, I suggest to new lawyers that arming yourself with your law degree, new business cards and even a new briefcase is not enough to thrive, let along survive, in today’s challenging legal environment. Unfortunately, I have no magical algorithm to define the formula for achieving professional success. So I challenge you to consider — early in your career — how you perceive the practice of law. This process may impact your career decisions and the manner in which you choose or choose not to utilize your legal education.
The question seems simple enough: Do you view the practice of law as a “job” or as a “profession?” If you are at all confused about whether you think of the practice of law as a job or as a profession, think of it this way: it may be easy to change your job but not quite as easy to change your profession.
To many, a “job” is an activity performed to earn a livelihood. A job occupies a specific period of time, for which you receive compensation. If you view the practice of law through this lens, you may find yourself frustrated or unsatisfied in short order. There are reasons for this. Law practice almost always requires more than performing a mindless or routine task. Legal work rarely produces a commodity that can be bought or sold to a mass market. The practice of law requires the exercise of judgment, reasoning and analysis. It includes personal obligations to protect client confidences, to uphold high standards of professional conduct, and the potential for exposure to professional liability should you neglect those obligations.
Consider also that a “job” rarely requires the taking of an oath whereby you solemnly swear or affirm to uphold the constitutions of the United States and state of Indiana. Have you read either lately? You may not be required to go through the exercise of swearing or affirming each day before you begin your work; however, you are nevertheless bound by that oath in your conduct and in your daily law practice.
It is inevitable that your work — throughout the entirety of your legal career — will be judged. This is one reason that the practice of law is decidedly personal. Expect and embrace the fact that your work, your decisions and critical thinking will be subject to review. Evaluation may come in many forms from partners, supervisors, bosses, opposing counsel, the judiciary, the media, clients and even colleagues. Evaluation brings opportunity for growth. Even though the work we perform as attorneys is largely autonomous, all lawyers, young or old, experienced or novice, are held accountable. If you desire to perform work or produce a product that does not involve a heightened level of accountability, you should likely seek a “job.”
If you expect at the outset to practice law as a member of a “profession,” you will likely begin to appreciate the concept that you (yes, you, no matter how smart you are) require continual improvement and that you are on a constant course of learning and development of your skills. The public and the profession expect this of you and it is a part of what makes this profession unique. A job is essentially about financial reward. There are a multitude of privileges and obligations that accompany a legal profession that is noble in purpose and yet undeniably evolving. Think now about what this means to you.•
• Andi M. Metzel is a partner at the Benesch law firm and president-elect of the Indiana State Bar Association. The opinions expressed are those of the author.